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Atoms Never Touch coverAtoms Never Touch, the debut novel from micha cárdenas, is built on a nifty speculative premise. Every time Rea becomes deeply intimate with a lover, she shifts from one universe into a second, alternate one in which she and her lover never met. Over and over, at the very moment she grows closest to those she loves, she loses them. From this premise, cárdenas spins a story of the intertwined lives of three trans women (Rea, Cora, and Luz), who rotate around each other across universes of possibility, creating space for queer and trans joy and community in the midst of oppression.

micha cárdenas is an artist and theorist whose previous artistic and academic works have drawn on virtual reality and other forms of technology to explore aspects of identity and social justice. Atoms Never Touch feels of a piece with these interests. The story includes threads that trace the undulations of technology from oppressive to life-supporting. Like Ursula K. Le Guin (who is mentioned several times in the text), Octavia Butler, and many others mentioned in the acknowledgements, cárdenas uses her speculative premise to explore alternatives to the social and political assumptions of the contemporary United States, from capitalism to heteronormativity. This makes Atoms Never Touch a great fit for anarchist publishing house AK Press and its Emergent Strategy Series, which gets its name from Emergent Strategy (2017) by adrienne maree brown, which drew on speculative fiction to engage with social change and organizing.

Cárdenas’s novel, too, is clearly written to and from the world of social action and organizing. This interest in social action shows up most literally in the novel’s storyline for its second primary character, Cora. It opens with Cora in an airport bathroom, gathering herself for an act of political hacking. We learn that she was overcome by the election of a fascist president, to whom she refers as the “rapistelect.” While watching the news, she came to a decision, which is put explicitly in the terms of speculative fiction, referencing Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973): “She walked away from Omelas—as Le Guin would say—away from her life of normalcy and back to the life of a hacker” (p. 18). Cora’s chapters offer a note of cyberpunk intrigue. She has “auglenses,” which were added to her eyes at the same time that she had gender confirmation surgery. With the auglenses, she can use virtual screens and keyboards, see virtual graffiti on the walls of the restroom, and run other virtual reality programs. The descriptions of her plan and its implementation are detailed enough to be geeky, while also engaging the reader with page-turning tension.

An interest in social action and social engagement is also threaded through the storyline for Rea, the character who finds herself shifting between alternate universes. Her shifts between realities bring her to the same universe as Cora, that is the one in which a fascist president (never given a name in the text) is elected in the United States following a campaign that attacks immigrants and proceeds under the shadow of multiple sexual assault allegations. His election is also an emotional tidal wave for Rea: “My hope at finding any answers about myself was lost in the sudden incomprehensibility of the people around me, half of whom had voted for this violent, misogynist buffoon” (p. 31). It’s notable that Rea’s dismay at the election pushes aside her personal quest to make sense of what is happening to her. At this point in the story she doesn’t know how to keep from shifting between universes, which means she could easily expect that at some point she would leave the universe with the fascist president behind. That she doesn’t think about that demonstrates a key facet of her character: her shifts between universes haven’t led to nihilism and disconnection, but rather to an even fiercer commitment to the people around her.

This commitment to community in the face of oppression and loss feels weighted with the queer and trans experience, even when the mechanisms of that loss are shifts between universes. Rea’s community of friends is large enough that at least some of them remain consistent as she travels from one universe to the next. She is able to reach out for support, even if she doesn’t tell them the whole truth about what has happened to her: “I tried to explain what I could without outing myself or sounding insane. Xandra did what was most important, what I most needed: she just sat with me, held my hand, and cried with me” (p. 125). Rea’s friends aren’t able to help her solve the physics that drive her from one universe into another, but they are able to ground her in her immediate reality and the physicality of the world in which she finds herself.

Much of Rea’s storyline is focused on the interpersonal, exploring her relationships and her history to make sense of her shifts between universes. cárdenas’s writing shines in these quiet moments. The shifts between universes, for example, are gentle, so gentle that Rea refers to them as “slips.” One moment she is in bed with her lover. The next she is alone in bed, in a universe subtly different from the one before. The descriptions echo the quietness of this loss:

After she was gone, I saw that some of the details in my large print of the Milky Way above my bed had changed. Only a few stars had moved, a few rocks had new ripples in their skin. The pale blue color of my clock’s display was slightly different. The effects were quantum, changes in possibility maps of proton clouds, but as I fell asleep, I knew that I would never see Beatriz again. (p. 7)

These quantum changes have deep consequences for Rea. Each time, she has to determine which parts of her history have remained the same—which friends, which poems and artworks—while also recovering from a grief that no one in her life can understand. It’s a beautiful evocation of how private grief can be, with the universe irrevocably changed and yet somehow spinning onward.

