I’ve spent a lot of time on the rocky north shores of Lake Superior searching for agates, seaglass, tumbled aluminum, and the like. There are guide books that will tell you the best places to find one lake-tumbled thing or another, but really, the best resource is that strange game of telephone you can hook into if you ask your waitress, or that couple over there with the dog, or this guy you work with who has a cousin. You can pick up the pieces of something that was once whole, and is now ground down into soft-edged obscurity, through the strange dilating connections of the social network—and I don’t mean the one online.
In The Space Between the Stars, Jamie Allenby wakes up alone, after three days of shivering and fever, on a sparsely-populated planet on the outskirts of the earthly range. The disease that sickened her has killed 99.9 percent (and then some) of the population of all the colonized worlds. As she examines her homestead farm, filled with the dead dust of all the inhabitants she once knew, she tries to do the math: carry the one, subtract a three, and there shouldn’t be even a single person alive on her world. She’s a fraction of a possibility, and one that wasn’t that big to begin with.
The disease that has ravaged all the known worlds is a nasty piece of work. Not only does it kill most people just because it can, but if people try to stick together—parents and children, friends and lovers, or doctors and patients—the disease jumps from host to host and amplifies. The only tiny possibility of surviving—a possibility that is slim indeed—lies in quarantining yourself from everyone: children, parents, lovers, friends; everyone. Most choose instead to die with their loved ones, giving up the infinitesimal chance of survival for that last moment of succor.
The people left—those able both to lock themselves alone, and beat the ugly odds of this disease—are damaged folk indeed. Our viewpoint character, Jamie, fled to the outer reaches of colonized space after an ugly miscarriage with her long-term boyfriend. The end of everyone–everything–tips her into nostalgic reverie for her distant lover, who she is sure tries to contact her in the final, sputtering moments of inter-planet communication. Jamie rides to the nearest city with a space port on a sighing nag, because all the cars are thumb-locked. There, she finds two strange companions: an ex-priest and a harshly religious biologist. Together, they are taken up onto an inter-planetary ship by misanthropic weirdos.
Everyone—everyone—in The Space Between the Stars is a misanthropic weirdo in one way or another. Once on the ship, Jamie and her motley crew run a picaresque through the known planets, picking up cast-offs and misfits, the kind of people who can survive a plague that demands you live out your illness (and your life) alone. After some maneuvering, they land on the Northumberland coast of Jamie’s childhood. Here is where she rock-picked for the tumbled seaglass of her youth; here is where she tried (and tries) to put all the pieces together.
The metaphor of seaglass—broken pieces tumbled to a scratched-surface smoothness—runs through the entirety of this aching, lonely novel. This is messy, personal stuff, flashing just there on the rocky beach, visible when the light catches it just right. If your predilections run to the more science fictional—if you prefer the scientifically plausible over the emotionally relevant—this isn’t the book for you. Anne Corlett isn’t detailing a biological plague, but a personal one, tumbled on the rocks of personal history. It was lovely to walk this last beach, at the end.