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The Space Between the Stars
by Anne Corlett
Berkley, $15.00, 368pp
Published: February 2018

Here's another book that I liked, really liked and was disappointed by, all in one. What it does well it does incredibly well. Chapter 13 is a fantastic example of how well an author can use words to create a feeling, here being borne along on a cloud of emotions and eventually realising that they're not right. Anne Corlett has serious talent and chapters like that one make me a little guilty about not liking the rest of the book as much.

We start out with a conceit. The human race has moved out into the stars and occupied a whole slew of worlds. Travel is easy enough that Jamie Allenby, a veterinary surgeon, can move from the capital world of Alegria to a frontier planet, Saltaire, just to escape a bad relationship. That she merely needed space is a bad pun but an obvious one. And then a virus hits. Everywhere. It takes out 99.9999% of the entire human population. All gone, just like that.

Those decimal places are important, by the way. There are only ten thousand people on Saltaire, so the odds statistically allow for only a hundredth of a person to survive. For a while, Jamie believes that she's the only one. A few days waiting at a central location, she finds that the virus spared only three people on the planet. The other two are religious in outlook: Lowry is a priest, and Rena, a bio-engineer by trade, is one of his followers. It's a tough observation to see Jamie go from being literally alone to figuratively alone, because, in a population of only three, her thinking is outnumbered.

Rather than keep Jamie alone, Corlett conjures up an escape route. They send out a distress signal and they're picked up by a passing spaceship. By this time, we're counting human beings left alive. Callan Jacobs, the captain, is four and his engineer, Gracie, is five. Wandering from world to world, they pick up six and seven on Pangaea: a prostitute named Mila and a mentally damaged young man called Finn.

Roles soon manifest themselves and a 'Firefly' feel builds as a ragtag crew face off against an antagonistic male mining settlement on Gelta. With their population of fifteen thousand only knocked down to thirty-one, at least the odds can be beaten and our protagonists know that. I don't want to push the 'Firefly' comparisons too much, because it isn't the goal of the author; it just seems like it for a while. Chris Wooding's 'Ketty Jay' novels are very much 'Firefly' on the page because they're adventure stories. This one isn't an adventure story for long, if it ever is.

What Corlett is really doing is looking at what it takes to survive from the female perspective. This isn't a post-apocalyptic novel in the vein of Jerry Ahern, where it's all guns and fuel and action. It's a quiet, introspective, gentle look at how to move on and accept. The big story is the virus, but a smaller story echoes it and that's the relationship between Jamie and her ex-husband, Daniel, who she successfully left. Now, she has to know if Daniel's among the dead or the living. That's what's driving her back into space and back to Alegria.

At this point, I was enthralled by Corlett's prose, but getting a little fed up with Daniel. He hadn't even shown up yet (spoiler: he's alive), but that driving quest to know seemed a little overdone. The fundamental change that manifests when almost every human being dies at once would seem to have some priority in the grand scheme of things. I should add that this is surely the quietest armageddon I've ever encountered. Anyone dead from the virus turns to dust, which is rather convenient for those left, and nobody seems to have left the tap on, so we're not confronted with fires and floods everywhere.

When we get to Alegria, we shift into dystopia because of a few discoveries we're told about: no children have survived, anywhere, and the virus didn't just kill, it damaged the reproductive systems of the survivors. Therefore, hope becomes a difficult concept and the powers that be on Alegria shift to breeding programs. The old days of forced emigration to alleviate population density are, of course, over. Now, everyone has to stay and play their part so that humanity can survive.

The reason I mention all that is because that's not what this book is either and this section serves mostly for Jamie to discover that Daniel's alive and to finally get over him properly. It wasn't her. It was him. Let's move on. I understand why this is all important, but that broken relationship, which was over before the book begins, got quickly tiring. Arguably, it's at this point, which is more of an ending and a beginning for Jamie than the deaths of countless billions, the book really starts to do what Corlett wants it to do and that's for humanity, in the form of Callan Jacobs and most of his new crew to go home, to Earth, and take stock of itself.

I'm not entirely fond of where this all goes, both with regards to the plot, whose twist is expected, and the crew, but I did enjoy how it got there. I'm not only a fan of Corlett's prose, I'm a fan of her tone. The wistfulness of the majority of the book is palpable and, given how frickin' difficult it is to conjure up that feeling, I found myself highly impressed. There are parts I read aloud because I wanted to hear the words.

Post-apocalyptic fiction, whether adult or YA, tends to be fundamentally all about survival. This isn't. Like Ferris Buehller said, "It's over. Go home." That's really what this book is. It's about acknowledging that it's over and going home to explore what that means. That makes this book original, if not entirely successful. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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