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Famous Men Who Never Lived

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  1,421 ratings  ·  263 reviews
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 he ...more
Hardcover, 318 pages
Published March 5th 2019 by Tin House Books
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Hannah Laura Parker There is in the sense that the two main characters are a couple, but romance isn't a major theme of the book.…moreThere is in the sense that the two main characters are a couple, but romance isn't a major theme of the book.(less)

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Average rating 3.62  · 
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 ·  1,421 ratings  ·  263 reviews

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Felicia Grossman
Dec 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 H
James Charlesworth
Sep 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
K.A. Doore
Sep 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018-reads
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 w ...more
Maine Colonial
Jan 01, 2019 rated it did not like it
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
Oct 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 th
Oleksandr Zholud
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: hn-2020-longlist
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 (
Pearse Anderson
"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, ove
Katherine Riley
Oct 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Chris Blocker
Feb 10, 2019 rated it liked it
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 anoth ...more
Katie/Doing Dewey
Jul 29, 2019 rated it it was ok
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 Pyrona
Beth Tabler
Mar 08, 2019 rated it liked it
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 timel
Daniel Kincaid
May 25, 2019 rated it did not like it
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
Dec 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Ezra Sleight fans, little lost lambs, and strangers in their own skins
Recommended to Alan by: Amy, via Aerin
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
Jan 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
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
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 ca ...more
Tom Loock
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 narrat
Jan 30, 2019 rated it liked it
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. ...more
Jan 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 15, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 s
Allen Adams
Mar 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing

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 themsel
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 wer ...more
Kate Hope
Mar 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 m ...more
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 b ...more
Mar 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I've long believed that science-fiction, as a genre, is well-suited to reflecting the very real frustrations, concerns, and joys of our own lives, and this book serves as another piece of evidence for me. Unique and compelling, Chess' writing manages to convey the universal sensations of grief, of isolation, of otherness in an insightful, moving way. Hel, the protagonist, is just unlikable enough to be believable (What kind of monster doesn't tip?!), but I still found myself rooting for her to g ...more
I adored this book so much, read in six hours. An amazing allegory about displaced persons, colonialism, the power of art, and memory. The main characters have arrived in our world from an alternate New York where nuclear war has destroyed theirs and are attempting to adjust. I don’t want to spoil too much, but this is five stars easy and imagine my surprise when I read the acknowledgements and author page and realized she’s a friend of mine from college! Timely, important, relatable, reminiscen ...more
Feb 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
In K. Chess' debut novel, Hel and Vikram are refugees of New York, and they live in New York, only everything is different. They have escaped a timeline in which the world was headed to potential nuclear destruction and arrived in our timeline as UDP, universe displaced persons. Vikram studied literature and brought only books with him; Hel, formerly a surgeon, grows obsessed with The Pyronauts, a science fiction novel from their former lives. While trying to establish a museum to their lost his ...more
Harry Smith
Jun 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: library, 2019
I think that I would have rather read The Pyronauts.

The understated science fiction elements were very interesting, and all of the interstitial chapters were moving and well executed. I also appreciate the way that many causes and mysteries went unexplained. All that being said, I did not find the case of the missing book/painting all that compelling. I understand that most of Hel's inexplicable choices reflect her unknowable experiences of loss and loneliness, but I struggle to interpret what
Bryan Alkire
Nov 10, 2019 rated it it was ok
I found this novel confusing. On one hand, I liked the idea of parallel world refugees. On the other hand, I did not like most of the characters in the book…I basically felt like they got what they deserved. Further, I found the narrative streams difficult to follow and the plot just seemed shallow

This book would have benefited from a one-person POV and a different perspective from what was presented. Maybe a POV character from our NYC who has to deal with the refugees and who is neutral about
Melissa Perry
Jan 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
“We humans tend to see whatever befalls us as our fate. We perceive good things and bad things alike as happening in just the way they are meant to. To teach us lessons, maybe. To make us into the women and men we ought to become. If one lives to be old––as I have––it’s terrifying to imagine the infinite slew of choices made over the course of a lifetime. Different events. Different luck.”

Beautifully written and stunningly imaginative, this novel is both a thought-provoking work of science ficti
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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.

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