Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Space Between the Stars

I go back and forth about putting the book name in the name of the blog post, but you know, I think it's useful to know what you're getting into: today, I lean in that direction.

The Space Between the Stars, by Anne Corlett, is a book that I received for review from Netgalley, and the blurb couldn't be more up my alley. Post-viral civilization collapse! A ragtag band of survivors aboard a spaceship! A lone wolf developing grudging respect for her new compatriots!  What's not to love?

But I don't love it. There are a few things that come together, some of which fall into the "just not for me" category and some of which are, I think, real weaknesses.  "Just not for me" is that the characters are all very angry; "actual weaknesses" I would mostly categorize as clunky. Thinking about it more, I think this is an issue book--an after school special-level point-maker.

Jamie is a veterinarian working on a backward colony planet when the plague hits.  Thanks to a long incubation period, it's spread through all the inhabited worlds before anyone realizes the danger, and the fatality rate is 99.9999%--meaning across the known galaxy, there are only a few thousand survivors.  And thanks to the nature of the virus, people who stay close to other people pass the mutating virus back and forth--the denser the population, the higher the fatality.

This does not explain why there aren't more survivors on the cattle station.  However.

Jamie is a bit of a misanthropist and very much a loner.  A few things to know about Jamie: she is separated from her husband. She recently lost a near-full term pregnancy. Her mother died when she was a young teenager.  And she was born as a conjoined twin whose sister died in the surgery to separate them.  So in case you didn't notice, Jamie is a person who is very distant from other people.

We pick up other characters as we go along, and at first I thought the fact that they were all somewhat opaque was going to be a mystery--that everyone would be hiding a secret, or that we would learn that there's more to people than  meets the eye. But although there are some secrets, there's not a lot more nuance--Lena is an eccentric religious zealot; Lowry is a level-headed, spiritual man; Mira is every stereotype of a woman who has suffered sexual abuse (sometimes she reflects contradictory stereotypes at the same time); and so on.

The whole book takes place pretty immediately after the end of the world, but there's not a lot of complexity to the emotions of the characters. Sometimes they get upset, and that's the explanation, but there's no unexpected depth to anyone's reactions.  Eventually it's turned into a story about how society is evil and corrupt and the people who try to run things are out to stomp down on individual choice.  Honestly, I'm reading The Handmaid's Tale right now, too, and once we get into the totalitarian part of the book, the comparisons are too easy to draw, and this book is almost a caricature of that much better one.

There are several autistic characters, as well as others who fall somewhere between extreme introvert and apparently on the spectrum--including Jamie, who is very sensitive to touch and often uncomfortable in social situations.  Sometimes the book almost reads like a fantasy of how much easier it would be to live in the world if there weren't so many people in it, and that maybe it would even be easier to connect. And sometimes that came across in ways that really bothered me, like when Finn, who is explicitly autistic, doesn't want to be touched, but Jamie persists in trying to comfort him, and eventually he holds her hand gratefully.  That is not my understanding of how to handle that kind of touch sensitivity, and it feels kind of disrespectful of that kind of difference.

So sadly, this is not the book I had hoped it would be.  I think what I like in a good apocalypse/dystopia story is how people come together in adversity--to find hope, to find peace, to stand up.  I don't mind if it's a long road to that--whether it's Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Himself, it's about how the human spirit survives.  But these characters are so blank that I just can't find the human spirit in them; all the non-misfits are blank-faced fascists, and the misfits end up monologuing in detail about how there's nothing wrong with living the way they do.  I'm calling this one clunky, preachy, and not for me.

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