When Adam Bosch discovered how to travel the multiverse, alternate realities became resources to exploit. Cara escaped Earth Zero’s slums because she’s dead in nearly every timeline, meaning she can safely traverse to 372 worlds. But can she survive the Earths that killed her other selves?
There are inviolable rules to traversing realities: the timelines must be relatively similar (as they diverge, it may become impossible to traverse to them), and the traverser must already be dead there. Few survive the experience of trying to enter a world where a version of themselves already exists.
Cara’s life chances have been almost universally poor. On Earth Zero, Cara is a poor Ruralite raised in a deeply religious family. Now she lives under the dome of Wiley City with all its mod cons, where she is tolerated only because of her value to corporate behemoth Eldridge. In other timelines, she has mostly lived briefly and died badly at the hand of Nik Nik, the violent gang lord who rules the slums of Ashtown.
I’m the best in the universe at letting bad shit happen to me
Cara’s fatality rate is rare, and has secured her job at Eldridge through rounds of downsizing. Now Eldridge is focusing on ways to extract information from other Earths without putting boots on the ground, even Cara’s job – and with it her right to stay in the safe harbour of Wiley City – is at risk. But Cara is a survivor.
She’s also an imposter. Earth Zero’s Cara died traversing to a world where Cara was still alive – and quick to seize the opportunity to step out of her own horrific circumstances. She’s been faking herself ever since, distancing herself from a family she didn’t actually grow up with and desperately trying to earn citizenship by being promoted to a desk job at Eldridge. She has no interest in being sent back to the wasteland and embracing her family’s religion, even if she trusted it as a shield against Nik Nik’s Mad Max violence.
I was completely absorbed from the get-go, caught initially by Cara’s wry narrative voice and then hooked by Johnson’s world(s)-building and deft plotting as it becomes clear that Eldridge’s glossy halls conceal as many deadly secrets as Ashtown. Cara’s history allows Johnson to layer in themes of trauma, social injustice and class prejudice (with a slice of will-they-won’t-they f/f romance) that make The Space Between Worlds more than just another pacy (if well-executed) corporate tech thriller with dystopian implications.
The multiverse also provokes questions about who we are vs who we might be in other circumstances, opening up possibilities of forgiveness and redemption. This was largely framed around Nik Nik and Cara’s half-sister Esther (after all, most of the other Caras are dead). We hear so much about Nik Nik – the gangster, the monster, the torturer, the murderer – but when we finally meet a Nik, he’s a Ruralite convert who has turned his back on violence. For all Cara knows how different she is from the woman she replaced – and her many other dead doppelgangers – she struggles to accept a gentle, compassionate Nik, let alone what his existence implies about the other Niks across the worlds.
The result is an entertaining read that kept me gripped from start to finish, with plenty to chew over and a side of feelings to round it out. We awarded this the Subjective Chaos Kind of Award for Best SF Novel published in 2020 and it scooped the Compton Crook award as the best genre debut that year – if you haven’t yet had a chance to look it up, now is the time as the UK paperback was released just this week!