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Famous Men Who Never Lived

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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.

318 pages, Hardcover

First published March 5, 2019

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About the author

K. Chess

2 books77 followers
Hello! I'm the author of FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED (Tin House 2019). I live and read in Providence, RI. My name does not have a period in it, but Goodreads keeps editing it to add one.

I don't use this site to track everything I read, but to support books I really loved. You'll notice lots of 5 star ratings.

I usually don't see friend requests or messages here until months later – find me on twitter or at my author website instead. Thanks!

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Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,378 reviews12k followers
January 18, 2023

"For many individuals and families, their reason to leave the only home they have ever known is simply that they have no other option. Currently, there are nearly 80 million men, women and children fleeing war, persecution and political turmoil. These people are refugees and asylum seekers."

The above quote is taken from a leading website on refugees and seekers of asylum. The plight of such peoples is at the heart of the heart of Famous Men Who Never Lived. Indeed, K Chess employs a particular science fiction trope (parallel universes) to address this critical, heart-wrenching issue.

The author frames her tale thusly: after 1910 "things slowly started to unzip, one set of possibilities uncoupling from another and veering off, gradually at first, but then more and more drastically." As readers we're invited to explore the consequences of a multiverse when two worlds converge in 2020. Specifically, Famous Men picks up three years after 156,000 refugees from an alternate reality arrived in Calvary Cemetery in Queens via what the refugees referred to as 'the gate'. The refugees (only women and men, no children) were chosen by their government's lottery in the aftermath of total nuclear devastation.

So, how are those refugees (labeled Universally Displaced Persons or UDPs by our world) faring in modern day New York City? Chess's main focus is on two characters: Vikram Bhatnagar, a young literary scholar working as a night watchman and Helen Nash (Hel), a surgeon (ear, nose, throat specialist) who is too traumatized to practice medicine and chooses to remain on public assistance.

Since there's so much happening from first page to last, I'll take an immediate shift to a highlight reel -

"At first, public curiosity had been intense, the attention not unfriendly. The scientifically inclined and the religious were equally fascinated by the miraculous proof of the existence of a version of creation other than the one they knew." However, soon after this initial wave of wonderment, people viewed the UDPs as aliens, a minority to be feared, even hated (any crimes committed by individual UDPs were sensationalized in the media and quickly projected onto all UDPs). Common pubic sentiment: those creepy foreigners are either taking our jobs or sitting around demanding handouts.

We're given a glimpse of what it means to be among those universally displaced when Vikram attends Reintegration Education, his enforced weekly meeting held on Wednesday evenings. Tonight Vikram joins about a dozen others in a semicircle to watch a DVD about the US Justice System. Justice - what a joke. The UDPs know the justice system wouldn't take the first step in addressing all the many abuses and hate crimes committed against them. Scratch the surface and it becomes clear such meetings serve as a way for the government to keep tabs on the UDPs.

One way K Chess provides up close and personal windows into the lives of individual UDPs is by the inclusion of eight 'Interview Transcripts' for women and men who came through the gate at Calvary Cemetery. Among the transcripts, Joslan Micallef, age 22, where Joslan relates how she "got wild and did all those things to that old lady...stabbed her and stabbed her till she died." Joslan's lawyer advises her to tell how the system failed her and the way a drug dealer prayed on her ignorance about the power of street drugs. A second transcript features Gregory "Wes" Westmorland, age 38, who encountered unending hostility since he had a swastika tattoo on his neck. The police ask Wes if he knows about the Nazis. Wes tells them 'no' (in Wes's world there was no Nazi party or WWII). From all eight transcripts it becomes abundantly clear just how shockingly different their world was from our own and all are suffering from various degrees of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Vikram completed his dissertation on The Pyronauts by Ezra Sleight, a science fiction author from his world comparable to Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick. Vicram brought along a copy of The Pyronauts, the one and only copy now in existence. Turns out, Hel, the lovely lady he's living with in his Bronx apartment, has become obsessive with The Pyronaut and not only passionately rereads the novel but has made it her life's work to establish a museum dedicated to Ezra Slight and the collective stories and memories of her fellow Universally Displaced Persons. And the location of the museum? In the very house where Ezra Slight lived and wrote his novels, a cottage in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn that's currently up for sale by Dwayne, a young dude who's been having trouble attracting buyers since his grandma who lived there until her death was a hoarder and the place looks like a garbage dump.

Ezra Slight's most famous novel chronicles a post-apocalyptic Earth where survivors live in scattered underground settlements and only pyronauts wearing special suits venture out beyond the settlements to the Neverlands in order to burn all infected plantlife. The cause of the planet-wide infection came from outer space aliens who traveled to Earth on a mission of peace, to help Earthlings better sustain life through innovations in agriculture and technology. The aliens leave but, alas, they also brought their alien microscopic viruses which proved deadly to all forms of life on our planet. Slight's novel traces the saga of two pyronauts, John Gund and his patrol-partner Asyl, on their odyssey through the Neverlands. Hel closely identifies with John Gund and Asyl and their mission.

