I’ll begin this review by making the humble request that you read this book, as it’s not only one of the finest science fiction novels that I’ve ever read, it’s also one of the most beautiful works of fiction that I’ve ever read. While Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark is not always the most pleasurable reading in its exploration of death and grief, it is a rewarding novel as you become connected with the various protagonists who inhabit their pages. Emotionally gritty and frighteningly plausible, this is a book that will make you both terrified and hopeful for the future in equal measures. Although it’s pages are filled with grief, loss, and suffering, it’s also full of the wonder of possibilities. I became so mesmerized by the author’s lyrical prose, that I couldn’t help but get swept into the emotions of the characters. Nagamatsu perfectly opens a window into a world that has been devastated; yet, its inhabitants find the strength to continue moving forward.
“We are all connected” muses one of the many characters to grace the pages of this book, which puts me in mind of David Mitchell’s modern opus of Cloud Atlas. Like the aforementioned classic, this is a mosaic novel consisting of several interconnected stories tied together under an umbrella narrative. It follows several characters as they cope with the immediate and lingering effects of a deadly pandemic caused by an ancient virus released by the preserved body of a girl who was found by a research team in the Arctic Circle. Initially, this disease only affects children and the elderly, but over time and mutation, it begins to ravage its way around the world. The virus mutates human organs, resulting in death. Each chapter of this novel moves forward in time as survivors mourn, attempt to make sense of their individual tragedies, and use new developments in science to find a cure. The novel opens with a grieving father returning to the site where his daughter, a researcher at the Arctic Circle, discovered the frozen body where the virus originated. The next segment focuses on a young man who works for a theme park that promises children a final day of fun before they are euthanized on a roller coaster. Characters from all walks of life inhabit these pages, such as a bereavement coordinator who struggles to reconcile his animosity towards his dying mother.
Writing about the subject of grief is no easy task, but Nagamatsu makes it look deceptively simple. The pages of this novel are filled with characters who are grieving, or struggling to help others cope with their losses. So many feelings radiate from these pages, and as a reader, I was so surprised by just how connected I felt to these characters. One of my favorite stories in this book centered on a lonely scientist who lost his son and is experimenting with organ cloning inside pigs. One of the test subjects develops the ability to communicate telepathically, and why this premise could easily border on the ridiculous, I found myself tearful by the end. Each story connects seamlessly to the next one, sometimes by a returning character from a previous story and others by an event and we are witnessing the outcome. While this novel could have come across as depressing, instead, it’s more about the importance of living: spending time with the people we love, practicing acts of kindness, and making the most of every second because tomorrow never knows. A horrible pandemic can bring out the worst in people, but it can also reveal our best selves and unlock the potential to which we are all capable.
“I was living at the edge of the world and everything else seemed like a distant dream.”
While the novel is heavily entrenched in science fiction with concepts such as organ transplants, robot dogs, and space travel beyond our solar system, it’s the emotional depth that makes it so memorable. I love science fiction that can also be considered poetry, as it’s why I’m such a fan of the stories of Ray Bradbury. At times, Nagamatsu’s writing is both poetic and devastating, such as a character trapped in a darkness between life and death. The story of a theme park that gives children a beautiful final day before a roller coaster ride sends them to their deaths is both horrifying yet beautiful. So many moments of beauty emerge from the most unexpected places that it’s hard for me to identify a favorite.
How High We Go in the Dark runs the course of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But it’s also about the importance of love, of kindness, and of memory. While I can’t give any answers to what lies ahead, the ones we lose continue to live in each of us. How we remember the ones that have moved on is how those loved ones continue to live and to inspire, helping us to grow to our full potentials. The limits of growth are only defined by us, so always remember to reach for the stars. Sometimes our darkest moments are the ones that truly show us what we are capable of accomplishing. Until next time dear readers, keep working on being the best versions of yourselves.