Speculative fiction has a long and healthy history of using potential futures or alternate presents to provoke us into reflecting on our current reality. From Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man to Octavia Butler’s 1984(!) short story “Bloodchild,” dystopias, post-apocalypses, and other sci-fi allegories have proven evergreen. The popularity of TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror proves that there is still a massive and attentive audience, not to mention a deep societal need, for exactly this kind of moral narrative. K Chess’s debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, is not only a worthy successor but a much-needed innovator in this tradition of allegorical sci-fi.
This novel’s premise is simple: main characters Hel and Vikram are two of 150,000 or so refugees from another universe, one that diverged from ours around the year 1910. Called UDPs, or Universally Displaced Persons, they have lived in New York City for three years, trying to pick up the pieces of their old lives and adjust to the uncanny world they now live in. As with so many great stories, though, it’s not the premise but its execution that makes Famous Men Who Never Lived worth reading. Picking up on the small details and contextual clues as to how history and culture forged a different path in this other universe is one of the many delights to be had here. Chess’s worldbuilding is deep and careful without being tedious or self-indulgent, and the prose itself is often startling in its emotional clarity.
Like every great piece of speculative fiction, Famous Men Who Never Lived functions as both an intriguing answer to a fascinating question of "what if," and also as a poignant commentary on the world we live in ourselves. What if 150,000 people from another universe appeared outside New York City in a flash of blue light? Well, it would be a pretty good microcosm of our current immigration crisis. Even in a place as prepared and receptive for refugees of all kinds as NYC, the UDPs are barely-tolerated second-class citizens, subjected to dehumanizing bureaucratic efforts, vilified and mythologized by their neighbors. What Chess accomplishes beyond the normal scope of the speculative novel, though, is focusing on the lingering trauma that the survivors live with every day. They develop addictions to substances that didn’t exist or were legal to purchase in their own world. They fixate on seemingly random, mundane details of this new world. They try to pass as natives, or completely reject any assimilation. They are scarred in mind and body, knowing what they left behind and that they had no choice. Famous Men isn’t just an allegory for immigration, it’s a story of personal crisis and communal trauma.
Chess knows and relishes in what she's doing here: the protagonist Hel is obsessed with a long-dead science fiction author from her world. The author’s novel The Pyronauts now exists only as a single battered paperback, one of the few remnants of Hel’s home that made it into the new world -- the one that us readers live in. This book within a book, The Pyronauts, is not only a pitch-perfect mid-century pulp novel, it’s a widely-read allegory for nuclear war. Throughout the novel we get snippets of The Pyronauts, which Hel struggles to find reassurance in. There are also occasional depositions from other UDPs, statements given to some faceless committee about their experience as refugees, all of them unfailingly fascinating. Even tiny details like the section break markers are carefully considered and weighty with meaning: two mostly-overlapping circles, a Venn diagram of Hel and Vikram’s experience as dimensional refugees, the painful outer edges that don’t line up.
Now, in 2019, it is easy to question the utility of books. To be skeptical of the escapism a novel offers, or even the redundancy: it’s no maudlin exaggeration to say we are living in a dystopia, witnessing the beginnings of an apocalypse. But K Chess's Famous Men Who Never Lived proves the perennial rebuttal: literature offers empathy. It makes intuitive sense that immersing oneself in the lived experience of someone else, even someone who doesn’t technically exist, strengthens one’s ability to empathize. This is even backed up by a handful of recent studies suggesting that more readers of literature means a more empathetic culture, something we sorely need.
As climate change grinds onward, as new and old geopolitical conflicts flare up, there will be more refugee crises much like the one depicted here. Thousands of people forced from their homes, from everything they know, to struggle for their existence in an indifferent (or openly hostile) new world. To say that there is room for improvement in the way we, as citizens of developed nations, have treated immigrating refugees is a woeful understatement: we watch them walk through miles of desert or crowd into fragile boats only to greet them with tear gas and imprisonment if they survive the journey. We watch their lives and struggles get reduced to talking points and propagandized buzzwords in the mouths of politicians.
But maybe with more books like Chess’s, and more people reading them, we can do a little better. An hour spent reading a book is an hour away from the psychic drain of social media, the bombardment of news and advertising. Yet it’s not escapism or disengagement: it’s an empathic consideration of other people as real human beings, an exercise in remembering that every one of the 7.7 billion other human lives are just as full and valid as yours. In Famous Men Who Never Lived, K Chess invites us to remember that “there’s a whole world of suffering and pain and shit,” and in remembering we take the first step towards changing it.
Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess is available now from Tin House.