Scottish crime writer Doug Johnson tries his hand (successfully) at something completely different in his latest novel The Space Between Us. This is science fiction – a first contact novel – but it is much more about being human than it is about its cephalopod aliens.
The Space Between Us opens with strange lights over Edinburgh which put a large number of people in hospital with strokes. Three of those victims – a teenage orphan (Lennox), an expectant mother fleeing an abusive husband (Ava) and a suicidal older woman (Heather) – miraculously recover and find they now have an uncanny bond. That bond is associated with a strange octopus-like creature washed up on a local beach. And the three will come together to rescue it.
The Space Between Us is essentially ET for adults (with a bit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind thrown in for good measure) but with a distinctly Scottish sensibility. The alien not only connects with the three but is almost zen-like in its philosophy of one-ness. Meanwhile, they are all being pursued by shadowy, violent government agents as well as Ava’s scary, well-connected husband. Also in the mix is Ewan, a journalist who helps them out despite his instincts being to write the story.
As already noted, this is not really a story about aliens. It is a story about humans. All three of the main characters are struggling in some way and their found family and the connection to each other helps them to work through their emotional wounds. The alien, called Sandy by Lennox, is really just a catalyst for a study of people being people. Some of this can be a bit heavy handed. As Heather realises at one point:
But how can we know what another being is thinking? How can we comprehend what anyone is going through? But that was the point of humanity, a search for empathy, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It seemed futile though… we can’t know other people, never enough.
While this is considered science-fiction, Johnson is pretty light on the science elements. The aliens are fairly magical and just want to be our friends, although they themselves are running from some undefined threat. But this is not a book about aliens. It is the humans – good and bad – who are at the centre of this drama. And these characters are drawn strongly and compassionately enough to make the journey worth taking.