The World Gives Way, a debut novel by Marissa Levien, is a super depressing book that you probably shouldn’t read if you are in a bad place. This standalone story focuses on the idea of coping with your impending death, and not in a peaceful, fulfilled, going silently into the night sort of way. It’s a story about someone whose existence is pure hell, they are shown a light at the end of the tunnel, and then they find out they are going to die instead. It’s an exploration of how people cope with the things life throws at them and how you handle a world that isn’t fair in the slightest.
The plot of the book follows an arc ship that is carrying a portion of humanity from Earth to colonize and restart the human race on a new planet. Myrra is a contract worker, sold into servitude to the rich and wealthy in exchange for a place on the ship. Or rather, her grandparents were sold into servitude. Myrra was born into the servant role, and is forced to work off the ‘debt’ her family incurred getting a place on the ship until they arrive at the new world. But, there is good news. In five years the ship will arrive at its destination and Myrra will be free. Which is why it is so heartbreaking when she finds out that the ship is coming apart, will soon be destroyed, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.
The title of the book, The World Gives Way, is a depressing reference to the fact that Myrra’s world is quite literally falling apart. Myrra works for a rich family of scientists on the ship as a nanny for their child. When the family realizes that there is nothing they can do to save the ship they decide to kill themselves, leaving Myrra without an overlord and with a small child. She goes on the run on a scenic tour around a ship of wonders while a supporting cast of other characters tries to track her down and find out why the scientists killed themselves. What follows is a long and poetic journey of meditation on the idea of death and all the different ways people react to the topic.
The World Gives Way has a certain duality that I struggle with; it does some things really well and fails at others. The themes are extremely well realized and explored with a lot of complexity and thoughtfulness. Levien does a wonderful job pulling apart the complex human reaction to impending death and it leads to some powerful, uncomfortable, and emotional scenes. There is a very interesting exploration of the terraforming trope, where characters toil their lives away to make a better world for future generations. While this sci-fi trope usually embodies the idea of noble sacrifice, here the same setup is used to frame the callous selfishness of the rich, which gives the trope a fresh new perspective.
One of the ways Levien drives home points is through poetic prose and heartfelt narration that spends half the time in the heads of different characters and half the time narrating their experiences from the third person. All of this is tied together by the tragically wonderful ship that serves as a perfect playground for the story. You become invested in the vehicle almost as a character and its doom feel just as awful as those it carries.
Where the book feels like it drops the ball is in its characters and the mechanics of its plot. I connected with the ideas of the cast at a high level, but not with any of them as individuals. They felt almost like faceless mannequins with a little personality whose only purpose was to ferry the ideas of the story forward. In addition, the plot is mostly the characters wandering around and contemplating life. It feels like there is a pretty high page count for nothing to really happen. What this results in is a book that has powerful messages and ideas that absolutely deserve to be read, but I didn’t find it overwhelmingly entertaining to read.
The World Gives Way is a melancholy and exhaustive look into the human mind when confronted with its own mortality. It asks questions about the purpose of life and the fairness of what people are forced to deal with in their short time in the universe. It really bummed me out in the absolute best way possible and if you are looking for something heavy and ponderous it should be right up your alley.
Rating: The World Gives Way – 7.0/10