As Hel seeks out supporters of her museum project, she must deal with the unexpected: it appears a museum director has stolen The Pyronauts and refuses to return it to her. Hel is now on her own mission to recover her beloved possession, as if the battered paperback represents her lost world's culture.

Hel not only suffers from cultural loss but great personal loss: the lottery system forced women and men to leave behind their loved ones and Hel left behind her ten-year-old son with her ex-husband, both now long dead along with everybody else from her world.

Famous Men Who Never Lived is a novel for our time, a moving novel containing a number of mysteries I haven't touched on in my review. To discover what I'm alluding to here, you'll have to read for yourself. Highly, highly recommended.

American author K Chess
Profile Image for Felicia Grossman.
Author 5 books147 followers
December 22, 2018
I was absolutely floored reading K Chess’ debut FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED. The tone, the way timelines and story structure are manipulated, and the feel of the book is reminiscent of both Vonnegut and Nabokov, but very much its own, written for the modern era. The work is both carefully crafted science fiction worldbuilding and literary reflection on our own times, our own fears and our own struggles—of what is precious to us and what we need to survive—to be whole.

The reader is torn between Hel and Vikram’s form of survival—assimilation and preservation. The way Hel struggled with so much loss, especially with all the privilege she used to have—the way she challenged it into near obsession made me ache, almost as much as Vikram’s poignant efforts to move them both forward, to love her and to use that love to propel them forward together. Which is all somehow more painful as we watch them each take different path—watch him make connections while she gets more and more wrapped in her head.

Their story is so resonant, especially the way the author punctuates it with both the first person interviews of other UDPs, each with their own struggle—each separate way of coping, and the story of the Pyronauts, multiple works within a work, each packing an emotional punch. Being torn between “respectability politics,” and living for yourself.

The work does so many things at the same time. It’s not only a treatise on what it is to be a refugee, but also a beautiful mystery for the reader to unpack—what happened to the main characters’ world—is there a going back and if not, what’s next, and most importantly where is Pyronauts? It unpacks the concept of what it is culture and how does one’s world look through someone else’s eyes as well as how does one’s own world look to complete strangers and what you would do to either fit in or stand alone and if there is a middle ground. And the end is totally worth the read. The book is really stunning and well written and something I’ll be talking about for a very long time.
Profile Image for James Charlesworth.
Author 1 book19 followers
October 24, 2018
Blending rich characterization and stylish writing with a wonderfully layered narrative (and a healthy dose of chaos theory), K Chess's debut novel depicts a group of survivors transported from a doomed alternate New York City to our own through a scientifically designed portal. Though the set-up of this book is science fiction, the story centers on the very real desires and faults of its characters, who, arriving at our world to find themselves ostracized, must find a way to adapt to their new home while reconciling what they've left behind.

Reminiscent of Station Eleven, The Leftovers, and The Third Hotel, Famous Men Who Never Lived is a beautifully crafted debut about immigration and the multiverse, community and exile, and the unrecognizable places our minds go in the wake of trauma and loss.
Profile Image for Maine Colonial.
652 reviews174 followers
January 1, 2019
I received a publisher's advance reviewing copy.

Imagine you’re living your life in New York City when word comes that bomb attacks will soon bring killing levels of radiation. But there is a gateway from your New York into a parallel universe’s New York and you are one of the people chosen to step through with as much as you can carry. About 150,000 people manage to make their escape, and our main characters, Helen (usually called Hel) and Vikram are among them.

Normally in time/dimension travel novels the person doing the moving tries to blend in and not reveal that he’s from another dimension. But in this book, everyone knows what’s happened, which provides a lot of possibilities for the story.

The new arrivals are called UDPs (Universe Displaced Persons) or, more pejoratively, aliens. They are objects of fascination for some, but once the novelty of their arrival has worn off, more people are indifferent to them or have negative feelings about them. That’s difficult for the UDPs, but more so is the adjustment from their world (called the Before) to the new one. It seems that the two New Yorks split somewhere around 1910, which means that despite their initial sameness, there are many differences, large and small, between their histories and development. The UDPs receive intensive orientation, but they can’t just drop their memories of the Before, and the people and things they’ve lost causes great sorrow and pain.

Vikram’s favorite author from the Before is a man named Sleight, and Vikram has brought one of Sleight’s novels, The Pyronauts, with him through the gateway. In the new world, Sleight died as a child, and his books were never written. A desire not to fully assimilate, but instead to keep the Before culture alive, spurs Hel’s ambition to create a UDP museum. At the same time, she has the notion that there is something about Sleight that caused the rift between the two New Yorks, and she and Vikram hope to find out what that is.

I was immediately drawn in by the book’s premise, and Chess’s point of view about dimensional travelers. I felt the UDPs’ yearning, loss and displacement. And, of course, the position of the UDPs and how they’re treated has parallels to today’s immigrants. We see intriguing glimpses of the Before world, like neighborhoods that have different names and characters, usually because of the different placement and modes of transport. Twentieth-century history played out differently, which leads to some strong differences in the socio-cultural outlooks of the UDPs and the New Yorkers of their new home.

