Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds - Karen Lord

Karen Lord's debut novel Redemption in Indigo was one of the books that received a lot of attention in 2011 and 2012. It's one of those books I mean to pick up but so far I haven't read it yet. From what I understand of the reviews, it's a book well worth reading. While looking for suitable books for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I came across Lord's second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, in a bookstore in Amsterdam. If her first novel is anywhere near as good as the second, I can see what the fuss was about. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a very good science fiction novel. Comparisons with the work of Ursula K. Le Guin are made on the inside flap of the cover. For once, I don't disagree with what it says there. Something the flap text doesn't mention is that there clearly is a bit of Bradbury in the novel too.

What do you do when your planet and the center of your culture has been wiped out in a single strike? That is the question facing the Sadiri who had the good fortune to be away from home at the time of the strike must answer. Besides drastically reduced numbers, they also face a severe gender imbalance. The question of whether the Sadiri have a future as a separate people or should blend in with the other peoples of the galaxy is very much on their mind. Scientist Grace Delurua is assigned to a project to see if salvaging Sadiri culture by introducing new blood from the planet Cygnus Beta is feasible. It will be a life changing experience of Delurua and the Sadiri.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is not a novel that easily fits into one of science fiction's many subgenres. It is a very character driven novel. Don't expect a lot of scientific speculation or detailed future histories. Lord inserts what the reader needs to know when the characters run into it, so it takes quite a while for the basic outlines of this universe to become clear. Even with what the characters add to the reader's knowledge, quite a few questions about how this universe works, and especially Earth's position in it, remains a bit underexposed. The novel is carried by the dynamic between the two main characters Delurua and the Sadiri councilor Dllenahkh.

Lord does describe a number of cultures on the Cygnus Beta that vary from a Faerie court to a feudal society, although on most of the planet, there seems to be a bit of a frontier mentality. As a striking contrast, the few cities the planet possesses are very liberal. According to the acknowledgments Lord, who is from Barbados herself, has made the planet into a mix of cultures and societies to mirror the situation in the Caribbean. This mix also contains people of Sadiri ancestry, which is why the Saridi are so interested in the planet.

The Sadiri are one four strains of humanity in the galaxy. Their culture has developed to potential of the human mind in ways that others cannot achieve. They are a long lived and telepathic people, who value mental discipline and self-control. Their actions are guided by logic and reasoning rather than my emotion and impuls. I'm probably not the first to note that there is more than a bit of Vulcan in these people, although it must be said, they have a much better sense of humour. Their self control is stretched to the max by the prospect of not being able to find a suitable bride however. When Sadiri snap the results can be quite dramatic, even violent.

The novel is mostly written as a travelogue, with Delurua doing the narrating. It covers the entire year the project she is assigned to is running. Delarua's chapters are written in the first person. Between chapters there are short sections seen from Dllenahkh's point of view. The create a sense of distance and mute the emotion in these sections Lord opts for a third person point of view here. This division works very well. The mind of a Sadiri is obviously alien to the reader, where Delurua's way of thinking is much more recognizable. When the novel opens, she feels she already knows a thing or two about the Sadiri but her understanding deepens immensely throughout the novel.

In essence, and this is another element that will not be to the liking of some science fiction fans, The Best of All Possible Worlds is a romance. Throughout the novel the feelings Delurua and Dllenahkh have for each other grow until the outcome is inevitable. I guess you could say it is a case of opposites attract. Delurua is a very intelligent woman but lacks the Sadiri mental discipline. She often displays much more emotion than the Sadiri and over the course of the novel learns how to reconcile her emotions and intuition with the Saridi way of thinking. Dllenahkh has some adapting to do as well. On more than one occasion he takes a leap of faith and accepts Delurua's conclusions, reached by intuitive leaps rather than measured reasoning. The relationship, both on a personal and professional level develops in a very natural way. It is the key element in this novel and one that is very successfully executed.

My experience with books I've read for the Women of Genre Ficiton reading challenge has been mixed. I've found some very enjoyable reads, some excellent novels and a few that didn't appeal to me at all. The Best of All Possible Worlds is without a doubt one of the excellent ones. With only one book left to read, it is probably my favorite so far. The strong character development, the subtle romance and the sense of humour worked into the novel are a combination that you find very rarely in science fiction. I would not be surprised if it was nominated for an award or two next year. As far as I'm concerned this book is a must read.

Book Details
Title: The Best of All Possible Worlds
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 307
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-345-53405-7
First published: 2013


  1. Everyone has been saying how good this novel is, but your review was the first to really, truly, get my attention. You can bet I will be keeping my eye out for this!

    1. Will be interesting to see what you think. I think I'm going to keep an eye out for Redemption in Indigo. I understand it is a completely different kind of novel but it sounds interesting.