“How High We Go in the Dark”
By Sequoia Nagamatsu. William Morrow, 2022. 292 pages. $27.99.
Kim Stanley Robinson, one of our best living science fiction writers, has compared science fiction to a pair of old-fashioned 3-D glasses; through one lens we see predictions about the future, through the other we recognize metaphors for our own time, and with the two together we get to feel ourselves participating in history. “How High We Go in the Dark,” the debut novel by Sequoia Nagamatsu, a young Japanese-American, presents exactly this kind of complex vision.
The novel begins with a scientific expedition in Siberia in the near future. A young woman studying climate change has fallen through thawing permafrost into a cavern containing the frozen remains of a 30,000-old girl and died there. Her father, a professor of archaeology and evolutionary genetics, joins the research team to offer his expertise to the study of the frozen girl. When an unrecognized virus from the girl is injected into a rat, the virus functions “like a chameleon,” instructing host cells to specialize in the wrong places — brain cells in the liver, lung cells in the heart. Despite their precautions, the research team is soon infected.
The second chapter presents an utterly grim development. We learn that the virus, first known as the cause of “the shape-shifter syndrome,” has now spread throughout the world as the “Arctic Plague.” Children are especially vulnerable. The main character here works at a euthanasia park — an amusement park where dying children enjoy the last hours of their lives riding merry-go-rounds and bumper cars before being put aboard roller coasters that drive them into unconsciousness and stop their hearts. The park is called The City of Laughter. As untenable as such a situation may be, the author creates an almost-believable world consisting of recognizable amusements, loving but hopeless parents and their children, and the main character’s conflicts with himself.
A similarly creepy story features a worker in an “elegy hotel,” where families rent fancy rooms to lie with their dying loved ones and then receive full-service funeral and cremation “packages.” The hardened narrator here hangs out on the hotel fire escape, smoking pot and counting “the tiny explosions from the welders attaching wind turbines that looked like gigantic tulips across the otherwise dark Financial District.”
Although the book is marketed as a novel, it becomes clear that each chapter is actually a short story, complete in itself as opposed to a continuation of a longer story; it might better be called a book of linked stories. The chapters/stories span generations of human-time, with a few characters and references that reemerge from time to time and reward the reader with the pleasure of recognition. What holds the entire work together is its vision of a plagued and climate-changed world of traumatized people, environmental destruction and artificial intelligence. It’s not a world any of us would wish to live in.
Numerous books, movies and other forms of art inspired by and produced in the pandemic years are suddenly popping up everywhere like spring flowers. The author’s world-making in “How High We Go in the Dark” draws obvious parallels with the pandemic as well as with other aspects of our modern lives. Climate change effects are presented with heat waves, rising seas, and dislocated people, and virtual reality headsets and robotics are ubiquitous technologies.
Some of the stories take place in the United States, some in Japan, some in less-specific locations, and one in a heaven-like place, where a character named Jun is climbing a sort of pyramid with a group of others, also recently dead from the plague and discovering “planets of memory.” “All around us, spheres of iridescent light the size of hot-air balloons descend like a school of jellyfish. We are too mesmerized by the beauty of it to look away or even think about being afraid, as if we’ve been gifted with the sight of a cosmic occurrence like the birth of a star or the death of a planet, the aurora in a thousand snow globes.”
Later in the book, Earth’s people seem to give up on solving their problems on Earth, and a spaceship departs for other universes; this situation is eerily similar to that in the very popular recent movie, “Don’t Look Up.” As Earthlings lose heart about their losses and the difficulty of repair, perhaps escape to another world has become the default projection?
Although the final chapter, long in the future, features a world-builder with god-like qualities and a “probability scope” that suggests there may be some hope for humankind after all, there is little in Nagamatsu’s imaginative world in which to find delight. The spaceship that launched earlier is still out there in the end, searching for a new home. This chapter, which circles back to the opening, also settles some of the initial mystery.
Ultimately, then, “How High We Go in the Dark” is a bleak cautionary tale in the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It draws upon some realities of our own time and extends their metaphors into a terrifying possible, if not predicted, future.
Meanwhile, in the real world we inhabit, thawing permafrost in the Russian Arctic in 2016 released dormant anthrax spores that infected reindeer and Indigenous reindeer herders. More than 100 people were hospitalized and at least one died before a vaccination campaign stopped the spread. As global heating continues its thaw, it’s certainly plausible that additional pathogens will find their way into our lives, with results we’ll wish were only fiction.