But after setting all this up, it felt to me as if Chess couldn’t unify her theme and she tried to do too much. The storyline is choppy because of having not just Hel and Vikram driving it, but also because Chess intersperses their story with first-person narratives by other UDPs, as well as excerpts from The Pyronauts, all on top of references back to the Before and a bit of a mystery plot involving the gateway, the time rift and that copy of The Pyronauts. I didn’t feel that the other narratives or the excerpts from The Pyronauts added much to the story, and those parts took attention away from Hel and Vikram, who could have used more pages to flesh out their characters and better engage emotionally with the reader. The mystery plot could have been compelling, but it wasn't presented in a coherent way.

This is a book that had great potential but ended up being all over the place.
Profile Image for K.A. Doore.
Author 5 books164 followers
October 15, 2018
When an alternate Earth is threatened by nuclear war, desperate refugees flee through an untested portal, accepting the very real risk that there might not be anything on the other side for the possibility of safety. When Hel arrives in a New York not too unlike her own, safe and whole and alive, it seems like a miracle. Soon, though, the differences between this New York and her own New York creep in, forcing Hel to confront the trauma of losing her home, the choices she made to get here, and whether she really was one of the lucky ones.

Famous Men Who Never Lived packs a punch. It's a perfect reflection of our own times, our own distrust of the Other, of refugees' complicated realities of survival & loss. Hel's obsession with the Pyronauts and its author and similarly the obsessions of other characters were well-wrought and poignant. Many questions are left unanswered and futures uncertain, just as it is for the refugees, just as it is for Hel.

K Chess touches on a lot of themes, and does so with delicate expertise, never hitting you over the head or overwhelming you with anything. I especially loved the excerpts of interviews from other refugees, which helped to showcase the diversity of their experiences - as diverse as any human experience, really.

FMWNL is a quiet, beautiful, & poignant exploration of humanity and a fantastic read.
Profile Image for Chris Blocker.
698 reviews161 followers
March 26, 2019
Famous Men Who Never Lived is built upon a tremendous premise: survivors from a doomed alternate timeline, selected through lottery, flee through a portal into our world. They're registered, treated as refugees, and forced to endure stigmas they cannot shake and restrictions that deny them their freedom. Their presence draws parallels to the Book of Revelation (their number was relatively close to 144,000). Their knowledge of the world, their speech, their culture—all of these were left in another reality.

The premise is fabulous, but the implementation was off. There's so much potential here, but it's untapped. We're told that these two worlds had identical histories until the the first decade of the twentieth century. In the last 110 years, however, everything has changed. In this other timeline, South America is a super power, the United States uses the metric system, the swastika is a peaceful symbol of eternity, every posh neighborhood is a slum, every celebrity you've ever heard of never rose to fame. Nearly every piece of history since 1909 has been turned upside down. If it happened in your world in the last hundred years, it apparently didn't happen in theirs. You were never born, neither were your parents or their parents. And I find this not only hard to believe, but anticlimactic. Here's a chance to to tackle issues that could be fun to explore: What if you run into the parallel you? What if your child who died in the parallel timeline is alive in this one? What if some maniacal tyrant from the other timeline lives in peace in this one? None of this is explored. Instead, after such a brilliant setup, we're given a rather run-of-the-mill thriller that plays out like an episode of Scooby-Doo. (Those in the other timeline probably didn't have Scooby, however, so they may have thought they were being original.)

When Famous Men Who Never Lived focuses on the human side of the story, it's wonderful. Like when the protagonist is considering the son she left behind. Or the dichotomy of world that welcomes these refugees who have nowhere else to go, but binds them in yellow tape. Even the simple nostalgia for a world one can never return to. I would've loved a story like that. At some point, though, the action took over and a villain had to be constructed. I hate stories with villains—it's a constraint of our world that I find so incredibly limiting and boring. Maybe there's another reality out there where literature isn't littered with all these villains, and if so, I do hope some day to visit it.

If you like science-fiction-based mysteries with a plot that is too light for literary readers and too dense for thrill-seeking readers, this is the perfect novel for you!
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,120 reviews112 followers
January 12, 2020
This is a parallel universes novel with a dash of magic realism. It was published in 2019 and can be nominated for all Best novel awards. I read is as a part of monthly reading in January 2020 at SFF Hot from Printers: New Releases group.

There is a couple, Vikram and Hel, who are refugees from another universe in our (?) New York in 2010s. Hel (Helen Nash) was a surgeon on her world, a mother of a young boy. She was very practical on a surface, not caring about such stuff like fiction. Vikram (Bhatnagar) was a fiction aficionado, who was never much in his world.

Three years ago their Earth was in the midst of military conflict that went nuclear and to save people portals to our world were open and people were sent through. Only 157 thousands managed to do it before portals closed. These people became Universally Displaced Persons or UDPs. Resented and resentful, traumatized by the fact that their whole lives don’t exist any more. Despised and suspected my locals, new illegal aliens, the ultimate Other.

