As a genre, science fiction has never had more fans. It has never been more profitable nor better received culturally. Perhaps we can blame this on smartphones or the Internet, or whichever technology makes some johnny-come-lately insist that “the future” has arrived. We can make catalogs of devices that originally appeared in speculative works, from tasers to smart watches, then, but the accuracy of some of these predictions shouldn’t come as a surprise in a genre that originally appealed to hobbyist tinkerers. SF began, under the aegis of Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, as an art form for a non-poetic, technical audience and its writers only later adopted dramatic elements that appealed to their emotions. Modern science fiction has benefited from repeated osmosis across the plot-character axis that allegedly demarcates literary from genre fiction. K. Chess crosses that border with wild abandon in her debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, a surreal, down-to-earth science fiction story that begins with a world-changing event and leaves behind emotional wreckage for a community of survivors.
The novel follows a woman named Hel as she moves, along with a thousand other people, through an enormous interdimensional portal, travelling from an alternate New York City to ours after nuclear terrorism ruins the world she knows. Hel’s partner and fellow traveller, Vikram, attempts to adjust to his new settings, even though he has brought much more physical baggage from their universe than Hel. When crossing over, Vikram illegally brought with him several books that provide Hel with comfort, including a paperback edition of The Pyronauts. The Pyronauts, a science fiction novel within the novel, made itself a part of the literary canon back in their home world, but in their new one the author, Ezra Sleight, died in childhood. When she finds out that our universe's Sleight lived in the same house as her own Ezra before his premature death, Hel begins to seek financial backing to purchase a collection of artefacts from the destroyed universe. However, when her beloved novel goes missing, Hel becomes lost in a paranoia directed towards hostile New Yorkers as she fights to hold on to her home universe.
Hel’s fellow refugees largely either choose to adopt a regular life in their new world, or find comfort in commiseration. Grief fills the transition for all of them, and we largely witness their experiences from Vikram’s viewpoint and through interviews interspersed throughout the narrative. The refugees’ demonym is UDP, an acronym for Universally Displaced Person. All have lost much—Hel, in particular, left behind a son—so they mostly meet with each other in support and orientation groups. While personal disagreements do arise, these support groups appear to unite the UDPs as a distinct subculture. In one such group, Hel meets a UDP intellectual named Dr. Oliveira who has pincers for hands, like a Gernsbackian mad scientist, and whose academic career has transferred well to his new life. Vikram, by contrast, has an unpublished doctoral thesis, but works as a security guard. For most, the shock lulls them into a sense of normality, though the characters remain realistically partial, often insisting on their lost world’s superiority in arbitrary details like cars that hover mere inches off the ground, but don’t fly. Only Hel resists this malaise. Hel has eyes for her own seemingly crazy actions, but ultimately the story remains so myopically focused that it gives the impression her fellow UDPs must be feeling the same struggle.
In her grief-blinded state, Hel seeks validation from the most visible sources that she can find. Dr. Oliveira’s distinctly (to Hel) familiar appearance, as well as his monetary success, gives him a layer of prestige that Hel’s partner doesn’t have. Hel therefore presents her ideas about the UDP collection to Dr. Oliveira, who directs her to Ayanna Donaldson, the manager of the Museum of Modern Thought, an art gallery with a different label on the tin. Hel's first attempts to take refuge in the museum show us an attempt to seek recourse in the only authorities she can find—the academic and artistic worlds. Ideally, institutions like these would seek diversity, but she eventually gets passed over: Donaldson agrees to take a look at Hel’s copy of The Pyronauts, but quickly sloughs it off to her assistant, Teresa Klay. Klay, always appearing busy, takes Hel on a tour of the Brooklyn Public Library and other sites with research capability, but leads her to researchers who want to probe Hel’s previous experience rather than assist her with her current goals. Hel interprets the gesture as helpful, but cannot help feeling justifiably used.
Hel assumes that Donaldson will love her idea to buy Sleight’s childhood home and make it into a UDP museum, but her grief and desire to rebuild her lost universe blinds her to the feasibility of her plan. Without realizing how much she’s asking for, Hel wants Donaldson to buy a house and turn it into a museum, based on a single artefact—that contraband copy of The Pyronauts. At Klay’s insistence, then, Donaldson turns Hel down, for reasons that are not revealed through Hel’s narration—but simultaneously refuses to return Hel’s book, saying that she has lost it. What should be a simple misunderstanding drives Hel into some really compromising and dark places. Losing the book causes Hel to act on extreme impulses. She actively stalks Donaldson and confronts her in the street. Hel makes plans to break into Donaldson’s house and search it when she’s away from home. These reactions veer broadly and uncontrollably, though all under the facade of a woman who believes in her own justification. Hel walks a complicated and delightfully complex path, but remains oblivious enough to keep on with it, even as Donaldson calls the police and gains a restraining order. Only after Hel becomes convinced of Donaldson’s innocence does she finally reunite with Vikram only to find that he’s been putting her museum together, at the Sleight House, while she stalked Donaldson.
