I’m not sure how much Michaiah Johnson knows about architecture, but if The Space Between Worlds is any indication, she sure can construct a plot.
The debut novel has an immaculately constructed plot with parallels upon parallels to itself and real life—which, as it happens, you almost forget exists after being immersed in Johnson’s world. It was one of those rare books that made you want to read faster to get to the end while also making you want to savor every word.
Cara is a traveler, one of a dwindling number of workers who traverse parallel universes gathering information on how that Earth has fared based on different choices made somewhere in the two universes’ recent histories. The trick of these journeys, though, is that two versions of the same person can’t exist, so travelers can only go to another universe if that version of themselves is already dead. As the information-gathering effort advances and many of Cara’s colleagues get laid off after “burning out” all of their available worlds, Cara has a unique advantage: she’s already dead in almost every other universe out there.
Which is good, because being laid off would mean having to leave behind the glitz and convenience of the futuristic utopia that is Wiley City for the barren wasteland outside city walls that is her hometown. Out there, her prostitute-turned-preacher’s-wife mother, stepfather, and stepsiblings manage to stay respectable, though they are always under the watchful eye of the emperor, NikNik, who is ruthless and cold…and whose name is tattooed on Cara’s back. As Cara tries to keep the delicate balance that is her life, she is sent to a world where her other self has recently died, only to find out the death was faked.
Through a series of spoiler-y circumstances, Cara survives and finds herself embroiled in other-world conflict. But getting out of that problem reveals dark secrets in the “real world,” and not even Cara is sure she’s smart—or cautious—enough to survive them.
The Space Between Worlds is a big, fat book, so there’s plenty of room for the narrative to unspool at its own pace. That also means there are enough pages for subplots and well-developed characters and lots of rumination, but Johnson, though certainly not a spare writer, doesn’t let the story bloat. Each twist feels purposeful; each turn feels necessary. One of the things I often find myself doing as I read, especially longer books, is subconsciously considering the pacing and whether the story needs to be split into more volumes or condensed to let it tell the story it needs to. In this case, I couldn’t find a place to split or an element to cut. And because it’s a standalone novel, I was never sure if Cara would survive—and who would bite the dust.
But more than the story itself or the pacing or the mechanics of the thing, what I found most compelling about The Space Between Worlds was how well it interacted with itself. Cara’s job is to walk between literal worlds; in her personal life, she has to switch between communities so different they might as well be different planets. Cara is so good at her job because her life was considered so utterly disposable in most other worlds, leaving her dead in most of them; despite her job performance and her relationships with other colleagues, her position means she’s most likely to die in this world, too. The racial divide between travelers and their handlers, who can’t travel between worlds because they are alive in far too many of them, is stark; the racial divide between the city and the wasteland is similarly vast. And all of them have easy corollaries in reality if you can look up from the story long enough to see them.
Johnson is clear with her meaning. Those parallels are no accident. Yet she is never heavy-handed, even with ample opportunity. All told, The Space Between Worlds is beautiful and enthralling and meaningful and superbly written. It is everything I love about science fiction and fantasy, wrapped up into one solid book. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the fact that I can’t ever read it for the first time again.