Updated: Feb 15
“Have you encountered any others who have truly met themselves?” This line from Carmen Maria Machado’s short-story collection Her Body and Other Parties stuck in my mind like a dart the first time I read it. It wrote itself into my memory, and played across the darkness when I closed my eyes more times than I care to admit, and while I was reading The Space Between Worlds, this book in which that line takes on a thrilling literality—it resurfaced again, ringing in my ears so clearly.
Imagine peering into a mirror, blinking out through familiar eyes, and seeing another life reflected back at you, both knowable and utterly beyond your grasp. You’re looking at a person from a world crafted from choices you had not made, paths you had not followed. This person who is almost you but not quite, not all the way. If you reached for yourself, would you recognize your own topography? Or will you always measure the distance between the person you would have been and the person you have become?
More urgently still: would you throw yourself into that reflection in the hopes of forgetting who you are? For Cara, the protagonist of Johnson’s feverishly inventive and star-bright debut, the answer was easy as breathing: yes.
The Space Between Worlds is a novel that gathers one of science fiction’s oldest and most enduring tropes (alternate worlds, stacked beside ours like sheets of paper, and the people who can dip like hummingbirds from one to another), puts an intricate, clever spin on it (you can’t travel to a parallel universe where your doppelganger is still alive without great cost) and wrings it for all the thematic and emotional gravity it can get.
From the very first page, The Space Between Worlds takes firm hold and doesn’t let go. Science fiction novels typically have to marshal an abundance of information in order to explain the workings of new unfamiliar concepts and theory, to peel back the layers of the author’s world, and fire up the reader’s imagination. It can be quite daunting, and it might even kick you out of the story before it even begins. Not The Space Between Worlds. This is a novel that, from the very first page, skims along, silken and effortless, without becoming mired in leaden exposition. It's a hard trick to pull off, but Johnson makes it look like a breeze. The remarkable elements of the author's world come readily, completely. The novel explains what it needs to, when it needs to be said, not a page sooner, and it's such a thrill to watch the gears of the story turn once they're set in motion.
The details of Cara’s character, however, don’t yield as easily. They instead emerge drip by drip throughout the story, as if from the tip of a pipette. You get the sense that something essential is shielded—the depths of her and the secrets she cast before her, vast as her own shadow—and is being released in small bursts until it becomes a flood. And looking at this flood, at the wreckage of this woman, I wanted, desperately, to understand who—what—had wrecked her. Fortunately for us, Johnson is an absolute magician at exploring emotional wreckage.
The universe erases me, but it also remakes me again and again, so there must be something worthwhile in this image.
Cara’s character is accessible, understandable in all the ways that she is wounded, angry, scared—and flawed. And the slow, grim unwinding of her character makes for the novel’s most hard-hitting and rewarding experience.
The Space Between Worlds is a novel that acknowledges trauma and its terrible volume. How it roils and cracks and beats in your blood like drumming under the ground. Like Cara, many of us carry our traumas, dragging them behind like shackles on both ankles, much further than we imagined we would. We think if we put up enough walls around them, or bury them in a tomb, shoved down deep where the sun can’t reach them, they’d be where we’d left them. But then, slowly and inexorably, the low, steady thrum of the past starts bubbling to the surface. And then it erupts.
Our protagonist, Cara, practiced burying the past like a high art: she smiled through teeth to hide the grimace, donned masks until they felt like her face, and kept secrets until the lies ate away at her like moths in cloth. It was a regular habit, this suppressing of trauma, as vital and unconscious to her as breathing. You see—when you’ve been raised around monsters, and knew the color of your blood, the innate need to self-preserve becomes this all-devouring thing. A thing with weight and press, and it’s weight and press that Cara felt as though it were on her shoulders. None understood that more than Cara who learned self-preservation before she could learn regret. In hundreds of worlds (remember, the multiverse is real), Cara lives with her back to the wall, ruled by fear of death, but in the world she escapes to, she survives in mockery of everything that should have destroyed her. And it’s easier to survive when you move through life with one foot placed in front of the other, walking on a never-ending tightrope. It’s easier still to do it on your own, without close friendships—let alone intimate relationships.
People, however, have a way of dipping around Cara’s guard, of scrabbling at her armor, including Dell, Cara's supervisor. In another version of Cara’s world, Cara’s relationship with Dell may have had the opportunity to be based on more than the resentful, grudging necessity of co-workers who navigate around each other like ships and icebergs. In another version of Cara’s world, Dell wasn’t too afraid of where Cara came from to want her, and Cara wasn’t too afraid that Dell would disappear into the dark pit that is Cara's past to confront her about it. In this world, their moments together are drenched with a bruised, unthwarted longing, filled with endless distances—and it struck a dreadful pang of yearning in my chest.
There’s a deep, wounded familiarity to Cara’s journey that I couldn't escape: the nagging sense that you’ve been looking at the world through a breath-fogged mirror, and that if you were to wipe away the condensation and look at yourself—at this clear and cold reflection of your truest self—you would be utterly horrified by what you saw. That you haven’t truly met yourself, and that you wouldn’t want to—especially in the dark.
They say hunting monsters will turn you into one. That isn’t what’s happening now. Sometimes to kill a dragon, you have to remember that you breathe fire too. This isn’t a becoming; it’s a revealing. I’ve been a monster all along.
But The Space Between Worlds is not all gray, dreary afternoon. Colors and detail start to fill in like paint soaking into paper when kindness and love and wisdom and compassion, always flickering through the pages, begin to simmer together, like bubbles in a cauldron. Johnson acknowledges that we are more than the worst things we’ve done, and we are more than the worst things that have been done to us. We are defined by more than our pasts, or our traumas—we are the flowing scripts we use to imagine for ourselves new scrolls, flapping defiantly behind us like wings. New tomorrows, new beginnings. Ultimately, this is the novel's biggest gift—its suffocating generosity, the way it sees its characters so clearly, how the author never once loses sight of the fact that everyone hurts.
Along the way, the author also ponders, frames, and interrogates large philosophical and ethical questions, which renders the story’s emotional caliber even more intense: about racism and xenophobia and how they’ve always had a fluid relationship with capitalism, about science and how it can be weaponized by those who have a vested interest in sustaining a system that keeps people marching dully along the same, mechanistic lines, and about humanity and our place in the metaphysical clockwork of existence.
But for all its thematic gravity, The Space Between Worlds is a lot of fun too. It’s a story that gutted me and buoyed me, at once and by turns. An excellent novel with a gripping plot, tenderly rendered characters, and plenty to think about long after it’s over. Truly, whatever Johnson decides to write after this, she has a fan for life!
It is only one world in infinite universes where this impossible happiness exists, but that is what makes it so valuable.
Have you read The Space Between Worlds yet? If you haven't, do it for the morally suspect space sapphics and the sloooowest burn to ever burn!
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