The Space Between the Stars is a story about intimacy and loss, grief and community. It’s a story about figuring out if life has meaning when the world as we know it has ended, with an earnest exploration of how we do — and, perhaps more often, don’t — deal with trauma.
The literary-skewing science fiction novel is one of the most cathartic books I’ve read in a while, a salve for anyone who has read or watched a “gritty” post-apocalyptic story and wondered why the story isn’t telling us how anyone feels about the end of the world. It makes me wonder why all end-of-the-world stories aren’t explicitly about collective and personal trauma because, the way British debut author Anne Corlett writes it, how could they ever be about anything else?
In many ways, the set-up of The Space Between the Stars reminds me of Firefly. It tells the story of a ragtag band of survivors looking for purpose in a world that has gone to hell. Like Joss Whedon’s beloved TV show, the group of colonists even includes a former priest, a sex worker, a young person who sees the world a bit differently than everyone else, and a no-nonsense ship captain with a heart of gold.
Unlike Firefly, however, The Space Between the Stars tells its story from a specific female character’s point-of-view. Jamie is our protagonist, a 40-year-old veterinarian who tried to escape her own grief over a miscarriage and the unresolved trauma of her mother’s death by moving to the fringes of the galaxy. We begin her story with a hell of a hook: Jamie waking up from the viral fever to discover she has somehow survived when the vast majority of the human race has not. It’s the beginning of The Walking Dead or your favorite video game. And what follows more than delivers on the narratively-rich set-up…
The Space Between the Stars follows Jamie as she makes her way across a galaxy trying to determine what survival will look like for her and for the human race. Most post-apocalyptic these days tend to try to force their narrative tidily into a “utopian” or (more often) “dystopian” box. The Space Between the Stars is refreshingly nuanced in its treatment of the end of the world as we know it. There are things that are horrific about the new world order — if it can even be called an “order” in the direct aftermath of the traumatic pandemic — but these horrific things are vestiges of the old world. It’s unclear, at this point, if the system of “haves” and “have-nots” will stick or rather give way for something new… something better.
There are still good things to be experienced at the end of the world: joy and connection and healing. Jamie never loses her intense sadness, shock, and anger over the extreme loss of life, but she is also still mourning the very personal tragedies that upended her life before the apocalypse. It takes the end of the world for her to deal with them in any honest way, and for her to begin to embrace concepts like community and family again.
The Kirkus review of the book calls Jamie “staggeringly unlikable” for (amongst other things) the way in which she admits to not having wanted her unborn child. While these things are subjective, I couldn’t disagree more. I found Jamie’s issues with intimacy and what the people in her life expect from her refreshingly relatable.
Women are socialized to be nurturers and caregivers and are often represented in stories as unending founts of affection, understanding, and empathy. As a woman, this has not been my experience and to see a female character depicted as confused and frustrated by her own inability to be close to others (in part because of the multiple traumas she has experienced) and others’ inability to understand that was cathartic.
Jamie literally goes to the edges of humanity because she can’t get the space she needs when she is surrounded by other humans. She is unable to put up the boundaries she needs and, therefore, unable to properly deal with her trauma. Because of this, Jamie’s empathy often fails her, especially in relation to Rena, a supporting character who has been irreversibly changed by her own traumas. This may make Jamie unlikable at parts, but it also makes her thoroughly human.
If you’re looking for hard sci-fi, this is not it. The futuristic space setting is more of a backdrop than the point, but Corlett calls on some familiar genre tropes to tell her story about isolation vs. connection at the end of the world. If you’re into the space adventure genre, you’ll feel at home here.
Ultimately, The Space Between the Stars gives a pretty satisfying and hopeful answer to the question: What meaning does life have in the wake of an apocalyptic event? The same it had before the apocalyptic event: whatever meaning you are able to bring to it. Family. Community. Connection. These are things worth striving for, whether the world is ending or not.