Famous Men Who Never Lived (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

Had me wondering if I should like the characters, while at the same time wondering how I would feel in their shoes.



— From Famous Men Who Never Lived


A Most Anticipated Book of 2019 at The Verge, Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, and more.

For readers of Station Eleven and Exit West, Famous Men Who Never Lived explores the effects of displacement on our identities, the communities that come together through circumstance, and the power of art to save us.

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 her partner Vikram, attempt to assimilate, Hel refuses to reclaim her former career or create a new life. Instead, she obsessively rereads Vikram’s copy of The Pyronauts—a science fiction masterwork in her world that now only exists as a single flimsy paperback—and becomes determined to create a museum dedicated to preserving the remaining artifacts and memories of her vanished culture.

But the refugees are unwelcome and Hel’s efforts are met with either indifference or hostility. And when the only copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel must decide how far she is willing to go to recover it and finally face her own anger, guilt, and grief over what she has truly lost.

About the Author

K Chess was a W.K. Rose Fellow and her short stories have been honored by the Nelson Algren Award and the Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA from Southern Illinois University and currently teaches at GrubStreet. She lives with her wife in Boston, MA.

Praise For…

With an eerie and ingenious premise, K Chess
explores in a fresh way the most universal of human experiences: loss, regret,
and the longing for what might have been. With its refugees from a parallel
universe, this inventive book does what only fiction can do: describes an
impossible world in order to more clearly show us our own.
— Karen Thompson Walker, author of THE AGE OF MIRACLES

Famous Men Who Never Lived is a fascinating novel: complex, uncanny, powerful. K Chess adroitly enacts Joyce’s  'cracked looking glass' and gives us an off-kilter reflection that allows us to really see who we are. The wit, elaboration, and detail of her invention are spectacular.

— Dana Spiotta, author of INNOCENTS AND OTHERS

The novel jumps off from a fascinating premise into strange and fertile territory. K Chess constructs not just one universe, but two, and delicately entangles them to create a rich, engrossing exploration of displacement, history, memory, of the past and the present. Conceptually adventurous yet full of feeling, Famous Men Who Never Lived is a smart, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable debut.


This novel is beautiful, thoughtful, and impossible to forget. . . . I’ve already recommended it to everyone I know.
— Book Riot

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.
— Booklist

Fantastic world-building . . . Chess is a writer to watch.
— Kirkus

An awesome and humbling literary achievement . . . 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.

— Foreword (Starred Review)

[A] beautifully-written and conceived novel,
and one whose message of empathy across lines of difference is
— Tor.com

Product Details
ISBN: 9781947793248
ISBN-10: 1947793241
Publisher: Tin House Books
Publication Date: March 5th, 2019
Pages: 324
Language: English