Discover more from The Garden of Forking Paths
Introducing...FLUKE: Chance, Chaos, and Why Everything We Do Matters
I've got a new book coming out — and you are the first people in the world to find out about it.
Cue the Medieval Trumpets for an Announcement
Over the past several months, you may have wondered: why is this peculiar political scientist writing about a seemingly random array of stuff, flitting from American politics to billionaire overconfidence and owl aerodynamics to the value of experimentation and signalling theory in evolutionary biology to mitochondrial accidents and how germs shaped history?
Well, here’s the answer: I’ve been working on a new book for the last two years—I’ve loved every fascinating minute—and it has affected my thinking. I can finally announce it to the world. But you, my lovely readers, get the news before anyone else:
It’s the most intellectually interesting thing I’ve ever worked on, the kind of project that has utterly captivated me night and day for years, growing from a little germ of an idea a decade ago into 264 carefully manicured pages that have bewildered and delighted me in equal measure.
But it’s been more than that. In the past, when I’ve written books, it has felt like an attempt to convince others of how I already see the world, to broadcast my existing worldview out into the literary ether. Fluke has been a different experience. Researching and writing this book has profoundly changed how I see the world—and altered fundamental aspects of my outlook on life. I hope that, if you read it, my words will sway your worldview, too.
I’m excited to share it with you when it comes out on January 23, 2024 in the United States/Canada and February 1, 2024 in the United Kingdom/Australia/New Zealand.
Here’s the cover:
In the coming months, I’ll be giving The Garden of Forking Paths readers a sneak peak of the introduction chapter. It’s only fitting, because the title of this newsletter—and the Borges short story it’s derived from—plays a crucial role in the book.
To be a little bit of a tease, though, here’s Fluke’s first sentence:
If you could rewind your life to the very beginning and then press play, would everything turn out the same?
That question, when you truly contemplate it, is laced with mysteries from physics to philosophy, the science of chance, the uncertainty of history, the surprising serendipity in life, the puzzles of fate and free will and determinism, and indeed, the meaning of our existence.
It’s a big question.
To answer it, I synthesize lessons from an array of interdisciplinary discoveries: politics, evolutionary biology, history, philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, physics, complexity science, and perhaps most of all, chaos theory.
These disciplines almost never talk to each other. But when you stick all their ideas into a blender, mix ‘em up and see what comes out, well, it produces one hell of a mind-bending intellectual smoothie. And, at least for me, that synthesis helps make sense of our world, one that lies between order and disorder, between chaos and regularity, between lives that are swayed by deliberate choices and lives that are swayed by chance.
Small changes can make a big difference, but they’re not always visible to us.
As I write in the introduction to Fluke:
When we consider the “what-if” moments, it’s obvious that arbitrary, tiny changes and seemingly random, happenstance events can divert our career paths, rearrange our relationships, and transform how we see the world. To explain how we came to be who we are, we recognize pivot points that so often were out of our control. But what we ignore are the invisible pivots, the moments that we will never realize were consequential, the near misses and near hits that are unknown to us because we have never seen, and will never see, our alternative possible lives. We can’t know what matters most because we can’t see how it might have been.
I’ll be honest with you: I’ve long been a disillusioned social scientist. I haven’t felt remotely satisfied with the explanations that we—social science researchers—were producing about how our world works. I’ve long felt as though gazing upon articles in political science, economics, sociology, and so on, was like looking into a funhouse mirror, a distorted model of our world that warped reality and caused us to make serious mistakes.
In the funhouse mirror reflection of our world, we live in a storybook reality, where precisely one big X causes one big Y, where regularities and patterns dominate life, where order overpowers disorder, and where the flukes get ironed out in the end, because “the signal” is what matters, not “the noise.” It’s the Cult of Because, where the power of small flukes to upend everything is a taboo subject that can only be hinted at in sacrilegious whispers.
Those whispers should be much louder. The “noise”—the messy buzz of life—matters, and it matters a lot. That’s why I take aim at that storybook version of reality and argue something different: that but for a few small changes—often accidental and arbitrary ones—our lives and our societies would be radically different.