Vikram, the reader, brought books with him, including a collection of SF works by Ezra Sleight, who had never lived after the age of 10, when he drowned. In the alternate reality his books become household items (something between Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird I guess). His masterpiece is The Pyronauts, a post-apoc story about a world ravaged by alien microorganism.

Our worlds diverged circa 1910 and Erza drowned in 1909, so maybe he was a divergence point?

The pair decides to save their historic heritage, the books never printed and songs never sang in our world.

A very interesting read, especially bearing in mind that it is a first novel by the author.
Profile Image for Dan.
Author 15 books101 followers
October 9, 2018
K Chess has written a book that drags the fantastic, ephemeral stories of alternate worlds into a modern New York that feels utterly believable. A masterfully crafted debut, FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED is the story of refugees from a doomed New York, carrying a sparse handful of mementos of a lost world and a lifetime of memories to be cherished, resented, or both.

There's enough speculative history in this book to delight my inner sci-fi nerd, but Chess is never lets the setting distract from the characters. Her authorial voice is strong and confident, her imagination profound.

FAMOUS MEN touches on loss, nostalgia, immigration, discrimination, trust, self-mythology, and love, but never comes across as pedantic or forced. It's a fantastic book, and I'm looking forward reading more of Chess's work in the future.
Profile Image for Pearse Anderson.
Author 5 books33 followers
August 26, 2018
"We used to get our eyebrows threaded on this block every week, in another New York."

As I ended my internship at Tin House, I took this book from the galley room and read it as the dystopic cloud of smoke enveloped Portland. I'm not going to say much because I don't think I can, but K's debut is as brilliant as you would expect, and this book combines the literary Tin House vibe with the soft science fiction you could expect to find in "literary" magazines. Bleh, hate using titles like that, overall this is just a sad, powerful, New Yorker look at immigration and the loss of culture/community/safety through some specific details and a fascinating alternate history K explores really well. This was exactly what I needed in this hellscape, and I hope it's what you need come March.
Profile Image for Katherine Riley.
Author 1 book61 followers
April 6, 2019
What exactly is Famous Men Who Never Lived? I’m still not sure. At one level it’s intricate SFF, and at another it’s taut and deep cerebral. It’s an angry contemplation of fate, and a gentle musing on infinite possibility. It is the story of an ark. Through its reading it also infuses. Late at night after reading it I found myself traveling the multiverse of my own life, examining choices both intimate and cataclysmic, and the alternatives they might have wrought.
Profile Image for Nora.
84 reviews1 follower
January 1, 2019
A gorgeous, melancholy book that considers displacement, home, and the value of remembered culture. Framed with the sci-fi premise of an alternate universe and with the bonus of a book-within-a-book, this is a winner for me. I love being made to feel homesick for a world I’ll never know.
Profile Image for Meg ✨.
332 reviews656 followers
February 18, 2023
there was not a single likeable character in this book. and i don’t mean in a fun, morally-grey, complex way, i mean in a ‘if i had to spend time with these people i would slap them’ way
Profile Image for Katie/Doing Dewey.
1,077 reviews211 followers
July 29, 2019
Summary: A great premise and thoughtful writing couldn't make up for a plot that dragged.

I loved the premise of Famous Men Who Never Lived, in which refugees from an alternate universe find themselves struggling to adjust to our world. One couple, Hel and Vikrim, have decidedly different strategies for coping with their displacement. Vikrim tries to fit in, finding a new job and burying his past. Hel refuses to take up her old job, instead obsessively reading the only existing copy of The Pyronauts, a sci-fi story written after her world diverged from ours. "When the only copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel must decide how far she is willing to go to recover it." (source)

Like The Supper Club and Never Let Me Go, I found this book a bit of a let down. All had wonderful premises and dealt with interesting themes. All had writing that felt very deliberate. I enjoy feeling as though an author has thoroughly considered every word they've written. In these books, though, that came at the expense of forward momentum. Even the most exciting scenes in this book felt as though they took place underwater - slowly and at a remove from the reader. I felt little emotional involvement with the characters in any of these books.

Compared to The Supper Club and Never Let Me Go, I think this book did do a better job actually saying interesting things about its themes. It definitely made me think about how difficult it must be to immigrate and lose all shared cultural references with the people around you. The jarring discrepancy between what Hel is taught in her re-education classes and the way people actually treat her felt particularly timely given current debates on immigration in the US. Unfortunately, I found that the interesting commentary disappeared towards the end of the book. This left me with a plot that dragged and a conclusion that I didn't find either convincing or satisfying. Not my favorite read.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey
Profile Image for Daniel Kincaid.
362 reviews46 followers
May 25, 2019
Great concept, lousy execution.

