{book} of all possible worlds…

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best of all possible worldsThe Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Ballantine Books|Del Rey, 2013.

hardcover, 303 pages. Library borrow.

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race — and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team — one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive — just may find in each other their own destinies… and a force that transcends all.—Publisher’s comments.

You know how an occasional character or two will channel a familiar voice or face? Dllenahkh, the third-limited narrator (in alternation) of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, brought the dulcet tones of Spock with an edge of Sherlock to surface. His situation of a recently annihilated nation didn’t hurt either. But the predominant first person voice of Grace Delarua rather pleasantly brought my friend Leah to mind. Think: intelligent, emotionally sensitive, snarky, laughter-loving, possessively independent, fiercely loyal to tribe, lover of the pretty and companionable. She will underestimate herself at times, admits to vulnerability, but is incredibly courageous. Even thinking beyond the measures of these attributes Lord concocts for her heroine, Leah would even share similar psi-abilities. She is smart, loving, and funny—Delarua, my friend Leah, and Karen Lord.

“He frowned in puzzlement as he tapped in our destination. ‘Why are you thanking me? I haven’t done anything yet.’

‘You listen to my crazy ideas and make sense out of them. That’s worth some thanks.’

He let the autopilot take us and turned to face me, eyes flashing. “What you describe as the product of a mental imbalance, I would classify as swift, intuitive thinking to arrive at creative solutions.” (249)

Carrying off a light-hearted amusement amid a pretty serious occasion is a trick Karen Lord makes appear effortless. Moving forward and remembrance, maintaining histories and beginnings, the tensions of what is “appropriate” in any give situation are reflected in the solemn and the lightness of being. Setting elements of romantic-comedy amid relief & rehabilitation post-mass-genocide is daring, and with Lord’s confidence, successful. The fulcrum upon which The Best of All Possible Worlds is hope…and grace. Relationships require both and the novel centralizes its story around the discovery and recovery of relationships.

“I have come to the conclusion that while superiority may be our most obvious flaw, it is not the most dangerous one. […] I believe that our main flaw, and one I acknowledge in myself, is not that we consider ourselves superior but invincible. This makes it difficult to ask for help, even from our own”  (188).

Having worked with Second Assistant Delarua as a biotechnician helping the Sadiri homestead on the Cygnus Beta, Councilor Dllenahkh enlists her aid in a survey of the planets other emigrants who, in any way (phenotypically, traditionally, genotypically), would be a good source for mating partners. Delarua discovers a lot about herself along the way, but so does Dllenahkh and other crew-members whom Lord makes irresistible. The social commentary is served alongside endearing characters and the gorgeously bizarre—e.g. The Fearie (119). Conversations surrounding pregnancy and the female professional (158), victim-blaming (i.e. p 152), and human trafficking (~171) to name a few, are nestled among action-adventure sequences, physical comedy, workplace-friendship-family drama, and time-travel.

There is plenty of science in the fiction. I was especially drawn to the inclusion of lore. But I dig the multi-faceted discipline of Anthropology, which is the predominant science of the novel—thus the Ursula K. LeGuin allusion in jacket copy. Lord is not at subtle as LeGuin, lulling you into critically considering an alien race before realizing she is really talking about humanity and our conditions (individually/socially), and her tone is more conversational than her predecessor. Neither does Lord try to rename the familiar like the impulse seems to be for many science fictions. The vernacular is close and pop cultural references feel as recent as now (not future-alien-earth)—watching “holovids.” The time-travel is pretty complicated , the telepathic, psionic elements of particular interest. Lord proves herself a capable conversant on these subjects but does not bog down the story. It is as if Lord is less interested in hiding the SFF fact that we are talking about humans and contemporary social realities, and more interested in the transparencies SFF have to offer. I’m thinking about how she begins with the humanoid-familiarity first before introducing the alien, or even the science. She draws from human experience in imagining The Best of All Possible Worlds in plenty of interesting ways, but I am presently infatuated with one in particular.

The End of the Laughter. I recognize this one,’ said Joral. ‘Is this the adaptation of Enough, the taSadiri tale of a man who kills his unfaithful wife and her lover?’

‘No,’ said Tarik, shaking his head firmly. ‘You have made a common error. In this one, he kills the man that he mistakenly thinks is her lover while her real lover gets away. This is an adaptation of the Ainya play Deception, not Enough.’

