Thousands were able to escape the fallout from the simultaneous sabotage of three nuclear power plants. A lottery chose these individuals to cross through the portal to another earth, one that zippered off in 1909 leaving two timelines spinning independently of each other. These Universally Displaced Persons (UDP) have had a hard go of assimilating to a new world, where everything is slightly off. Re-education classes, job assistance, and housing services do some to help them get over the shocks of displacement and the prejudice they experience.
Hel and Virshim are two of the UDP living in NYC, who are trying to find their way in this new land. They suffer from a form of PTSD as both their collective and individual memories were suddenly ripped away. Families lost and history rewritten, they were only able to bring a few possessions with them when they went through the gate. Virshim prizes a copy of an iconic piece of science fiction from his past life of academia. The book is written at about the time of the splintering, so he and Hel find a mission in a search for any remnants of the author’s life in New York. This leads them down a path of discovery that might just get to the heart of the bifurcation of time.
Loss, PTSD, “aliens,” literature, and even tarot are all topics that are taken on in this narrative. Told mainly from the 3rd person points of view of Hel and Virshim, Chess also includes excerpts from the infamous novel, The Pyronauts. The threads are woven with a rhythmic pattern that creates good tension and suspense. It holds for most of the book, yet I found the ending to be a little trying, as if all parts weren’t particularly given even attention. But it really won’t be the ending that I take from this story. The concepts are immersive and the author’s dealings are quite inventive. I’m looking over this review after having read this book a couple months ago, and I am still thinking about many of the themes and questions raised by Famous Men Who Never Lived.
Note: Time travel makes me queasy, like nauseous. Really. I’m not joking. I can’t keep the timelines straight and I get confused very easily. This book reads like time travel lite… you really only get one half of the travel, but with some references to the others time thread. This makes it easy to keep things straight.
Overall, the is a novel that covers many themes of our modern life through an inventive science fiction premise; a series of interesting characters and a cross-dimentional mystery that is mostly satisfying.
4 out of 5 stars
Releases of March 5th.
Thank you to NetGalley, W.W. Norton, Tin House Books, and the author for the advanced copy for review.