The Space Between Worlds

by Micaiah Johnson

Cover image

Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 0-593-13506-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 327

Buy at Powell's Books

Cara is valuable because, in most places, she's dead.

In the world of Earth Zero, as the employees of the Eldridge Institute call it, a scientific genius named Adam Bosch developed the ability to travel between parallel worlds. This ability is not limitless, however. One restriction is that the parallel world has to be very close; large divergences of history render them unreachable. The other restriction is that anyone who attempts to travel to a world in which the local version of themselves is still alive is rejected: physically mangled in ways that result in a very short remaining lifespan.

Earth Zero has not found a way to send information between worlds without sending people there physically to collect it. Those people are traversers, and their value lies in how many of their parallel selves have died. Each death in one of the 380 worlds Earth Zero can reach means another world that person can traverse to. They are the transportation system for a network of information-gathering nodes, whose collected contents are mined for stock tips, political cautions, and other information of value. Cara is dead on 372 worlds, and thus provides valuable savings on employee salaries.

These related worlds are not so much post-apocalyptic as a continuation of current wealth disparity trends, although it's also clear that the climate has gotten worse. The Eldridge Institute, which controls traversing, is based in Wiley City, a walled, climate-controlled arcology of skyscrapers with a dome that filters out the dangerous sun. Its citizens are rich, with the best social support that money can buy. They are not interested in immigrants, unless they are extremely valuable.

Cara is not from Wiley City. She is from Ashtown, the encampment in the desert outside of Wiley City's walls. That's part of the explanation for her death rate; in Ashtown, there are only a few ways to survive, particularly if one is not from the stiflingly religious Rurals, and most of them are dependent on being in the good graces of the local warlord and his Mad-Max-style enforcers. Being a traverser gets Cara out of Ashtown and into Wiley City, but not as a citizen, although that's dangled vaguely as a possible future prize. She's simply an employee, on a work permit, who enjoys the comforts of Wiley City for exactly as long as she's useful. Meanwhile, she juggles the demands of her job, her attraction to her watcher Dell, and her family in Ashtown. She is profoundly, aggressively cynical.

Cara is also not precisely who people think she is.

The Space Between Worlds pulls off a beautifully elegant combination of two science fiction subgenres: parallel universes and time travel. Both have been part of science fiction for decades, but normally parallel universes are substantially different from each other. Major historical events go differently, Nazis win World War II, Spock has a goatee, etc. Minor deviations are more often the subject of time travel stories, as travelers attempt to tweak the past and influence the future. Johnson instead provides the minor variations and small divergences of time travel stories in a parallel world framework, with no actual time travel involved or possible. The resulting story shows the same ripple effect of small differences, but the future remains unwritten and unconstrained, which avoids the stiflingly closed feeling of most time travel plots.

Against that backdrop is set a story of corporate and personal intrigue, but one with a far deeper understanding of class and place than almost all of science fiction. Cara is not from Ashtown in the normal sense of science fiction novels written by comfortably middle-class white authors about protagonists from the wrong side of the tracks, who show their merit and then never look back. Cara is from Ashtown in a way that means she misses the taste of its dirt and understands its people and feels seen there. Wiley City knows very well that she's from Ashtown, and doesn't let her forget it.

This type of ambiguous relationship with place and wealth, and deep connection to where one comes from, is so rare in science fiction, and it's beautifully written here. Cara wants to be in Wiley City over the alternative; the potential loss of her job is a real threat. But at the same time she is not at home there, because she is not visible there. Everything is slightly off, she has no one she can really talk to, and her reactions don't quite fit. No one understands her the way that her family in Ashtown does. And yet, by living in Wiley City, she is becoming less at home in Ashtown as well. She is becoming an outsider.

It takes about 70 pages for the story in The Space Between Worlds to really get started. Those first 70 pages is very important background information that the rest of the story builds on, but they weren't that engrossing. Once the story kicks into gear, though, it's a tense, complicated story that I had a hard time predicting and an even harder time putting down. It's not perfect (more on that in a moment), but Johnson weaves together Cara's sense of place, her family connections, her sense of self, and her internal moral compass to create a memorable protagonist in a page-turning plot with a satisfying payoff. She uses our ability to look in on several versions of each character to give them additional satisfying heft and depth. Esther, Cara's highly religious sister, is the most delightful character in this book, and that's saying a lot coming from someone who usually doesn't like highly religious characters.

I do have some world-building quibbles, and came up with more when I mulled over the book after finishing it, so you may need to strengthen your suspension of disbelief. The passive information gathering via traversing made a lot of sense; the bulk import of raw materials via the industrial hatch makes less sense given the constraints of the world. (Who is loading those materials into the other side? Or are they somehow traversing them directly out of the ground? Wouldn't someone notice?) The plot also partly hinges on a bit of lost technology that is extremely difficult to square with the rest of the setting, and felt like a transparent justification for introducing Mad Max elements into the setting.

The quibble I noticed the most may be unavoidable given the setting: alternate worlds with slightly different versions of the same characters creates a potential explosion in cast size, which Johnson deals with by focusing on the cross-world variations of a small number of characters. I like all of those characters, but it does give the story a bit of an incestuous feel. The politics of every world revolve around the same ten people, and no one else seems to matter (or usually even has a name). That said, a small cast is a better problem to have than a confusing cast. Johnson does a great job helping the reader keep all the characters and relationships straight across their alternate world variations. I didn't realize until after I finished the book how difficult that probably was, which is the sign of a job well done.

I do also have to complain about how completely dense Cara is when it comes to Dell, but I won't say any more than that to avoid spoilers. There are some things I figured out way before Cara did, though, and that made her behavior rather frustrating.

This is an extremely impressive first novel that does some lovely things with genre and even more impressive things with social class and mobility. It's a little rough in places, you have to bear with the first 70 pages, and the ending, while a fitting conclusion to the emotional arc, seemed wildly unbelievable to me given the events of the plot. But it's very much worth reading despite those flaws. Johnson respects her characters and their culture and their world, and it shows.

This was one of the best science fiction novels I read in 2021.

(Content warning for physical and emotional partner abuse.)

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-12-30

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2021-12-31