In fact, while I always wanted to call the book Fluke, I toyed with several different subtitles (you don’t want to know how much time and energy is spent on subtitles). But one idea—perhaps the most accurate one—was Fluke: Why Things Happen, though that seemed a bit too broad for the discerning reader. Another one, which I loved, but didn’t prevail in the end, was Fluke: How Changing Anything Changes Everything. (As a consolation prize, that catchy subtitle became a chapter title).
If Fluke sounds like your cup of tea, well, pre-orders make or break an author. (Don’t ask me why, the book publishing industry is weird). But the Powers That Be lump all pre-orders into the first week of sales and come up with some magic number that often determines whether a book soars…or flops. Sales, print runs, reviews, foreign rights, whether your distant cousin hears about Fluke, etc…all are largely determined by pre-orders.
So, if you feel interested in the ideas embedded in Fluke or just enjoy my writing and want 264 sweet, sweet pages of it—calling out to you with a beautiful bright yellow spine that’s just begging to be displayed on your shelf—then you can spare me from a really big flop that will crush my dreams with just the click of your mouse, or by having a friendly in-person chat with the literary maven at your local bookshop.
I’ve also done the awkward thing that authors do…below, I’ve included the nice things that smart, famous people have said after reading Fluke, in case you’re interested. (Rick, my editor, if you’re reading, don’t guillotine me. I did it! Here are some buttons!)
Either way, thank you, as always, for reading The Garden of Forking Paths. The next edition will be, as you’ve come to expect, a little bit peculiar and unusual, leaving you to wonder another important, big question about your life: why have you invited this strange man to routinely barge into your brain via your inbox?
Beats me, but thank you for letting me be here.
Early praise for Fluke from smart and famous people!
“Consistently gripping—dazzling in its sweep and thrillingly brain-twisting in its arguments.”
—Tom Holland, historian, author of Rubicon and Persian Fire, host of The Rest is History podcast
“Klaas explores how seemingly inconsequential actions have life-changing consequences. This utterly captivating book will make you rethink everything you have ever done.”
—Sabine Hossenfelder, physicist and New York Times bestselling author of Existential Physics: A Scientist's Guide to Life's Biggest Questions
“Fluke is the intellectual equivalent of a slap across the face…Klaas’s beautifully written application of chaos theory to human experience won’t just shift your paradigm, it’ll detonate it.”
—Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
“A brilliant meditation on the eternal clash between chaos and order, and determinism and freedom. Klaas grapples with some of the most difficult, mind-bending questions of our time—or any time—[and] makes these heady topics a blast to read.”
—Scott Patterson, New York Times bestselling author of Chaos Kings and The Quants
"In truth we are subject to a ceaseless barrage of unpredictable, but life-changing, events. Marshalling a series of provocative examples, Brian Klaas paints a convincing picture of the central role of randomness, and why there can nevertheless be a bit of order amid the chaos."
—Sean Carroll, author of The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time, and Motion
“At this book’s fascinating core is the idea that all of our actions count because of the web of connectivity that envelops us. Brian Klaas is masterful in surfacing stories of history upended on a whim.”
—Jonah Berger, New York Times bestselling author of Contagious
“In Fluke, Brian Klaas calls attention to the way chance redirects our lives and spins us into new orbits, showing how we can be energized by all of the jostling. Klaas skillfully identifies the small levers that send history roaring forward. This is a must read!"
—Maya Shankar, founder of the White House Social and Behavior Sciences Team and creator of the podcast, A Slight Change of Plans
“Drawing on many disciplines, this fascinating book explores the combination of chaos and order that governs our lives and probes the deep question of whether we truly have free will.”
—Mervyn King, co-author of Radical Uncertainty and former Governor of the Bank of England
"Klaas expertly weaves riveting stories about real people, posing deep questions with uncertain answers. Self-exploration is a journey into the unknown, and Klaas is a genial guide."
—Donald D. Hoffman, author of The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes
“Please throw the frisbee.”
—Zorro, the finest beast in the known universe