Listed among the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2019 by The Washington Post and Polygon. One of The A.V. Club’s 15 Best Books of 2019.
For readers of Station Eleven and Exit West, FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED explores the effects of displacement on our identities, the communities that come together through circumstance, and the power of art to save us.
Wherever Hel looks, New York City is both reassuringly familiar and terribly wrong. As one of the thousands who fled the outbreak of nuclear war in an alternate United States―an alternate timeline―she finds herself living as a refugee in our own not-so-parallel New York. The slang and technology are foreign to her, the politics and art unrecognizable. While others, like her partner Vikram, attempt to assimilate, Hel refuses to reclaim her former career or create a new life. Instead, she obsessively rereads Vikram’s copy of The Pyronauts―a science fiction masterwork in her world that now only exists as a single flimsy paperback―and becomes determined to create a museum dedicated to preserving the remaining artifacts and memories of her vanished culture.
But the refugees are unwelcome and Hel’s efforts are met with either indifference or hostility. And when the only copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel must decide how far she is willing to go to recover it and finally face her own anger, guilt, and grief over what she has truly lost.
“With an eerie and ingenious premise, K Chess explores in a fresh way the most universal of human experiences: loss, regret, and the longing for what might have been. With its refugees from a parallel universe, this inventive book does what only fiction can do: describes an impossible world in order to more clearly show us our own.”
– Karen Thompson Walker, author of THE DREAMERS
“Famous Men Who Never Lived is a fascinating novel: complex, uncanny, powerful. K Chess adroitly enacts Joyce’s ‘cracked looking glass’ and gives us an off-kilter reflection that allows us to really see who we are. The wit, elaboration, and detail of her invention are spectacular.”
– Dana Spiotta, author of INNOCENTS AND OTHERS
“The novel jumps off from a fascinating premise into strange and fertile territory. K Chess constructs not just one universe, but two, and delicately entangles them to create a rich, engrossing exploration of displacement, history, memory, of the past and the present. Conceptually adventurous yet full of feeling, Famous Men Who Never Lived is a smart, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable debut.”
– Charles Yu, author of HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE
In a starred review, Foreword calls it: “… magnificent … an awesome and humbling literary achievement … The text is triumphant, darkly humorous, and mournful by turns … As its characters grasp for a concrete place to rest in a world that ever diverges from its set paths, Famous Men Who Never Lived is mesmerizing.”
Booklist says “Chess’ debut novel offers an intriguing and fresh spin on the parallel-worlds theme with its timely emphasis on the challenges facing migrants in hostile, unfamiliar surroundings, marking her as a promising new voice in speculative fiction.”