Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Review: HOW HIGH WE GO IN THE DARK by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Rating: 4.75/5 stars 

I’ve always been fascinated by apocalyptic climate fiction and I will read anything that falls into that genre. How High We Go in the Dark follows a plethora of people dealing with life after the Arctic plague sweeps the globe and kills millions.

What kind of place has our world become after the Arctic plague? A world with so much death that funerary tokens are a more common currency than bitcoin, funeral start-ups are the new business, and “cryogenic suspension companies proliferated, death hotels, services that preserved and posed your loved ones in fun positions, travel companies that promised a ‘natural’ getaway with your recently departed.” (I know this quotation doesn’t grammatically make sense but I read an ARC so ignore it.)

This book starts in 2030 and takes us far into the future. Each chapter follows a different person in a different situation and a different time, but they each connect to one another. 

We start the book with a grieving father traveling to the Arctic where his daughter died, and it’s at the onset of the plague when it first gets discovered before it became a worldwide problem. The next chapter is set a year later and follows a man who works at a euthanasia theme park, where sick kids go to die while having fun. 

There’s also the story of an employee at a hotel for the dead, a scientist whose lab pig begins to speak, a man who repairs robo-dogs, a scientist who bonds with a terminal plague victim over a shared love of music, a man with a black hole in his brain, two people bonding in a VR suicide forum, a group of people leaving earth on the first mission to find another habitable planet, plus some other stories. And they’re all inexplicably related. 

My favorite of all the stories was the chapter called “A Gallery A Century, A Cry A Millennium” because I like the hopepunk sci-fi feel of that tale. I also really enjoyed the chapter called “Before You Melt into the Sea” because it was written in second-person POV, which I love, and involved a new way to care for the bodies of the dead that I found to be fascinating. 

This is a novel comprised of short stories, but it reads more like a novel and less like a short story collection, thankfully. The chapters are chronological, so even though you could read and comprehend any chapter on its own, each chapter builds on previous chapters and references previous characters. I like this idea, how all the mini-stories come together as a whole to make up this beautiful novel. 

What really impresses me is that most of these stories were published individually in various publications as far back as 2009. I wonder at what point Sequoia Nagamatsu knew he wanted to combine them into a novel and started writing in connections between the characters. It’s very ambitious and imaginative and I loved it.

How High We Go in the Dark is sad, but not in a depressing way that makes you want to stop reading; it’s sad in a solemn but hopeful way that makes you want to keep turning the pages to witness the resilience of humanity. Watching people accept and cope with a terrifying new reality but still come out stronger is a beautiful thing. 

I’d recommend this story to readers who love light apocalyptic science fiction but also those who enjoy literary fiction that evokes a deep emotional response; it works in both genres. This novel has a lot of death and grief in it, which aren’t topics I normally gravitate toward, but I really liked this story and how it handled those topics in a fresh and uplifting way. How High We Go in the Dark is ultimately about survival and hope and the will to not only keep living but also enjoy life as much as possible in the face of grief and pain. 

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