Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut novel How High We Go in the Dark is the winter’s most ambitious science fiction book: a sequence of interlocked stories that’s drawn comparisons to sagas like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. The story begins in a near-present, where an Arctic expedition accidentally releases a virus that makes people’s bodies mutate and shift form. Each story follows different characters further into the future, as the plague spreads and humanity evolves. These stories involve spaceships and robot dogs, death hotels and a euthanasia amusement park for sick children. And yet these are also down-to-earth stories about how people navigate their jobs and relationships, chase their crushes and worry about their kids, as they head into an unpredictable future.
Polygon recently spoke to the author about the ways How High We Go in the Dark relates to the celebrated recent series Station 11, how he’s dealing with readers’ pandemic fatigue, and what links his characters across time and space. Below this Q&A is an excerpt from the book’s story “City of Laughter.” This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you set up this excerpt for us? Out of context, it may be a little hard to see the bleak humor in this chapter, the almost absurdist humor behind the very grim idea here.
Sequoia Nagamatsu: In a nutshell, this story centers around a theme park that is euthanizing children who have been afflicted with a fatal plague. The park is called the City of Laughter. Obviously when you’re thinking about the death of children, that name doesn’t seem to connect. I was trying to be honest about how corporations would respond to mass death in this fictional pandemic. They’re providing solace and comfort when hospitals and medical facilities aren’t going to be enough. But they’re also making a lot of money off people’s pain. We see some of that in our own reality now.
So the question was, “What does capitalism look like when our concept of mortality has shifted to such an extreme degree?” In this chapter, there are nods to funerary corporations that are starting to pop up. Later on, people are buying funerary cryptocurrencies, and mortuary industries have become banks. I really wanted to stress this idea of the corporatization and the capitalist machine around death.
But I also wanted to help readers navigate this tragedy through landscapes we’re constantly inhabiting. Whether we want to realize it or not, we all navigate and occupy very commercialized, Disney-fied spaces. People seek these things out for comfort and escape. It made sense for me, as I wrote a very early version of this chapter, for characters to seek out this Disney-like place as a last hurrah, comforting families that are saying goodbye to their children. Why not give them one good day, and pretend, and fall into the illusion that everything is going to be okay before they fall asleep?
There are certainly people right now who’ve had enough of pandemic stories. What can you tell them about why they should read this book, what they’re going to get out of it?
As a writer, of course when I hear somebody say, “I’m not ready for this, I’ll buy it next year,” or just “I’ll never read it,” it hurts a little bit. I’m not gonna lie! For somebody who’s been writing this for over 10 years, it does sting. But that’s not their fault, and it’s not my fault. It’s a really unfortunate coincidence that this book is coming out when it is. But the timing is also advantageous in some ways, perhaps, for offering people catharsis and healing. People will react differently to any tragedy like this. Some people are going to run away, and they’re going to seek pure escape. They want beach reads and thrillers and romances. And some people are going to want to lean in and have conversations about the moment.
I’ll just note that as I was working on this, I didn’t always know it was going to be this book. It went through several evolutions. But because it was a pre-COVID book, I think I sidestepped a lot of obstacles and maybe missteps writers would stumble upon writing after COVID. I’m focusing on relationships and work, focusing on mundane, everyday activities. I’m never privileging the virus in any way — once the initial outbreak happens in the first chapter, it really falls to the background. Even though there are characters who are scientists, and are part of the disease’s larger world and evolution, we don’t get the science, so much as their relationships and how they’re grieving on an interpersonal level. So I think that helps.
I take my final weird solace in the fact that the plague in this book is much, much worse than the one we’re experiencing. Maybe people can see a bit of themselves in these characters, in terms of how they’ve responded. So for people telling me they don’t want to read a pandemic story, I’ll just clarify that there’s an odd stereotype of what a pandemic or plague story is. I created a list of pandemic stories not long ago for Electric Literature, and I realized that most pandemic or plague stories aren’t really about the disease. Usually they’re more about relationships and people and quieter moments. That’s in everything from the work of José Saramago or Station 11 to very literary works like Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief Histories of the Dead.
