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When worlds collide – ‘Famous Men Who Never Lived’

March 13, 2019
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What would you do if you found yourself in a world that was similar to your own, yet undeniably different? What if you were displaced by tragedy, only to wind up in a place where you were largely unwanted? What if your old life was erased, leaving you with just a few scraps of memory?

Those are the questions at the heart of K. Chess’s excellent “Famous Men Who Never Lived” (Tin House Books, $24.95). It’s a wonderful piece of speculative fiction, following two people who find themselves adrift in a place that is just different enough from their home to be jarring and unsettling. They are surrounded by people who view them as other – as alien – and their connection to the past grows ever more tenuous as they try desperately to remain connected to whatever cultural consciousness to which they can cling.

Hel lives in New York City. But it’s not her New York City. Hel – along with some 150,000 others – is a refugee from a parallel universe, one where the world fell apart thanks to a cataclysmic war. She and the rest were selected by lottery to be sent through an experimental portal to this new parallel world. Each of them, allowed to carry through very few possessions. Those possessions, along with their memories, are all that remain of their world.

They are UDPs – Universally Displaced Persons.

Hel was a doctor in her old life, but she’s struggling to assimilate in this new place; she’s not alone in that despite the various governmental efforts to make it happen. The music is different, the slang is different, the technology is different – not necessarily by a lot, but always by at least a little. Politics, pop culture, art – all different. The histories of these two worlds diverged relatively recently, sometime around the year 1909, though the specific moment of separation has yet to be nailed down.

Her partner Vikram is adjusting a bit better. He’s a night watchman now, but in his old life, he was a PhD student specializing in the works of Ezra Sleight, a literary sci-fi author considered to be one of the greatest writers of his time. Only in this world, Ezra Sleight died young and never wrote a word, leaving Vikram’s tattered paperback copy of Sleight’s “The Pyronauts” the sole example of that greatness.

Hel becomes obsessed with the notion of preserving the tattered vestiges of her old world; Sleight (whose death she believes may be the point of divergence between these parallel Earths) is to serve as the centerpiece of what she intends to be a museum of sorts.

However, she remains a refugee, with the many prejudices and obstacles that that status lays upon her. There are so many people in this world who distrust and disdain Hel and her fellow UDPs; people harboring fear or contempt or some toxic combination therein. Her ideas are met with either anger or apathy.

But when the precious book goes missing, Hel must decide how far she’s willing to go – and what she’s willing to sacrifice – to preserve a world that she will never see again.

Speculative fiction is never better than when it serves the dual roles of mirror and lens – roles that “Famous Men Who Never Lived” fills with spectacular success. Chess has forged both a mirror in which we can look upon ourselves and our world and a lens through which we can more closely examine those aspects of the world that demand detailed inspection.

This is a book about refugees and the refugee experience. This is a story about what happens when people take flight from their homes, only to wind up in places that are both ill-equipped for and largely uninterested in assisting them. It’s a tale of the power our past can hold over us, our need to remain connected to our own culture … and the overwhelming despair the loss of that culture can instill.

The juxtaposition between the NYC of the story’s present (which is more or less ours) and that of Hel and Vikram and the rest of the UDPs is one of the best aspects of the book; Chess folds details in throughout the story, giving us glimpses of the differences between the two worlds and adding perspective on what the changes mean in terms of personal loss. Those peeks back through the dimensional portal lend a wonderful and rich vividness to the proceedings.

“Famous Men Who Never Lived” is a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be a refugee and the pain of losing one’s cultural foundation. It is also an elegantly written and darkly funny sci-fi narrative. However you choose to engage with it, one thing is certain: you’re going to dig it.

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