Vikram’s story has been told in alternating chapters with Hel’s. Both rather elegantly begin and end in the home where Sleight lived as a child before his death, the current owner recently deceased and the inheriting grandson looking to sell. This concept of seeking a home catches on with Vikram. His job as a security guard, while menial, offers him a small sense of authority. However, Vikram runs into rules that even he cannot break when he sees a light on in a storage unit that he’s not legally cleared to enter without permission. The light appears to be the same shade as the light emitted by the portal that Vikram and Hel used to change universes. Vikram comes to time his rounds in order to catch the storage unit while it is open and its owner present, and discovers a UDP scientist who crossed over not with a paperback, but a prototype. It doesn’t work anymore, and she can’t repair it, but she continues to try nonetheless. This scientist also gives the lone foreshadowing remark about the UDP who must have crossed over with the prototype. Vikram apparently remembers this comment clearly, but never investigates it further.
This encounter also kicks Vikram’s sense of community into overdrive, prompting him to recruit Wes, a UDP friend, onto his restoration project. Wes once had a swastika carved into his face because, in the UDP universe, Buddhists like Wes continued its usage after the Nazi movement disbanded without having involves itself in either a war or a Holocaust. Of course, in “our” world, Wes must literally cover his swastika with strategic burn scars because of the offense it causes. While refurbishing the house, Wes gets the idea to begin collecting testimonies of UDPs and housing them at the new museum. The UDP testimonies skew refreshingly dark—a scientist who rigged the lottery to give himself a place near the head of the line into the portal; a woman who killed her neighbor under the influence of drugs—but Wes convinces everyone of their value because he feels redeemed by the act of gathering those testimonies. In turn, Vikram takes them because, as anybody who’s volunteered at a museum can attest, any artefact has potential. Vikram and Wes’s work does not arouse any criticism from their fellow UDPs. In contrast to the shiny and exclusive Museum of Modern Thought, the Sleight House comes across as a place of acceptance in the form of a family home. Museums, too, can be a form of art, especially with proper planning, and Vikram’s efforts show how they can also become a home, even for individuals from an alternate universe.
Between The Pyronauts, Dr. Oliveira’s pincers, and the glowing blue portal, Hel and Vikram run toward speculative elements in a rather pointed allusion to one of the two most prominent meanings of the word “alien.” A lawyer calls out the dual usage as offensive in one of Wes’s interviews, pointing out the isolating connotation it has. The speculative elements, then, don’t always fit. Less overt instances, however, do: Hel spends a couple of lackluster chapters, for example, searching for significance in tarot cards as she attempts to find out where The Pyronauts has been hidden; or, in a final stretch to reconcile herself with the death of her son, she imagines him alive in the dystopian world described in The Pyronauts. These flights of fantasy allow her to pull herself together, and collect the puzzle-pieces behind the mystery of her lost book, ultimately figuring out which normal New Yorker is really a rogue UDP bent on total assimilation.
Disappointingly, this villain does not get a close examination: their motivation comes out in scant lines of hysterical dialogue, but does not merit a full interview with Wes or any real scenes that create sympathy. Up to this point, the novel has given few indications that the UDP community really experiences internal dissention, instead largely focusing on Hel and Vikram’s coping mechanisms—so the “big reveal” of the antagonist really jars against the main characters’ struggles to adjust. When the thief who stole Hel’s copy of The Pyronauts does slip up, it occurs conveniently at the climax of Hel’s emotional journey. The theft of The Pyronauts, an event which has triggered Hel’s paranoia, does not seem like a valid coping strategy for a character who has otherwise managed a controlled existence in the shadows. After the frustrating climax, the rest of the novel carries on to a graceful, if expected, ending in the newly opened Sleight Home museum.
Famous Men Who Never Lived explores the transition and grief of a lost culture with a focus on human impacts, not global ones. Each character has to choose between taking solace in the world of art or in the mundanity of good, hard work. However, Hel remains too blinded to trust the world she has chosen, and begins to spiral into depression. Vikram, on the other hand, faces stagnation in his own career until familiar sci-fi elements inspire him to build up his community. Hel and Vikram do ultimately find a home for their lost UDP culture in the Sleight House, though that unsatisfactorily explored opposition rears its head at the end of the novel. However, the exploration of the domestic effects of science fiction elements on character proves fruitful. The novel perhaps serves a bellwether for the genre as a whole: first-time novelists can take a cue from Chess, who has produced not only a solid debut novel, but a sympathetic and complex look at the surreality of life in a science-fiction world.
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