Read this book: The Space Between the Stars

“Life is its own point. It’s just a series of moments, some of them memorable, some of them not. There’s no redemption but what we’re prepared to grant ourselves. No point when we’re finished becoming what we’re going to be. There’s just this breath, and the next one, and the next one. Each of those breaths, each of those moments, help shape us.”

The Space Between the Stars

This bit of gorgeous nihilism is to me the heart of Anne Corlett’s sci-fi novel The Space Between the Stars, the story of a group of plague survivors: the .0001 percent or so of humanity spread across several worlds who were not turned to dust.

I didn’t plan on reading a book about a plague, not right now. Living through a much milder one than in this book is about all I wanted to do with anything plague related.

Once I started reading, it was hard for me to stop.

The Space Between the Stars is centered on Jamie, a thirtysomething veterinarian who is estranged from her long-term boyfriend, isolated from her own historical grief, and the only survivor on a small colony world.

Or so she thinks.

Plague stories can go in several directions. The Walking Dead was once my favorite TV show. Now just a droning, repetitive PSA that humans can be monsters too (ok, I get it!). When Jamie finds other survivors, I was expecting some Walking Dead-ish human vs. human confrontations.

Not so much.

I won’t get into spoilers, but a search for survivors–and her boyfriend–takes on some twists. Not too many, though. The Space Between the Stars is not a hard sci-fi novel (spacecraft can traverse great distances in unbelievably short spans of time). It is also not a thriller.

Instead, it’s more of a character study. On that note, I found Jamie wholly unlikable. She is prickly. She snaps at people. She is self righteous. She’s a horrible communicator. But Corlett does a great job in showing some of the whys, and also showing how maybe Jamie doesn’t like being so flawed. So, while Jamie is unlikable, she’s relatable, if not quite sympathetic.

The Space Between the Stars is not perfect. There were things I couldn’t relate to–as an American, I don’t get the English obsession with class, which was one of the themes of this book. And I wished the sci-fi was amped up (several scenes felt too present day, and not set a century or two in the future).

Still, I was glad to be along for the ride. The writing was beautiful (almost to the point of distraction), and Corlett hit all the right emotional notes. By the end, I wanted to stay in that plague wrecked world just a little while longer.

Classic Lit Challenge: Heart of Darkness

Here’s one of the rarely discussed facts of fiction. Whether we’re writing an alien-filled sci-fi adventure, a sprawling fantasy saga, or a historical epic, all these stories are ultimately a reflection of the specific writer’s society, worldview, ethics, and morals. If you want a true representation of the past, don’t turn to historical fiction.

Turn to fiction actually written in the past.

Warning, though. Often their ethics and sensibilities are vastly different from ours. Sometimes disturbingly so.

If you want to be disturbed and unsettled, then read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In it he depicts a world that is cruel and brutal and blatantly racist. And, yes, heartless and dark.

This is a controversial book, because of its unvarnished description of 19th century European colonialism. But if it’s going to be an accurate portrayal of that time period, how could it not be?

Heart of Darkness book cover

Heart of Darkness is a short book that recounts the story of a less than reliable, and possibly slightly insane, sailor named Marlow, the narrator in Conrad’s sprawling and ambitious Lord Jim, as he tells of his journey into the Belgian Congo to retrieve the mysterious Kurtz for his trading company.

Along the way Marlow travels deeper and deeper into the mysterious heart of so-called wild Africa. The writing has a dreamlike quality throughout that’s a testament to Conrad’s skill. It moves at a fast clip and doesn’t let up. Sometimes it moves too fast for me–especially in the scenes where he finally arrives at Kurtz’s renegade compound I wanted Marlow to slow down and tell us more. But we get what we get.

Heart of Darkness is a compelling read, and I highly recommend it. It was the inspiration for the movie Aopcalypse Now (which I have to rewatch now), so much so that Marlon Brando’s character is also named Kurtz, and he utters the famous line from Conrad’s book.

“The horror, the horror.”

I read commentary on Heart of Darkness captured from writers throughout the 20th Century, and they all dissected it based on where they sat in time and place. I am too. For me, Heart of Darkness was an indictment of the 19th century European colonial enterprise into Africa. The people in London who run the company are presented as cold. The European men in Africa come across as casually cruel. The Africans in their employ are first seen as brutally treated. Conrad does not spare these details. He doesn’t present the Africans as fully human. He does the Europeans, which does them little favor.

Heart of Darkness shows how, rather than “civilizing” Africa (the thin sheen of respectability placed on an enterprise that was really about plunder), European colonialism corrupted those involved.

It made their own hearts dark.