Cover image of "The World Gives Way,"  a novel that's not quite science fiction

What distinguishes a novel as science fiction as opposed to fantasy or literary fiction? Surely, at least one thing is certain: science or technology must be central to the story. After all, the dictionary defines science fiction as “a genre of fiction that creatively depicts real or imaginary science and technology as part of its plot, setting, or theme.” And by that definition, Marissa Levien’s 2021 novel, The World Gives Way, clearly qualifies. It’s a tale set on a starship 150 years into a journey to a distant new home for the human race. And yet in so many ways, this novel comes across as something that is . . . well, not quite science fiction.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

A 26th-century setting without advanced technology

The starship in question is identified only as “the world the ship.” It’s a generation starship in which the current passengers and crew are several generations removed from those who left Earth a century and a half ago. The ship is “roughly the size of what once was Switzerland.” Which raises eyebrows to begin with. And the story appears to be set in the twenty-sixth century, since ocean-going sailing ships were 700 years in Earth’s past. Yet the technology in evidence in the story is that of the late twentieth century. There is little that suggests the world we live in today, with its 3-D printers, robots, self-driving cars, and pervasive artificial intelligence. So, it might make sense to think of The World Gives Way as just a good story and not expect any speculation about the future that we’ve come to demand of the genre. As I’ve said, it’s not quite science fiction.

The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien (2021) 416 pages ★★★★☆

Artist's concept of a generation starship like the one in this novel that's not quite science fiction
The Nauvoo generation starship from the SF thriller The Expanse. Image: via Space Settlement Progress

A yawning wealth gap defines this society

Levien portrays a society defined by a yawning wealth gap between two classes living on the ship. There are “contract workers”—slaves, really, on fifty-year contracts. They work for the rich—and especially the superrich, who inhabit palatial homes in the upper reaches of soaring towers and lush suburban sites. The story’s central character is twenty-five-year-old Myrra Dal, who cares for the infant daughter of the ultra-wealthy Carlyle family. By keeping her eyes open to documents lying on Marcus Carlyle’s desk, she learns that the ship has suffered catastrophic damage. Sometime soon it will break apart, killing everyone aboard. Not long afterward, Marcus and his socialite wife, Imogene, kill themselves in despair. And Myrra, fearing arrest for their murder, flees with the Carlyles’ baby, Charlotte.

As Myrra weaves her way through the city’s back alleys to avoid surveillance, the New London Security Bureau comes alive. The director sends two agents to locate and bring her in. Tobias Bendel, who is about Myrra’s age, is the director’s adopted son. This is his first assignment in the field. His partner, Agent Ray Simpson, is an older, experienced agent. But it is Tobias’s instinct that leads the pair to her at length. Meanwhile, increasingly terrifying and frequent earthquakes shake the world the ship. Myrra and Tobias will, of course, connect as the end approaches.

Marissa Levien writes with exceptional clarity and power. The World Gives Way may be not quite science fiction. But the imagery and characters she creates may haunt you for days after reading this book.

About the author

Photo of Marissa Levien, author of this novel that's not quite science fiction
Marissa Levien. Image: Orbit Books

As her author website discloses, “Marissa Levien is a writer and artist who hails from Washington State and now lives in New York with a kindly journalist and their two cats. She received her MFA from Stony Brook University in 2019.”

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