I’m extremely happy to share my NetGalley featured review of Micaiah Johnson’s dimension-hopping debut The Space Between Worlds today! This fair and unbiased review was conducted in exchange for a free electronic copy of the book.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
Multiverse theory has long snared the imaginations of writers and readers. Multiple examples of some of its ideas being used across all kinds of media spring to mind readily: 2001 Jet Li starrer The One, Rick and Morty, His Dark Materials, The Long Earth, even Community… the extremely varied list goes on. As a concept, it intrigues us; the idea that there could be multiple versions of ourselves, differing in infinite ways, our path through life diverging at critical junctures to play out every possibility.
The Space Between Worlds, the debut novel from Micaiah Johnson, takes this theory and gives us a glimpse of what humanity would most likely do once they had perfected the technology to make it work – commercialise it. Main character Cara is a traverser, so named because she is able to be sent between parallel Earths. The reason why she’s chosen for this? Well, there are two conditions which determine the success of a traversal. Firstly, the Earth being travelled to must be similar enough to the one you’re starting from (dubbed Earth Zero by Eldridge, the company behind the technology). And secondly, the other you has to be dead already in the destination reality. Cara, it seems, is terminally unlucky in the vast majority of the parallel Earths – of the few hundred which are similar enough to be traversed to, she has died in almost all of them. This makes her a useful employee indeed, able to travel to more Earths than her colleagues, where she takes readings to ensure Earth Zero can continue harvesting resources from its parallel selves.
There is, however, an even darker side to what makes Cara and her fellow traversers so special. Their high mortality rate is a direct result of the conditions their people find themselves in across hundreds of Earths, conditions determined by class and race. The many versions of Cara are more likely to be deceased because she is black and poor, a resident of Ashtown born to a woman who is, frequently, a junkie. Ashtown itself has a touch of Mad Max to it, a blisteringly hot desert community ruled over by a tyrannical Emperor who commands a crew of runners – heavily tattooed enforcers in armoured transports. In some of those multiple realities, Cara didn’t even make it past childhood, chased down by brutal, blood-crazed psychopaths. In stark contrast, the wealthy residents of Wiley City live in luxurious comfort, in a glass city a hundred stories tall which is home to the traversal technology. It’s only by sheer luck on her part – and extremely bad luck on the part of the other versions of her – that Cara is able to gain access to their higher standard of living. Should she lose her job though, her work visa goes with it, and she will immediately be cruelly forced out.
The differences between residents of Wiley City and Ashtown are reinforced frequently. Clothing, diets, mannerisms and customs are wildly different between the two, and it’s made clear early that there are many residents of Wiley City, particularly Eldridge employees, who are prejudiced against Ashtowners. There are microaggressions which will make you wince with their relevance, as well as more overt and deliberate insults. This constant undercurrent of classism, Cara admits, gives her something of a chip on her shoulder herself. It plays havoc on her relationship with her wealthy colleague Dell, who, as her watcher, is in control of the technology that allows Cara to traverse. There is a genuine romantic tension between the two women, which plays out in profoundly moving fashion; not so much star-crossed lovers as world-crossed. Romantic sub-plots so often come across as too convenient to be believable. That’s not the case here, and there’s certainly nothing neat and easy about any of it.
It’s not just Cara’s emotional state that concerns Johnson though – her mental one is engagingly explored too. On several occasions, the thoughts Cara has regarding the various doomed versions of herself, not to mention the perception-warping variations between worlds, lead her into existential crisis territory. It would be easy, one realises, to become untethered from one’s sense of self, doing the kind of thing that Cara does. This leads to all kinds of observations and musings on Cara’s part, foremost among them being the question of why this particular version of her has been so survivable compared to the others – is it because she’s the best version of her? Or is it because, owing to some of the things she’s done, she’s actually the worst? She is constantly confronted with the consequences of her actions, unable to look at those she knows without playing out their alternate fates, which she has often had a hand in – for good or ill.
The Space Between Worlds is compulsively readable, thought provoking, intelligent science fiction. It’s a very human story of a person coming to terms with their true self; where they’ve come from, where they want to be, and what they really want out of life. Look out for the name Micaiah Johnson, because if there’s any justice on this particular version of Earth, you’ll be seeing it on plenty of end-of-year lists. A stunning debut.
The Space Between Worlds is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available now. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link. Alternatively, you can order a rather swanky copy from Goldsboro Books here.
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[…] Snagging the number one spot, it’s The Space Between Worlds, the debut novel from Micaiah Johnson. Protagonist Cara is a traverser, so named because she travels between parallel Earths assessing their worth in raw materials for Earth Zero. In a moment of adroit social commentary, it emerges that only those whose counterparts are dead in the world they’re going to are able to traverse. The other versions of Cara – a black woman from a bad neighbourhood – have died in myriad ways across multiple versions of Earth, leaving the privileged folk of Wiley City dependent on her and her fellow long-suffering traversers. The sharp satire never gets in the way of the well-paced plot though, with twists and turns aplenty, and Cara is a relentlessly interesting protagonist to follow. You can read the full review here. […]