The writing- and the plot- is just all over the place. One gets the impression the author tried too much in this novel, only to accomplish absolutely nothing. It doesn't matter how hard you concentrate, you just can't seem to follow the plot, which jumps every other page to another character with a different story- that never actually connects to the main plot (Was there even really a main plot?). The novel feels like a bunch of unconnected short stories that the author seemed to try and merge into one story- one, very incoherent story. There are times when you can't even figure out when or where the story takes place- one paragraph it seems to happen in the alternate-reality world, in the past, and the next paragraph, all of a sudden, seems to happen in our reality in the present day, with nothing to connect between these paragraphs.

The narrative itself is boring, lifeless, and at times even pretentious. Instead of focusing on the refugees and their plights- especially of the two main characters- the author chooses to info-dump her readers to death, with the most uninteresting, uneventful side-plots. I guess the interviews with the other refugees, the excerpts from the that lost book- all of those meant to paint a picture, but they did is create more chaos in an already very chaotic story. And of course, the info-dump does nothing to further the plot or characters- it's just there to fill the pages- because, let's face it- NOTHING REALLY HAPPENS IN THIS NOVEL.
Seriosuly- nothing happens in this book. It's just pages and pages of nothingness, sheer boredom, more small side-plots- but nothing that actually relates to main story or characters. Hel and Vikram, who were designed, I assume, to evoke feelings in the reader, are ended up being as nothing but names on a page. You can't connect or empathize with them, or the other characters- mainly, because they don't even feel like character. It's as if you're reading about invisible people, or dead corpses- they have no thoughts or feelings, nothing. They're just there to further the plot- or in this case- to further the nothing. Just the boredom.

It's astounding, really, how one can take such an amazing concept and then just waste it and do nothing with it. I get it, it's the author's debut novel, but still- the end result left a lot to be desired.

Disappointed doesn't even begin to convey what I feel about this.
Don't even bother with this- not unless you want to be bored to death or just read pages and pages about absolutely nothing.
Profile Image for Beth Tabler.
Author 7 books173 followers
March 9, 2019
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an eARC of this in exchange for my open and honest review.

K Chess's debut novel, "Famous Men Who Never Lived" is a diverse blend of different science fiction, sociological, and psychological ideas. It is a profoundly cerebral collection of ideas of who we are, and how do we go on after facing the loss of an entire timeline. The premise is what if a whole group of UDP (universally displaced persons) fled their failing and dying timeline and came into ours and how survivors of that would fare in our new world. The UDP's each have a different history both large and small, and even though they have gone through an intensive reintegration program to adapt to the new timeline, they still remain a curiosity to some and a focus of outright hostility and prejudice for others.

The narrative follows a few different people as they surf the woes and difficulties adapting to living in a new timeline — specifically those of Hel and Vikram. Vikram's favorite author in the old timeline was a man named Sleight. Vikram managed to bring one of Sleight's books with him, a book that was never written in this timeline due to Sleight dying at a young age. Hel feels like there is something strange about Sleight and how he somehow caused the divergence between the two timelines and Vikram and Hel decide to figure out what that is.

"Famous Men Who Never Lived" is marketed as a science fiction novel; however, I felt it was more a character study based on a science fiction premise. Those looking for a heavy parallel universe novel should look elsewhere as the parallel universe premise is a means of talking about the effects of displacement for people. The writing is well done, the characters are well-formed and interesting, especially for a debut novel but I felt that the story did not know precisely what it wanted to be and that led to it feeling choppy.
Profile Image for Tom Loock.
687 reviews10 followers
April 1, 2019
The idea sounded intriguing, but I struggled mightily to finish it, hoping I would be rewarded with a strong finish, but the story never went anywhere, did not flow well and missed several opportunities.
Others seem to be quite excited by this first novel, but it was clearly not for me and I was even tempted to give it just one star. Sorry!
The author was trying hard, but I could not emphasize with the protagonists Hel and Vikram at all, and interspersing their story with some first-person narratives from people of the same background and passages from a fictional book (think 'Man in the High Castle') did not help, but chopped the up the stuttering flow of the story even further.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,123 reviews112 followers
December 16, 2019
It’s not what you don’t know that kills you, but what you know that isn’t so.
Attributed to Tom DeMarco

I guess I didn't know.
—"Busy Child," by The Crystal Method

What if everything you know was, suddenly, no longer so?

That's the fascinating hook for the novel Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess. Although Helen Nash grew up in New York City, almost everything she knows just isn't so anymore, because Helen is a UDP—a Universally Displaced Person. Hel (and is it a coincidence that her nickname is the name of the Norse goddess of the underworld?) is one of a few thousand UDPs who came to our Earth from a parallel universe, through a Gate that no longer functions, fleeing a slow-rolling nuclear holocaust—the ultimate refugee crisis, the sort of disaster that could persuade people to abandon their entire universe, forever.

The Earth that Helen left wasn't necessarily better, or worse, than the one on which she arrived (well, up until that whole nuclear holocaust thing), but it was very different—her Earth's timeline and ours diverged radically, sometime in the early 20th Century. I'm not going to try to catalog all the myriad ways (heh) in which these Earths differ, but K Chess introduced many specific touches—like the rise of the band Baccarat rather than the Beatles in the Sixties, and the completely altered significance of the swastika since the Nazis never had a chance to steal that symbol—that I really liked. The U.S. of Hel's world seems much more British in general as well, somehow; the way gay men described themselves as 'verts (from the British term "invert," which in this universe is a pejorative) is one example, but there are others.

