RogerBW's Blog

The Space Between Worlds, Micaiah Johnson 06 April 2021

2020 SF. Humanity can travel to parallel worlds! But only pretty close parallels; and the only people who can do it are people whose other-world counterparts have died. Which means that the high-tech city has a use for people from the warlord-run town next door…

And it also means that this is in large part a book about how people might have turned out had their lives been different. While there is some decent physics-building, that's not what the book is for, and I think one's meant to ignore the various minor holes rather than picking at them (for example, the standard alternate-worlds problem of why there aren't uncounted billions of worlds imperceptibly different from our own). (Other holes, like "why do we seem to be the only world that has cross-world travel", are ones you're meant to pick at because Johnson has an answer to that, so this is a bit disorientating.)

But the parallel worlds are there mostly to make an effective background to a story about race/class and how one's previous life constrains one's thinking in both obvious and inobvious ways, as well as more directly about the difficulties of someone who looks like an outsider navigating a society that's mostly quite pleasant to people who look like its own. Cara, first-person narrator, is a mess, still making excuses for the abuser she escaped from, angry and scared and somewhat broken – but not completely. She still has a sense of what's the right thing to do, even if she's got into the habit of trying to ignore it. Her flaws make sense based on who she is, rather than being things pasted onto Generic Heroine to make her more "relatable".

The writing is solid, if sometimes overly portentous ("the first thing a monster learns is when to lie"), and bad things happen to good people. But the book avoids being preachy even though it has serious points to make, and even the Mad-Max-style warlord, horrible person as he clearly is, is holding together something like a society; it may be a society that benefits him a whole lot more than it benefits everyone else, but it's still better than some of the things that might happen without him. Meanwhile the lone heroic scientist who invented cross-world travel really doesn't look the same if you don't start off assuming that the lone heroic scientist must be the protagonist of the story.

This book does several things I don't like, most obviously in having relationship drama that could be solved by talking – but both people involved have reasons not to talk. And its closing paragraph is the best expression of the solution to the philosophical problem proposed in All the Myriad Ways that I've ever read. Really very good indeed.

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