The plight of a refugee is never easy. Uprooting oneself and family, fighting red tape and prejudice to find somewhere safe, homesickness. Even if there is no hope of returning, some refugees might be able to recreate a bit of home wherever they land. Not so for the refugees in K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived. The refugees in this novel come from another universe, an alternate New York that was destroyed in a terrorist-created nuclear meltdown. This new New York and world are just similar, it seems, to remind them of how different the two realities are.
Hel and Vikram are two Universally Displaced Persons who, at first, seem to have found some kind of equilibrium with their new reality. Vikram works as a security guard at a storage facility. Hel hasn’t resumed her career as an otorhinolaryngologist, but she seems to be doing well enough. That is, until Hel gets the idea of trying to find the exact point where the two realities split. She does this by tracking down relics of a man who became a great science fiction writer in her reality, but who drowned at age 10 in ours. This quest quickly becomes another. Hel wants to use traces of the science fiction writer as the core of a museum for the Universally Displaced Persons’ lost reality.
Memory, as we learn in Famous Men Who Never Lived, can be both a comfort and a joy. For people like Hel, who lost a son when she won the lottery to travel to our New York, memory torments them. Everything reminds them of what they left behind and what’s different about their new reality. Everyone here, Hel feels, does things wrong. For Vikram and other UDPs, memories of their old life need to be balanced with their new reality. After all, they can’t go back; they can only move forward. And, lastly, for Hel and Vikram’s unknown antagonist, memories are to be destroyed as ruthlessly as the alien germ in the science fiction writer’s best known novel.
Famous Men Who Never Lived changed directions on me more than once. Characters won and lost my sympathy as I learned more about what was happening. This might sound like criticism, but it’s something I actually like. For me it’s a sign that characters are growing in a dynamic environment and, above all, I loathe static characters. I wish there had been a bit more detail about Hel and Vikram’s reality because I really like thinking about what might have happened if someone zigged instead of zagged and ended up changing history. Still, even without a lot of detail, I ended up very much enjoying this original, thoughtful novel.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.