Karen Lord’s second novel has been greatly anticipated by the many people, including myself, who fell in love with Redemption in Indigo. When I saw an ARC available on NetGalley I pounced on it immediately. I have, however, taken a while to produce this review. That’s partly because I don’t believe in publishing reviews long before you can buy the book — that has always seemed like bragging on the part of the reviewer, and not very helpful to the prospective reader. But it is also, rather unusually, because I wanted to talk to the author first. The reasons for that should become obvious as you read this review, but first I should introduce the book.
The Best of All Possible Worlds opens in dramatic fashion. We are introduced to Dllenahkh, apparently a busy chap with a responsible job who, every so often, has to go on a meditation retreat to help him handle the stress of his life. He’s on retreat when we meet him, but his peace is interrupted by the arrival of a spaceship pilot with bad news. Their home planet has been attacked and laid waste. The entire population is dead.
With a standard genre novel, what would follow is a revenge-based piece of military SF in which Dllenahkh tracks down and kills those responsible for this atrocity. What we get is nothing like that at all. Most of the rest of the book is told from the point of view of Grace Delarua, a minor civil servant in an outpost world where Dllenahkh and some other surviving members of his race, the Sadiri, have come in search of sanctuary and, hopefully, wives.
A digression on the world building is in order here. The galaxy is populated by a number of species of humans, all of which can interbreed, but which are genetically distinct in the same way that our own species and Neanderthals were distinct. The Sadiri have their own culture, and are quite stuffy and conservative. This, compounded by the disaster that has befallen them, has made the few (mostly male) survivors rather obsessed with breeding. Delarua’s planet, Cygnus Beta, is home to a number of settlements of taSadiri — people who couldn’t stand the strictures of traditional Sadiri culture and left to set up home elsewhere. It is therefore a prime source of eligible females.
Hopefully you can begin to see the shape of the mess that Delarua and her colleagues have to negotiate. On the one hand they desperately want to help the Sadiri (there are economic reasons for this, as well as the humanitarian ones). But on the other hand they need to prevent the sort of diplomatic incidents that might arise when a group of sex-starved misogynists go in search of wives.
That’s probably a little unfair on the Sadiri. There are worse males in the universe. Indeed, one of the reasons that Dllenahkh has been sent on this mission is that he’s assumed to be disciplined enough not to cause an upset. Nevertheless, it is a delicate situation, and if you were part of a relatively small remnant population with very little chance of getting a wife, you might be a bit eager too.
The structure of the book is somewhat unexpected as well. Most chapters are, in a way, separate stories telling of particular encounters that Dllenahkh, Delarua and their colleagues have at different settlements on Cygnus Beta. There is an overall thread to the book, but if you are brought up on fast-paced novels that end each chapter in a cliff-hanger then this slower, more disconnected structure may jar. I expect to see reviews that complain about Lord failing to use the prescribed structures you are taught in creative writing classes and, shock horror, having characters in the book who don’t serve the purposes of the plot. I guess what she’s done will be irritating to anyone who is convinced that slavish adherence to a formula is the only way to get published.
At its core, the book is a love story between, as you might have guessed, Dllenahkh and Delarua. I use the term “love story” rather than “romance” very deliberately. Romance tends to be a very adolescent genre, full of horrible misunderstandings and raging emotions. It is fiction for people still trying to understand the opposite sex, and the process of sexual attraction. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a much more adult affair in which two people thrown together by work gradually come to admire each other, and rely on each other. If there is uncertainty it is probably worry that attempting sex will jeopardize the relationship that is building.
Of course the book is, in many ways, all about sex. You have a bunch of alien males in search of wives, and several female characters who might just be interested if the cultural issues can be overcome. Occasionally this results in banter that almost makes you feel like you’ve fallen through a wormhole into a later-period Heinlein novel. Although one of the characters turns out to be asexual, this is mostly an avowedly heterosexual book with mating as a core theme. It also tackles the issue head-on in a very practical way. Personally, as an older, heterosexual female, I was perfectly happy with it. I suspect that some lesbian feminists will be outraged.
I note, by the way, that the nature of the relationships formed is important to Lord. Some of the characters have limited psychic powers, and the occasional arrogance and stuffiness of the Sadiri is contrasted with the genuinely abusive behavior of others. We should not forget where the title comes from. While there is no benevolent god in the book whose failure to address the shortcomings of the universe needs to be interrogated, we are still very much stuck with Leibniz’s central idea that we need to deal with the real world as it is. Annoying and imperfect the universe may be, but we still need to strive for the best.
The final, and most important, point I want to make about the book also deals with the way in which the real world annoyingly fails to fit our neat ideas as of how thing should be. Most modern equality theory is based on the idea that, biologically speaking, all human beings are identical. There are no different “races” of humans, just humans with different appearances. We are all the same species, in just the same way that our best friend, canis lupus familiaris, is, despite coming in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. Feminism holds that the same is true for the sexes: childbearing aside, there are no significant differences between males and females.
In The Best of All Possible Worlds Lord does something very brave. She populates the galaxy with a variety of different species of humans that can interbreed, but are not only culturally, but also biologically different. There are things that some species are better at than others (that is, when large populations are sampled for a characteristic, the difference in performance between species is statistically significant). There is a reason why Sadiri make good starship pilots and people from other species don’t.
Of course we have seen this many times before in 20th Century SF. Mostly we criticize it as proxy racism; attempts to show that the (mysteriously all-white) humans are somehow better people than the funny almost-humans with lumps on their brows and darker skin. That, I submit, is not a charge that one can reasonably bring against a Caribbean writer. There may still be some racial stereotyping in the book, but the central point that Lord is making here is that genuine racial differences do not excuse racism. The various human races in the book are still all human, and they still need to get along. In most cases, the differences between species don’t matter very much, and in any case cultural differences tend to be greater than biological ones. Nevertheless, we only live in the best of all possible worlds, not an ideal world defined by political theories. It is up to us to make the best of it.
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