I’ve always believed, like all rational people, that my selves are separate. That they — we — exist independently. But sometimes when life is too still, when I lie in bed in the quiet, I can feel it all happening. Not just my selves collapsing, but time collapsing, because past and future are other selves just as surely as those on different worlds. My mother is dying right now, and I feel it. But she also recovered, woke up, got clean, and I feel that too. I feel that somewhere I am not alone. And I feel that sometime, soon or not long ago, I will accomplish something great.The Space between Worlds, Chapter 9
A book I’d been meaning to read for some time, The Space Between Worlds, popped into my library reserve queue last week like an unexpected gift. I took the day off Saturday and read it straight through, cover to electronic cover. All my neurons fired in reshuffled connections, creating a fizzy stew of PTSD, time travel, multiverses, intergenerational trauma, community violence, corporate extraction, colonialism, and more and more…
It left me thinking about parallels with Slaughterhouse-Five and, perhaps more importantly, the work Johnson’s book does that Vonnegut’s book does not. I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because you absolutely need to read this one for yourself, but here’s the basic gist:
The protagonist, a young Black woman named Cara, is a traverser, a person who can walk between the worlds of the multiverse. She works for a corporation/research group, the Eldridge Institute, that collects and monetizes data from other versions of Earth — or at least the 380 worlds similar enough to Earth Zero that travel can occur between them. Cara’s special because she died young on all but eight of those alternate worlds.
The universe won’t tolerate doppelgangers, two version of the same self on the same planet, so those people who have surviving “dops” can’t travel very widely. Her handler and crush, Dell, who was raised with intergenerational wealth, can’t traverse – she’s survived into adulthood on nearly all of Earth Zero’s resonant planets. Cara’s mentors and peers, on the other hand, were born to border wars, forced migrations, and poverty. They are valued for how many Earths they’ve died on.
It took a lot of smart people’s corpses before they learned that if you’re still alive in the world you’re trying to enter, you get rejected. You’re an anomaly the universe won’t allow, and she’ll send you back broken in half if she has to. … They needed trash people. Poor black and brown people. … People brought for labor, or come for refuge, or who were here before the first neoliberal surveyed this land and thought to build a paradise.The Space Between Worlds, Chapter 1
This is what set the neurons firing and the idea stew fizzing: in a multiverse, the protagonist slips between different spaces, rather than hurtling uncontrollably through time. The difference between Johnson’s multiverse and Vonnegut’s trauma time? In the multiverse, there is the possibility of different outcomes, different selves. In Vonnegut’s world, everything is decided, preordained. With every death, a resigned “So it goes.”
Cara certainly encounters the tragic, repeated fates of those marginalized by societies across the universe: most of her 372 deaths can be linked directly to her mother, who struggles with drug addiction, violence, and poverty on nearly all of the worlds she inhabits. But she also encounters selves that have been transformed — by accidental transcendence, quirks of lucky fate, or actual emotional growth — people whose lives have taken completely different trajectories, who have survived where they shouldn’t have, who have saved others.
The scenes I found most touching — and challenging — were those exploring Cara’s relationship with Nik Nik, a mostly-warlord who has been Cara’s lover, abuser, and even murderer on other worlds. On one Earth, Cara has to confront a Nik Nik who appears not to be a violent exploiter of the vulnerable. In this space of restoration, she is able to enter his internal life more deeply. While she neither forgives Nik Nik nor forgets his wrongdoing, she understands that he could have been a different, even better, version of himself. This realization, and her decision to take control of her own story, allow her some measure of healing.
The pulse of the veil [that hides Cara’s identity] is a steady countdown now. I could let it fizzle out on its own, pretend this wasn’t a decision. If I just let the veil fall off, I am still committed to deceiving [Nik Nik]. If I take it off, I am giving the man who looks like the monster that gave me every scar a gift. I turn the idea over and wonder how long I’ve been letting my most wounded self make all of my decisions.The Space Between Worlds, Chapter Six
It’s not just Nik Nik. Cara’s mom has survived and even thrived on some worlds, conquered her addictions and found balance and love. Cara’s stepsiblings — Esther and Michael — are recognizably themselves on each world but have a spectrum of futures, from the tragic to the heroic and everything in between. Cara herself lives out 380 different lives on as many different worlds. And each life Johnson chronicles is intertwined with all the others, producing radically different communities on each Earth.
I’ve recently started following Micaiah Johnson on Twitter, and it didn’t surprise me a bit to see that she identifies as an abolitionist. Where Vonnegut gave us one of the most stunning negations of war ever written, Johnson has called into being the possibility of a world restored, of harm remedied. Of genuine justice.
(Content Warning: Johnson’s writing about trauma and people confronting their abusers may be activating for some readers with DV- or sexual assault-related PTSD. Johnson doesn’t write the actual traumatic incidents very directly or graphically, but she does write the response to seeing one’s abuser in an incredibly convincing way. So be careful with yourself.)