Most plague fiction I’ve come across doesn’t sensationalize death. It’s almost the exact opposite. So I would provide this context: This isn’t what you’re thinking. But I also understand that some people may need to wait, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Everybody has different experiences and reactions to this moment, and I don’t want to needlessly trigger them, if this book is going to do that. But I’ve read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station 11, and I’ve been following the adaptation, and people’s reactions to it, because I imagine I’m going to be having lots of similar conversations with readers and interviewers in the future. Some people are really diving into the Station 11 adaptation and loving how beautiful it is, how it’s about people. And other people are saying, “Yeah, I get that, but not right now.” I think I have a similar reaction to Mandel’s Station 11. I understand that reaction, and I’m very empathetic of it.
The timing of the book’s launch isn’t ideal, but it’s certainly much better than it would have been had it come out in 2020. Coming into year three of the pandemic, people are starting to realize that we need to actually talk about this, we need to reflect, we need to articulate what this moment means for us, moving forward. What does normality mean? Do we want to go back to what we were before the pandemic, or do we want to imagine something else? How have our ideas of death or mortality and grief changed? How have our own views of who we are as people, our views of our families and society, changed? Those are a lot of the questions I’m wrestling with in this novel, and I think we’re at a place right now where people are willing to have those conversations.
So much science fiction feels like a warning: “If we keep going in our current direction, this bad thing could happen.” Do you see this book as more of a guideline for hope?
Even before COVID, I wanted to make sure that the individual stories had some hope, that there was always some kind of light, even if it was very little, so the characters have something to reach for. They might not be able to articulate it, but it needed to be there. That’s something we don’t always see in our reality — I think it’s not easy for us to see the hope. I think it’s very easy for us to turn on the news and say, “The world sucks, and the future doesn’t have much to offer us.” That’s a pretty dismal way of going about life. There are a lot of horrible things in the world, and a lot of horrible things about people. But if you can’t hold onto a little bit of hope, what’s the point of moving forward?
Hope in my novel takes a particular form — it’s often in characters recognizing the connections they have with others. It often takes the form of community. We’re not quite there yet in our reality, in terms of being as empathetic as we could about other communities. But that’s something I hope readers take away from my novel, is this idea of thinking deeply about how you’re connected with others, and how other people’s plights that may be invisible to you do still matter.
My manager glanced at the clock when I punched in for work an hour late.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. Just some personal stuff.”
But instead of a lecture, he warned me about a family who’d been red-flagged this morning as a flight risk. The six-year-old girl, Kayla McNamara, was a level 5 biohazard with open pustules on her body, wearing a CDC-approved pink hazmat suit in a teddy bear print. While symptomatic transmission to adults was rare, the park didn’t want to take any chances, especially when an employee might pass the virus to kids in their family. The mother was incredibly devout and believed solely in prayer, so the girl hadn’t been treated with any of the drug cocktails administered to most infected children. The mother had also refused to be apart from her daughter when instructed to join the other parents in the Learning Land Room. He told me to keep an eye on her but not to interfere in any way.
“Call me directly if it escalates,” he continued. “We want to avoid a spectacle. We need to maintain the illusion for the children. The father will join them this afternoon.”
I was juggling bean bags as I tailed the high-risk family from a distance. Normally a small fan inside the costume keeps me from over- heating, but on this day the battery had died. Beads of sweat dripped down my face, stinging my eyes; my shirt and boxers clung to my body. I lifted my costume headpiece slightly, letting in a rush of air. I focused on Kayla as she pointed to a kiosk with balloons, an ice cream stand, the bumper cars. Her mother ignored her. If this girl was lucky, she’d last the day without collapsing. The heat weighed on my limbs, creating a halo of light-headedness. I wanted to stop Kayla’s mother from ruining her daughter’s final day. The little girl dutifully followed along and I was reminded of Fitch, how he was always brave for Dorrie, even though his lungs burned and his stomach ached so much he could only ingest liquids. “Dance of the Little Swans” played from the loudspeakers as Mrs. McNamara held on to Kayla in line for the Dipsy Doodle boat ride, furtively scanning the crowd from behind her oversize sunglasses. When she turned in my direction, I began dancing wildly, diving deep into character.
“Just let the poor girl go on the damn ride,” I whispered inside my costume. I wondered what Kayla dreamed about—maybe she wanted to go to space like Fitch. “Just let her have this one thing.”
But right as they were about to step onto a boat, her mother slipped out of line, pulling Kayla behind her, quickly weaving through the crowd.
