Title: The Space Between Worlds
Author: Micaiah Johnson
Are there LGBT characters? Yes, the main character exudes Big Bi Energy
Brief summary / book review: Turns out there isn’t just one Earth, but close to 400. And they’re progressively slightly more divergent than our own. The “main” Earth is where everything is normal, where you have the life you live and the habits you’ve developed. But on Earth 1, you’ve made one key change. Maybe you’re happier. Maybe you’re sadder. Maybe you’re richer, or poorer; lonelier or more in love. And the further out you go, the more different you are. You might be a celebrity on Earth 30; a beggar on Earth 80. The you on Earth 150 might not even be alive.
And in this setting, the fewer versions of you that are alive, the more valuable you are to the Eldridge Institute. Why? Because the Institute has figured out a way to travel to these alternate Earths, and if you’re still alive when you go visit, you’ll end up killing yourself.
Our main character, Cara, is dead on 372 of these alternate worlds.
Needless to say, this makes her an extremely valuable traveler for the company. She’s able to visit more worlds than most people, largely due to the fact that her awful upbringing has led to her life being cut short in so many different ways.
And yes, this is an allegorical story about how people are denied opportunity simply because they were born in the wrong place, and have to fight that much harder to get ahead. As far as metaphors go, this is an extremely potent one.
It’s a fantastic concept, worthy of exploration, and to Johnson’s credit, she does a terrific job of exploring that issue in a way that’s both obvious and blatant, but also folds it into the story itself. On that front, “The Space Between Worlds” handles the characterizations, internal thought processes (save one, which we’ll get to), and interactions/interplay very naturally.
And as for the “Big Bi Energy” — there’s no hand-wringing here. Cara used to have a relationship with a dude; now she has a major crush on a chick. Nobody really remarks on it (with a few minor, half-hearted exceptions). I should pause here and point out that my line of her being with a dude really undersells her relationship — it was clearly an abusive one, and the main character rightfully treats it as such. But there’s no moment of, “Oh my God, I used to be with a man and now I like a woman?! What strange sort of beast am I?!” Nope. She likes a woman now, just because she likes her and that’s that. I loved that.
By now you might be reading this and wondering about the “3” rating. The short, spoiler-free explanation is that I just wasn’t on the same wavelength as the author. She’s clearly a very talented writer, and as I said before, genuinely did a great job of exploring the issues she lays out. She’s definitely a writer to watch.
I just had a hard time going along with the plot.
If you don’t want to read spoilers, I’ll just say this to wrap up for those of you who are going to bounce shortly: Don’t let my not being on the same wavelength turn you off. In fact, I definitely encourage you to check out this book anyway. You might love it! I hope you do. In life, we encounter things that just don’t click for us for whatever reason — like, I’m sure there’s someone out there who hates, I don’t know, pizza. Setting aside the question whether such a dubious person should be cast out of the village and shunned (obviously yes), there is never going to be any amount of convincing them that they obviously like pizza when they simply don’t.
This book is pizza for a lot of people, judging by the Goodreads reviews. But it wasn’t for me. That’s really all there is to it.
All right, spoiler time — final warning!
I struggled with enjoying this book more for two reasons, both of which converged at the end. The first is that I didn’t really understand Cara’s purpose. I’ve talked about this in some of my posts about writing — that each scene needs a purpose. There has to be a want and an obstacle (e.g. Frodo wants to throw the One Ring in Mount Doom; all the forces of Mordor are arrayed against him). And that characters have to have a driving purpose (e.g. the dudes from Jaws want to kill the shark).
Cara doesn’t really have that. Her want and obstacles were both very weak. Her big goal for the first half of the book or so was to pass a test. She said she cared about it, but whenever that test wasn’t part of any scene, she forgot about it completely. Like it never existed. She wasn’t obsessed with the test, like Captain Ahab was with Moby-Dick, for example. It was just a convenient plot device. And her obstacle to passing the test was that she just didn’t study and memorize enough.
I may be a little unfair here, because there is another motivation at work here, and that is Cara trying to survive and pass in a world that is not her own. More mental space is devoted to this, although it never seemed to rise to an urgency that demanded her full attention. It was a consideration for how to navigate her day, rather than something essential to her survival or identity. In other words, there was no urgency behind it, not really.
I’ll add here that I recognize I am in the minority on this view. Most of the other people who I’ve talked to thought that the survival aspect was key, and the focus wasn’t really on that, anyway, but on her personal relationships with the characters and world around her. That, to them, was what drove the story forward, and hooked them in the book. I can definitely see that; I only wished that I felt the same way.
The second thing that kept me at arm’s length was that during the build up to the climax, we learn that the inventor of world-travel is up to nefarious deeds — this twist was actually well-executed! And with lots of great foreshadowing. What was not well-executed, in my mind, is Cara’s reasons for wanting to stop him. Cara, for most of the book, makes a huge deal about her identity being wrapped up in the fact that she came from the wrong side of the tracks. That she was part of a caste of people that was neglected and even abused by people in power. That for so long, she has fought so hard to get herself in a position where she wouldn’t be trod underfoot by those wearing the biggest boots in the world.
And those are pretty much the people who are in danger of being slaughtered at the end of the book, and Cara decides…she wants to save them. That they’re not so bad after all! That they don’t deserve a taste of their own goods. Even though she doesn’t know a single potential victim (and neither do we, the reader). They’re just this amorphous, nameless, blob of rich folks who are in harm’s way. They’re totally abstract.
There’s a reason why those commercials with Sarah McLachlan spend so much time zooming in on those poor animals shivering and huddled in cages. You just want to reach through the screen and give all those good doggos and kittens all the hugs and food and catnip in the world. We connect with them. We see them. We identify with their suffering, and want to do everything to alleviate their pain.
Here, the potential victims of the bad guy’s plotting are barely mentioned in passing.
Sigh. I mean. Yeah, it’s laudable that our hero wants to save people. But up to that point in the book, Cara has given no indication that she’d be on their side, that she’d literally risk her life to save those who have neglected her to an upbringing of horror and misery. And the villain even calls her out on it!
It would be one thing if it explored the Stockholm Syndrome-esque behavior here, how Cara is a little blinded by her ideals, but those ideals were never established in the first place. And the book’s answer to her trying to defend the privileged is basically: “Well, the Big Bad is worse and we have to stop him!”
That’s not a great reason.
So, she has no real driving motivation for most of the book, and then suddenly when she needs one, it’s to save people who hate her, and helped to put her in this awful situation in the first place, by pure neglect. That’s why I had a hard time buying into this book. I really, really, really wanted to, but it just didn’t happen.
Anyway, I don’t want to make too much of this critique, because I want to be clear, this is my own personal take on the book. I have friends who have read this book (including a literary agent!) who loved it and could not stop raving about it. And as I mentioned above, I really did love how it explored a lot of really tricky themes, and those were easily the strongest points of the book.I mean, I wouldn’t have spent all this damn time writing and thinking about this book if there wasn’t something to it. This is one of those books that works really well as something to think about and discuss.
It’s just that I couldn’t get on board with certain plot choices, and that was what kept me from enjoying this book to its fullest while I was reading it.
About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.