The World Gives Way is bleak, beautiful science fiction done right

The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien. Image courtesy Hachette Book Group
The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien. Image courtesy Hachette Book Group /

It’s difficult to write a story when readers are told its ending – or at least have a pretty good idea about what it will entail – in its opening chapters. And that goes double when that ending is a dark, difficult, or heartbreaking one. After all, if we know going in that characters we come to care about will suffer, hurt, or even die at the end, how compelling can that story possibly be? So it takes an even more special skill to craft a tale that leaves readers hoping against hope that everything they’ve been told on every page is wrong and that the ending they’ve been promised won’t actually come to pass.

Marissa Levien’s debut novel is The World Gives Way is not just an example of deft, careful storytelling, its beautiful, bleak narrative should serve as a roadmap for other authors attempting to pull off the same feat. This is the kind of ambitious story that the science fiction genre was made to tell, one that explores issues of life, death, humanity, hope, forgiveness, and more. It’s uncomfortably dark in places and painfully beautiful in others, and while there are certainly moments where it stumbles – Myrra, as a character is more interesting and more three-dimensional than Tobias’s, I certainly would have loved to see additional POVs as more people realized the fate of their doomed world) – the fact that it trusts its readers enough not to pull its punches is a rather remarkable feat.

The World Gives Way is set in a world where the human race built a generational spaceship to carry humanity to a far-flung planet known as Telos. Though the rich and well-to-do could buy passage – and thus, continued existence – the poor were forced to sign a 200-year contract of generational indentured servitude in order to survive, which ends only upon their arrival at their destination. (Since this is a trip that spans hundreds of years, at least one entire generation never knew their lives as anything more than futuristic slaves.)

The story centers around Myrra Dal, a third-generation contract worker who at least expects to live to see freedom on humanity’s new homeworld. At least, she does until both her employers commit suicide – but not before informing her that the ship they’re all riding on has been irreparably damaged during the journey, and the crack in its hull means it will break apart long before they have any hope of ever reaching Telos.

Fearing being blamed for her employers’ deaths, Myrra grabs her chance at what she knows is, at best, limited freedom, and the rest of the story revolves around her attempts to find a safe place for her and infant Carlyle daughter Charlotte to ride out the end of the world. Elsewhere, a security officer Tobias Bendel is desperate to prove himself by tracking Myrra down, but as he chases her throughout the sparkling technological marvel of the world ship, he realizes something much larger than a runaway worker is going on.

The story is told in alternating perspectives, with small interludes that describe the various cities and locales on the ship – and how they’ll end when the end comes – with intriguingly creative detail. As mentioned above, Myrra is a much more compelling character than Tobias for the most part, and watching her reckon with the life she has lived and the dreams she still carries is deeply moving. Tobias is…fine, but his background as a child of criminals just isn’t as compelling. (And the story doesn’t dig into it as much.) That said, the cat-and-mouse chase between the two powers the midsection of the novel, and the determination of both characters to keep going no matter the odds in front of them is certainly both admirable and propulsive.

The question of what you would do if you knew your time was finite hangs heavy over this novel, and will likely leave many of us wondering how we might react if we were faced with an apocalyptic catastrophe we couldn’t hope to stop or control. That is, after all, the reason we read science fiction in the first place, and The World Gives Way is a timely and sobering reminder that this future isn’t that impossible to imagine.

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The World Gives Way is available now. Let us know if you plan to give it a look this June!