Review: The Space Between Us - Doug Johnstone
Genre: sci-fi Published: Orenda Books, January 2023
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
"Their worldviews were so completely alien. How can we ever hope to bridge that divide between utterly different minds?"
One ordinary afternoon on the Edinburgh beach, a display of lights in the sky, the stranding of a mysterious squid and a series of unexplained strokes suffered by bystanders connect the lives of our three protagonists. Lennox is a teenage boy struggling with his identity and feeling like he doesn’t belong. Ava is heavily pregnant and on the run from an abusive relationship, in search of a new place to call home. Heather has lost all hope of ever finding that feeling of home again, after losing her daughter to cancer, and now suffering a terminal diagnosis herself as well.
What follows is a thought provoking character-driven first-contact sci-fi novel that explores themes of connection, loneliness and language in the face of meeting a life-form who’s understanding of those things is completely alien from our own.
What I liked:
The Space Between Us reminded me of one of my favourite sci-fi movies Arrival, and although I don’t think it’s quite as brilliant as that movie, I still really appreciated what it did. The story shines in its portrayal of these three protagonists, and the interweaving of their storylines. There’s a deep sense of loneliness to all of them at the start, and their journey of connection to each other, themselves and the humans around them is a wonderful one to witness. Ironically wonderful, as it took an alien visitor to begin with. Without spoiling any of their story- and character-arcs, Heather, Ava and Lennox were all well-rounded and memorable character, and I enjoyed their arcs equally.
Speaking off the alien visitor: “Sandy”, as they call, is one of my favourite types of literary alien. The closest comparison, again, is the Arrival-aliens; sentient enough to communicate, but so completely alien that their comprehension of some concepts is so different from our human ones. In this case, those concepts being “connection”, rather than time in the case of Arrival-. The implications that has on communication, understanding and even the way we view ourselves is wonderfully explored here.
What I didn’t like:
When it comes to sci-fi, I’m very good at suspending my disbelieve. Squid-aliens touching down on earth? Sure. Telepathic communication? Hell yeah.
However, when it comes the realistic elements within a sci-fi novel, I want them to actually be rooted in reality. For that reason I was immediately annoyed with the first few chapters of this novel, especially with the ridiculous depiction of the hospital-scenes. Since it’s mentioned in the synopsis, and happens in the first few chapters, I don’t consider this a spoiler; the inciting incident involves our protagonists suffering a simultaneous, unexplained stroke and waking up within the hospital afterwards. What follows is a scene in which they’re all in a multi-patient open room, having woken up not 5 minutes earlier, only for a doctor (read: walking-plot-vehicle-of-exposition) to walk in and explain in detail what happened. This involves exposing patient-sensitive medical info to other patients (hello HIPAA violations!!), discharging patients mere minutes after suffering massive strokes and potential brain-damage, and quite a few medical inaccuracies that can’t be explained by “magic-alien-stroke”. The entire sequence reads incredibly amateurish on an exposition level, and feels written by someone who has never experienced a hospitalization themselves. As a chronically ill, cancer-survivor and MD: this stuff bothers me personally more than it might most.
The second element to knock of a star involves a spoiler; namely the inclusion of a trope that I personally detest. SPOILERS AHEAD.
On multiple occasions, the book pulls the “magical healing” trope that I hate. I could overlook it in the case of the alien-induced stroke, but I was not okay with the “twist” at the end where Sandy magically removes Heathers tumor and cures her cancer. From a disability-standpoint, ánd that of a cancer-survivor; this trope has always been a slap in my face. If you chose to make cancer a part of your story, you have to commit to it. There are no magical cures, ánd I strongly resent the idea that the only way to write a fulfilling ARC about illness is to cure it. Usually, this trope is a deal-breaker for me. Considering it came so late in the book and I already enjoyed the rest of it so much, it’s surprising that it didn’t impact my experience more.
As a testament to how good the rest of the story was, I will still recommend it as a first-contact sci-fi novel, for those in the market for it. On the level of disability-representation, for which some of you know me, it’s a no for me.
Many thanks to Orenda Books and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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