As the Siberian tundra melts, a deadly virus is released from the ice and devastates the world. How High We Go In The Dark is a series of personal stories from a parallel now exploring themes of connection, grief and hope as humanity grapples with a rapidly-changing context.
Sound the klaxon, folks, I’ve finally read my first pandemic novel. Sequoia Nagamatsu’s Arctic plague is not a coronavirus (nor a respiratory / neurological disease), but its rapid spread and devastating effects make for uncomfortable reading nonetheless. Initially, the virus predominantly – if not exclusively – targets children, a choice that some readers may find even more uncomfortable given where the stories take us (content warning: quarantine, euthanasia, and yes it does escalate that quickly).
How High We Go In The Dark is a mosaic novel, with each chapter focusing on new (albeit tangentially related) characters to provide snapshots of the pandemic from the first discovery of the virus in Siberia through to reintegration of the sick into society when a cure is eventually found. In retrospect, I think I’d have got more out of it if I had approached it as a collection of interconnected short stories – reading one here and there, rather than reading them back to back.
Because as a novel, it just didn’t work very well for me. The problems started in the first chapter, when an archaeologist reflecting on his difficult relationship with his dead daughter decides that she was right all along. Unfortunately, it felt like a left-field epiphany, as if the author (or his editor) had suddenly remembered that the point of the story was the pandemic rather than the Miyashiro family drama, and decided to move things along. Consequently, the emotional arc fell flat.
This was a recurring theme in more plot-focused chapters (Nagamatsu always trying to inject emotional resonance, but not always giving it room to develop), although A Gallery A Century, A Cry A Millennium transcends its functional beginning as Miki Miyashiro paints the interior of a space ship to memorialise Earth and the planets they reject in their search for a new home. There’s a lot to unpack in this chapter – from the (lack of) consent given by younger passengers; to dealing with the idea of home being a place you can never return to; to the decisions on what to remember – in a solid SFnal reverie on how we engage with our pasts. This chapter is an excellent novella in its own right, although for me it sits oddly with the rest of the book.
Most chapters are unapologetically focused on the human impact of the pandemic. A few are brilliant – the harrowing City of Laughter is a horror show of capitalist dystopia at the euthanasia theme park, told from the perspective of a traumatised employee. City of Laughter is brave and provocative, working hard at multiple levels to explore its ideas and their implications while delivering a devastating human story – if the rest of the book had been at this level, it would have been a five star read.
I also found myself loving Songs Of Your Decay, in which a forensic scientist falls in love with a dying man who has agreed to donate his cadaver for her research. This shouldn’t be my bag – tragic romance is not my thing – but it’s a poignant portrait of a failing marriage, capturing gestures made and ignored as two unlikely partners drift apart. It’s melancholy and conflicted and full of denial and confusion; and as such it stands out from the stories around it, which often ended up feeling a bit saccharine. These are delicate depictions of grief and the ways it messes us up, but the common thread of a death helping characters re-evaluate their relationships soon felt samey to me (even if one did involve an unexpected talking pig).
I didn’t find the stories gained greater resonance when considered in aggregate – the bigger picture is simply history unfolding, and viewed through that lens I found the coincidental connections more questionable. I’d like to pitch How High We Go In The Dark as musing on the interconnectedness of the world – think A Brief History of the Dead – but it does so through an exclusively human lens, which also bothered me. What does the virus do to animals and birds? As it’s carried in infected water, what are the biodiversity impacts? Given what we eventually learn, there’s no reason it wouldn’t transform the natural world… and yet it doesn’t.
Instead – and this was a big plus for me – there’s some entertaining and cynical background world-building as corporations and governments respond; familiar brands disappearing in endless mergers as the economy contracts, funeral businesses cannibalising other sectors to endlessly reinvent themselves. I suspect Sequoia Nagamatsu has a biting dystopian satire in him if he cares to write it. For now, How High We Go In The Dark indicates he is more interested in personal stories. Unfortunately, with each chapter jumping to a new character and forcing a rapid (and rapidly familiar) resolution, I ended up finding it rather superficial.
The final chapter actually had me full-on raging (much to my beloved’s bemusement). I acknowledge this is partly due to personal narrative bias – and I can see that the inversion challenges the principles that annoy me so much – but I found the big reveal a disappointing choice too (jump to spoilers for why).
Unfortunately, that ending destroyed a lot of my positivity towards the book. If I’d finished at 75%, this would have been a more positive review. Instead, I finished disgruntled and frustrated, which has left me focusing on the broader reasons the book dissatisfied. On an objective level, I don’t think this is a bad debut, albeit flawed (hey, it’s a debut, it’s allowed to be). I do think it was the wrong book for me, and probably at the wrong time. Those seeking a series of reflections on death in a pandemic may get more out of it (good for you, if that’s where you’re at in 2022).
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
LAST CHAPTER SPOILERS (intended to be mouse over to read, but be aware they don’t render on iOS at all and I’ve had reports that non-Mac Chromes sometimes highlight them rather than hiding them. GAH browsers)
I have absolutely no tolerance for any hint of Earth-based alien archaeology. As far as I’m concerned, “it was aliens, actually” is every bit as shit as “it was all a dream”.