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Famous Men Who Never Lived is a powerful novel about alternate worlds and the plights of refugees

Famous Men Who Never Lived is a powerful novel about alternate worlds and the plights of refugees


How do you continue living when you lose absolutely everything?

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Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

In K. Chess’ debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, at some point in the past, reality diverged, and an alternate timeline played out alongside our own. Then, that world was devastated by a nuclear attack, and extradimensional refugees started showing up in our own reality. As Chess follows the lives of refugees from that alternate world, she delivers a story about immigration and how those who lose everything they’ve ever known are able to cope with their new reality.

Chess introduces us to Hel, a former doctor from a world that’s slightly more advanced but is also somewhat recognizable. Chess doesn’t fall into a trap of documenting every little difference. Instead, she doles out the changes little by little: cars there are sort of automated pods, nuclear power is prevalent, and a history that didn’t include the Nazi party meant that the swastika was really something that symbolized luck. That world’s scientists also began to develop a gate technology to allow people to travel to alternate worlds. Then, disaster strikes, and more than 156,000 refugees walk on a one-way trip into an unknown dimension: our own world. The novel picks up three years after that influx, as the newcomers are figuring out how to live in our reality.

Hel is one of those individuals — UDPs, or Universally Displaced Persons — who has been having trouble adjusting to her new life. Like her fellow travelers, she faces bigotry while trying to move forward through grief at the loss of her entire world. Some of her fellow UDPs have made the best of their new situation: an infectious diseases doctor named Carlos Oliveira (who, incidentally, is missing both of his hands and has had his forearms reworked into pincers in an illustrative example of the differences between the two worlds) has become known worldwide and is widely seen as a face of the UDP population. On the other hand, a UDP named Joslan Micallef brutally killed a woman and ignited plenty of anti-UDP sentiment in our world.

Image: Tin House Books

Hel finds purpose when she realizes that her people need some way to remember their former world, and she sets out to design a museum that collects the previous few artifacts and stories that came over with them. It has one prominent centerpiece: a science fiction novel called The Pyronauts by author Ezra Sleigh. As the story opens, Hel realizes that Sleigh existed in both worlds and may or may not have been one of those minute tipping points that caused both to diverge. He became a best-selling author in her world, but he died as a child in ours. When Hel discovers the house where he lived in both worlds, she begins to set up her project. But when the last remaining copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel goes to desperate and reckless measures to try to find it.

Chess teases out this alternate world deliberately. She sprinkles in interviews with notable UDP characters who figure into the plot, and she drops in chapters of Sleigh’s Pyronauts, a novel that sounds like the inverse of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. In Pyronauts, aliens arrive promising to fix some of our biggest problems, but they accidentally unleash a fungus that quickly kills all plant life on Earth, prompting teams of “pyronauts” to incinerate contaminated areas and leaving a broken and uninhabitable planet. The story is more than just a helpful MacGuffin. As Chess lays out the chapters, they mirror what Hel and her companions are going through: the prospect of living after their world has been ruined.

Instead of going big, Chess takes the story to very personal levels

At points, the book feels reminiscent of other alternate world stories like Fringe or Counterpart. But where those shows play up adventure or espionage, Chess takes the story to very personal levels. There’s no grand, overarching plan to try to fix Hel’s world with the help of an intrepid group of scientists or to go before the UN and convince the world that they’re not all that bad. And it’s a more effective story as a result. Famous Men Who Never Lived tells a powerful story of accepting one’s fate by putting one foot in front of the other, day by day.

Chess highlights how uncomfortable it is to suddenly arrive in a new world, including the minute changes in food, literature, arts, and even the city skyline. On the face of it, Hel’s desperate quest to find out where her copy of The Pyronauts went seems a little ridiculous at first. (After all, isn’t it just a book?) But we come to see that she’s trying to hold on to the last bit of normalcy after an incredible loss — not only of her entire world, but of everyone she knew, including her son.

For that reason, Famous Men Who Never Lived feels incredibly relevant as our real world experiences some of the greatest displacements that we’ve seen in a generation. Wars have displaced massive numbers of people, and you don’t have to look far to see people seeking excuses to turn them away at a border. Chess puts the reader in the shoes of those refugees, using science fiction in its best possible form: telling an allegorical story that provides insight into the world around us right now.