Review: How High We Go in the Dark
Updated: Jun 29
How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu (2022)
I saw this compared favorably to Emily St. John's Station Eleven, which I loved, so I had high expectations. Unfortunately, as I read it, it went from "pretty good and interesting" to "it's fine" to "I hate this." Disappointing.
First off, it's not really a novel; it's interconnected short stories. Not a bad thing! Just a weird marketing choice.
The book begins in the year 2030. An archeologist visits a scientific post at the Arctic Circle where research is being done on artifacts revealed by the melting permafrost. The archeologist's daughter was part of the team, but died in a pit where she found the remains of a young girl, who died of a mysterious virus. The scientists reanimate the virus (never totally clear why) and, lo and behold, it starts to spread across the globe (giving big "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should" vibes). The pandemic decimates the population of Earth. The world is also dying from climate change like flooding and wildfires, from pollution, from civil unrest... all the things we see happening today. (So, a pandemic on top of all that feels pretty familiar.)
From there, each chapter gives a different story from a different person affected by the pandemic, spanning from 2030 to about 2080. A man operates the roller coaster at a park that caters to terminally ill children - giving them the ride of their life, killing them painlessly while it happens. Relatives visit massive funerary skyscrapers, where they can view a hologram of their dead loved ones. Robot dogs learn their master's voices, so they can continue to speak like the person once that person is dead. A scientist forms a bond with his genetically modified pig test subject who has developed the ability to speak.
For context - part of what this virus does is transform healthy cells into cells from some other part of the body. So for example, someone may lose function in their kidneys because the kidney cells have morphed into brain cells. For all intents and purposes, the person no longer has kidneys and instead has a smaller version of a brain growing there. But it doesn't stop there... some people develop odd abilities, like the pig that learns to speak and also has ESP, or the man who has a singularity (black hole) growing in his skull. Not clear how this ancient virus spreads (at first it was airborne, then water borne, maybe), or why there are so many disparate (and extreme!) symptoms.
As the narratives venture further into the future, they get even more sci-fi. A mother and daughter board a ship that will travel across the universe in an attempt to locate a new, sustainable home planet. And then, eventually, we get to the chapter that really didn't work for me - we go back in time to the creation of Earth, to some kind of time-traveling, shape-shifter being that planted an Earth seed (?) and then was present for like every important milestone in human development - Galileo's lover, Isaac Newton's roommate, involved in world wars, I think there was a stint in ancient Egypt, etc, etc. Oh and she was somehow involved in the sinking of Atlantis.
There was also one chapter where everyone is dead and hanging out in a huge dark (but also white?) void, and they're trying to escape (the place? death? are those one and the same?) by creating a human pyramid so they can reach the top of whatever/wherever they are, and shove a little baby out the hole so it can live.
I don't know. It got pretty ridiculous.
One of the biggest problems I had with the book, though, is that even though each chapter is narrated by someone different - mostly Asian, though not entirely, some men, some women, all different ages - every single chapter has the same voice. They all use the same language, have the same reference points, the same cadence. And somehow all of it sounded like a boring white dude. So, not only was it hard to care about any one character because they only appeared for one chapter, but it was hard to keep track of them because I experienced them as all the same person.
(To be clear - in the audiobook there are different narrators, so their actual voices are different, but on the page they don't read any different from one another.)
Anyway.... I dunno. I thought this had a lot of potential, and the first 1/4 or so was fun. It just dragged on and went in too many confusing &/or supernatural directions for me.
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