The late 2000s saw the discovery of a people now known as the Denisovans, a 40,000-year-old Neanderthal-Homo sapiens hybrid. Knowledge of the Denisovans remains rudimentary, in part because no fully extant skeletons have so far been found. In the first chapter of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut novel, and a decade into our future, scientists working in the remote reaches of the Altai mountains of Siberia come across the remains of a prehistoric female they name Annie. In contrast to earlier discoveries, her body is intact, mummified by the permafrost in which it has been encased, and now released from its icy sarcophagus by global heating.
But this marvellous discovery has unforeseen consequences. Annie’s brain is infected with a previously unidentified and now reactivated pathogen, and the expedition is placed under quarantine. But in an inevitable chain of biosecurity breaches, the disease that becomes known as the Arctic Plague quickly spreads to the rest of the world.
Written in the years immediately before Covid-19, How High We Go in the Dark seems unnervingly prescient. It describes healthcare services stretched beyond breaking point, stadiums used as morgues, shortages and curfews, first and second waves and variants of concern. Nagamatsu pays particular attention to the disproportionate ways in which social class and material poverty become determining factors in how communities experience the impact of the pandemic. “Something slowly changed between us as the virus evolved,” says Aubrey, a forensic pathologist who is working on the long-term effects of the disease. “Maybe it was the lack of space, being trapped together like that all the time, apart from the hours we spent at work, everyone afraid, with no place to go.”
Nagamatsu’s skill lies in his evocative imagining of alternative realities, and in how he builds bridges between them
It is entirely possible that certain phrases and scenarios have been tweaked and highlighted during an editing process that will have taken place during lockdown. Yet the overall mood and tone of Nagamatsu’s fictional future is all the more affecting for being so much in sympathy with our lived present. The fact that he steers clear of the sensationalist and overfamiliar tropes of generic apocalypse, opting, instead, for a more subtle and unerringly humane response, gives the book both authority and pathos.
How High We Go in the Dark is made up of more than a dozen discrete episodes, separate beads along the narrative timeline from the discovery and release of the virus, through the worst years of the pandemic, on into its lingering aftermath. The book then leaps 6,000 years ahead, revealing how decisions taken now might lead to radically divergent futures. Each segment is told from the point of view of a different character and highlights a significant aspect of evolving reality: accelerating developments in genetic modification; a revolutionary star drive; the cultural impact of public grieving. The commercialisation of death is shown through euthanasia theme parks, elegy hotels, lost lives preserved within the plastic carcasses of robot dogs.
There is an argument that a novel constructed from what are, effectively, individual short stories will lack overall narrative focus. There is an equal and opposite argument that what might be lost in terms of a unified story arc is more than adequately compensated for by the rich, complex labyrinth of possibilities that this more exploratory approach allows. Nagamatsu’s skill lies not only in his evocative imagining of alternative realities, but also in how he builds bridges between them. What starts as a series of snapshots is assembled into a glimmering montage of interconnectedness: characters recur, relationships develop, what we initially glimpse at one remove assumes a pin-sharp focus. Like a Polaroid photograph, How High We Go in the Dark takes time to show its true colours. When they finally appear, the effect is all the more dazzling.
A common criticism of science fiction is that while its ideas may be huge in scope, its interest in individual human beings – their psychology, motivations and spiritual character – has traditionally been sketchy or nonexistent. From the opposite benches, SF devotees castigate the literary mainstream for its navel-gazing and quotidian subject matter. This argument, with minor variations, has rumbled on for most of the past century; as one of the increasing number of newer writers who have grown up with sci-fi an integral part of their media landscape, Nagamatsu is clearly unencumbered by questions of genre, pro or contra. His novel, with its emphasis on family, mutual acceptance and the often unorthodox ways in which we are all connected, will be admired as much by fans of Becky Chambers’s hugely popular Wayfarers series as by readers of Richard Powers’s Booker-shortlisted Bewilderment. How High We Go in the Dark is a truly genre-transcending work in which sense of wonder and literary acumen are given boundless opportunity to shine.
• How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.