Micaiah Johnson’s 2020 The Space Between Worlds is a science fiction novel.
Adam Bosch has invented a machine that gives Wiley City (and to a lesser extent the dystopian hellscape beyond its walls) access to the multiverse. New resources, new information … that’s the good part. But there is a catch. Indeed, a number of catches.
Adam’s machine will only work to connect timelines that are quite similar. Even though there are an infinity of possible worlds, Wiley City only has access to 380. Travel between timelines is physically challenging. Not only that: living beings who travel to parallel worlds in which they have a living analog will die horrible deaths.
Privileged people, important people, tend to have analogs in most of the other realities. They’ve led protected lives, as have most of their analogs. Traversing would surely mean death. But there are a lot of people who haven’t led protected lives. Beyond Wiley City’s walls live the poor, doomed to short and dangerous lives. Send such a poor person across the worlds and it’s just possible that the poor person may live.
Cara is a traverser. She uses Adam’s machine to travel to other worlds. In at least 372 of the 380, her analog is dead. She can traverse to those with impunity. She’s also something of a rara avis; no other traverser can access as many worlds as Cara. Having survived where so many of her analogs did not, Cara is determined to cling to the meagre rewards of her position. But … she and the other traversers are quite aware that Adam is looking for ways to dispense with his traversers. Dealing with employees is so vexing!
Cara may be no luckier than her analogs. They may have died due to starvation, negligent mothers, and homicidal lovers. This Cara is about to discover the hazards of learning too much.
The setting of this novel is quite constrained: different versions of Wiley City and nearby Ashtown. It’s not that the rest of the world doesn’t exist — supporting characters Starla Saeed and Jean Sanogo hail from other continents — but the whole planet has been ground down by climate change, resource depletion, and autocratic violence. Trade seems to have wound down as well. Or perhaps it’s just that Wiley has given up on long-range trade networks.
The setting is dystopian. The characters seem to believe that in this dying world, the only thing worth having is power. If you have it, you go to extreme lengths to keep it; if you don’t, you cozy up to the powerful. Kindness is an exploitable weakness. Loved ones make such good hostages. While humans squabble over power, the world is dying. All the connected worlds are dying. Population growth rates are negative; some are more negative than others.
All of which no doubt sounds rather bleak. Indeed, this is not exactly a comfort read. What victories are possible are personal ones — success in romance, individuals confounded, but no systemic political reform. What saves the novel from being the literary equivalent of chugging a litre of tamarind juice are the characters, who may find it nearly impossible to work effective change, but are endearing nevertheless.