It is now two years into the Covid pandemic and the dystopian pandemic novels continue to come thick and fast. Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut How High We Go in the Dark is a series of often very different short stories in a world beset by a new, strange plague that emerges from the melting permafrost. As with all of these narratives, reader’s patience will depend on their willingness to read about a fictional pandemic while being in the middle of a real one. And given the downbeat nature of many of the stories in this collection, that caveat goes for this book more than some other recent entries.
The opening story, 30,000 Years Beneath a Eulogy has scientist and archaeologist Cliff Mayashiro arriving in Siberia to carry on the work of his dead daughter Clara. Clara had been working with a team to excavate ancient remains in the thawing permafrost and had found an intact body. Despite quarantine protocols the dig releases a virus that will soon transform the world. While this story is downbeat it is the second story City of Laughter that sets the tone for this collection – set in an amusement park repurposed for the gentle euthanasia of children with the virus. And so it goes, stories of people dealing with and managing death and loss on a grand scale. While there is always a glimmer of hope, the stories have an air of melancholy that is hard to shake.
And then, in amongst the more down to earth stories are some wild swings – Through the Garden of Memory imagines a limnal space where the consciousnesses of people with the virus gather. A Gallery, A Century, a Cry a Millennium charts the millennia-long voyage of a colony spaceship sent out as a second chance for humanity and, most bizarrely, the final story The Scope of Possibility, tries to tie the whole enterprise together in as mindbending way as possible.
How High We Go in the Dark is a narrative constructed of connected short stories. Characters and connections flow between the various stories in ways that may defy coincidence but help the overall story flow. The stories do not require one another to exist, but each builds on an understanding of the once that came before, none more so than the first and last stories. And as with any short story collection, some of the individual stories are more successful than others.
With the world still in the grip of a global pandemic that has taken countless lives, many will seek to retreat to science fiction as an escape. But most of the individual stories in this collection do not provide the type of safety valve that can take readers out of the real world. Rather, How High We Go in the Dark provides some insight into how the world might deal with a much deadlier pandemic with a faint throughline of hope for the future that might make some readers feel relieved. All that said, How High We Go in the Dark is a highly polished and deeply felt debut, but its reception though may depend as much on the reader and their own experience as on the text itself.