Book review: The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett

(cover image courtesy Pac MacMillan Australia)

 

Once again the worlds have come to an end.

No, that is not a typo – I do indeed mean multiple worlds; for in Anne Corlett’s impressive debut novel The Space Between the Stars – the title is a reference to hearing the voice of “god”, however you interpret him/her/it, in the quiet moments and slivers between the busyness of the galaxy – humanity, spread across a plethora of colonised planets, has meet its match in a lethal virus that has decimated 99.9999% of the population.

That leaves, of course, a scarily small 0.0001 of the human race to sally forth and carry on with what little is left of civilisation. (These cold, stark numbers are used to dizzyingly poetic effect by Corlett throughout this quite remarkable work of apocalyptic fiction.)

The major complicating factor there – the virus has potentially, and no one is entirely sure in the confused messy aftermath of this life-altering epidemic, affected peoples’ fertility meaning that survival, which comes for survivors after three days of terrifyingly disorienting nightmares, fevers and headaches (the dead simply turn to dust; which means, unsettlingly, that any covered surfaces thick with the stuff are not the result of sloppily inattentive housework) might be a Pyrrhic one indeed.

“Her thoughts were twisting tighter and tighter until there was nowhere to go but to the place she’d been trying to avoid. She shouldn’t be alive. Somehow the little world had got lucky. Was there any realistic chance that its luck had held more than once? And if not …
No.
There were other worlds. There’d be other survivors.” (P. 15)

The story focuses on Jamie, a vet who, fleeing a disintegrating life on the capital world of Alegria, has taken a job on an isolated farm on a far-flung world called Soltaire, running from the demons of her childhood, and her parents’ broken marriage, and a relationship with Daniel, a man high in the planet’s administration who loves her but with whom, she belatedly realises, she is not in love.

The virus’s destructive path however changes everything, and so Jamie sets out to see if Daniel or anything else survives, making her way to Soltaire’s diminutive capital where she meets the religiously-crazed Rena, and sage, disillusioned minister Lowry, before the three are rescued by a passing ship captained by emotionally shutdown Callan and staffed by icy engineer Gracie (the sole survivors of the crew) who takes them on to Alegria.

None of them know what they’re heading towards and if the much-bandied about percentage is accurate or merely the doomsday mutterings of a dying man Jamie once worked with, but they have little choice but to plow on and see what awaits, a curious mix of loss and hope propelling them on.

Corlett does a particularly effective job of representing Jamie as a flawed, broken human being who wants to believe in the fairytale of life, even in the midst of apocalyptic carnage and death, but who remains mired in the closed-down emotionality of her youth which shut its doors to real intimacy and connection and isn’t about to re-open, especially in the wake of such a devastating event.

Not even as she grows close to fellow picked-up passengers Finn (who appears to be on the autism spectrum but is warm and curious in his own way) and prostitute Mila who can’t believe she’s worth more than being the child of a brothel, and they reach Alegria where surprises await, does Jamie really put her faith in a future that may not be as 0.0001% bad as everyone’s expecting.

 

(cover image courtesy Pac MacMillan)

 

That’s the beauty of Corlett’s portrayal of life in the aftermath of this terrible pan-galactic disease.

Neither darkly pessimistic nor melodramatically optimistic, The Space Between the Stars gives us a beautifully-written examination of how real people would respond to a lifechanging event of this magnitude.

Bedecked with some truly gorgeous phrasing and grounded insights into the human condition, we meet people who want to expect things to be better, and really have no choice to but to proceed on that basis – the alternative? Falling in a lonely small heap on whichever giant empty planet they now find themselves on – but who are beset by doubt, uncertainty and fear, much as anyone of us would be.

Jamie particularly is our window into that mindset, her anger, irritation, fury and quiet acceptance mirroring how many of us would react to losing everyone and everything and having to recreate our life in an entirely new form with brand new people, all in a matter of days and weeks.

“Jamie couldn’t move. There was a bloodless chill in her hands and feet. She felt strung out, like a wire, stretched between the struggling crowd, and the insistent, oh-so-logical voice of the man at her side, slightly chiding and full of the promise of quiet, normal corridors beyond those doors.” (P. 191)

For all the disruption and chaos of thought and emotion that accompanies Jamie’s literal and figurative flight from Soltaire via Pangea to Alegria and then Earth, and specifically her home town of Belsley Beach in northern England where she once lived with her caring stepmother (who couldn’t break through Jamie’s thick facade), there is a richness and a tenderness there as we grapple, as Jamie does, with that cruelly odd mixing of hope and resignation to the worst.

Corlett’s gift, apart from superlatively poetic writing that sings more often than it doesn’t, is her ability to meld these penetrating descriptions of souls in free fall with some page-turning action which always feels richer and more involving for the raw, exquisitely well-articulated humanity that informs and percolates through them.

This is readily accessible but intelligent, emotionally-resonant science fiction that excels in what the genre is more inclined to – hold a mirror up to humanity as its best and worst and see what reflects back.

That it isn’t horribly damning, for all the flaws and foibles on display, says a great deal about Corlett’s outlook, but also about the fact that humanity, for all of our capacity to destroy and disable, for hopelessness and cynicism, is also capable of moving forward in ways that onlookers might find surprising.

Life is a messy, complicated business, whether we’re paying bills or running for our lives, and Corlett captures all this, and so much more in The Space Between the Stars, helping us to understand ourselves just that little better, lessons that you can only hope won’t find their true reward in a situation as apocalyptically dire as this one anytime soon (but if they do, rest assured we might emerge at the other end, if not fine, then not as badly off as we imagined).

 

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