Back in May I went on a crazed Netgalley requesting spree that resulted in a daunting queue of books on my Kindle. With the pressure to get them read and reviewed before their publish dates I’ve been reading as fast as I can, often without sparing the time to re-read the book descriptions that I have inevitably forgotten over the last month or so.
I mentioned in my review of Megan O’Keefe’s Velocity Weapon that reading her book without any context enhanced my reading experience. In the case of Macaiah Johnson’s debut novel The Space Between Worlds, my usually reliable but controversial habit of judging a book by its cover instead led me astray.
Firstly, despite the cover design and title this book is not a novel set in space or the far future, though it does feature a multiverse and a near future Earth ravaged by the Sun, presumably as a result of global warming.
Secondly, while the multiverse concept is central to the plot, it focuses on heavy personal and social themes rather than technology, making me think the less suggestive and more general label ‘speculative fiction’ could be more appropriate than ‘science fiction’.
Finally, while this novel has been described as a ‘cross-dimensional adventure’, personally these words make think of suspenseful adventures or epic fight scenes or a rag-tag team of loveable heroes. With its introspective tone and focus on the protagonist’s ambition to survive, to me this book is more of a personal journey.
So, rather than the sci-fi space adventure I was expecting, this is a speculative fiction, cross-dimensional journey of self-discovery.
In The Space Between Worlds Eldridge Institute CEO Adam Bosch has discovered how to access the multiverse and covertly exploit other versions of Earth for data and physical resources. But the technology to remotely download the data hasn’t been developed, and due to some law of physics, Eldridge’s interdimensional travellers can only safely visit realities where their alternate self has died.
Enter Cara, born into poverty on the wrong side of the walls of Wiley City. She has survived an addict mother, a tyrannical emperor and the thuggish, Mad Max-like Runner gangs, but in the greater multiverse her survival in this reality is an exception: Cara is dead in 372 of the 380 accessible Earths, making her the perfect courier to retrieve surveillance information from other realities.
When a version of Cara dies on Earth 175, she is able to traverse there for the first time. But her landing doesn’t go as planned and she is drawn into local events, uncovering secrets that may threaten the life she has built for herself on Earth 0.
“The multiverse isn’t just parallel universes accessible through science. They are in each of us, a kaleidoscope made of varying perceptions. Dell and I were in different universes this whole time, and I should have known.”
The book’s title refers to Cara’s job as a traverser as well as her struggle to assimilate to Wiley City society despite her imposter syndrome and the citizens’ ingrained classism. The story also explores her experience with domestic abuse, childhood neglect, and the unique trauma of seeing variations of these events in other worlds.
Johnson refers to her writing as ‘grit’ in the acknowledgements, and these are certainly heavy themes to deal with, making for a different reading experience to the escapism I usually look for. She also writes in first person with language more reflective than visual which, being a visual reader, made it difficult for me to connect with the story and protagonist until over halfway through the book.
“Why are we, who are so unhappy, fixated on long lives? What is the point? An easy life isn’t blessing. Easy doesn’t mean happy. Alive doesn’t mean anything at all.”
That said, the bleak tone and harsh characters reminded me of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death which I was unable to finish, so I’d say this is indicative of my personal preferences and somewhat prudish attitude towards themes of abuse in SFF rather than Johnson’s writing skills.
The Space Between Worlds is a unique and interesting approach to multiverse theory, but its standout feature is a convincing exploration of Cara’s character as she rediscovers her sense of self. The plot involves some unexpected twists as well as a F/F romance that enrich the story. I really enjoyed the final third of the novel as it moves towards a suspenseful climax.
This book is a unique experience that will appeal to many readers, so if any part of this review has piqued your interest don’t hesitate to get yourself a copy. Opinions might be divided among hard SFF readers as this novel takes a suggestive rather than explorative approach to worldbuilding and the use of the multiverse concept, which may leave some readers frustrated by unanswered questions.
The Space Between Worlds will be published on 4th August 2020 and is now available for pre-order.
Thank you to Netgalley and Hodder & Stoughton for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger warning: Domestic violence