Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

The Best of All Possible Worlds is Karen Lord's most recent novel, and the first thing of hers I've read. It was a compelling read and quite different to anything else I've read. The blurb:
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.
Which makes it sound like there's more action and adventure than there really is. It's a slow burn type of plot. Told mostly from the point of view of Delarua, a civil servant on Cygnus Beta, the planet some of the refugee Sadiri come to settle on. There are occasional third-person interludes told from the point of view of Dllenahkh, one of the Sadiri, but really it is Delarua's story. It's told in a somewhat conversational style, with Delarua speaking to the reader at times.

The Sadiri came to Cygnus Beta to, among other things, repopulate their race, preferably by preserving as much of their genetic make-up as possible. Delarua's tasked with accompanying them as they visit various settlements around Cygnus Beta to collect genetic information and negotiate the possibility of establishing partnerships. If it wasn't for the compelling characters, I would have found it a bit boring since plot-wise there's not much to it. But the characters were very compelling and I found myself laughing out loud at some of their interactions and staying up till three AM to finish reading (mercifully on a Friday night, so it could've been worse).

The Sadiri are very reserved as a people, abhorring outward expressions of emotion, which leads to them referring to things as "appropriate" a lot and often forcing Delarua and others to guess what they really mean. There is a wide variety of Sadiri in the story which allowed us to see a scope of reserved personalities rather than just one character bearing the brunt of stereotyping. A non-Sadiri character that's worth mentioning is Lian, one of the team's security detail and Delarua's friend. Lian has chosen to live without a gender and so is never referred to by a gendered pronoun. The couple of times other characters might have learnt Lian's biological gender, they don't say, respecting Lian's privacy. The way Lord handled one of the characters having a crush on Lian and the latter's complete lack of interest in romance was well done. We never find out Lian's "real" gender because we are not supposed to and it is not part of the story. Bravo.

When exciting and dramatic things did happen to the characters, they were mostly not dwelt upon very much after the fact. The exciting moment passed and they moved on with their mission. This is the aspect that I disliked most. It's not that there weren't any ramifications to various events, but I would have liked to see a bit more made of them, a bit more highlighting of pieces of adventure, I suppose. As is, it read like Delarua was downplaying each bit of excitement, which is entirely in character but made for less exciting (and seemingly slower) reading. A little bit more action would not have hurt.

I liked that the slow pace and grand scope of their travels accurately reflected how big a planet really is. I kept wanting to picture all the towns/settlements they visited as being in one country and then wondering how there was room for so many of them, but I had to keep reminding myself that it was actually an entire planet they were travelling around. I think it's easy to reduce grand scales (planet-wide governments, multi-planet civilisations) to easily digestible chunks of terms we are more familiar with dealing with, and I commend Lord for avoiding this.

The Best of All Possible Worlds explores a lot of interesting issues. The most obvious is how an ethnic group can retain their identity when their homeland is destroyed — along with a larger percentage of their women (because the men were more likely to be off-world when the disaster happened) — and they are forced to live with and interbreed with other people who don't necessarily share key characteristics that define them. It also explores, through the team's visits to various settlements, how time and isolation can lead to the same culture developing along very different paths.

There is also some interesting hard science fictional world-building (as opposed to the social science fictional world-building I've already discussed) which came in glimpses until maybe three-quarters of the way through. I found it fascinating and I liked its understated inclusion. Without spoilers, it was the sort of thing another writer *cough*Stephen Baxter*/cough* might have spent whole chapters dwelling on until all the magic and story leaked out. But Lord says just enough to make us interested and does not belabour the point.

As I said at the start, The Best of All Possible Worlds is quite different to anything else I've read. To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer springs to mind as somewhat similar in style but also very different in story and theme and issues. I'd say if you're interested in a thoughtful exploration of the issues I've mentioned above, definitely give The Best of All Possible Worlds a go. If you're looking for something a bit different from your speculative fiction I also recommend it. If you're craving action and adventure, then probably give it a miss. I'm definitely interested in reading Lord's earlier and future novels.

4 / 5 stars

First published: February 2013, Del Rey (Random House) in the US (and Quercus Pan Macmillan Australia with a different cover)
Series: Don't think so.
Format read: eARC on my iThing
Source: the (US) publisher via NetGalley

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