Book cover: The Space Between The Stars - Anne Corlett (a woman's silhouette against a pale blue sky)The virus had a long incubation period. By the time it started killing, it had already spread across the stars. Those who survived the second day lived. The rest burnt up, 99.9999% of the human race reduced to piles of dust. Now the few survivors – scattered across planets – must try to reconnect, regroup and choose their future. Should Jamie try to rebuild what she’s lost or choose a fresh start?

The Space Between The Stars is – for me, at least – this year’s Station Eleven. I have seen more critical reviews, but it spoke straight to my heart and unstrung it, leaving me crying quietly on an aeroplane (whether that’s one better than crying on public transport I leave to you). Like Station Eleven, this is a story that uses a SF conceit to explore human nature rather than a story that is interested in its SF trappings. As such, some SF readers may feel sold short. But not this SF reader. This reader is in resonant bits.

We meet Jamie on Soltaire, a remote farming planet where she has fled from her long-term partner Daniel to seek the space to heal after a devastating loss. Her flight may be his saviour: those who reached out to comfort loved ones simply passed on the virus. Parents, children, lovers were vectors for the disease. Jamie contracted it too, but she has survived – and now she is left with the difficult mathematics of the mortality rate. Given Soltaire’s small population, she could be the last person alive on the planet. Corlett captures her anguish and terror; you can taste Jamie’s spiralling panic.

When she finds a garbled message on her communicator, she remembers that she may be alone on Soltaire, but she’s not alone in the universe. She and Daniel once joked that in the event of being separated in a zombie apocalypse they would meet in Northumberland – and he was on his way to Earth when the virus hit. Now convinced he has survived, she has a mission: if she can contact a passing spaceship of survivors, she may yet find him.

Luckily for Jamie, statistics can be misleading (and she never has much faith in her maths anyway). In an epidemic, survival rates drop in densely populated areas. On a sparsely populated planet like Soltaire, chances improve. Camping in town near the spaceport, she finds two more survivors: Lowry, founder of a local religious retreat, and Rena, a former research scientist with an unhealthy religious mania. Within days, they have been rescued by the Phaeacian*, whose captain Callan and engineer Gracie escaped infection thanks to quarantine.

From here, The Space Between The Stars is a road trip as the Phaeacian seeks other survivors on its route back to the central planets and as Jamie and the rest seek meaning in their survival. For all I said this wasn’t a story overly interested in its scifi trappings, Corlett clearly knows her tropes. The scenes on Pangaea, Gelta and Alegria are all straight out of the post-apocalypse playbook, but Corlett skilfully evokes the terror of empty warehouses, the inevitable threat of desperate men and the bureaucratic ruthlessness of those too used to holding power. There’s nothing new here per se, but I really don’t care when it’s handled well.

And no, The Space Between The Stars isn’t really interested in the genetics of its killer virus, or how the Phaeacian‘s engines work. Ignoring the spaceship (at best the space equivalent of a tramp steamer), everything is absurdly low-tech, more 1998 than interstellar. While this initially bothered me, I soon gave it a pass. I was too entranced by the development and destruction of the relationships on board the ship.

They’re an unlikely group who gel poorly: Rena, determined to believe in God’s plan, can’t reconcile it with the survival of sex worker Mila, autistic Finn or even Jamie herself, once Rena discovers she was born with a conjoined twin. Jamie – still smarting with guilt over the forced emigrations of the ‘less desirable’ from Earth – has no patience for those who insist one life has more value than another when most lives have been snuffed out. Captain Callan (once a deportee himself) clearly can’t wait to get the whole squabbling mess off his ship. The sheer quantity of baggage on board should be enough to drop the Phaeacian out of the sky like a stone.

Along the way, the narrative takes a lingering look at coping mechanisms and specious arguments (such as Callan’s pointed question of how many survivors it takes for Jamie to decide they can cope, rather than insisting on rescuing them) as it circles repeatedly, insistently around our right to make our own choices. I love that in spite of defending this principle, both Jamie and Callan are human enough to struggle with it – and are chastised (Mila calling Jamie on her privilege; Gracie chiding Callan’s ironic refusal to accept that Elsie would be happier alone). I love more that this is a post-apocalypse whose empty planets are peopled not by the fittest, but by the isolated – the old, the sick, the dysfunctional, the neuroatypical.

Even more so than Station Eleven, this is a post-apocalypse that acknowledges the tropes and then rejects them. It acknowledges and embraces that life is messy and people are complicated. It upholds what it claims to believe in, however awkward, rather than sacrificing its ideals on the altar of necessity. Consequently, I find The Space Between The Stars both hopeful and incredibly satisfying. And in spite of being a grumpy sentimentalist who claims to hate romance, I’m not ashamed to admit I was shipping madly from the start.

*****

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

* For those wondering, it’s a reference to – inevitably – The Odyssey. It is at the least highly suggestive and at the worst a spoiler in its own right, if you believe in nominative determinism.