How would you react if everything you ever knew changed—but it looked only a little different on the outside? In her science fiction novel Famous Men Who Never Lived, K Chess explores this idea. The protagonist, Hel, finds herself a stranger in an alternate world only slightly different than her own.
At some point in the early 20th century, the timelines of the two alternate earths diverged (or were they once the same earth?). Ravaged by nuclear war, the world Hel is from is almost entirely wiped out—but not before scientists discover how to make a highly experimental portal to who-knows-where. Many hundreds go through the portal and find themselves in the same place in New York City, but a different earth.
Since the alternate worlds diverged only a century before, much was still recognizable, but everything bore a dissonance from the reality Hel knew. The refugees find themselves in a world not their own. Most try to adapt to the new world, fitting into a society that doesn’t care to welcome them. But Hel cannot.
Instead, Hel is mesmerized by the last copy of a science fiction book, The Pyronauts and reads it over and over again. She is certain Ezra Sleight, the author of the book, has something to say about her reality. But in the new world she escapes to, he died as a child. Using the book as a guide, Hel tries to discover why the timelines diverged when it did as well as making a museum commemorating her own people. She wants the refugees to remember, not only adapt.
Famous Men Who Never Lived has a self-aware take on science fiction, the central plot of the book focusing on a fictional science fiction book. In a testament to this self-awareness, the cover of Ezra Sleight’s The Pyronauts is revealed when one removes the dust jacket. Though certainly not to the extent in her book, Chess seems to realize that science fiction often has something to say about reality. For instance, Famous Men grapples with the issues of accepting others as well as accepting your own reality. Chess never comes off preachy, but instead pulls us into the sorrows of the protagonist and see our world from her eyes.