“Wow. That was so good and so unexpected. Great storytelling, lots of surprises and lots to think about. It was raw, clever and disturbing. And all that from a debut novel. Micaiah Johnson is a writer to watch.“
That was my reaction immediately after I finished reading ‘The Space Between Worlds’.
I’d gone into the novel ready for one of those Science Fiction stories that use time travel or, in this case, travel between parallel worlds in the multiverse, to set up mysteries to solve while sharing reflections on history, culture, causality etc. In other words, a comfortable, enjoyable, dramatised thought experiment. From the beginning, it was clear that ‘The Space Between Worlds’ wasn’t that kind of book at all. It was a novel about social exclusion, told from the point of view of someone who started amongst the excluded but who has been allowed to live among the privileged because has something that they need.
The background to the story is a future earth with the technology to enable travel to hundreds on the nearest parallel worlds in the multiverse but you can only travel to a world where your counterpart is already dead. Cara is valued as a traveller between worlds because although she is young, her counterparts have already died in 372 worlds. As Cara explains, if you’re rich in this world, you’re likely to be rich in the parallel worlds and so your counterparts are likely to be alive. So travel between worlds created a demand for what Cara call ‘trash people’ like her. People with the odds stacked against their survival across the multiverse. Cara has survived and is trying to earn citizenship that will grant her permanent residence in the walled city she works in, freeing her from the poverty and physical hardship of the desert community she came from.
The book works well as an adventure. There’s lots of action, lots of surprises and strong, memorable characters. Yet what really drives the book are themes on the nature of identity, of privilege and exclusion, of the cost of survival and the reality of choice.
For example, the title, ‘The Space Between Worlds’ seems to me to refer not only to the gap between the worlds of the multiverse but to that feeling of having one foot amongst the privileged and one amongst the excluded and no longer feeling at home in either so that you feel like an imposter in your own life.
When Cara thinks about travelling between worlds, she accepts that it’s based on science and technology but she is also willing to believe that the space between is somehow sentient, an uncaring god who holds the fate of travellers in her hand, sometimes letting them pass unharmed, sometimes leaving her mark on them and sometimes breaking them into pieces. The ability to believe in science and sentient fate simultaneously, without choosing between them, is one of the traits that define Cara. It’s an ability that also enables her to develop a more layered view on the nature of exclusion and to see that it is in some senses, mutual and that her true home is literally in the space between worlds that both refuse to accept her as she is.
This is Cara’s story. We see the worlds through her eyes. She keeps the novel grounded in the personal when considering the abstract. Cara is, first and foremost, a survivor. Not a hero. Not someone driving for change in the face of unacceptable inequity. Not even someone who is driven by scientific curiosity or by an attachment to those around her. She puts herself first, always. Except when she can’t. Except when doing so would make her feel like she was betraying herself. Because this is a novel that is mostly about identity. She’s seen herself in many worlds and has died in almost all of them. She’s seen alternate versions of other people in her life. She knows that she is not who she appears to be and she understands better than most that who you become is driven by fate, your choices, and the price you’re willing to pay. Ultimately Cara’s struggle is first with accepting herself for who she is and then with finding a space for herself that will allow her to be who she is.
One of the things that I enjoyed was Micaiah Johnson’s ruthless writing. She’s not afraid to make her characters suffer the consequences of their actions or just be victims of bad luck. They live in a brutal world where bad things are always going to happen. She uses those consequences to show that both the excluded and the privileged have choices that affect who they become. Who they are is not completely determined by the status that they’re born into.
This is a book full of surprises – about what happens next, about who people are and about why everything is happening. Each surprise shifts the ground beneath the reader’s feet, keeping you constantly off balance but with a sense of moving forward with purpose.
Part of the power of this book comes from the fact that it’s not a dystopian novel. Yes, it’s set in a future where climate change has made it harder to survive and where the rich live in walled cities, building ever-taller towers, consuming without producing and where the rest get by as best they can, scratching a living from the dirt and governing by a mix of warlord muscle, local guilds and religious beliefs. But this isn’t a dystopia. It’s just today with some of the camouflage removed. Part of the power of this book comes from looking at our privileged, resource-hungry, technology-enabled, inward-looking world from the point of view of the people who are denied access to while still being exploited by it.
This is the best kind of get-your-hands-dirty, wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee Science Fiction and I strongly recommend it. I also recommend the audiobook version which is perfectly delivered by Nicole Lewis. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
Micaiah Johnson is a biracial author who was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness community in the Southern California desert. She graduated high school at the age of 13, received her MFA from Rutgers-Camden, and is currently studying race and robots as a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt.