Book Love: Famous Men Who Never Lived
I read Famous Men Who Never Lived almost a month ago now, and my thoughts about it are still percolating. This was one of those incredible books that I actually tried to read slower when it was almost over, to make it last just a little bit longer before there was no more left.
The story is surreal and haunting, the characters are flawed and beautiful and vivid and heartbreaking, the premise is imaginative and thought-provoking. K. Chess’s debut is nothing short of stunning, and it kicked me right in the soul.
Exploring themes of homesickness, nostalgia and displacement, every page of this book was soaked through with the kind of emotion that’s hard to put into words – some combination of longing and liminality, restlessness and seeking and searching, and that infinitely aching desire to feel a sense of home again.
This book features:
A parallel universe almost like our own, but not quite
Flawed, painfully real characters making questionable life choices
Nostalgia for something or someone that can never be revisited
Explorations of fate, meaning, and the ‘butterfly effect’ of every life lived
Hel is a UDP – a Universally Displaced Person – and a refugee in New York City. Along with several thousand other survivors, she fled the nuclear fallout that threatened a parallel New York by crossing over into our universe, using an experimental gate that closed shortly after their crossing. Forever separated from friends, family and everything they knew in their own world, the UDPs must come to terms with navigating their new reality.
Three years after the event – having accepted that they’ll probably never know what happened in their home universe – Hel and the other UDPs are still trying to integrate in a New York where they’re seen as ‘aliens’. The city is uncannily similar to the New York they left, but it isn’t and will never be their own. They are given classes and support groups to try to help them assimilate, with varying degrees of success in doing so. Some are ready to leave the past behind them and shed all reminders of their old world. Others find themselves unable to restart their lives and move on, tormented by what might have been.
As Hel struggles to come to terms with the loss of the son she left behind in her home universe, she becomes obsessed with the last known copy of The Pyronauts, a classic science fiction novel in her world that doesn’t exist in ours. In our world, the book’s would-be famous author died as a boy, and the book was never published. Fixating on her relentless hunt for traces of the author, Ezra Sleight, and the life he might have had, Hel avoids confronting her own loss.
Hel’s partner, Vikram, tries to be supportive, but despite his efforts he's unable to prise Hel from the grips of her obsession. Meanwhile, Vikram befriends another UDP, Wes, and they meet the owner of the house that would have been inhabited by Ezra Sleight in the other universe – a relic of a history that wasn’t, an echo of possibilities unrealized.
The main narrative is peppered with beautiful little side stories and interviews with various UDPs, exploring their backgrounds and their life stories. The question ‘What did you bring?’ is ubiquitous among the UDPs, who were only allowed to bring a few precious possessions with them through the gate. What would you bring with you if you were forced to leave your entire reality behind? Something personal? Something meaningful? Something to show others, or something to keep for yourself? I loved the questions this book inspired at every turn.
From the small differences in the NYC neighbourhoods to larger knock-on changes that occurred in global history, Chess does an incredible job of exploring the butterfly effect, and the dissonance of encountering a world that could have been. There is so much detail and texture to the worldbuilding, and the city feels at once fragile and solidly real. The novel-within-a-novel, The Pyronauts, even appears in short excerpts – and the text and writing style is so believable as a lost oldschool SF classic.
I thought a lot about what SF book from our universe would be analogous to the fame and influence of The Pyronauts in the parallel universe. I suppose it could be something like Dune, a seminal novel that shaped so much of the SF that came after it and influenced huge cultural blockbusters like Star Wars. Around the same time I was reading Famous Men, I read an article about the abandoned film project that was Jodorowsky’s Dune, and I started thinking about how an alternate world might look entirely different if that movie had ever been made.
It can be hard to guess which specific pieces of art will end up defining their eras, and which will echo into the future with the most ripples. The influence of some things can only be charted in retrospect. And yet – as we find out later on in Famous Men’s plot – even an obscure piece of artwork can have a profound effect that changes the course of history. I could say so much more about this whole premise that I briefly wished I could go back to university just so I could write an essay about it!
Here's what I tweeted the day I finished the book:
It was only March when I read it, but I can say with confidence that Famous Men Who Never Lived will be on my best-of-the-year list. It might be one of my favourite SF books of all time – although I don't know if I'd file this as strictly SF. I would comfortably call this something like speculative contemporary. It's a story of love, loss, compassion, nostalgia, and a thousand ‘what-ifs.’
If you’ve ever wondered ‘what if’ about any choice you’ve made, or felt a fruitless longing for something you could never have back, then this book is for you.