Science fiction is incredibly versatile as a genre. It can be used to explore all sorts of different concepts and comment on the world around us. Author K Chess, in her debut novel Famous Men Who Never Lived, uses science fiction to delve into ideas of identity with the help of parallel universes and a novel within a novel.

We asked K what she loves about parallel universe stories and the importance we place on cultural artifacts.

Famous Men Who Never Lived is out now from Tin House Books.

Why do you like to explore issues of belonging and identity in your writing? What do you hope to achieve by touching on these subjects?

I don’t care much about the evil actions of mustache-twirling villains. To me, conflict is most interesting when it results from opposing priorities or worldviews or straight-up misunderstandings. I think that’s why I write about communication between people who have had different experiences — between white people and people of color, between men and women, between people who have suffered loss and those who haven’t yet — it’s a natural source of conflict.

The preservation of culture is central to your novel – why did you feel it necessary to highlight the issue? Why do you think we place such cultural importance on single artifacts?

Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess (book cover)

I’ve looked through a series of photographs taken by Brian Sokol at refugee camps around the world, documenting the possessions that people brought with them on their long, dangerous journeys. One person might have something practical, like a walking cane or a water bottle. And the next person is carrying around a pair of jeans with embroidered flowers, something she picked out on a shopping trip with her parents in a more peaceful time. I guess I’m just really into the idea that our attachments don’t have to have monetary or even cultural value in order to be hugely important to us. I’m attached to the trashy pop culture of my own youth in the US in the 90s, which has never faced an existential threat. But I know I’m not the only one who feels nostalgic about it  — just take a look at any Buzzfeed listicle!

Alternate timelines and parallel universes are a staple of science fiction. Why do you think they are such enduring concepts? What did you hope to bring to this classic SF idea?

Alternate universes in sci-fi are often about choices. It’s natural to wonder how our lives might have changed if we made a different decision at a key point. Sci fi amplifies that curiosity — often by showing a worst-case-scenario where everything goes to hell. I wanted to do two things with this. First, I wanted to get away from the idea that one universe would have to be objectively worse than the other. The homesickness that the Universally Displaced Persons in my book experience has nothing to do with that kind of objective assessment — they just miss the familiar. Second, I wanted to get away from the idea that some choices are more important than others and must be fixed or undone. It would be natural to search — as Hel searches in Famous Men Who Never Lived — for the first divergence that spun off the universes, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Anything we do has the same potential power.

What are some of your favourite alternate timelines/parallel universe stories?

I love the layered dream-versions of the city of Portland, Oregon in LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Lola’s three attempts to save Manni in “Lola Rennt.” I also enjoy the Wishverse episodes from Buffy: the Vampire Slayer with vampire Willow!

Pitch us Famous Men Who Never Lived! Why should we be reading your novel?

In Famous Men Who Never Lived, thousands of refugees from another version of New York flee disaster and take shelter in our version of the city, where they’re resented and discriminated against. Hel, who was a doctor in her world, doesn’t adjust well to her new status — her actions grow increasingly extreme as she fights to recover the last copy of a sci-fi paperback that her lover Vikram, another refugee, brought with him from home. Famous Men Who Never Lived is about loss and adjustment and culture — and it’s about two people who are floundering in the aftermath of a shipwreck, figuring out what to cling to. That’s my pitch!

K Chess – photo by Bradlee Swinton Westie

K Chess is the author of FAMOUS MEN WHO NEVER LIVED (Tin House Books, 2019). Her short fiction has appeared in The Chicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row Journal, PANK, Midwestern Gothic, and other fine journals. She earned a BA from Vassar College and an MFA from Southern Illinois University. K was awarded the W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts for fiction writing in 2008/2009 and was named as Finalist for the Writers’ Room of Boston Fellowship in 2018. She teaches writing at GrubStreet in Boston and Rhode Island, and reads fiction for Quarterly West.

K’s work explores issues of identity and belonging, and the ways people communicate (or fail to communicate) across lines of experience. She enjoys pop culture, casual eavesdropping, and third-person autobiography.