how high we go in the dark

I ordered a copy of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut How High We Go in the Dark for multiple reasons. It had an interesting title, and striking book cover, the author’s name was (is) cool, and I saw a glowing review of it somewhere (can’t remember where at this point!). So this book made its way into my possession, and was one of the 42 titles I packed to bring with me to the lake for the summer. I do understand that I sound like both a caricature of a book lover and/or someone in a novel when I phrase things that way, lol. Still, I didn’t know too much about How High: climate plague, prescient, and literary fiction were about the sum of it. I finished the book this past Friday evening, just as we learned that most of the house had Covid-19, so my thoughts and reactions were a weird mix of appreciation for a lovely, strange, atmospheric, and gentle book, and comparison to our very real pandemic.


how high we go in the dark by sequoia nagamatsu book cover
Beginning in 2030, a grieving archeologist arrives in the Arctic Circle to continue the work of his recently deceased daughter at the Batagaika crater, where researchers are studying long-buried secrets now revealed in melting permafrost, including the perfectly preserved remains of a girl who appears to have died of an ancient virus.

Once unleashed, the Arctic Plague will reshape life on earth for generations to come, quickly traversing the globe, forcing humanity to devise a myriad of moving and inventive ways to embrace possibility in the face of tragedy. In a theme park designed for terminally ill children, a cynical employee falls in love with a mother desperate to hold on to her infected son. A heartbroken scientist searching for a cure finds a second chance at fatherhood when one of his test subjects—a pig—develops the capacity for human speech. A widowed painter and her teenaged granddaughter embark on a cosmic quest to locate a new home planet.

From funerary skyscrapers to hotels for the dead to interstellar starships, Sequoia Nagamatsu takes readers on a wildly original and compassionate journey, spanning continents, centuries, and even celestial bodies to tell a story about the resiliency of the human spirit, our infinite capacity to dream, and the connective threads that tie us all together in the universe.

In loosely connected vignettes, characters from both the near and far future react to a devastating Arctic Plague unleashed by global warming and melting permafrost. Devoted families try anything to save their families, disaffected loners work in a transformed funerary industry, doctors and scientists grapple with not only how to cure the plague, but how to escape and/or fix earth, and everyone deals in some way with grief, beliefs and responsibilities around death, and a planet transformed by mass trauma. Nagamatsu’s work imagines a world responding to a modern pandemic, and in doing so reveals an empathetic view of the future.


The elephant in the room is that there currently IS a global pandemic, and it has gone rather differently than Nagamatsu’s imagining – although he couldn’t have possibly known that, as he wrote his book pre-pandemic. It wouldn’t do you (or me!) any good to list all of the ways that things have gone differently in real life, so I will say only that Nagamatsu’s work is rather more generous to humanity. It imagines elaborate memorials, burial pacts, donating bodies to science, death hotels, parents taking their children to euthanasia theme parks for one last good day – at the core, remembrance and celebration of those lost to the plague. In doing so, Nagamatsu expresses a fundamental optimism (yes, in the midst of all of that death). Even as How High describes death in minute detail, the focus is on human beings striving for connection. Nagamatsu’s deft touch never feels emotionally manipulative, but – against all odds – tender and authentic.


Plague-fueled dystopias are not a new subgenre of science fiction, but I did appreciate architecture of this book, its literary fiction feel, and largely Japanese and Japanese-American characters as unique entry points. I also immediately liked the prose – not spare, by any means, but never overwrought. While each successive chapter is linked in some way to the others, there is no central (or even repeated) narrator, so it is not until you reach the end that everything unites into a cohesive whole. In that way the book feels more like a short story collection than a novel. At a couple of days’ remove, I can also point to Nagamatsu’s variations on intimacy (not sex) as a highlight. In other words, this book makes you think about what makes a loved one loved, and how people enter your life at different times, in different places, and mean different things depending on those times and places. It is a thoughtful work that makes the reader ponder human nature, our place in the world, and even our place in the cosmos.


In all, How High We Go in the Dark is an inventive, haunting, and extremely human story – one of striving to be our better selves/present/something in the midst of tragedy. It speaks to our current moment, of course, but it is also a meditation on loss, grief, and what is beyond all of this.


Recommended for: fans of Jodi Lyn Anderson’s Midnight at the Electric and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, literary fiction and atmospheric, soft science fiction aficionados, and anyone intrigued by the premise of a pandemic novel written just before our very own pandemic.

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Slade Wilson said...
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