“We have a runner,” I said into the radio, alerting my manager and security. “Repeat, we have a runner. Headed west toward the Laughateria. Requesting immediate assistance.” I tried to keep up with Kayla and her mother, uncertain when security would arrive, afraid one of the tower guards might take a shot if they noticed them. I looked toward the fence, saw figures in black scanning the park through the scopes of their rifles.
“Tell the watchtower security to stand down,” I radioed to my manager. “I still have the family in sight.”
“A Roller Daze Security Squad is on the way,” my manager said.
The mother and daughter slowed to a walk. I crept up behind them, ducking behind signage and bushes to remain out of sight. They were headed to a perimeter fence, and despite the signs indicating injury or death from high voltage, the fences were not electrified.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said, slowly approaching, “but you’re entering an off-limits area. Are you okay, Kayla? Do you want to go on a ride?”
The girl looked up at her mother and then at me. Her tiny chest rose and fell as she tried to catch her breath.
“You don’t understand,” Mrs. McNamara said, crying. “They’re trying to take her away. I thought I could do this. But I can’t let her go.” The little girl leaned on her mother, barely able to stand.
“It’s okay,” I said, reaching out my arms like some kind of savior. I felt sorry for this mother. Sure, the park was better than an overrun hospital or a converted warehouse turned plague ward, but what parent wanted to say goodbye? “I’m here to help. Take my hand, Kayla.”
I took a few steps closer. I was nearly an arm’s length away when something knocked the air out of me and I found myself on the ground, head throbbing. A man kicked me in the stomach. He tore off my mouse head and told me to keep my hands off his family. I probably could have grabbed him by the legs like a calf and taken him down, but the entertainment staff can be fired for touching guests. I closed my eyes when he spat in my face and told him I was sorry. I winced as he pulled back his fist for a right hook and then, in a blur of blue sequins, the security team on Rollerblades whisked the entire family away.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t at least try to block him,” Dorrie said as she examined my scrapes and bruises. She told me the girl’s mother had collapsed in her arms when Dorrie gave her the urn filled with her daughter’s ashes, and the father apologized for hitting the mouse before they left.
“I’ve never been in a fight,” I said. I could hear the low hum of the nebulizer machine in Fitch’s room, the wet breaths he took as he inhaled medicated mist into his lungs.
“Fitch was calling for you today, by the way. He’s been bad since this morning. He has a headache and he’s struggling to breathe. The doctors said we’ll start to see other problems, since we’re weaning him off the drugs. There’s another trial next month at Johns Hopkins. I thought his father could pull some strings. He tried, but he hasn’t made any progress.”
I picked up a sketch that was sitting on the table—Dorrie, Fitch, and someone I assumed to be Fitch’s father in front of a lake. I could feel her studying me, as if I had stepped into a part of her world that she’d never intended to share with me.
“We barely had any time at all. My husband, I guess I should be calling him my ex. He’ been saying he’s close to getting Fitch another lung, a heart, but he’s been saying that for months. I don’t know. I’m just so tired of this, Skip.”
Dorrie walked over to the glass partition that separated us from Fitch’s room, stood in the doorway. I went to the kitchen, poured her a glass of wine, marveled at the organization of her fridge and freezer: a week of meals in Tupperware, all of Fitch’s medicine labeled and separated. I came up behind her and handed her the glass. She drank half of it in one gulp. I stood there debating who she needed me to be at that moment. We stared at the lights of the ma- chines surrounding her son, a toy planetarium projector shooting stars across the ceiling as he struggled to breathe. We both knew that without medical intervention, Fitch would last another month, maybe two.
Fitch’s crying woke us up at four the next morning. He complained of his head pounding, his insides burning. By the time Dorrie washed her hands, pulled on a mask and gloves, there was vomit in his bed. He said the pounding had gotten worse.
“Is there anything you want me to do?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I’ll take care of him. I’ve already alerted the medical office. Just wait outside for the on-call doctor.”
I sat on the porch, stared at the lights that ran the length of Osiris like a lightning bolt, a judgment from the sky. The doctor came and went. I remained outside until late morning, when Dorrie said Fitch had finally settled down.
“So, he’s okay for now?” I asked.
Dorrie looked back toward the house, considered the question. The front porch was slowly filling with sunlight, heralding a new day at the City of Laughter. For this moment, we were caught in the silence, the sort of gravity the park did its best to hide.
“I don’t think he was ever really going to be okay,” she said.