Famous Men Who Never Lived
Finalist for a 2019 Sidewise Award
“Conceptually adventurous yet full of feeling. . . . smart, thought-provoking, and thoroughly enjoyable.” —Charles Yu, author of Interior Chinatown
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, somewhere across the multiverse—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. With Famous Men Who Never Lived, K Chess has created a compelling and inventive speculative work on what home means to those who have lost it forever.
Musing on xenophobia, forced migration, and fear of the other, this debut from Chess too often goes off track. Hel and Vikram escaped from a parallel-universe version of Queens, N.Y., to the one we know, fleeing the explosions of sabotaged nuclear power plants. Only 156,000 universally displaced persons (UDPs) escaped before the gate letting them through closed forever. The refugees were only able to bring a few things with them, and they cherish these irreplaceable items, such as Vikram's copy of The Pyronauts, a classic work from their world. When the book is stolen, Hel risks being arrested to get it back, as she worries that a crucial part of the history of her people including the son she left behind will be forgotten. Several different subplots and unnecessary excerpts from The Pyronauts are scattered throughout. Chess has constructed a good premise, and part of the story has a satisfactory conclusion; however, the narrative frequently loses momentum. This confused debut will leave readers with more questions than answers.