Famous Men Who Never Lived boasts an incredible premise that earned it a spot on our Dark Horse list for 2019. K Chess’ tale promised alternate timelines, a commentary on immigration, and a healthy dose of literary homage. The results will inevitably depend on the individual reader, but for my part, Famous Men Who Never Lived hit hard and made me think long after I closed the back cover.
Protagonists Helen “Hel” Nash and partner Vikram Bhatnagar are Universally Displaced Persons (or UDPs). On the heels of nuclear war and terrorist attacks, Helen and Vikram–alongside ~156,000 other UDPs–are selected via a lottery system for a one-way trip to an alternate reality. Our reality, if you will. The technology, customs, and people in the reality they travel to are foreign to the UDPs. They’re enrolled in integration courses and allowed to live in this alternate New York, but they’re treated with rampant discrimination. Even the smartest and most successful UDPs (Helen was a surgeon in her reality) struggle to find footing in their new world. Helen becomes obsessed with The Pyronauts, a book Vikram brought through to this new reality. Ezra Sleight, the author of the genre-defining sci-fi novel, lived to old age in Hel’s reality but died at 10 years old in the new one. Hel wants to memorialize the people like Sleight who had a great impact on her old world but were never given the chance in the new one. She makes brief headway, only to encounter massive resistance as she further explores the idea. Meanwhile, she loses The Pyronauts–the only known copy in her new reality.
Hel’s escapades in pursuing the creation of a museum to the titular people who never lived are intriguing, and they’re framed by Chess’ elegant, simple writing. Viewing the reality I know through the eyes of a foreigner is an impressive and prosaic achievement on the author’s part. The characters only add to this brilliantly skewed perception of a reality that’s completely new to a small selection of its population. Chess creates vibrant, diverse characters who each provide a fascinating lens through which we can view and evaluate our own reality. Vikram is my personal favorite; his struggle to balance his memories of the old world with his desire to adapt to the new one is gorgeously portrayed in his interactions with others. He takes a menial job as a security guard and makes the most of his new lot in life while simultaneously doing whatever he can to help Hel open her museum.
The premise of Famous Men, boiled down to its barest elements, is a commentary on immigration. Members of our reality instinctively reject travelers from an alternate timeline. During my initial read, I found this quite literally unbelievable–wouldn’t we welcome reality-hoppers with open arms and eagerly gobble up information about their lives, technologies, and customs? I scoffed at the book during moments that explored this idea of being the “other” until I turned the final page and let it stew in my mind for a few days. Immigration is a global issue, and it only took one brief look outside of my bias and privilege forcefields to understand what Chess and her characters were saying. Just as so many of us (in the U.S. at least) instantly disregard immigrants from other countries, the population of Chess’ constructed reality wave off UDPs as unimportant or even harmful to their world.
And that’s part of the magic of this book. I closed Famous Men Who Never Lived with a scowl, unsure of its attempt to make meaningful commentary on a notably divisive issue. Post-read, the novel had time to subconsciously stir and simmer my brain stew until a delicious, revelatory morsel emerged and helped me grasp an issue I’d previously been willing to ignore.
Famous Men Who Never Lived reflects our political landscape and expertly explores the impact of our behaviors and biases on those around us. Hel reads as a perfectly respectable person whose only “faults” are being from an unfamiliar place and wanting to tell the story of her people. She’s a case study in how far people will go just to make their voice heard and how happily those in power will suppress those crucial minority voices. The book is both a warning and a call to action that I took to heart.
From a strictly narrative standpoint, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed bender of a plot, Famous Men Who Never Lived most certainly will NOT scratch that itch. It will, however, give you a new perspective on what it means to feel like an outcast when all you’ve done is exist in a place where people thought you should not. It will place you into the shoes of someone whose only crime is being thrust into a land that won’t support them. It will show you that the world would be a better place with just a little more empathy and compassion. And for that, it’s worth your time.
Rating: Famous Men Who Never Lived – 9.0/10