How High We Go In The Dark

I came into How High We Go in the Dark with two very distinct biases against it. 

The very American bias that anything free can’t be -that- good (I received a preview copy in exchange for my review), and the indignation that someone thought this thing was in any way comparable to Cloud Atlas. However it may have landed for you, Cloud Atlas is incredibly well-constructed and there’s just no way Sequoia Nagamatsu lands that sort of achievement in a debut.

And I was right.

Nagamatsu isn’t writing a version of Cloud Atlas. He’s writing something much more personal and in the end something that was a lot more affecting. Where Cloud Atlas is operatic, How High We Go in the Dark is for all its literal cosmic scope, much much smaller. Small enough to place oneself very clearly in some part of this world he’s created. Woven so intricately that each world changing ripple feels earned. 

You probably know, but you should be warned this is a plague book. On beginning I didn’t particularly relish being faced with a plague book. I like a tad more escape than that in my speculative fiction. But the dread of impending Crichton-style plague quickly gives way to the personal in every moment. The Cloud Atlas references come because structurally this book is a net of short stories, each building in some larger or smaller way off the previous. By the end of the book the threads of multiple past stories are shot through each new story, some more artfully than others, but always rewarding.

Maybe it’s silly to talk about a plague narrative being about love and loss, because of course it is, and maybe it’s underselling Nagamatsu to not spend more time talking up his intricately built world expanding in scope with each shift as the world shatters and heals – the scars layering over each other. 

But in the end this is a book about wondering if you have the courage to take needed next steps while nursing a beer on a fire escape, not about funerary credits. It’s about the quiet camaraderie in limning the future with art depicting a very personal past – not the starship that serves as the the canvas. It’s about giving a miracle of science a taste of real living and exploring what real living means, not explaining every twist of biology that might make such a miracle “real”.

And family. In every possible permutation. 

If you prefer your science fiction to be plot heavy space opera, this won’t be for you. 

If you need to like each of your protagonists, this won’t be for you. 

If you like nuanced, character driven situations that nest inside one another and linger long after reading? 

This is for you.