Karen Lord’s 2013 The Best of All Possible Worlds was her second novel. To paraphrase the author’s site, it
won the Frank Collymore Literary Award for 2009. […] It also won the 2013 RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and was nominated for Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards Best Science Fiction Novel.
And yet, while I like elements of it, I cannot warm to the novel as a whole. Not every reviewer is a good fit for every book.
Despite their generous efforts to provide the other human races of the galaxy with their wise guidance, not everyone loves the Sadiri. Their cousins on Ain dislike the Sadiri enough to reduce their homeworld and everyone on it to ash. Only the Sadiri lucky enough to be offworld survive the disaster.
Cygnus Beta1 is no stranger to refugees. Indeed, the one thing its disparate peoples tend to have in common is a calamitous event in their past that triggered a desperate migration. It is therefore a logical place for some of the surviving Sadiri to settle, a place where they might build new lives for themselves.
Second Assistant Grace Delarua has her own comfortable, obscure life with its manageable little problems. It is therefore disquieting to learn that her job requires a forced lateral move. Gone, her heady life of hydroponics, sewage systems, and health inspections; gone, sleeping in barns during field trips. Instead, she finds herself acting as something like a cultural attaché and partnered with a Sadiri emissary, Dllenahkh.
What follows is a rather laid-back introduction to the many cultures of Cygnus Beta. And there are a lot of them. A planetful.
The Sadiri survivors skew male2, which means new brides will have to be sought in the other human communities. Which could be difficult, as the Sadiri have exacting standards. Happily for Delarua, she happens to meet Dllenahkh’s. Happily for her aloof companion, he meets hers. The only real impediment to a happy relationship appears to be reserve; they are finding it hard to acknowledge their mutual attraction. Really, how much of an impediment could that be?
The reason so many romances involve people who are manifestly unhinged—or terrible communicators or in some other way clearly unsuited to any life aside from one lived alone in a sealed box—is that very little drama can be wrung out of people who like each other and who act like mature adults. The romance between the Terran and Sadiri protagonists is not all that dramatic … but since both of the people involved are reasonable people, there really isn’t much chance they will not come to a reasonable accommodation. Eventually. It’s a refreshing chance of pace from overwrought teens poisoning themselves over miscommunications. Still, I can see why other authors prefer more … flamboyant plots.
Cygnus Beta seems to be that great rarity in SF, a planet bigger than a Desilu back-lot, with room for more than one Hat (or sometimes, two opposed Hats). I don’t know why it is so uncommon for fictional worlds to have anything like the variety one sees on Earth, but, alas, it is.
While there are some pretty unpleasant communities on Cygnus Beta (including a community of slave-holders, whom Delarua takes down at the cost of her career), the one skill the folks of Cygnus Beta seems to have in spades is the ability to peacefully coexist, even with people at whom one might otherwise want to huck rocks. Again, an interesting change of pace.
And yet something this all added up to “not my thing.”
It’s not the rather formless plot, I think. I own any number of Arthur C. Clarke novels whose closest connection to plot is that the letters p, l, o, and t may appear somewhere in the text, although not near each other and not in that order. I am perfectly fine with “we came and looked at some stuff” plots.
I think it’s because I read this and I see Star Trek fan-fiction. And I am the very worst sort of Trek fan, the sort who probably isn’t a Trek fan by any reasonable measure.
There’s the odd 20th century obsessions of the Cygnus Betans. There’s the galaxy filled with various flavours of humans and a creation story that seems to suggest they rose independently (or maybe were seeded by an elder race?). I’ve never cared for the snooty, fussy Vulcans and I don’t find the reproduction-obsessed Sadiri an improvement3.
I have no idea if Lord was actually inspired by the Trek reboot in which Vulcans are reduced from a great powers to a handful of refugees, or if she devised her plot independently. If she was inspired by the reboot4, good for her; officially mandated tie in books tend towards the inoffensively bland for various reasons I will not go into here. It isn’t as if the current set of clowns in charge of the Trek franchise are going to focus on the Vulcan diaspora when they could instead revel in gratuitous lens-flare and pointless violence. If there is any hope that someone somewhere could develop the genuinely interesting seeds in the otherwise dismal reboot, it would have to be in some venue that is unauthorized and sufficiently distinct from the original to avoid lawsuits.
Whatever their origin, the similarities between book and reboot are more of the same elements that make me more of a fan of Trek in the abstract than of the actual show. And that’s how I felt about this book: I like the abstract idea, but am not as crazy about the actual book.
The Best of All Possible Worlds is available here.
1: Which has nothing to do with the actual star Beta Cygnus, aka Alberio. Coming as I do from a city with two intersecting streets both called Holborn and from a province that only lacks four different communities all named Niagara because the Post Office stepped in to rename some of them, I find it completely believable the people of the future would give their world a name so easily confused with a star.
2: Also biased towards the sort of individuals the government would want to send on extended leave far far away. It’s as though France were trying to rebuild itself using only the French inhabitants of Pacific Island art colonies, isolated research facilities, and the guards and inmates on Devil’s Island
3: The Ain, the Sadiri’s irritable cousins, the ones who blasted the Sadiri homeworld, certainly seem no improvement over the Romulans. And in fact, the parallels between the relationship of Ain to Sadiri and Romulan to Vulcan are some of the elements that made me wonder if Lord were drawing inspiration from Trek.
I bet people who have read the book thought I was going to complain about the elves. Well, elves in a book that also contains people who remind me of Vulcans might be redundant … but maybe elves would say that it’s redundant to have several varieties of humans in a book that has proper elves.
4: Or possibly inspired by the original series. The way the Cygnus Betans coexist could be inspired by the question “what if the Federation actually lived up to the ideals it claims it has, instead of paying lip service to them while looking for loopholes?” A perfectly acceptable thought experiment.