Famous Men Who Never Lived
(Tin House, 2019) is set in two Brooklyns. In one, people ride in trams; in the other, they take subways. In one, the swastika is a symbol of luck; in the other, it signifies hate. In one, science fiction is literature; in the other, it’s considered mere genre.
Helen (Hel) Nash, the main character in K Chess
’s debut novel, comes from the other
Brooklyn—the one with trams and innocuous swastikas. She is a refugee from a nuclear war, one of 156,000 Universally Displaced Persons who escape through an experimental gate from her timeline to ours.
Like many refugees, she’s having a hard time adjusting. Not only has she lost friends and family—including her son, who she can never see again—but she faces a new world of unfamiliar laws, customs, and culture. It doesn’t help that most people in our timeline eye UDPs with mistrust.
Hel’s and our world diverged around 1910. “It was fun to think about all the things that happened since nineteen hundred,” Chess says in her New Books interview. “For instance, light beer wasn’t invented until the 70s, so that might not exist in the other world. There are many things that could have gone very differently, both in large-scale world history and in small-scale inventions.”
Instead of trying to assimilate, Hel becomes obsessed with establishing a museum to preserve her vanished timeline’s art and culture. She is fascinated—and frustrated—by the loss of the thinkers, artists and inventors who accomplished great things in her world but died prematurely in ours. “There was something especially poignant,” Hel thinks, “about knowing exactly what these men and women might have accomplished if only history had proceeded the way it ought to have.”
In this episode, Chess discusses, among other things, why she doesn't like her book’s title, New York's resonance as a city of immigrants, human beings' attachment to the past, and how she built an alternate world through small but important details.
Rob Wolf is the host of New Books in Science Fiction and the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape.