The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson (Del Rey 978-0593135051, $28.00, 336pp, hc) August 2020.
In recent years, it has become common for popular entertainment to play with the trope of parallel worlds and alternate lives. The plot device has been employed in settings ranging from the “mirror universe” in Star Trek to the classic DC Comics’ story “The Crisis of Infinite Earths” and Marvel Comics’ What If series. These stories were a playground for fans obsessed with a cornucopia of adventures that otherwise might not have ever been told—escapism in the purest sense of the word. In contrast, classic science fiction takes the convention of alternate worlds a step further; it puts a mirror to our society and plays with our imaginative vision like a circus mirror maze. Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between the Worlds is the most recent addition to this genre of literature.
Against the backdrop of dystopian world divided between privileged, technologically advanced cities and a lawless rural hinterland rule by warlords, it tells the story of Cara, a traveler between worlds, who works for the enigmatic Bosch corporation. As courier, Cara can visit up to 300 alternate Earths in the multiverse and gather information to be reviewed by analysts. To earn such a unique position, Cara had to meet one extremely challenging qualification, she must be deceased on most other Earths. Couriers who visit worlds occupied by with their own doppelgangers invariably never return whole and healthy. In her travels, Cara must keep her presence secret because strangely only her Earth has discovered the multiverse and has a Bosch corporation.
On one level, Johnson’s story follows the method of any good yarn, it provides a general story and slowly peels away its layers to get at truth and a denouement. Alternate worlds provide an excellent pretext to explore the different ways in which a future dystopia might have unfolded. However, such a project is not Johnson’s primary concern. Although Johnson engages with the customary world-building associated with science fiction, her story does not devolve into a kaleidoscope of alternative Earth possibilities that might both overwhelm the reader and limit the storytelling. In fact, couriers can only travel to those earths that are plausibly like the origin Earth. Cara therefore cannot travel between Earths where the Nazis rule and others dominated by a Zulu empire; her destinations are all variations on the theme of her own home.
In this sense, The Space Between Worlds really tells a single story even though the locales are alternate realities. The spaces addressed by the novel are not just boundaries between physical realities, but the lines between different social realities and different lives. Cara became a traveler because she came from the portion of the population with the highest mortality rate. Each Earth presents her with a new account of how she might have perished in another life. As we listen to Cara reveal her past(s), we dwell on the costs of social inequalities and the safety afforded by a privileged life. Across worlds, Cara must navigate the same abusers, lovers, and family members—alive in one world and dead in the next. She can see and sometimes even participate in these other possibilities at the cost of confronting her own provisional existence. Couriers can only live in the safe and utopian city if they are Bosch employees and most couriers eventually lose their jobs, their residency permits, and their safety. Once denied the city, they return to wastes ruled by warlords who maintain order with “runners,” the gangs of Johnson’s dystopia. Throughout the novel, Cara traverses the urban utopia and rural dystopia never completely at home in one place or the other.
Johnson’s novel reflects the diversity inherent in our society—social, racial, sexual, and religious. It provides numerous possibilities for the reader to somehow discern a sliver of his/her own experience in Cara’s story and likewise dwell on the immense gulf between the two. Cara is essentially a survivor and this quality echoes throughout Johnson’s narrative. The world crafted by Johnson and her characters do not exist to validate our own emotions and values, but to live their own many possible lives. We are voyeurs for whom the novel poses the question—what spaces in our own lives are occluded from our vision?
The Space Between Worlds is strangely a form of realist escapism. Parallel words whet our appetite for the fantastic, but the story remains grounded in the major characters. Johnson’s dialogue and Cara’s thoughts never stray into cringeworthy soliloquies or esoteric cyberpunk language; it is the raw stuff of human conversation in adversity and hope. Cara’s story comes in stages and its final trajectory only becomes apparent as both Cara and readers earn through her own self-discovery. In an age when so many science fiction works are premised as epic trilogies with immensely imagined universes, Johnson’s story is a refreshing reprieve. I enjoyed travelling with Cara and I hope that you consider such a journey as well.