“Okay, not meaning to muddy the waters,’ I said, ‘but I’m fairly certain that what we have here is a version of Otello, one of the old Terran standards. Kills his not-unfaithful wife on the says-so of a man who was out to get him.’

Lian approached the poster more closely and read the fine print at the bottom out loud. ‘Based on the Italian opera Pagliacci.’

We crowded around the poster. ‘Who dies?’ asked Tarik with interest. ‘And was the infidelity real or alleged?’

‘Is there some other production we might attend which does not illustrate that dysfunctional pair bonding is endemic in most cultures?’ asked Dllenahkh with heavy disapproval. (140)

In my albeit limited experience with science fiction, I am almost always left with the impression that a planet is homogenous. When encountering this “new life and new civilization” (Star Trek) on (or from) planet $@#!, the life-forms and society  depicted is indicative of the planet’s whole. As Lord traverse’s Cygnus Beta, its Terra-formed populations become reminiscent of our own diverse global landscape; folk lore is one indicator (Celtic, Chinese, etc.), an isolationist island country that observes hierarchy and strict decorum?? and Cygnus-Beta is proud of its shared heritage among the emigrated natives: “There isn’t a group on Cygnus Beta who can’t trace their family back to some world-shattering event. Landless, kinless, unwanted—theoretically, the Sadiri would fit right in” (9). The Cygnian society is willing to host and aide the refugee. Lord moves in and out of time, uses fictional and non-fictional allusions, but the references are Earth-as-we-know-it-based. A planet can and does support diverse life and civilizations. And a single government may; which is where the global exploration works to demonstrate. The planet could be seen as a single country, or no; but there is the greater government with its structures in place. There is policy and protocol that presides over the mission and the civilizations met. This government then, is influenced and linked to one greater than itself. The problems and pleasures of multi-culturalism is explored and the end result of the relationships within the novel can evidence a powerful message.

Or you can just be wildly entertained by The Best of All Possible Worlds, but I find Karen Lord to be too assertive and intelligent of perspective to ignore. She just makes the reading easier. The easy familiarity fosters the human potentiality of allowing the other their dignity and value; exhibiting hope and grace; that maybe we could do all of this without losing our-selves: a relevant anxiety for many right now. Lord explores this with humor and grace.

——————

recommendations… an accessible novel for non-readers of SF. for those looking for depictions of people of color and culture that differ from White and nuclear.

Was one of Carl V’s favorites of 2013 over at Stainless Steel Droppings in which he writes:

“In addition to the way in which the story is different than most science fiction one would pull from the shelf, the reason it stands out is that you get to know these characters and develop an emotional bond with them. You care about what happens to them and you keep reading hoping that your desires will find fulfillment. This was my first experience with the work of Karen Lord. It will not be my last, she is a true talent.”

thanks again Carl for the book recommendation!

of note: I’m still working to articulate this: but I didn’t want to leave this post w/out suggesting that there is something Karen Lord does as a storyteller that only she, as a female storyteller can do…in an argument as to why we need published-access to female writers and/or a writer of color: The Best of All Possible Worlds is the most positive consequence of greater diversity in Literature.

2014sfexp400read for The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience…and my own desire to read toward Diversity in Lit.

karen lord————————author———–

Born in Barbados, Karen Lord is an award-winning author of Redemption in Indigo (2010). Expect Rafi Delarua’s return in August 2014 w/ The Galaxy Game. She has BSc in Physics and cites martial arts/fencing as a hobby (link). She has “has taught physics, trained soldiers, worked in the Foreign Service and earned a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion” (2013 Bookpage interview w/Gavin Grant).  From the Bookpage interview:

“I know you read far and wide. Have you read anything recently you’d especially recommend? [recs linked]
I love to recommend Caribbean science fiction, [like] Ghosts by Curdella Forbes (2012) and The Rainmaker’s Mistake by Erna Brodber (2007). I’ve gained a new appreciation for short story collections. I recently read Ted Chiang’s brilliant Stories of Your Life and Others (I know, I’m late). Karin Tidbeck’s recent debut collection Jagannath is beautiful, and The Weird anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is essential reading.”

Learn more about Karen Lord: her site; & note her “Reading List”.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Kailana says:

    I bought this but I haven’t read it yet. I will have to come back and read your review when I do because I don’t want to ruin anything for myself.

