Famous People Who Never Lived by K.Chess
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.
As noted on the Verge, "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...."