The Best of All Possible Worlds
by Karen Lord
Cover Artist: Photo: Bruce Talbot
Review by Ernest Lilley
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780345534057
Date: 12 February 2013 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /
Recently I got almost all the way through J.A. Corey's Caliban's War before realizing that the title was a reference to the creature "not honour'd with a human shape" in the Tempest. Well, you might baffle me with the Bard, but when it comes to Voltaire, as in The Best of All Possible Worlds, the reference to the ultimate society sought by Candide and his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, pretty much jumps off the page. If you haven't read Voltaire, you should give it a go. He's actually quite readable: fun, irreverent, and frequently outrageous.
By invoking the enlightenment's version of Philip K. Dick, Karen Lord's second book has set itself a high bar to jump.
I loved the "Before" chapter, which sets up some of the background for the story. It's an excellent piece of prose that ends with a shattered world and frames the story to come. Unfortunately, the book that follows isn't nearly as well done. It's not badly done by any means. I'd been hoping for LeGuin good, or Gwyneth Jones good, but it falls short of that, achieving a sort of Trek novel pleasantness.
In fact, it wouldn't take more than a few word changes to make this a Trek novel set after the first movie of the new franchise (Star Trek (2009)). The Sadiri are a highly intellectual race that show little or no emotion and have become the defacto managers of known space. They pilot the mindships that slip through space (and time), and they project an air of superiority that some find annoying. Including, evidently, their own offshoot race, the Ain, who wipe out the Sadiri home world offstage during the preamble.
What's left of the Sadari race is a smattering of scientists, explorers, military types, and exiles...all populations heavily skewed towards males. If they're going to survive, the Sadari need women. Now, they could wait until they clone them and raise them up to a reasonable age, but on the frontier world of Cygnus Beta they know there's a concentration of genetically similar settlements, and mingling with those might provide brides for the remaining Sabari. At least until their child brides can be decanted.
So the setup matches the cultural tour novels of Voltaire, Swift, and Verne as a mixed party of Sadiri and Cygnians set out to go around the world in 360 days and get genetic samples from likely groups. And maybe do some flirting as well. The central characters are a Cygnian woman, Grace Delarua, a biotechnician with a flair for language, who has been assigned to be the Sadiri liaison and her counterpart, Dllenahkh. Being Sadari, he's a quiet, respectful, honorable sort of guy that it's clear from the start she's going to wind up with...and waiting for them to work it out drives story. Delarua, she doesn't get called Grace much, is emotionally damaged, which is why she's thirty and single, but we don't find out the particulars until midway through the book when she breaks away from the group to visit her homesteading family and her backstory shows up. Dllenahkh is just what the doctor ordered to bring her back, and of course, considering that he's lost an entire planet, with people he loves as well, he needs some healing too.
The book does take the opportunity to show a variety of cultural models that taSadirir, Sadiri that have left the fold, have adopted; bucolic Sadiri, Himalayan mystic Sadiri, Fariee Sadiri, and Evil Slaver Sadiri, among them, but none of the cultures is as interesting as the tensions within the little band of travelers.
Besides Delarua and Dllenahkh, there's Jona (Sabiri-Male) and Luan (Cygnian-Indeterminate Gender) who have an uncomfortable dance throughout the book as he chases him/her without much luck and for balance, there's a married Sadiri couple and a single Cygnian security officer, Fergus, to respectively offer stability and troublemaking.
The trouble Fergus causes forces Delarua to put her career on the line to do what she knows is the right thing, uncovering the criminal underpinnings of one of the societies they visit, and the results for her are catastrophic. Fortunately, and not for the only time in the book, Dllenahkh comes to her rescue.
Though the author chooses to take a stand against slavery, it's hard to understand how she can gloss over the genetic purity meme that drives the whole mission. Yes, it's natural for groups to seek out like groups, but shouldn't they be a little uncomfortable about it? There is talk about hybrid vigor and whatnot, so the concepts do get aired, but the emotional content seems missing. Granted, the Sadiri's emotional element is supposed to be missing, but not the Cygnians.
The other emotional element that's missing is any real sort of angst about losing an entire planet and everyone you care about. The Sadiri are reserved, perhaps, but unlike Spock after the destruction of Vulcan, you never get to peek under the hood to see that they are "emotionally compromised".
The author, an African-American herself, has given the female protagonist "cedar-brown skin", but Del Rey / Random House has blunted that edge by giving the US Edition's cover a whitened image of her, artistically done, one admits, but in the end, it's still reminiscent of painting black faces white. Perhaps that's a marketing reality, but it's not a good one.
The Best of All Possible Worlds might be retitled When Stereotypes Collide, for all the emotional women, distant males, and cultural tropes tossed around. Stereotypes exist because they contain a lot of truth, at least in a statistical sense, but they don't expand our understanding of the issues. Though the novels charts a course to show us something special, it winds up merely amusing us with what we already know.
After note: If you want to take a cultural tour of the future and watch a romance bloom in the background, you may enjoy this, but let me suggest Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, which came out last year and manages to juggle both the romantic and epic elements much more deftly.