Famous Men Who Never Lived isn't entirely original, of course. This novel fits into a long tradition of alternative-history stories—Jack Finney's wistful short story "The Woodrow Wilson Dime" is the one that came immediately to my mind, along with another book about time-traveling refugees that I read as a child. I'm hiding the name behind a spoiler warning in case you haven't already read it, but if you remember a matchstick-sized copper apparatus built by a child, you'll know the one I'm talking about: . But K Chess' take on the trope did strike me as extraordinarily well thought-out. Her other Earth's history seems very much of a piece, its deviations from our own timeline (or our deviations from its) mostly organic changes with causes and consequences, not just arbitrary choices, even if we are not always shown exactly how the changes came about.

I really want this sort of thing to be true, anyway—it feels intuitively right to me, to have such richness in the multiverse—so the matter-of-fact, almost documentary feel of Famous Men Who Never Lived resonated deeply with me.

Now, Famous Men Who Never Lived does begin a little awkwardly. The prose seems very stilted to begin with, although it soon evens out. We meet Helen and her partner Vikram Bhatnagar, another UDP. Hel and Vikram met on this Earth. They are clinging to each other (and their relationship is surprisingly hot, by the way—there are a couple of sex scenes that are much more explicit than I expected) and to each other's common memories, and to the few touchstones they brought through the Gate, irreplaceable artifacts such as a single copy of the SF novel The Pyronauts by the famed (on their Earth) author Ezra Sleight, about whom Vikram was writing his dissertation.

Sleight never got a chance to write in our universe; he drowned in childhood. But Hel and Vikram remember...

There were a few other things about Famous Men Who Never Lived that bugged me, though not many. Most trivially, I did see one misplaced modifier: "a movie theater with a marquee that had been turned into a shoe store" on p.78.

For another, the title's sexism is never explained—where are all the famous women who never lived?

And, then, there's the comment Hel makes in Chapter Four:
"People saved all kinds of things, carried them through. Thousands of people and their keepsakes. Statistically, some of it must be art."
—Helen Nash, p.52
Isn't all of it art, or at least relics, from a vanished alternity—and therefore of inherent interest? One of the things I thought was least plausible about Famous Men Who Never Lived was the studied, near-universal indifference to the One Hundred Fifty-Six Thousand exhibited by our own Earth's inhabitants. Maybe Helen and I are the oddballs, but wouldn't almost anyone want to see physical evidence from a parallel world? At least once?

But these are minor quibbles, easily swallowed by the flow of the story. It's always a good thing when an author sticks the landing too, as it were, and K Chess did end Famous Men Who Never Lived very well, with crisis, revelation, and resolution coming swiftly, one after another.

I am grateful to Aerin and Amy for turning me on to K Chess and to this book in particular... if I were to have to flee to another alternative Earth, this might be one artifact I'd try to carry along.
Profile Image for Amy.
686 reviews145 followers
December 10, 2019
I kept waiting for this story to start, to move into the future or reveal the past, but it really never did. I liked the premise that a few thousand refugees from a nuclear war in a parallel world were able to cross over to our world. As far as anyone can tell, the 2 worlds diverged in 1909. The first change they are sure of in the 2 worlds is that in their world, a famous author lived to write a famous apocalyptic sci-fi novel, but in our world he drowned as a child. The only difference they can find is that the child who drowned did not develop a fear of water from looking at a certain painting in his school every day.

I needed to know why the worlds diverged. Why did so many famous men die young or never live? What was the catalyst change? The book never reveals this, and it never really goes anywhere. I feel cheated. If I had enjoyed the process of reading the book, I would feel different, but reading it was kind of a chore.
18 reviews
January 1, 2019
When given the opportunity to read this novel, I jumped at the chance. However, I decided not to read the novel's summary prior to reading, because I wanted to jump into the story. During the first chapter though, I found myself confused and could not put the information in context with what I understood about the story. It was necessary for me to read the summary in order to better understand the start of the novel.

I not only just understood the novel, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were a few moments when jumping from present tense to past tense threw me off and took me out of the novel. The, what seemed as random, excerpts from The Pyronauts had the same effect. It wasn't until after reading over half the novel that those jumps to the past and the excerpts wove with the main plot and made perfect sense.

The character development was fantastic. Interestingly, though, I grew more attached to Vikram and his development than Helen's. I found her way of coping, although realistic, quite agitating as a reader, because I knew how she was dealing was wrong. Yet, just like in reality, we all deal with things and do things that we know are wrong, but we follow our feelings instead of our logic. She was a truth that can be hard to admit. Her development was the cycle of the darkness, the change, the tragedy, that we as a people deal with at one point in our lives, but bury within us for no one else to see.

