Book Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
The Best of All Possible Worlds opens with catastrophe. The planet of Sadira has been destroyed by a poison gas attack that leaves the planet uninhabitable and exterminates most of the Sadiri people. The only survivors are those who were off planet at the time of the attack. This near-genocide will result in the extinction of the Sadiri people, unless those who survive establish new settlements and find a way to perpetuate their genetic line.
With that as the background, The Best of All Possible Worlds takes off into a study of culture clashes and cooperation. The Sadiri are a people known for their unparalleled mastery of the “mental disciplines” — telepathy, the ability to control emotions, the ability to travel with their minds, and more. When a contingent of Sadiri diplomats and scientists arrive on Cynus Beta, their goals are twofold: One, establish homesteads and rebuild a community, and two, seek out taSadiri communities — people descended from long-ago emigrants from Sadira, who share physical and possibly mental traits with the dwindling Sadiri population, in hopes of establishing marriages resulting in a resurgence of the Sadiri people. Initially viewing the Sadiri representatives as objects of pity, the Cygnians are eager to assist, and assign a team of cultural and scientific experts to set out with the Sadiri contingent on a mission to travel their world and explore the far-flung communities who may bear taSadiri genetic markers.
Key members of this mission are our two main characters: Grace Delarua is a Cygnian biotechnician who is smart, tough, wise-cracking, prone to laughter and chatter, and with unexplored empathic talents. Dllenahkh is the Sadiri Councillor heading up the mission, who is stoic, in complete control of his emotions, and a master of the mental disciplines. These two opposites seem to fit, despite their differences, and over the course of the book, we see their partnership deepen into a connection that explores both the Sadiri mental abilities and Grace’s tendency toward emotionalism and expression. Opposites attract, although these two are a long time in realizing what’s obvious to everyone else.
Not to say that The Best of All Possible Worlds is a love story (although it is). The book presents a deep and thoughtful look at cross-cultural misunderstandings, the imperative to survive, the many ways that friendship and respect can grow and develop, and the varieties of love and relationships that are possible. Along the way, the details of the different communities encountered during the mission are fascinating, each representing a branch on the Sadiri family tree. In these far-flung communities, each has chosen its own path toward adaptation and evolution, emphasizing different traits and values. In some communities, the mental disciplines allow all members to communicate telepathically throughout the settlement. In others, the inhabitants are sharply Sadiri in appearance but generations past have abandoned all study of the mental disciplines. In each, Dllenahkh and his team must recommend whether to encourage the community to send members to the new Sadiri homestead — in essence, determining whether they’d make good breeding stock for the continuation of the Sadiri race.
Let me get this part out of the way: I loved this book. The writing is at once zippy, clever, and achingly sad, depending on the perspective and the circumstances. Grace is a wonderful heroine. She’s not flawless — she can be insecure, she has demons from her past to overcome, and she does tend to babble a bit, but at the same time, she cares deeply about her friends and family, she’s willing to put herself at risk and even sacrifice her career to right wrongs, and she’s open to the wonders and joys of exploring new worlds, new thoughts, and new possibilities. Dllenahkh is seemingly unreachable at first, masked by his tight control and walled off by his people’s tragedy, yet he too manages to reach out and explore, and demonstrates his ability to feel even when making emotional declarations in completely non-emotional, rational terms. A favorite interaction of mine shows just how different, yet how well-suited, Grace and Dllenahkh are:
“I have identified you as the most appropriate mate, probably through an unconscious assessment of pheromones, mental capacity, and, of course, social compatibility.”
“So, you’re saying you like how I smell, you like how I think, and you like to hang out with me?”
I read The Best of All Possible Worlds on my Kindle, for which I found a new appreciation as I started highlighting lines and paragraphs that I found especially moving, entertaining, or generally noteworthy. By the end of the book, my highlights were everywhere. This book is rich in detail, and I was consistently impressed with the author’s ability to capture and portray the distinct voices of so many different characters, representing so many different cultures.
Curiously, one of the dominant populations on Cygnus Beta is the Terran community, which seems to consist of descendants of our Earth. There are references to watching old holovids of classic Terran movies such as Indiana Jones, E.T., and Casablanca. Various origin myths exist, among them that a mysterious group called The Caretakers brought representatives from different planets to Cygnus Beta in order to give them the best chance of survival. Are The Caretakers gods? Scientists? Simply a myth? Did the Caretakers bring the Terrans of Cygnus Beta from our Earth before the Terran planet became unreachable? There are no answers, and fortunately the story doesn’t bog down in exploring this mystery, but simply presents it as one key to understanding the world as it exists on Cygnus Beta and its universe.
I did have one “WTF” moment in reading The Best of All Possible Worlds, when there suddenly appeared a chapter called “The Faerie Queen”, in which the mission arrives at a community ruled by, yes, a Faerie Queen. The people consider themselves the Seelie Court, and live in a treetop world almost identical to the forests of Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings. Coincidence? Hardly, given the popularity of Terran classic movies. Right when I was exclaiming, “Wait! This is supposed to be science fiction! Why are there faeries??”, we get what I thought was an ingenious answer: In this community’s earlier history, two separate tribes were battling over whose traditions should dominate. Peace was achieved when the people decided to instead follow a new, created path that both tribes could embrace as a new beginning, and so they chose to consider their mental gifts as faerie traits and to model their faerie kingdom on cultural myths and legends that they could adapt to their lives.
The Best of All Possible Worlds has a very episodic rhythm to its narrative. Each chapter is a new stage in the progress of the mission, and while the events build one upon the other, each does have a feel of sitting down with a master storyteller to hear a new bit of the yarn. The writing is fresh and funny, and Grace is an engaging and honest narrator. At the same time, the author, via Grace’s descriptions, does not shy away from confronting the harshness and cruelty witnessed by the mission team in various new settlements or the painful family secrets both Grace and Dllenahkh confront over the course of the novel.
Simply put, I was swept away by the world created by Karen Lord in this masterful, moving story. The characters are unforgettable, and some are immensely lovable as well. The world of Cygnus Beta and beyond is a fascinating study of developing cultures, the impact of contact on isolated populations, and the role of creativity and compromise in a people’s drive to survive. On top of all this, the “mental disciplines” and other aspects of Cygnian science and technology are quite fun to imagine, but never to the extent that they distract from the human focus of this excellent story.
I highly recommend The Best of All Possible Worlds. Not just for science fiction fans, this book should appeal to any reader who appreciates good storytelling, strong characters, deeply-felt emotions, and moments of laughter as well.
Review copy courtesy of Random House Publishing Group – Del Rey Spectra via NetGalley.