Title: The World Gives Way
Author: Marissa Levien
Publication date: June 15, 2021
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher
In a near-future world on the brink of collapse, a young woman born into servitude must seize her own freedom in this glittering debut with a brilliant twist; perfect for fans of Station Eleven, Karen Thompson Walker, and Naomi Alderman.
In fifty years, Myrra will be free.
Until then, she’s a contract worker. Ever since she was five, her life and labor have belonged to the highest bidder on her contract–butchers, laundries, and now the powerful, secretive Carlyles.
But when one night finds the Carlyles dead, Myrra is suddenly free a lot sooner than she anticipated–and at a cost she never could have imagined. Burdened with the Carlyles’ orphaned daughter and the terrible secret they died to escape, she runs. With time running out, Myrra must come face to face with the truth about her world–and embrace what’s left before it’s too late.
A sweeping novel with a darkly glimmering heart, The World Gives Way is an unforgettable portrait of a world in freefall, and the fierce drive to live even at the end of it all.
Based on the synopsis, I expected a dystopian world of class wars and enforced servitude. And yes, that is what’s going on here, but also…
[SPOILER ALERT FOR BIG REVEAL AT END OF FIRST CHAPTER]
[BUT IS IT REALLY A SPOILER IF YOU FIND OUT IN THE FIRST CHAPTER???]
Here’s the spoiler…
The world is a spaceship.
Yup. This is a science fiction novel, and I had no idea before I picked it up!!
Now that that’s out of the way…
Myrra Dal is indentured to the Carlyle family, thanks to a contract signed by her great-grandmother. It’s a work contract that’s binding for not just the original contract signer, but for generations to follow. Myrra is the last in the chain. There are fifty years left on her contract, and then she’ll be free. Of course, this isn’t really a comfort to Myrra: A woman in her 20s, she doesn’t relish the idea of being old by the time she’s released from the contract, but she has no options. Contracts are completely binding and are enforced by the government’s security bureau, which tracks down those who try to escape. Rumor has it that there are executions, but no one really knows for sure.
And back to that spaceship thing: The world of the The World Gives Way is a huge space ship (which the book refers to as “the world the ship” and people just think of as the world). It’s been traveling for centuries, and is expected to reach their planetary destination within fifty years. It’s implied that the Earth was on its way to becoming uninhabitable when the ship was built and launched, and finding a home on board sounds like it was something available to the privileged and wealthy, plus all the workers needed to support a comfortable lifestyle during the lengthy journey.
When I say that the ship is huge, I really mean it. It’s described as being about the size of Switzerland! Which (I looked up for comparison) is equivalent to about Vermont and New Hampshire combined, or closer to home for me, about the size of the Bay Area. (I absolutely couldn’t grasp the size until I had something more familiar to compare it to.)
The world of the ship includes large cities, resort getaways, mountains, deserts, and seas. It really is a world unto itself. For those who can afford it, there are luxuries and extravagances. For everyone else, there’s work and a daily drudge.
As the novel opens, Myrra’s employer, Imogene Carlyle, summons Myrra to the roof of their penthouse. Imogene intends to jump, and wants Myrra to promise to care for her baby, Charlotte. She tells Myrra a huge secret, known only to the top tier of politicians (such as her husband) and government scientists — there’s a breach in the outer hull of the ship, and despite months of study and efforts, there’s no way to repair it. The ship is doomed, expected to breach completely within the next few months. Imogene and Marcus have decided to end their lives now, leaving Charlotte in Myrra’s care. And then she jumps.
Myrra can’t quite believe what’s happened or what she’s just heard, but after searching Marcus’s office, she’s convinced. Taking money from the Carlyle’s safe, she escapes with Charlotte, heading out on the run in search of temporary freedom, alone with the knowledge of the inescapable end of the world.
From here, we also meet Tobias, a rookie cop with a burdened family history who’s assigned the Myrra Dal runaway case as his big opportunity to prove himself. Since no one knows why the Carlyles committed suicide, or if it might even be murder, Myrra is not only an escaped contract worker but also a suspect in their deaths and the kidnapping of their daughter. Tobias and his older partner are hot on Myrra’s trail, following leads that take them to Palmer, an underwater domed city, and onward from there.
Meanwhile, the world begins to show signs of doom. There are more and more frequent “earthquakes”, causing damage, then city-ending destruction, and other strange phenomena as well. Buildings collapse and people are killed, and finally, the government has no choice but to share the horrible news.
But what good does knowing do when there’s no escape? The world the ship is alone is space, years away from any known destination or safe harbor. As the end nears, all Myrra can do is continue her journey, trying to find some sort of solution for Charlotte, and almost inadvertently looking for a semblance of peace for herself.
The World Gives Way has a sense of inevitability about it. As interspersed chapters tell us, the end is indeed coming. These small interludes, in between the chapters focusing on Myrra and Tobias, show us how different parts of the world experience the end and what happens to the people there. It’s awful, because we know all along that there’s only one way the story can end — the world does in fact give way.
That said, Myrra and Tobias’s parallel and then joined journeys are fascinating and moving to read. Their experiences combine elements of an adventure story — daring escapes, near misses, constant danger, clever ruses — with introspective moments about their lives, their pasts, and their hopes, now shown to be out of reach.
As with other books about the end of the world, it can be a very melancholy read, as we know that no matter how much we might wish otherwise, all the characters we meet are doomed. Still, their journey is powerful and and I was very caught up in seeing how their experiences would change them. Would they find peace? Would they make new discoveries? Would they find a way out for Charlotte? I won’t tell here, but I found the ending sad, satisfying, and oddly right, in its own way.
I will say that my brain could never quite grasp the enormity of the world the ship. How can there be a space ship the size of Switzerland? There are only brief descriptions of the overall shape and design of the container of the world — the ship’s hulls, its cylindrical shape, its rotational access — but my mind just never quite got how there could be an entire world, with geographical features like seas and mountains, inside a ship. (That said, I was fine with reading Discworld, in which the entire world travels through space on the back of a giant turtle… but hey, that’s fantasy!)
Despite not being able to come to terms with the size and features of the ship itself, I did enjoy the attempt to picture it all, and couldn’t help but admire the author’s inventiveness in creating such a strange, weird world. Besides the physical aspects of the world, I thought it was also very clever to create such a stratified society, with the ultra-privileged wealthy few dominating the lives of so many contract workers and free working class people. It’s literally an entire world created to support the privilege of those able to afford a new life on a new planet, and the social structure really is fascinating.
The World Gives Way is a little inconsistent in tone, with its ups and downs of action and emotion, but I did like it very much. It wasn’t what I expected, but it ends up really delivering an engrossing and thought-provoking reading experience.