Review: “Famous Men Who Never Lived” by K Chess


Release Date: March 5, 2019
Publisher: Tin House Books
Genre: Science Fiction


“Wherever Hel looks, New York City is both reassuringly familiar and terribly wrong. As one of the thousands who fled the outbreak of nuclear war in an alternate United States—an alternate timeline—she finds herself living as a refugee in our own not-so-parallel New York. The slang and technology are foreign to her, the politics and art unrecognizable. While others, like her partner Vikram, attempt to assimilate, Hel refuses to reclaim her former career or create a new life. Instead, she obsessively rereads Vikram’s copy of The Pyronauts—a science fiction masterwork in her world that now only exists as a single flimsy paperback—and becomes determined to create a museum dedicated to preserving the remaining artifacts and memories of her vanished culture.

But the refugees are unwelcome and Hel’s efforts are met with either indifference or hostility. And when the only copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel must decide how far she is willing to go to recover it and finally face her own anger, guilt, and grief over what she has truly lost.” (via Goodreads)


My Thoughts


In a parallel world, terrorists wage war against civilization. Scientists manage to send a few thousand people through a portal into our version of New York City before the Gate collapses. Sealed off from their own world and abandoned as unwelcome refugees in our world, the Universally Displaced Persons (UDP) are adrift. Desperate to find meaning in the loss of her world, Hel starts investigating an author in her world who died as a boy here. Her obsession with him fractures her relationship with fellow UDP Vikram, a highly educated man forced into menial labor because of his immigration status. Both have suffered unimaginable loss and both are more broken than they realize. Finding a place in this new world means letting go of the wreckage of their old one. Easier said than done.

Using the trappings of science fiction and dystopian fiction, K Chess imbues Famous Men Who Never Lived with heavy commentary about Western society. Through interviews with several UPDs, Chess examines how we tend distill and diminish the complexities and individualities of immigrants and refugees into a monolithic group. These interviews demonstrate the variety of personalities, goals, and interests, things that often get lost in the political and ethical debates. Hel, Vikram, and the others couldn’t be more different if they tried, despite the New Yorkers of the book seeing them as basically all the same and being constantly surprised when the UDPs resist unification.

Famous Men Who Never Lived is equal parts commentary and warning. Chess talks a lot about the refugee experience, about what it’s like to be taken from your home and unable to return, to be told to move on and get over it when instead you feel like you’re drowning in private trauma. And at the rate the environmental and climate crisis is going, we all better get used to that feeling sooner rather than later. Many of us are about to know exactly what it’s like to lose our homes due to unstoppable forces.

Provocative, earnest, and compelling, Famous Men Who Never Lived is an absolutely astonishing debut. The moment I finished it, I wanted more K Chess. What a novel!

This was not the Brownsville she knew. Just ten minutes ago, on New Lots Avenue, she’d witnessed a group of kids pretending to piss on a man slumped unconscious in an alley. She’d noticed melted vinyl siding fronting a building a few doors down, that ominous black smudge that marked a place where a car had burned hot. This was a different world, a world in which Ezra Sleight had died as a ten-year-old child. His life cut short, his genius never apparent to anyone, he never wrote the books that made him seem, to scholars like Vikram, worthy of attention. Perhaps a few had mourned the boy Sleight – his family and his schoolmates – but no one remembered to mourn him.

Thanks to Tin House Books for sending me a review copy.

Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or borrow it from your public library.

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