  2. An absolutely wonderful review, I’m so glad you had the experience you did with it. I’ve read some very negative reviews of the book where the reviewer articulated their point well, and on one hand it made perfect sense, but left me wondering “what book did you read?”. Or maybe, “what book did you think you were going to read?”. Certainly the diary narrative structure turns some off, but I felt it worked brilliantly as a structure upon which Lord built this idea of a culturally diverse and yet interconnected world. Rather than wasting time trying to get the reader from point A to point B with a straight-forward narrative structure, this idea of a diplomatic mission of sorts, recounted through her journals, worked so well for me.

    In some ways there was an element in which it felt like we were reading interconnected short stories. Not entirely, but there is some similarity and that appeals to me and I know it does not to everyone.

    All told I find this a beautiful book and it is one of my more easy choices for books I’ll be nominating for the Hugo this year and I desperately hope it makes it onto the final ballot. This is a book I look forward to re-reading and I’m happy that Lord is returning to this world with her book The Galaxy Game, coming out later this year.

    This to me is an important work of science fiction, in part just because it is a narrative voice that is different than the norm. But it is so much more than that. This is is just a good story. Arguably Lord brings the perspective of being a woman of color to her writing and different cultural background to the story, but those inform what is just a darn good tale, period. Very worthy of recognition and I hope it gets that recognition.

    1. L says:

      I didn’t read a diary-structure to the novel, even w/ her first person narration. I must have missed it at the open. When he catches a glimpse of a memoir title on her screen , but I read that as in keeping with the ideas of preserving stories of a life & of lives…

      It would be fantastic if it is up for the Hugo!

      1. I read it that way based on the idea that it felt like her keeping a journal of what was happening during the trip, not so much that it was laid out that this was happening.

        I know a lot of authors and editors praised it, which is where I first heard about it, so hopefully it will find its way on the ballot. It was released really early in the year and I wonder if that will hurt it in any way.

  3. kamo says:

    I’m pretty sure I’m one of those more negative reviews Carl mentions, so I may as well chip in here 😉

    I think the biggest barrier to my enjoyment this book was the voice of the narrator, so it’s interesting that one of the first things you mention is how Grace reminds you of a friend. Perhaps having someone in your head primed and ready to go makes all the difference, but as it was she just didn’t work for me and that meant a lost of other stuff got judged more critically than it otherwise might. It’s a shame really, as I enjoyed Lord’s first book a lot. I’m cautiously yet hopefully anticipating the follow-up to this one, but in the meantime I’d have no hesitation in recommending Redemption in Indigo.

    1. Yours was one of the negative reviews that I read but I was thinking about some Amazon reviews that I thought were very poorly laid out when I was typing this. Complaints that to me seemed to stem more from expectations for the book that may have been avoided had they themselves read a review or two or read something about the book’s copy from the book flaps. You actually laid out very well what your issues were.

      I’m happy to hear about Redemption as it is one of the books I want to read. I too am hopeful this next book of hers will be good. It will be interesting to see how we each feel about it given that you are hoping it is more of a return to form for her and I’m hoping my expectations built from this one don’t lead to disappointment if her next doesn’t live up to the expectations.

      1. L says:

        I am interested in how she deals with a male protagonist. Yes we had Dllenahkh, but he was such a restrained character, and thus his narrative was pretty contained. The next one also sounds kind of YA-action oriented…

        1. I was curious as to whether or not The Galaxy Game would have a YA feel to it given the protagonist’s age. I agree that it will be interesting to see how she handles things primarily from a male point of view and also from the point of view of a much younger character.

    2. L says:

      not connecting with Delarua as a character is certainly valid, and I can see where a disconnect would imperil the whole read. It is a risk in any piece taking such a conversational tone. I was a bit worried about the use of First Person, primarily because I read too many that direction, but also because the character such a driving force in the novel.

      2013, because of my History of Novel class and the huge volume of 17-18th-early 19th century reading I had to do, was a big year for wanting to have nothing to do with the protagonist unless it meant strangulation…

      I’m looking forward to Redemption in Indigo.

  4. jeremyfrantz says:

    I think I need to read this sooner than I had anticipated. Really great review!

    1. L says:

      thanks.looking forward to your take…

  5. Grace says:

    *adds to massive TBR list*

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