The idea of multiple worlds or multiple realities is a common one in science fiction. In her debut, The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson shows there is plenty of life left in this old trope. Johnson uses the idea of multiple worlds not only to test and stretch her characters, but to play across a number of themes of class, nature, sexuality, fate and self-determination.
The Space Between Worlds opens on a dystopian future. The haves live in the walled, shiny city of Wiley, while the have-nots live outside the walls in rural poverty and subject to gang rule in Ashtown. In this future a wealthy scientist (more like a tech guru) has discovered a way to traverse alternate versions of Earth. But there is a catch. If the traverser’s double is still alive in the alternate world, the traveller dies a horrible, twisted death. So the only people who can safely traverse a large number of the 380 possible alternate worlds that are close enough to ‘Earth Zero’ are people who have already died in those realities. In other words, people from Ashtown, where life is often brutal and short.
Caramenta is a traverser and one of the best, as she notes:
Even worthless things can become valuable once they become rare. This is the grand lesson of my life.
Of the 380 Earths with which we can resonate, I’m dead in 372… I’m not a scientist, I’m just what they’re stuck with.
Caramenta comes from Ashtown, dark skinned and low born, and finds a place in the traverser program, but not a permanent one in Wiley. She lives in the lower levels of the high-rise city and both she and the other traversers know that as soon as their usefulness is over they will be cast out and sent back to Ashtown. She is also desperately but secretly enamoured of her handler, Dell, an attraction that sometimes seems to be reciprocated, although all of their signals are mixed. This is not the only secret that Caramenta carries with her and it is these secrets and their unravelling that drive a plot replete with satisfying twists and turns.
Johnson leans hard on her premise to explore a range of issues. While the title itself can refer to the eerie blackness that Caramenta travels through as she traverses, she notes that it could just as easily relate to her life:
I live in Wiley but I’m legally still Ashtown’s… It’s a space between worlds no different to the star-lined darkness I stand in when I traverse.
There is plenty of thematic resonance about the way people are used by others, the impact of power imbalances, the question of nature versus nurture. As she visits different realities Caramenta finds that small changes in people’s lives can lead to wildly different outcomes in circumstance, and that none of this is predictable:
If I figured anything out in these last six years, it is this: human beings are unknowable. You can never know a single person fully, not even yourself. If you think you know yourself in your safe glass castle, you don’t know yourself in the dirt. Even if you hustle and make it in the rough, you have no idea if you would thrive or die in the light of real riches, if your cleverness would outlive your desperation.
There is a lengthy section in the middle of the novel where Caramenta has to live in one of these other worlds for a few days and learn to engage with very different versions of the people she knows. While this section feels like it is slowing the action down, it is critical to exploring those themes, making some game-changing reveals and putting some markers in place for Caramenta’s vengeful finale.
Johnson’s setting is fairly generically dystopian. It is an Earth of the future, following war and famine. A war which led to the restructuring of society into very distinct haves and have-nots. Ashtown itself is essentially run by an organised crime family, while Wiley, seemingly more civilised, is not much better. There is a dark secret at the heart of the traverser project that only gets darker as Caramenta navigates closer to the centre of it. But neither is it a closed system; people can move between Ashtown and Wiley as Caramenta does to visit her family. But this travel is very rigidly controlled and requires official permits to visit Wiley and bribery to get into Ashtown.
There are so many stories that rely on the existence of alternate realities. Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Baxter and Pratchett’s Long Earth series and Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter are all good examples of this trope. The Space Between Worlds takes this idea, builds some clever rules around it and uses it to explore some fascinating themes. Johnson has shown great flair in breathing new life into this idea and it will be interesting to see where she goes next.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.