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Fiction Review: How High We Go in the Dark

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I’ve been hearing great things about How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu ever since its release in January 2022 and saw it recommended by lots of top magazines and other review outlets. I listened to it on audio this month, and even with all that advance hype, this very unique novel told in widely varying stories over generations surprised me with its warmth, humor, and creativity. 

In the first of these linked stories, in 2030, Dr. Cliff Miyashiro has come to a remote site in Siberia where his daughter recently died so that he can finish her important work. Global warming has created a huge rift in the ice that grows larger every day, uncovering woolly rhinos and other extinct animals. His daughter, Clara, a scientist like himself, was working when she felt into the giant crevasse and discovered the perfectly preserved body of a young prehistoric girl before she died. Unfortunately, her colleagues also discovered the girl had died of an ancient virus that has now been unleashed. The next story, City of Laughter, takes place a few years later in California. A young man and struggling comic takes a job in a euthanasia park for the “arctic plague’s” youngest victims. Since there are not yet any cures, and the end stages of the disease are painful and horrific, parents and their dying children can stay in the park, so their kids can have one last day filled with laughter and fun before their hearts are stopped painlessly during one last exciting rollercoaster ride. While working there, he has an affair with one young mother and becomes very attached to her dying little boy. 

The stories mostly move forward in time, taking place mainly in California and Japan, each one focused on a different character, though you can often see connections to previous stories (for instance, there is a later story about Cliff’s wife and their granddaughter, Clara’s daughter). The stories paint a picture of the apocalyptic world, as the virus ravages populations and people come up with creative ways to deal with the virus, the dying, and the dead. Topics range from “elegy hotels,” where bereaved families can spend a few more days with their disinfected, preserved loved one to a talking pig named Snortious P.I.G. who was created after splicing human DNA into pig DNA to grow and harvest more organs for transplant to changing Japanese customs after cemeteries become full. There is even a story set 100 years in the future, on a spaceship, where the crew has just woken up from stasis, as hundreds more people sleep on, to search for a habitable planet.

I hope you’re still reading and didn’t turn away at that second paragraph thinking, “Nope, too depressing for me!” Because that’s the stunning thing about this book. In spite of its dark subject matter, this is a novel about the resilience of humanity, about the creativity and adaptability of our race. It is ultimately uplifting and even funny at times (I loved Snortious P.I.G.) … and they do eventually discover a vaccine and cure for the virus. The stories range from amusing to poignant to surprising, but they are always deeply moving, delving into the essence of what makes us human. It is science fiction wrapped in a very character-driven, thought-provoking, philosophical approach. The writing is beautiful, and each individual story is completely immersive, especially in the excellent audio book with 15 different narrators. Characters of Asian descent are featured in every story, creating another connecting thread. You come to care for each character, so when you see him or her mentioned in a later story (that perhaps references that person tangentially or features a family member or friend), you smile at the connection because connections are a big part of this novel as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this original, compassionate novel about the essence of humanity that filled me with wonder and hope. Just writing about it here makes me want to start back at the beginning and listen to it again.

320 pages, William Morrow Paperbacks


This book fits in the following 2023 Reading Challenges:

Diversity Reading Challenge

Travel the World in Books – Japan

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Listen to a sample of the audiobook, from the first chapter of the novel, here and/or download it from Audible.

Or get this audiobook from and support local bookstores (audio sample here, too).

Print and e-book from Amazon.

You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)–the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!



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