Multiple worlds and parallel universes are a staple in science fiction, and Micaiah Johnson does a nice job bringing some freshness to a well-worn concept in The Space Between Worlds (2020), mostly thanks to some sharp characterization, intricate plotting, and stylish prose.
Cara is a “Traverser,” one who travels from her Earth (Earth Zero) to parallel Earths collecting data for the Eldridge Corporation whose leader, Adam Bosch, invented the technology. In the rules of the narrative, one can only travel to a parallel Earth if their double there has died: “It took a lot of smart people’s corpses before they learned that If you’re alive in the world you’re trying to enter, you get rejected. You’re an anomaly the universe won’t allow.” It didn’t take long for the corporation to realize “they needed trash people. Poor black and brown people,” those most likely to have died from violence or poverty in those alternate Earths. Of the 380 Earths that Earth Zero can “resonate” with, Cara is dead in 373 of them.
On Earth Zero, the society is split in two: those who live in Wiley City, a gleaming technological near-utopia with food, fresh air, amazing medicine, and 80-story buildings; and those who live outside the Wall in Ashtown, a desert wasteland where life is cheap and where the people are ruled over by a strongman “Emperor” named Nik Nik, a title inherited from his father who imposed a brutal peace after years of wars. Cara is an Ashtowner, and though she lives in Wiley now due to her job, she still has family in Ashtown whom she visits regularly. The other Earths have very similar societal setups; in the numbering system used by Eldridge, lower-number Earths are most like Earth Zero, and as the numbers climb, the Earths become more and more different. Though never too different: “ … there are probably worlds where I am a plant or a dolphin or where I never drew breath at all. But we can’t see those. Eldridge’s machine can read and mimic only frequencies similar to our own.” The highest number Earth visited was 382, but an apparent nuclear war changed the “frequency” enough that it was lost to Traversers. Johnson also builds in a nice bit of myth/folklore amongst the Traversers in which the universe that accepts or reject them is personified in the form of a woman/goddess they call Nyame.
The world-building in The Space Between Worlds is maybe a little thin in some ways; there’s very little sense, for instance, of what is happening beyond Wiley and Ashtown. But that was fine with me. We get enough of those two places, and really that’s all we need; I never felt the lack of big-picture details. My favorite aspect of the world creation was how Johnson subtly and deftly peeled away layers for us, giving us frequent, small tidbits of information of how Wiley and Ashtown work as the reader moves through the book rather than employing a few large infodumps. Johnson shows a skillful and restrained hand in detailing this new world for the reader.
That same skill presents itself in Cara’s characterization. Her past as an Ashtowner now living in Wiley but moving between the two is a nice echo of the “multiple universes” concept (and also fits neatly into the title). She’s a richly drawn and complex character, not always likable thanks to a harshness and coldness one can assume comes from her growing up in a hellhole. She also protects herself viciously from the potential of emotional harm, slamming down walls and torching bridges before people can get too close. As with the world of Earth Zero though, what we see early on is only a small piece of the whole, and Johnson does the same bit of gradual revelation with Cara as she does with the world, allowing Cara to grow on the reader as we spend more time with her. Cara’s also a dynamic character, both willing to cast a sharply critical eye on herself and to change as that eye reveals some things she’d prefer were not true about herself. Her quasi-relationship with Dell is a little hit or miss in its presentation, but also adds some complexity to both character and story, as well as some moving moments.
Other characters vary in their depth, more as a result of so much going on in not a lot of pages (relative to, say, the usual fantasy tome) than due to poor writing. Dell was one of those characters who suffered for me, which is why the relationship storyline wasn’t as strong as I would have liked. Two characters who stood out were Cara’s sister Esther and Cara’s mentor Jean. Another is a different-Earth Nik Nik, mostly in his contrast to Cara’s Nik Nik version. That’s always part of the fun of an alternate-world narrative — the multiple versions of selves, and Johnson creates a wonderful spectrum of doppelgängers, whether it’s various Nik Niks or Esthers or even Caras, each subtly different from other versions of the same characters we’ve already met or heard of.
The plot is engaging enough, focusing on a discovery Cara makes that changes her view of how things work at the corporation and also has the potential to change the entire world. There are a number of twists and turns, some nice foreshadowing, some tense moments. Best of all, The Space Between Worlds also serves as a good vehicle for the weighty themes Johnson introduces: issues of class, race, privilege, equity, exploitation. You can see these themes baked right into the premise, this idea that Traversers are chosen from the “trash people” because their circumstances mean they die so much more often than those lucky enough to be born into the city. Or how part of why the corporation sends Traversers into other Earths is to take resources from them, which Cara tells us Eldridge’s opponents see as “a new colonialism, and they’re not wrong.” It’s impossible to read a passage like “Wiley City … sees a fourteen-year-old runner outside the wall and says a suspicious man spotted near the border, but when a thirty-three-year-old Wileyrite murders his girlfriend it’s Good boy goes bad” and think one is reading science fiction, let alone allegedly “escapist” fiction.
Johnson’s prose is always clear and fluid, but often rises above that into the lyrical and sometimes startling, pushing me to write “nice” multiple times next to lines or passages I admired. Here’s one of my favorites:
The universe is brimming with stars and life, but there is a section of sky that is utterly dead and empty. They call it a cold spot, a supervoid, and they say it got that way because two parallel universes got to close to touching. That’s us. That’s me and Dell … if I ever get too close, The Eridanus Void opens between us. We both withdraw and leave a cold dark in the space we almost touched that three suns couldn’t light.
The Space Between Worlds has strong characters, an intriguing premise and interesting world, all conveyed via a stylish, vibrant prose. Which makes it an easy recommendation.