How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

“I saw a civilization that could destroy itself before it even reached the nearest star.”

– Sequoia Nagamatsu, “How High We Go in the Dark”

Review:

How High We Go in the Dark is a new and excellent work of speculative science fiction, and in my opinion one of the best works of art (that I’ve seen so far) to come out of the pandemic. Now, this isn’t your traditional story. It’s a hodgepodge of narratives about multiple characters over a 6,000 year span.

The story starts with the outbreak of “the Arctic Plague”, which the first protagonist’s daughter unleashes accidentally with the discovery of the mummy of a well-preserved ancient Siberian girl. The virus seems to attack stem cells and make them grow haywire into seemingly random organ structures. Since children have more undifferentiated stem cells than adults, the plague affects mainly children.

As the pandemic worsens and people watch their children’s hearts grow lung tissue and their brains grow stomach tissue, society must adapt. Organ transplants can only do so much to halt death, and even then, only those who can afford such expensive treatment are able to stave off death for a little longer. So, entire high rise buildings become funerary hotels, where families can gather to say goodbye to their loved ones. Parks are created where families can spend one last day with their beloved sick children, where the final ride, The Osiris, humanely euthanizes the sick passengers with G forces that make the riders unconscious before the very end comes for them.

This story follows a grieving father to Siberia to continue his daughters work, a young man wanting to make a difference to ease the grief of families, a scientist who cares for pigs growing human organs for transplant, a man with a singularity in his temporal lobe, a father who repairs audiovisual devices, and a grandmother who paints murals in space as humanity searches for a new island home among the stars. This is the story not of any individual character, but of humanity as a whole. It is macabre, but not unjustly so. It is also hopeful. The story does not shy away from pain, irony, grief, loneliness, irrational hope or any part of the human condition.

This story is weird and lovely. It is at once relatable and wildly unimaginable. It is both a chronicle of our own pandemic and climate fears as well as an exploration of the ideas that it could be worse and could get much better.

“You see, this is partly why Earth hasn’t received any messages from other worlds. Most have perished by the time their light reaches our sky. Sometimes hundreds of light-years exist between even the simplest forms of life.”

– Sequoia Nagamatsu, “How High We Go in the Dark”

Pros:

  • A painful look at all we are capable of, but also a hopeful look at all we are capable of
  • Heart wrenching depictions of motherhood and fatherhood in situations with no hope for children
  • a compelling story of the greater human condition

Cons:

  • Parts of the book, especially in the first half, are quite grim, even macabre
  • I personally did not care for the final tie in between characters. I would have been just fine if that connection was never made. It diminished the believability of the story. (But was only a handful of pages that could be easily ignored, so that’s exactly what I did.)

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“It is difficult to comprehend just how far you’ve come, and I wonder if, apart from our tiny blue planet, we have much in common at all anymore.”

Sequoia Nagamatsu, “How High We Go in the Dark”

Recommended For:

  • those processing deeper questions about how the pandemic has affected us as people
  • those plagued with what-if thoughts about the pandemic and climate change
  • those needing a deep read with realistic thoughts on humanity without an entirely realistic plot

Books to Read if You Loved How High We Go in the Dark:

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • What do you do when there is no hope?
  • Do believe we as the human race will ever make it out among the stars? Is that a believable story? Does it need to be?
  • What is your favorite piece of art to come form the Covid-19 pandemic?

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