THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS By Micaiah Johnson (BOOK REVIEW)
This review contains spoilers.
Cara is based on Earth Zero but travels to other worlds in the multiverse to gather information about planetary resources that might be exploitable by the company she works for. Her boss is Adam Bosch – think Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos mixed into one – director of the Eldridge Institute and the developer of the technology for travel across the multiverse. As the method only works with worlds similar to Earth Zero, most people there have living doppelgängers (dops) on other worlds and this poses a problem –if a pair encounter one another it is usually fatal.
The neoliberal solution is to only use people of colour who are poor, like Cara, who originate not from prosperous Wiley City on Earth Zero but from the planet’s economically deprived and eco-challenged wasteland, Ashtown, located on the wrong side of the wall that keeps them separate. Life expectancy is lower there and Cara is already dead in 373 of the 380 Earths to which travel is possible. As a surviving traveller (traverser), she has become a valuable member of the Eldridge Institute’s staff.
So far, so analogue. But there are depths to be explored in this novel and they make the book’s title a key to different ways of reading Micaiah Johnson’s narrative.
The title refers to Cara’s situation as a resident of Wiley City who, if she can hold on to her work visa, will be pronounced a citizen in four years’ time. Until then, she belongs legally to Ashtown. She has no wish to deny her background and by keeping in touch with her family in Ashtown she moves between two societies sharply divided by class, skin colour and ecology.
Another understanding of the title comes from a plot twist that emerges within the first thirty pages. Cara is not who people think she is. Her real origins are on Earth 22 and when living there she came across the mangled remains of someone looking just like herself. She knew nothing about doppelgängers and inter-world travel but took the opportunity presented to be traversed to Earth Zero. She is helped in assuming the identity of the dead woman by assiduously reading the deceased’s journals but she always remains acutely aware of her earlier self. In this sense, she inhabits a space between two worlds.
Perhaps the most rewarding application of the title comes by reading it as a summation of the way Cara finds her personal life from Earth 22 reconfigured on worlds she visits in the course of her work assignments.
Cara was originally in an abusive relationship with a violent gangster called Nik Nik, the Emperor, who ran Ashtown. When she goes to Earth 175, he turns up as a decent guy she need not fear; his brother is the ruthless honcho who murdered their father. Then she comes across her own dop who, mysteriously, has been killed. Solace is sought by recalling another of her doppelgängers, one on Earth 255, who had lovely hair, smiled naturally and exuded confidence. But self-psychotherapy is temporary and there is the long-lasting shock of finding Adam Bosch on a world where his ominous incarnation makes her wonder what kind of a man is employing her back on Earth Zero.
The possibility is that these alternative selves for each individual emerge from a matrix of possibilities, with different representations on various worlds pointing to how life can pan out in divergent ways when players are given or choose different paths to take. Cara senses something like this: ‘Not just my selves collapsing, but time collapsing, because past and future are other selves just as surely as those on different worlds.’
Different pathways in the book’s multiverse cannot be reduced to clichés about being the author of your own fate, the virtue of ambition or becoming who you really are. Selfhood, the novel speculates, is not a permanent state of being; not an entity of the metaphysical kind and not transcendental. It is a moveable feast, both created and constrained by issues of class, skin colour, ethical and political principles and outlooks. Cara’s paths are sometimes determined for her but she can also exercise self-management over her identity. As Cara puts it towards the end of her odyssey: ‘The multiverse isn’t just parallel universes accessible through science. They are in each of us, a kaleidoscope made up of varying perceptions.’
Micaiah Johnson’s cleverly inventive novel is written in a refreshingly clear style which is deceptively straightforward considering the way it probes issues of a philosophical and political kind. It succeeds in doing so without sacrificing the need for a narrative and a dramatic climax. There is also an intriguing relationship that develops between two women, Cara and her professional handler Dell. The Space Between Worlds has a lot going for it: mixing fantasy with sci-fi while throwing in the little time bomb that there is a multiverse in each of us.