Another example is when Rea and Cora meet at a political protest. As with her descriptions of loss, cárdenas uses the novel’s speculative backdrop to write beautifully about the unknowable wonder of why two people connect:

How can we ever know all the possible outcomes and variables that contributed to the meeting of two people? What quantum effects happen in the moment when the police car’s red light flashes off her body and sends that image to my brain, resulting in this powerful attraction? What patterns of shape, like the movement of her hair, reach the neural networks in my hippocampus, interact with my memory, and create this feeling of warmth down my body? (p. 33)

Rea’s wonderings in this section are spurred by her own quantum problem and how probability keeps upending her life. At the same time, I see in these questions another reflection of queer and trans experiences. In a heteronormative society, where everyone is assumed to be straight and cisgender, those who don’t fit within those bounds are spurred to spend more time asking themselves why. Those questions can be painful and self-berating (“why am I this way?”), but they don’t have to be. As in Rea’s wonderings, these questions can also be joyful and full of awe at how happenstance, history, and genetics intersect to bring two people together. The novel beautifully depicts the joy of two trans women falling in love with each other, from the moment of first attraction to the deeper conversations about who they are and how they came to be where they are now.

Given the novel’s beautiful handling of emotion, and the effective handling of the technical detail with computer hacking, I was underwhelmed by the descriptions of Rea’s theories about what is happening to her and why. The most detail comes in a conversation with Cora, in which Rea says, “if one world splits off into another world as its timeline moves forward, then there must be an identifiable point where and when that split occurs. Given that, that point is identifiable, and implies that there is a possibility that one could somehow cross that point and move into the original world, move across realities, move across probability splits” (p. 57). This explanation describes the mechanism behind what is happening to Rea, but she doesn’t delve into the further implications of the mechanism—how each of the universes are affected by this split, including the effects on the people on either side.

This lack of theorizing becomes relevant in a key emotional scene. Rea and Cora’s relationship drives toward the moment when Rea decides to deliberately slip between universes in order to save Cora. Their search for data to understand why Rea keeps shifting between universes has attracted the attention of federal agents. As the feds close in on them, Rea tries to imagine a way out for them together, but it feels impossible in the “web of surveillance” that marks this universe (p. 96). Instead, she and Cora make love, and she deliberately pushes them to that point of deepest intimacy which always results in her slipping away. It’s a beautiful moment, implementing the classic sacrifice of giving up the relationship to save the one she loves. And yet I didn’t understand why Rea thought that her slipping away would save Cora. Rea doesn’t know how to communicate across universes, which means that she doesn’t know what happens in the universes she leaves behind. Instead of saving Cora, she could have been abandoning her to the attention of the federal agents alone. Presumably Rea has developed theories about how her leaving affects the universe left behind, and those theories guide her decision in that moment. But since we aren’t given those theories, the decision feels less rooted in Rea as a character and more rooted in the necessity of the plot.

I also struggled with the structure of the novel. In the early part and then again at the end, Cora’s chapters (told in the third person) alternate with Rea’s chapters (told in the first person). Though both storylines were engaging, I struggled with how to fit the political suspense with the quieter, interpersonal story. The two storylines move at vastly different paces, with Cora’s chapters eking out the time leading up to an airplane flight to Bogotá and Rea’s chapters moving quickly through multiple months-long relationships. As the novel continues, and Cora and Rea meet, it becomes clear that the events in Cora’s chapters are happening in a time unrelated to Rea’s. Then we meet Luz, the third character, who has a chapter of her own unrelated to either of the other two. Slowly, the relationships between all three characters and their timelines are revealed, only fully clarifying in the final chapter. On my first read, too much of my attention was taken up with trying to connect the various threads to form a whole. As a result, the novel felt stronger the second time through, when I knew the chronology and didn’t feel like I needed to hold onto the details from all of the previous chapters to understand when and where we were and how it all connected.

Atoms Never Touch didn’t feel fully cohesive to me due to the shifts in tone and the shuffled structure. At the same time, there was so much to enjoy within it, from the small moments of loss and connection described above to others that I haven’t mentioned, such as when Rea becomes unmoored in time and space, and different worlds flash outside her window and a baby grows up in sudden bursts. Perhaps the best way to summarise Atoms Never Touch is to say it is as fun as it is frustrating, with scenes I expect I’ll be remembering for years to come.

Sessily Watt endeavors to embrace uncertainty and the limits of her own knowledge. She often fails, and tries to embrace that failure as well. Her writing has appeared in NonBinary Review and Bookslut. You can find her at and on Twitter as @SessilyWatt.
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