I found the number of "refugees" having arrived in this world quite interesting. Such an insignificant number, and yet, these people are ostracized, cast aside as derelicts of society. The way people, the government, the police, the professionals, and the random strangers the UDP's interact with treat these characters from "another world," is plain wrong and at times horrific. It was hard to comprehend how people found other people illegitimate simply because of where they came from. And yet, this is a direct correlation with how societies across the world are currently dealing with the recent refugee crisis. Parts of Europe, Germany and Austria, have become increasingly right wing since the Syrian refugee crisis and hundreds of thousands of people who were escaping death and despair ran to their countries to find a safe haven. The mentality in the novel is also creepily akin to the recent caravan "scare" of a few thousand people fleeing their home countries filled with danger and violence to come to America for a better life.

As humans, we seem to always fear "others" and their "differences." In this book, Dwayne was a great example of what could happen if only people got to know and engaged with those perceived as "different." When people interact on a personal, individual level, there is a bond and connection made, and an understanding between people that will combat the fear of "different."

In the end, this novel sparks hope, not only in the story, but for our society as well. It takes the very realistic challenges our world faces and embeds them in a science fiction novel, providing a context which people may further understand what refugees go through when fleeing everything they know and having to start over again, in a seemingly "new world."

In addition, the writing is fantastic! The words precisely chosen, description vibrant and alive, the language allowing the reader to easily connect to this world and the dimensional characters.
Profile Image for Candice.
768 reviews32 followers
January 28, 2019
Thank you Tin House for the advanced copy of this book - all opinions are my own.

This is, without a doubt, the most unique story I have read in years. This story is compelling, relevant, absorbing, thought provoking and heart breaking in one short, quick read.

I flew through this book - which came as somewhat of a surprise as I don't always find dystopian-type reads to be the stories that I devour so quickly. This book is a wonderful exception to that if for no other reason than I found the idea of parallel universes that resulted in refugees from a parallel New York to land in our timeline to intriguing to set down for a second.

I am fascinated by the idea of parallel universes to begin with, and to have two of those universes intersect is (in my opinion) brilliant. Watching the refugees find so much familiar to them, and yet so much alien to them was interesting all on its own. The detail that K Chess put into creating two very independent, unique worlds while still pulling together threads of similarity should be applauded on its own merit - how she kept any of this straight is beyond me, but I would read 10 more books on this version of our world without stopping for a breath.

K Chess also created characters who are fundamentally complex, flawed and broken humans, without taking away their hope and spirit. Seeing how they found their own ways to integrate into their new reality was difficult and inspiring and heartbreaking all at once. I loved these characters so much, and I was rooting for them from start to finish.

Throw in a little mystery of where Hel's copy of The Pyronauts went, and you have literally a very perfect read for me. I inhaled this book, and I truly with there was more to come from this world. Someone needs to option this book for movie rights STAT, because this would be something I would RUN to a theater to see.

This won't be a book for every reader, but this is 100% going to be one of my favorite books of the year, hands down. Give this one a shot readers, I don't think you will be disappointed.
Profile Image for Drew.
1,569 reviews507 followers
February 15, 2021
A fascinating speculative riff on the immigrant experience -- with the immigrants being from an alternate universe version of Earth, one whose history diverged from ours in (roughly) 1909. There are questions of storytelling, of whose pain matters, of what identity means and who gets to define it -- and while some of the plot points, towards the end, are a little Plotty after a more emotional/ruminative earlier going, I appreciated the conclusion for its... well, for its conclusion.

Also I'm a sucker for stories that feature made-up art of some kind; I'm adding all of Sleight's books to my internal library-of-unreadable-books, with joy.
Profile Image for Allen Adams.
517 reviews31 followers
March 21, 2019

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.” 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.
Profile Image for Tomislav.
1,002 reviews69 followers
July 9, 2019
When you’ve been reading SF for fifty years like I have, it’s not so often that you find an original twist on the multiverse setting. In “Famous Men Who Never Lived”, new author R Chess gives our own contemporary New York City a population of refugees from the New York City of an alternate world facing nuclear war, that diverged a century earlier. Helen Nash and about 144,000 others came over during a burst of a few weeks about three years ago. The selection criteria were haphazard, families were broken up, and none of them know why the Gate simply ceased one day. Due to widespread PTSD and other emotional and psychological consequences, they have become something of a social services burden. Hel, with help from her lover, fellow refugee Vikram Bhatnagar, seeks understanding of her losses through the artifacts that were brought along by the unprepared Universally Displaced Persons, tangible evidence of their no-longer-existing personal histories and world history. For example, Vikram, a former English literature grad student now a night security guard, has brought a paperback – the only existing copy of “The Pyronauts” by culturally iconic science fiction writer Ezra Sleight. There is no development of further speculative concepts, and the novel transitions to a story of characters.

Later in the book, the narrative of fictional Ezra Sleight’s novel is told in parallel with “Famous Men Who Never Live. I think that enhances the writing as its influence on the various UDP characters can be seen. However, thought of as a stand-alone, it is hard to imagine how such a Philip K Dick sort of novel could have become as socially foundational as it is presented to be.

