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The Inspiration Behind A Strange and Brilliant Light by Eli Lee

A Strange and Brilliant Light, By Eli Lee

A Strange and Brilliant Light is the upcoming debut novel from Eli Lee. A riveting, thought-provoking speculative literary novel, it explores the impact of the AI revolution through the eyes of three very different young women – Lal, Janetta and Rose.

I’d like to say that writing my novel went like this: for years I carried around the germ of an idea. I knew it was special, and I held onto it. Time and again I’d come back to it, pouring a little water here, adding some sunshine there, waiting for it to flower. And when it did, I got it down on paper. I sent it to an agent, and the rest is history.

I’d like to say that – but the truth is a lot messier. A Strange and Brilliant Light came from a burst of energy I had after quitting a novel I’d spent five years on. During this time, I’d become the poster girl for a specific kind of masochism called ‘if I just do one more draft, I can get it right.’ I don’t recommend it. This old novel was sci-fi too, a utopian fable about future energy sources, but it was incredibly complicated and I was in over my head. When I finally dropped it, I felt I could breathe again. I really recommend leaving behind books that you think you have to work on forever. You don’t have to write a single word of them ever again – move on!

I began to write short stories, to test those muscles. At one point, whilst staying in an Airbnb in a beautiful part of California (my life isn’t usually this glamorous), I started writing a new one. It was going to be about automation and job loss – that was all I knew about it. No idea why; perhaps I liked the idea of people being robbed of something – in this case, being robbed of a future.

The characters came easily – Lal was based on me, bossy and annoying. Her best friend Rose was based on one of my oldest, dearest friends, a passionately political woman who’s spent the last decade putting the world to rights in remarkable ways. Something clicked, and the writing came easily. I was happy in California and wrote and wrote, and when I came home to London, back to a demanding job, I amazed myself by getting up early each morning to write before work. I won’t get up early for anything, but this story about automation was worth it.

Except it wasn’t just about automation. Artificial intelligence is a slippery slope, a topic that tugs at you insistently. One day you’re writing about job losses and the next you’re onto the Singularity. You wouldn’t make such leaps in journalism, or an academic article, but what I love about science fiction is that you can let your imagination run wild. It’s long been the perfect playground for speculating about AI.

I knew when I was writing A Strange and Brilliant Light that it was entering a canon of the uncanny – where you’d encounter the human-like androids of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or the digients of Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects. And it’s an ever-evolving canon – since the story of where AI is going is still unknown to us, in the meantime we get to tell our own stories about it.

Where does A Strange and Brilliant Light sit within it? Probably on the happier end of things – not to give anything away. But I couldn’t help but salt its version of the future with a bit of utopianism, a reflection of the glowing screens all around us and their endless, untold promise.


Eli Lee