Sequoia Nagamatsu’s elegiac debut novel imagines an even worse pandemic
In his debut novel, Sequoia Nagamatsu looks back from the future onto the defeats we are about to suffer. The 14 connected stories of How High We Go in the Dark poignantly recount the personal sorrows ensuing from our misuse of the planet. We’re too busy fighting the last war to notice we’re losing the next one.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Nine billion people living in ever closer proximity, sharing air and water, and pumping their waste into a warming world is a recipe for many disasters. The primary disaster of How High… is a deadly virus thawed from permafrost in Siberia. It kills tens of millions, spreading through air and water. But flooding, disease, social isolation, as well as the breakdown of governance and many recognizable social structures are just some of the symptoms of climate change that accompany the plague and affect those living in post-virus Earth.
The context of the stories is not post-apocalyptic, but post-pandemic—what would the world be like if Covid had been 10 times worse. The fictional virus itself works by mutating existing cells into other types of cell, transforming organs. So lungs stop working as they become brains, or livers stop working as they become, for example, hearts and so on. There’s a metaphor here for the body politic and the need for elements of society to understand their function, but Nagamatsu doesn’t stress the symbolism—he might even overly neglect it, as if he just gave up on any potential didactic function of his book.
In the flotsam of the various disasters, countless atomized people survive, each with their own story of loneliness and loss. Specifically for Nagamatsu, the spotlight is on characters at the intersection of Japan and America, and especially Japanese Americans. Sometimes their loss is a result of the mass world events, sometimes just the result of aging or the same family frictions that have caused rifts over the millennia. Through social distancing and social breakdown, though, the plague heightens the sense of dislocation and loss. Nagamatsu tenderly evokes the drive to connect but also describes the limitations of that drive. The stories show companionship but also loneliness, what we’ve understood over the pandemic as living together, but apart.
In an archipelago of vignettes stretching out across time, space and gender, Nagamatsu provides a series of memento mori. Each of the 14 connected short stories moves the larger story on, but also commemorates the dead.
Unlike the epic scale of Neal Stephenson or Kim Stanley Robinson, Nagamatsu writes at the personal scale. Though some of his characters have significant roles in the unfolding story of human life on Earth, Nagamatsu deals with their humanity not their utility — their feelings, not their ability to move the plot forward.
How High… is an almost unbearably sad, but beautiful, series of elegies for a tragedy yet to come.