When I was reading Anne Corlett’s stellar (pun intended) The Space Between the Stars, I couldn’t help but think of Emma Pierson’s stirring April 2017 article in Wired titled “Hey, Computer Scientists! Stop Hating on the Humanities“. In this piece, the author makes her case for why it’s simply not enough to focus on who can create the best code — that if we abandon the study of the humanities altogether, we will lose sight of the very real societal functions and human costs that the newest advances in technology portend.
As Pierson succinctly puts it: “I’ve watched military scientists present their lethal innovations with childlike enthusiasm while making no mention of whom the weapons are being used on. There are few things scarier than a scientist who can give an academic talk on how to shoot a human being but can’t reason about whether you should be shooting them at all.” The idea that science is founded solely on reason and truth is a faulty one, as the unaddressed and implicit biases of the researchers and developers who create our medicines and build our devices come to play a staggeringly large role in the final products. In order for technological advances to truly bring positive change to people’s lives, the individuals responsible for engineering these advances cannot afford to only ask whether we can do or make something, but also if we even should in the first place.
I hope I haven’t spoiled too much of The Space Between the Stars with that line of thought. But the nature of the story Corlett has chosen to tell raises these questions in a more grounded and poignant way than I could have hoped for. Carefully balancing the demands of narrative, characterization, and theme, Corlett has created a thrilling and memorable story.
The plot details are rather basic: in the very far future, a virus with a nearly perfect kill rate has devastated humanity, scattered as it is across myriad planets. Passed on by contact, the virus has the effect of destroying the body from the inside out, basically withering bodies away into piles of dust. Jamie, a veterinary scientist on one of the outer planets and the protagonist, manages to survive her bout with the virus and soon comes across a band of survivors as they all try to make their way back to the inner planets, the home of the elites, to see who else has survived.
The characters themselves are largely well-drawn; Jamie is particularly compelling, even if she doesn’t always come off well. Her discomfort with getting too close even to the people she loves is certainly relatable, as is her desire, in the wake of the virus, to find the partner she left behind and to try and make their relationship work.
The survivors include Rena, a scientist and religious fanatic; Lowry, a kindly elderly preacher; and Callan, the no-nonsense, brooding captain of the spaceship transporting everyone on their journey. At times the narrative can feel episodic and meandering, as Jamie and Callan and the rest stop on several other planets to find survivors; then wind up on Alegria, one of the upper-echelon planets, where the surviving upper-classes have basically instituted fascism; to Earth, where Jamie was born and raised. Yet each planet and locale that the survivors come across is written well enough that they certainly don’t blend together, making it easy to tie the memory of a certain location with a step in Jamie’s ultimate character development and growing understanding of the world she has grown up in, and the consequences that world now must face.
The most unfortunate thing I can say about these characters, and of the general world-building of The Space Between the Stars as a whole, is that it really does resemble the sci-fi cult classic TV show Firefly in a lot of ways: here we have a raggedy spaceship with a mysterious-but-attractive captain (Callan / Mal), a preacher with plenty of secrets (Lowry / Shepherd Book), and a gentle, beguiling sex worker (Mila / Inara), all within the context of a sinister governmental and societal system that is highly stratified and fond of scientific experimentation. Indeed, The Space Between the Stars could adapt well to the silver screen only if pains were taken to completely avoid the aesthetic of Firefly and its companion film Serenity.
Yet it’s Rena, the desperate believer and former eugenics scientist from the upper class, who manifests both the scientific and spiritual aspects that work so well in The Space Between the Stars and represents the central theme of the novel. As the survivors turn out to be individuals that Rena deems undesirable — Mila, the aforementioned sex worker, a disabled young man named Finn — the reader comes to the realization that Rena’s life’s work and her belief that the virus — and the loss of nearly all humanity — is God’s will for a “brave new world” are much more twisted and entangled than previously indicated. We find out the truth of it all in bits of flashbacks and information about forced emigration programs from Earth, the scientific campaigns to prevent the less-desirable populations from reproducing — and the horrible truth is somehow both shocking and not really shocking at all.
I’m in the position of not wanting to reveal too much more about The Space Between the Stars because I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that Corlett has, in what is an impressively rich debut novel, crafted a tale chock-full of emotional resonance and haunting significance — and due warning — for the future of science.