Life at the End of the World: The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien

If you had evidence the world was ending and no one else believed you, what would you do? And even when evidence rears its terrible head, when everyone else catches up to you, what do you do with the time that’s left to you? Such are the big questions looming through Levien’s incredible debut novel, The World Gives Way, in which a generation ship that is the world that is a ship has begun to die.

It is very clearly stated early on that this is not something that can be fixed. There is a breach in the hull. The people onboard will not make it to their new home. Everyone will die. And as we begin, only Myrra, a contract worker embittered by the horrible life she inherited from her ancestors, is the only person that knows it’s coming. Across the city, an investigator named Tobias, himself toiling under a shadow from his past, searches for her. As the two of them spiral ever closer, the world around them crumbles, and indeed, begins to give way. To what, lies at the heart of the novel.

I remember in some college writing class or another, somebody made the argument that writing a story where the main character dies at the end was seen as some sort of cop out, a deflation of tension. Why go through all that trouble of reading about the poor soul, only for them to kick it, especially when they know about it? This person argued if you know the ending is coming, then why bother? Well, if I had a time machine, I’d hand them The World Gives Way and watch as that book socks them in the gut, leaving them full of feelings, watching as the night sky fills with stars and wondering at the beauty of it all. This is a debut novel that I think I would have loved regardless, but especially after a year and a half of a pandemic, of watching countless people face a monumental catastrophe and have to figure out to respond to that as individuals, well . . . this book certainly resonated.

Levien’s debut is a gentle, graceful look at the struggle of never being able to live life on your own terms and then barely being given a few weeks to give it your best shot. Myrra is an indentured servant on a generation ship, boarded almost 200 years ago by the ruling wealthy and elite and staffed by the lower class, who sold their descendants into servitude, all for the chance to survive on the far-off world of Telos. Myrra has some decades left and having lived by herself, transferred from business to business, family to family, she is angry and bitter at her circumstances. But when the family she’s taking care of commits suicide because of the impending doom, leaving her with their orphaned child, Myrra’s problems begin to pale in comparison. From her perspective, we see just how cruel and unjust the system that brought her and her ancestors aboard was, and how that system ultimately breaks down, useless and archaic as it was in life, as the world breaks, too.

Tobias, meanwhile, comes at it from the other side of the coin. With dogged determination, this detective has worked for a decade to crawl out of the shadows of his family, formerly wealthy criminals now obsessed with status, money, and power. Taken in at a young age, away from the care and custody of his criminal parents, Tobias has worked his ass off to be taken seriously, especially as the adopted son of the police chief. When he’s tasked with finding Myrra, with all signs pointing to her culpability in the death of her former family, Tobias finds more and more how much he relates to her and as they draw closer, he can’t help but feel a kinship. With no knowledge of what’s to come, Tobias plays the role of the dutiful detective, unable to break free of a system that will come crashing down on top of him, along with everyone else.

As Levien swaps between both of their points of view, she occasionally sprinkles in some of the most moving moments of the novel; objective moments of omniscience about the ending to come, what this city or that landscape will look like when the end of the world arrives. There is poetry and beauty here, some of the strongest in the book, as our narrator reminds us that even as the very human story of cat-and-mouse plays out within the ship, a real ending is coming at any moment. It is an exquisite deflation and then re-inflation of tension, as the reader truly sees the scope of the devastation to come.

The worldbuilding of the ship is marvelous and watching as Levien builds up this ship, how cities were named and how a coalition of nations bargained for this part and that; how she shows us the bones and blood of this world as we know a knife hurdles towards its heart is masterful, and you come to mourn the ship that is the world as much as you do Myrra and Tobias and those within it. The tender exploration of moments, big and small, that matter so much when you know they may be your last, are heartbreaking. Watching Myrra choose to indulge in a fancy dinner for herself, or lend a helping hand, or take care of baby Charlotte with all her heart, matters. Watching Tobias refuse to see the ending that’s coming, watching him reach out to his parents, or offer compassion to an older detective he’s partnered with when all he wants is anything else, those moments matter. As more and more of the world breaks, Levien draws the reader back time and again to that one universal truth: when the chips are down, when the world is ending, if all that matters is what we do next, then the choices that we make, big and small, truly matter. Myrra, who inherited a life where she never had a chance to choose. Tobias, whose choices never held weight because of his past. As the two of them find each other and begin their final journey toward the end, the choices they make for themselves and with each other have never held more meaning than they do at the end.

Levien’s The World Gives Way is an excellent debut, full of wonderful characterization, meticulous, empathetic worldbuilding, and a full heart, contemplating meaning, choices, unjust systems, and what we can do with the time given to us. Knowing the ending doesn’t make it any less impactful, and in fact, watching character after character turn to face the setting sun, knowing it will be their last, does not make the golden light shine less, only that much brighter and more beautiful, knowing it was here at all. A novel with empathy, bittersweetness, and a tremendous amount of heart, you’re not going to want to miss this one.

The World Gives Way is available from Redhook.

Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.

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