I also found the writing to be overly New York City centric in its many specific locations, and descriptions of the differences between alternate worlds. I’ve been to New York City a couple of times in my life but even the street plan is not really known to me. And why, if the daily reminders of dislocation are debilitating to New York City UDPs, were some not resettled in groups to less familiar cities? St. Louis with its 70,000 Bosnians comes to mind.

In general, I found “Famous Men Who Never Lived” even with its awkward sexual scenes and somewhat rushed ending to be a promising first SF novel. Looking forward to see what comes next from R. Chess.

I read the novel “Famous Men Who Never Lived” in kindle e-book format. Based on the book’s Acknowledgements, I suspect I am of the same generation as her parents.
Profile Image for Ashley.
539 reviews14 followers
April 4, 2019
Maybe I wasn't in the right headspace for this book because I found it kind of boring and disappointing. It has a killer premise that I was excited about - - 156k refugees from an alternate reality where nuclear war threatens life as we know it show up in this world. But then it didn't go in any of the directions I had hoped such a premise might lead. 

I found the resentful reaction to the refugees unrealistic and so much of the story hard to buy into. If a bunch of people from an alternative reality showed up here, we would be fascinated and full of questions. I can't believe we would be so disdainful or disinterested in them and their world. Perhaps it was supposed to be a commentary on our treatment of immigrants but given the context I couldn't believe it. 

The main plot, about the missing book and Hel's attempted retrieval, was so boring, especially since she never acted logically and constantly made stupid decisions that hurt her cause. I much preferred reading about the other protagonist, because he was far less annoying. 

The last 10% of the book had a couple good twists and wrapped up the plot nicely, and redeemed Hel a bit imo. I'm still not entirely convinced by the main "twist" and don't understand the character's motivations at all. Alas. 

One thing I did enjoy about this was the interspersal of interviews with some of the refugees. I found their stories far more compelling than the story at hand. 

I really wish someone would take this concept and do something bigger and bolder with it. I could see a great YA novel based on a similar premise and that would be far more interesting. 
Profile Image for Kate Hope.
Author 2 books253 followers
March 20, 2019
What a beautiful, haunting book. It has a very cool sci-fi premise but the heart of the book is about displacement and longing for home. But you can't ever really go home, can you? Because the very act of migration (whether from one country to another or one reality to another) changes you. In that way the book has just as much in common with Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake or The Lowland as it does with other literary novels with a speculative twist (Station Eleven, Age of Miracles). It reminded me most of Exit West, one of my favorite books of the last few years. One more thought: There's a specificity to Chess's writing that's really striking, that sort of wakes you up to the weirdness of human experience. Loved all the little strange/beautiful details in this book.
Profile Image for Taylor.
184 reviews1 follower
January 13, 2020
Hmm, this vacillated between a three and four star read for me, but I appreciated how the author drew it all together by the end, particularly the penultimate chapter, which surprised and moved me. Unfortunately, the plotting elsewhere was a mess, and for a book that has such an outlandish title, too many of the events felt mundane, unnecessary, and tedious. Still, I applaud the author’s emphasis on the experiences of displaced persons and the importance of their cultural legacies. In short, a book brimming with ideas that needed a sturdier plot to organize the thematic emphases. 3.5ish that I’d round up.
Profile Image for Jypsy .
1,524 reviews57 followers
January 30, 2019
Famous Men Who Never Lived is intriguing and confusing. The premise is unique but executed in a way that didn't work for me. It was slow going and too heavy at times for me. I do see the appeal for readers who enjoy a dense complicated story. Unfortunately it's just not right for me. Thanks to NetGalley for an arc in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Nathan.
110 reviews3 followers
May 16, 2019
The overall concept behind this book was really interesting, but the story itself didn't quite live up to what I thought it could be.
Profile Image for David H..
2,068 reviews19 followers
March 21, 2021
I picked this up because the premise was just so cool to me--refugees from a parallel America, lost at sea in our America that just doesn't want them, and one woman trying to hold onto the world she knew. Also, a (fictional) sci-fi book at the heart of this!

As a metaphor for the immigrant experience, Chess's story has done a rather interesting job of showing the different lives of these alternate-Americans as they struggle to make a new place--we get glimpses of the UDPs (as they're called) through periodic interview transcripts.

At the start of the novel, Helen is a UDP who's become obsessed with a science fiction writer from her world who died at a young age in ours, and then she loses the one book of his that survived and is looking for it for the rest of the novel. Her boyfriend Vikram experiences things differently as he's mostly moved on from his old life--or has he?

I just really liked this book, and seeing some of the divergences that occurred (different popular media, different political and ethnic concerns, etc.) was a lot of fun. Something else that's pretty cool--in the hardcover copy that I have, when you remove the dust jacket, the front cover has the title and name of the fictional book that goes missing. What a fun book design to include!
Profile Image for Christa.
Author 7 books105 followers
October 22, 2022
My favorite book I've read this year. A unique exploration of migration, cultural loss, collective memory, and trauma. I'll forgive the unnecessary and predictable "twist" at the end.
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