In The Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord displays a very elegant talent that I wish I could see more often in speculative fiction – the ability to build worlds with character, dialogue and plot, rather than relying on infodumps. Infodumps can be very interesting (especially when you’re reading Neal Stephenson), but most of the time they appear like bland concrete blocks offloaded into the natural landscape of the story. With Lord however, entering her world is like strolling into a beautiful shady forest until you find yourself surrounded by vibrant life.
The only downside to this is that it takes a little longer to understand the world as a whole, since you haven’t been given the incongruous textbook introduction. For the sake of clarity then, I’ll start my review with a little bit of background to the story.
Lord’s galaxy contains four sub-species of human – Sadiri, Ntshune, Zhinuvian and us, the Terrans. Each race has some kind of psionic ability, except for the Terrans, who are standard humans – “the chicken stock of every human genetic soup in the galaxy”, as the narrator Grace calls us. Terra – Earth – is the youngest planet, but although some Terrans have been able to become part of the galactic society and Terran pop culture is widespread (Indiana Jones is a much-loved cliche here too!), Terra itself is under embargo. We don’t learn much more about this, and Lord never states what time period this is set in, as it’s not relevant to the current story.
Of the four human races, the Sadiri are the elite. They “consider themselves to be the pinnacle of human civilisation” and have formed “the backbone of galactic law, diplomacy, and scientific discovery for centuries”. Their considerable telepathic powers are focused and strengthened by a culture of mental disciplines which enable the Sadiri to control their thoughts, emotions and urges. This has given them a reputation for being impassive and haughty. “Judging other humans and finding them wanting is what the Sadiri do” says one of Grace’s friends.
The Sadiri we see in the novel however, have fallen very far from these grand heights. In the opening chapter, we learn that their home planet, Sadira, was destroyed, their race faces extinction and they no longer have any high ground to stand on. The survivors are mostly men, because in their gender-imbalanced society, it was mostly men who worked off-world and escaped the disaster (Lord based this on a similar phenomenon that occurred among the coastal communities affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004). A tiny colony of survivors is set up, leaving an excess of males who are sent to Cygnus Beta, “a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees”. Cygnus Beta is not wealthy but it’s colourful, with a mix of humans from all over the galaxy. The juxtaposition is somewhat satisfying – this proud, monocultural race must humbly approach the people they looked down on for help, and find a way of preserving their culture in a culturally diverse land.
The people of Cygnus Beta empathise with the Sadiri’s tragedy, having experienced similar things themselves. But all welcomes wear out, and when the younger Sadiri start acting out with the local women, our narrator Grace Delarua is asked to have a word with one of their leaders, a man named Dllenahkh.
Grace is a biotechnician and has been working with Dllenahkh for some time. She’s “kind of a language nut” and quickly picks up “a smattering of Sadiri”, so she’s the ideal liason. Grace has also come to understand the Sadiri and their culture more than other Cygnians, for which Dllenahkh is deeply grateful:
I understand that on Terra gold is considered a rare and precious metal. To be golden is to be special, cherished. […] To me, your eyes are golden, because they have perceived who we truly are.
Grace sees the problems with the ways in which the Sadiri have been trying to rebuild their society (some of which stem from their arrogance), and she suggests a more structured, co-operative approach. This gives rise to part of the main plot – a research team, including Grace and Dllenahkh, sets out to explore some of the very varied homesteads on Cygnus Beta, looking for Diaspora Sadiri. The goal is to find women with a high level of Sadiri genetics (and preferably cultural practices too) and invite them to help form a Sadiri homestead and rebuild the dying race.
It’s not the typical story of painful culture clashes, as Jeremy L.C. Jones argues in an interview with Karen Lord for Clarkesworld: “The Sadiri and Cygnian cultures do not come together with armies and space ships, guns blazing; they come face to face as individuals trying to comprehend and adapt to new lives.”
It’s a story of cultural interactions and the plot is laid out as a series of vignettes, as the research team travel from one homestead to the next, encountering a wide variety of semi-Sadiri peoples, even a group of ‘elves’ who have based their society on Terran folklore. These encounters are interesting in themselves, but don’t really build on each other; instead, this aspect of the plot serves as a vehicle for character exploration and development, which is another of the novel’s strengths. In fact, your impression after reading this might be that it’s character-driven sci fi, as they are all so very vivid and skilfully written.
Grace in particular is just wonderful – smart, humorous, outgoing, a tad temperamental and a little bit snarky. She feels far more like a real person than most characters I come across, and has a casual, cosy tendency to address the reader directly every now and then. Her friendly manner contrasts nicely with Dllenahkh’s clinical control, and much of the story concerns their attempts to understand each other, learn from each other and form a lasting bond. This goes beyond the normal human interaction of course – getting to know Dllenahkh also means understanding his telepathic abilities, the physical effects this has on the Sadiri, and the mental disciplines they practice Grace turns out to be unexpectedly gifted, displaying interesting empathic abilities thanks to her Ntshune heritage. In keeping with their scientific culture, some of the Sadiri on the team study and experiment with Grace’s abilities, which in turn brings her closer to all of them as she finds out that their impassivity is only a stereotype.
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that it is Grace and Dllenahkh’s love story as much as anything else, and this is where my review will, sadly, turn a shade of negative. I don’t like romance. Sometimes I find it sweet or sexy, but in this case I found it cheesy. The novel moves very slowly, which was fine when it was all about culture, science, and other ideas, but I got bored when it started to become a slow-moving romance. Most of the time, this is at least mixed up with other plot strands, but by the very end it’s just a montage of tedious sentimentality.
I don’t generally like melodrama, but in this case I thought the novel could have used a dose – a few striking scenes to replace the ponderous ones and prevent the romance from dragging along the way it does. I also think other parts of the novel could have been more dramatic, although for different reasons. The narrative is very relaxed and understated, and for the most part, this is a good thing. However, there are some more serious or exciting events – an attempted murder during a stage play, a noble sacrifice, some life-threatening scenarios – that suffer from being downplayed. You know that something more intense has happened, but you don’t always feel that intensity in the story because the pace doesn’t change. The unfortunate result is that, despite all the excellent things about The Best of All Possible Worlds, it made less of an impact on me than it could have. A bit like ordering a cocktail and then finding out it’s a virgin.
But criticisms aside – this is still an incredibly elegant, meticulously imagined piece of sf. It manages to be funny, tragic and hopeful all at once, which is to say, it’s very lifelike. I’m now far more interested in Karen Lord than in some writers who offer all the drama and entertainment I thought this novel needed. Those are the easiest things to find in sff; class is rare and should be cherished.
I’ve got one last point to discuss – the title. The meaning isn’t made explicit, but the philosophical idea that it references is a means of explaining the existence of evil in a world supposedly created by a perfectly good and loving God. Gottfried Leibniz argued that some level of evil is beneficial, because it gives rise to virtues, like courage. Thus, the ideal world would have some evil in it, and God, being God, created a world with the perfect balance of good and evil – the best of all possible worlds. There are some very obvious issues with this idea, which I won’t bother getting into. What I thought it might refer to in the novel is the way characters and societies strived to make the best possible world out of the one they have, having survived and learned from the terrible things that have befallen them. Cygnus Beta is a world that was founded in genocide, and is populated by people whose histories are marked by great tragedy. The Sadiri are in the very situation where evil can be beneficial – is has humbled them, and brought them closer to the rest of the human race.
There a great deal of room here for a sequel. Lord has left many questions unanswered (not in a bad way) and there are mysteries for the characters too, particularly the question of Terran Diaspora. So if she writes another novel set in this universe, I’ll read it. Actually, I’ll read any novel of hers.