(2020) Micaiah Johnson, Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99, hrdbk, 329pp, ISBN 978-1-529-38711-7
Science fiction has always managed to combine social and cultural ideas within its science fictional settings, showing us alternatives and testing different ideas to see how they play out.
At first, this one feels like it is going to do the same. Cara lives in a future where Elon Musk-like inventor Adam Bosch has made travel between different Earths possible – 382 realities to date. The only downside to this is that two people cannot live on the same Earth together. This means that Cara can only travel to Earths where she has never been or has died. Currently there are eight where she cannot go.
When Cara is told that she has been murdered on Earth 175, she goes on an extended trip to find out how and why and effectively takes the place of her now-dead self.
In the meantime, we find out about Cara’s early life, as someone born in the tough Wastelands, and how Cara has fought her entire life just to survive. We even discover an unexpected consequence of this, that Cara has been living a lie, as she is not the Cara everyone thinks she is, having stepped into Cara from Earth Zero’s shoes on Earth 22.
The investigation of her death on Earth 175 leads to Cara discovering that there is a danger, not just to Earth but, to the whole multiverse…
I guess I should say that you shouldn’t come to The Space Between Worlds expecting a typical science fictional multiverse story. Miciah’s version wears its heart on its metaphorical sleeve, downplaying the science fictional element in order to focus on more human, social elements. As a result, I can see why some readers will love it. It is a very soft science fiction read.
Cara is a character that is complex – outwardly tough but inwardly vulnerable, and much of this book relates to her perspective on things. She is also a character that does not seem to be a typical hero/heroine in that she has had to fight her way to her current position, from a background of rural poverty to that of something more elite. Whilst on this current Earth she finds that she has to fight to survive, but in a different way. To do so she clearly breaks a number of the rules she is supposed to follow. She is an outsider in both worlds – both to those working for the Eldridge Institute and those on Earth 175.
Can I see why some readers liked it? Yes. Did I like it? Hmm.
This complex background and unusual world-building should make Cara a character of interest. However, I do think that the author has overplayed her hand, in that instead of finding a personality I was interested in, I found a damaged character that I didn’t like. It also didn’t help that the characters she was surrounded by were pretty unpleasant as well – initially violent and self-centred or weak and whiny. Even when, towards the end, I realised that there was more depth to them than I expected, I still didn’t like them, or want to spend time with them.
This meant that I did struggle to finish this one and really didn’t care what happened by the end. As good as some parts of this one was, I found the moralising a little heavy-handed and repetitious which to me led to the effect being cumulatively less effective. I got that the book is about abusive relationships, identity and slavery, and about entitlement and that many readers will appreciate it because of that. I just felt that the point was made repeatedly without really taking it anywhere.
It is undoubtedly clever and there are some plot twists that I didn’t see coming, but by the end I was just wanting to finish the book. I did get to the point in the middle of the book where I didn’t care about the characters and what they were doing, or even why – a fatal error in any book I read. Instead of being exciting, or a book that made me think, there were times where I found it dull. Luckily, this does pick up by the end when things are tied together, although the ending did seem to happen comparatively quickly after the lengthy middle part.
In the end, I found that there was an opportunity here that was missed. Although many of the worlds Cara has visited have been mentioned briefly, the focus of the book is on two - Earth 22 and her original Earth. For such a broad concept, the book was disappointing to me in its narrow focus. Ultimately, it is a small scale story in a big universe, even when a cursory attempt is made to threaten all of it.
To sum up then. I found The Space Between Worlds being a bit of a mixed bag. Parts of this were great for me, other parts less so. It was often not what I was expecting (which can be a good thing) but in the end I felt that it was limited by its narrow focus which led to a lack of wide-vista ambition. But as a ruminance on social issues such as race, class, identity and ownership, as a story of relationships and abusive behaviour in a science fictional setting, you may like this a lot, even when at times its topics are uncomfortable.
See also Mark Bilsborough's review of The Space Between Worlds.
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