Coincidences Examined.

Today I'd like to welcome the lovely Geoff Nelder, author of ARIA: Left Luggage to the blog. Geoff is here talking about coincidences as part of his blog tour for the release of his new book! Yay! Many congrats, Geoff!

Coincidences Examined

The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction can be difficult for authors who seek to enthral readers by teetering them on the edge with a barely credible plot. Consider these true accounts.

In the 1920s three Englishmen travelled independently by train through Peru. When they entered the carriage, the three strangers greeted each other. They were the only occupants of the railroad car. One man's last name was Bingham, and the second man's last name was Powell. The third man’s eyebrows elevated in shock then he announced that his last name was Bingham-Powell. They were unrelated. It is complicated to estimate the odds of those three meeting although it isn’t as astronomical as you might think.

Powell is the 85th most common name with 77,000 people sharing it in Great Britain. Bingham is the 1588th most common name with only 6,400 folk sharing it. So, the chances of the next person you see at random being a Powell given there are 60 million Brits is just less than one in 800. The chances of meeting a Bingham is over one in 9000. The chances of meeting a Bingham-Powell in Great Britain using today’s directory data is – gulp – over one in a million and yet I’ve met one. Interestingly, this book is in the British Library: Sanitary Progress in Peru and Bolivia, by H. J. BINGHAM-POWELL. Published in 1916, which brings me to that train. Given three Englishmen being in Peru in the 1920s, they are likely to be men of means who are probably professional engineers, businessmen or academics. Roads being what they were then their most likely transport mode would be rail. Trains didn’t run every day so the probability increases that they’d be on the same train, with maybe one or two first class carriages. The chances are better than you might have originally thought but somewhat more than a million to one.

It's Raining Babies
In 1930s Detroit, a young mother earnestly thanked a man named Joseph Figlock. As he was walking down the street, the mother's baby fell from a high window onto him. Both man and baby were bruised but unharmed. Fortunate indeed, but a year later, the same baby fell from the same window onto the hapless Joseph Figlock as he was again passing beneath. Again, they both survived the event. If you wrote that into a story it would sound incredulous and contrived because the odds must be millions to one against.

Let’s consider the circumstances. Figlock was on his way to work so it was likely he passed under that window at the same time each working day. In other words the coincidence isn’t related to Figlock but to the infant. The mother probably followed a daily routine – e.g. rising, ablutions, getting breakfast ready, changing, and feeding the infant. A year on, the baby would not be self sufficient. At some point in that routine the infant was placed on a table near the window. Most days the window was shut but on a hot summer’s day maybe pa opened it before going out to work. So we’ve narrowed it down to the hotter days in Detroit. Conjecture, yes, but you see how the odds are reduced making this amazing coincidence more a predictable event. Even so, feel sorry for Figlock: infants put on a lot of mass in 12 months. I bet he changed his route the following year!

When discussing coincidences the Presidential coincidences relating to dates often crop up. These of Lincoln and Kennedy are worth repeating:
Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846.
John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946.
Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860.
John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960.
Both were particularly concerned with civil rights.
While living in the White House, both wives lost their children.
Both Presidents were shot on a Friday.
Both Presidents were shot in the head.
Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy.
Kennedy’s Secretary was named Lincoln.
Both were assassinated by Southerners.
Both were succeeded by Southerners named Johnson.
Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808.
Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.
John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, was born in 1839.
Lee Harvey Oswald, who (we presume) assassinated Kennedy, was born in 1939.
Both assassins were known by their three names.
Both names are composed of fifteen letters.
Lincoln was shot at the theatre named ‘Ford.’
Kennedy was shot in a car called ‘Lincoln’ made by ‘Ford.’
Lincoln was shot in a theatre and his assassin ran and hid in a warehouse.
Kennedy was shot from a warehouse and his assassin ran and hid in a theatre.

More coincidences but related to ARIA: Left Luggage
ARIA is based on something found on the International Space Station (ISS).
When I emailed a NASA employee about the nature of the struts, Leroy Chaio answered while in orbit on the ISS.
The novel was originally called Left Luggage and in the critique group was known just as LL. The publisher who grabbed it is called LL-Publications.
It worried me that another writer would hear of or invent the same unique premise of infectious amnesia. If they had, they’ve forgotten about it.

In ARIA an alien virus is removing the memories of humans so that eventually they cannot function. Why?

ARIA: Left Luggage
A moment of lunacy hit me cycling up a steep Welsh hill five years ago. An original idea: infectious amnesia. Not mass amnesia, but one you catch from being near someone else who also has it. Infectious amnesia doesn’t exist. Thank goodness, but imagine the ramifications if it did. You are on a bus when a man gets on with a new virus, one that loses memory backwards at the rate of a year per week. By the time the bus stops, all the passengers, including you, have ARIA (Alien Retrograde Infectious Amnesia). The driver has it too, and all her passengers until the end of her shift. You go shopping on the way home. Your spouse works in the power plant, your kids go to school. How long before industry stops, society breaks down, and your kids forget how to read, write and talk?

That’s why Mike Resnick, Robert J Sawyer, Jon C Grimwood, Brad Lineweaver and Charles Stross says ARIA is a fascinating idea, and makes us think of what is the most important things we need to remember in our lives. 

ARIA: Left luggage is available from the usual online stores or direct from the publisher at


Peg Herring said...

Great post, Geoff! I once had a novel rejected by a contest judge who said one (really small) part of the plot was too convenient to be believable. Except...the same thing had happened to a relative of mine.
It can happen, but you can't write it!

Zetta Brown said...

I like hearing about oddly freaky stuff like this. And the "LL" coincidence is the icing on the cake. :D

Gladys Hobson said...

A highly informative and amusing write-up of curious coincidences, so wonderfully integrated into your synopsis of ARIA:Left Luggage.
There is no doubt that the book is scary. Bad enough violence to the flesh, but an unseen highly infectious virus affecting the brain and its memory function is truly horrific. At least, we found it to be so. A well-written page-turner. Will the second of the trilogy bring relief or will the world suffer further travail? We look forward to finding out.
Well done Geoff Nelder. ARIA is a truly novel concept!

Geoff Nelder said...

Thanks, Peg and Zetta. Hopefully, Gladys you will soon forget how horrifically scary ARIA was to you and remember the funny bits, and how even without memory loss there are important things in life to try and hang on to. The last page was full of hope in ARIA: Left Luggage and this carries over to the sequel, yet there is still scary stuff to keep you awake! Haha. Just wait - early 2013 probably.

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