Famous Men Who Never Lived

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Finalist for a 2019 Sidewise Award

“Conceptually adventurous yet full of feeling. . . . smart, thought-provoking, and thoroughly enjoyable.” —Charles Yu, author of Interior Chinatown

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, somewhere across the multiverse—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. With Famous Men Who Never Lived, K Chess has created a compelling and inventive speculative work on what home means to those who have lost it forever.


  • A beautifully written and conceived novel, and one whose message of empathy across lines of difference is much needed.


  • Eerie and ingenious. . . . Describes an impossible world in order to more clearly show us our own.

    —Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Dreamers

  • Incredibly intriguing.

    —The Washington Post

  • Powerfully written.

    —Jo Walton, Tor.com

  • Spectacular.

    —Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others

  • A beautiful labyrinth of a novel—electric, formidable, and wildly moving.

    —Laura van den Berg, author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears

  • Remarkable.

    —A.V. Club, Best Books of the Year

  • Impossible to forget.

    —Book Riot

  • As timely and powerfully written as it is jaw-droppingly imaginative.


  • A story about immigration wrapped inside a post-apocalyptic fable with multiple universes that also manages to be a meditation on art, fate, trauma, and loss.

    —The Millions

  • Intriguing and fresh . . . a promising new voice in speculative fiction.


  • Magnificent. . . . An awesome and humbling literary achievement.

    —Foreword Reviews, Starred Review

  • Impressive.

    —Vol. 1 Brooklyn

  • A gripping and thought-provoking read.

    —Popular Science

  • Powerful.

    —The Verge

  • Stands among the best works of hybrid SF.

    —New York Journal of Books

  • 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.

    —Charles Yu, author of Interior Chinatown