Doing a complete 180 from the last book I finished, I read Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut novel cover to cover in one day.
It’s full of harrowing subject matter – not only is the world as we know it ending thanks to climate change and a plague (sound familiar?), none of the stories in this pseudo-anthology shy from the heaviest knock-on effects this has had on people’s lives in the century that follows. And yet, there’s something incredibly comforting about “How High We Go In the Dark”.
The book is a collection of interconnected short stories, each with a different narrator dealing with different circumstances caused or exacerbated by a virus known as the Arctic Plague. It’s a literary mosaic, each story being largely self-contained but moving forward a larger narrative.
As close to reality as the initial premise is it’s very much so still sci-fi. But the core stories would still be compelling if you stripped away all of that. Nagamatsu clearly loves character drama and meet-cutes just as much as space exploration. More importantly, he understands the nuance required to weave those into a more fantastical narrative effectively.
Which is not to say the sci-fi elements of “How High We Go In the Dark” are superfluous or un-interesting. Things begin in very familiar territory – scientists desperate for the public to take climate change more seriously, a strange virus taking an unprepared world by storm – but Nagamatsu quickly begins crafting a much stranger, yet believable response to all of this.
That’s partly because the Artic Plague is far deadlier than COVID-19, with the virus causing lung cells to morph into heart cells, glowing or melting skin, or a whole host of other outlandish symptoms.
One story centers on an assisted euthanasia theme park for infected children, another on a widowed robot dog repairman’s strained relationship with his son. One’s even about a pig with a human heart gaining telepathic speech abilities.
On the surface this all sounds slightly ridiculous. Somehow though, none of these stories feel cartoonish or even satirical. “How High We Go In the Dark” is bursting with imagination but just as much heart. Everything feels grounded, and caring about a pig named after a rapper (I won’t spoil that glorious pun) who can speak feels just as valid as caring about a woman trying to juggle searching for a cure and her crumbling marriage.
None of the stories are longer than 35 pages. The book in its entirety is less than 300. Nagamatsu still satisfyingly covers more than a century of the near future, providing enough details to have something to calibrate yourself as a reader without getting too bogged down in hard science.
He also manages to pepper in plenty of little easter eggs to reward you for paying attention. The narrator of a previous story appearing in another, a name drop here, an object reappearing there. This could easily have been nothing more than cheap fan-service, but by the end of the book you realize each of these tiny connections runs deeper than you realized. The meticulous detail of this book is really impressive, to the point where I’m considering a re-read already.
I kind of hate when someone says ‘there’s something here for everyone’ about a piece of media. It’s like when a restaurant has a 150-item menu; sure it’s there, but should it be there and is it being done well?
For “How High We Go In the Dark”, the answer is yes and yes.
Everything fits, everything belongs, everything is given the attention it deserves. If you wanted to, you could take your time with the romance and skim the sci-fi, languish over the intricacies of the timeline or just focus on the relatability of the characters. Whatever it is you need to scratch your itch, it’s here, but I’m willing to bet everything else will hold your attention just as much if you give it a chance.