... magnificent ... an awesome and humbling literary achievement ... The text is triumphant, darkly humorous, and mournful by turns ... As its characters grasp for a concrete place to rest in a world that ever diverges from its set paths, Famous Men Who Never Lived is mesmerizing.
While Chess’ language is adept, and her worldbuilding is meticulous (almost overwhelmingly so sometimes), the plot of Famous Men Who Never Lived is somewhat complex and at times feels like it is attempting to accomplish too much ... But, really, once you’re in Famous Men Who Never Lived’s world, following alongside the funny, interesting, and sympathetic characters, the occasional 'huh?' moment recedes and the story races along to a surprising climax. Famous Men Who Never Lived, alongside an inventive and compelling narrative, offers an empathetic and fine-tuned commentary on displacement and otherness ... The novel is a wonderful example of how fiction can illuminate reality—and a stark reminder that we are all human, deserving of dignity and respect, no matter the country or dimension from which we come.
In this accomplished first novel, K Chess ... primarily tells the present-day story from Hel and Vikram's alternating points of view, [but] her multiverse gains further depth from transcripts of interviews with UDPs about events around the migration and life in the new New York City. Light, accessible science fiction elements enable the plot rather than take center stage. An allegory for refugeeism, othering and coping with staggering loss, Famous Men Who Never Lived will leave readers haunted by the UDPs' broken past but hopeful for their future.
The plight of refugees gets a sf twist in this enjoyable debut from award-winning short story writer Chess. While the side plots could have been tightened, those looking for character-driven, science-light sf should give this a try.
Famous Men Who Never Lived is a linguistic feat, as the author invents curses, slang, and a name for drugs that manage to feel authentic by virtue of just being a bit removed from the versions commonly used now. Those join fun touches like a musician who tries to pass off the music from the UDPs’ equivalent of The Beatles as his own, helping to bring levity to prose that focuses on the heavy subjects of survivor’s guilt, trauma, and the healing power of art ... Like its imagined anti-colonialist narrative, The Pyronauts, or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Famous Men Who Never Lived is science fiction executing its classic purpose of using a disturbing vision of the future to examine the real problems of the present.
Famous Men, like New York itself, jostles with the voices of many of these recent transplants as they struggle to assimilate ... Despite a premise Philip K. Dick would’ve admired, Famous Men isn’t quite a sci-fi novel, but something more like its inverse—a book less concerned with alternate universes than their absence ... Famous Men is so chock-full of ideas that its plotting and characters come across as an afterthought at times; a scattered third act and too-neat conclusion in particular feel like they were taken out of the oven a little too soon. But the book also illustrates a side of immigration that often gets left out of the news reports: how refugees, seeking safety and security, first must paradoxically sacrifice those very things; how homesickness and grief linger without relief.
Famous Men Who Never Lived goes beyond individual themes of grief and displacement. It takes on the complex idea of cultural loss ... [Hel's struggles] should be heavy handed, but K. Chess writes with such emotional dexterity that Hel’s focus becomes the reader’s focus ... Famous Men Who Never Lived is subtle and powerful. It deftly straddles literary and science fiction, and shrugs off its hybridity ... In its approach, in its thoughtfulness and style, Chess’ novel stands among the best works of hybrid SF.
... the refugee metaphor inherent to this novel is never overstated ... The novel never felt appropriative of anybody’s story (though as a non-displaced person, I obviously can’t speak to this with authority). It dealt with the themes of a refugee story—including but not limited to grief and prejudice and existential placelessness—without ever claiming that Hel’s experiences are a universal refugee experience. In fact, the lives of each individual UDP are demonstrated as disparate, informed by their former lives, not just their current status ... readers looking for a nail-biting mystery will not find one here: Famous Men Who Never Lived, like Station Eleven, is above all a meditation on grief and the preservation of culture, rather than a plot-driven page-turner. It is a beautifully-written and conceived novel, and one whose message of empathy across lines of difference is much-needed.
Although the premise promises high-speed adventure and high-concept science fiction, Chess’s writing delivers a more intimate and nuanced exploration than a reader might expect. This is a real strength of the novel; instead of entertaining readers with predictably emotional scenes of loss or end-of-the-world antics, Chess explores the quietness of grief and the slow drudge of trying and failing to adapt to a new world. Though the writing is often clean and efficient, Chess has an uncanny ability of knowing when to slow down and deliver memorable, cutting, and poetic lines ... Chess shows us the quiet and impossible grief of being trapped in an alien world.
... a take on parallel realities that substitutes the traditional multiple world hijinks, what-ifs, and evil twins with something more nuanced, more in touch with the current political moment ... I initially struggled to find the rhythm... I thought it was because of the book’s tone, an atmosphere weighed down by misery and despair, but I soon realised that what was holding me back was the baggage I’d brought to the story. As I noted above, I knew going in that Famous Men Who Never Lived wasn’t going to be a romp across multiple realities, and yet I did expect the stakes to be higher. On that rare occasion when it looks like the narrative is about to move into another gear, Chess takes her foot off the gas ... I began to appreciate not just how nuanced, smart, and intimate this book was, but how Chess had recognised that baked into the parallel world concept was a sense of dislocation and isolation ... There are parts of this novel that didn’t work for me, but it’s a minor complaint. The strength of Famous Men Who Never Lived is in eschewing the big set-pieces, the cinematic moments for something small-scale, personal, and heart-felt.
... excellent ... It’s a wonderful piece of speculative fiction ... 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 ... 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.
Throughout much of the novel, I found myself wishing for more glimpses of Hel and Vikram’s home timeline. And then I realized that these yearnings were the point: that Chess had figured out a way to trigger them in such a way that it might echo the yearnings for home that her characters so profoundly feel. Rather than full immersion, all that’s left are a few memories, stray associations and unexpected reminiscences. The frustration that we’re not given more glimpses of this other world isn’t a flaw – instead, it’s the point ... Chess’s novel foregoes overt metaphor for something deeper, and it’s all the more moving for it.
There’s no grand, overarching plan to try to fix Hel’s world with the help of an intrepid group of scientists or to go before the UN and convince the world that they’re not all that bad. And it’s a more effective story as a result. Famous Men Who Never Lived tells a powerful story of accepting one’s fate by putting one foot in front of the other, day by day ... Chess puts the reader in the shoes of those refugees, using science fiction in its best possible form: telling an allegorical story that provides insight into the world around us right now.
Chess’ debut novel offers an intriguing and fresh spin on the parallel-worlds theme with its timely emphasis on the challenges facing migrants in hostile, unfamiliar surroundings, marking her as a promising new voice in speculative fiction.
Musing on xenophobia, forced migration, and fear of the other, this debut from Chess too often goes off track ... Chess has constructed a good premise, and part of the story has a satisfactory conclusion; however, the narrative frequently loses momentum. This confused debut will leave readers with more questions than answers.