The Best of All Possible Worlds, Karen Lord. Random House, Feb 2013, ISBN 9780345534057. Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
I’ve heard the term domestic SF used in relation to some works of the 1960s, often in reference to the stories of Zenna Henderson: a subgenre which takes the furniture of science fiction, but rejects the fantasies of political agency which often drive science fictional narratives, a subgenre within but at the same time tangential to the rest of the field.
The Best of All Possible Worlds is not a domestic work. It doesn’t centre around a domicile, around social interiors. But it is concerned with emotional interiority in a manner not often see in the wider SF field, a novel immensely – one might even say intensely – personal in scope and concerned with small-scale actions, despite the world-destroying tragedy lurking in the story’s near past and looming over its shoulder. This concern with the personal combines with a gentle nod at SF’s mythic furniture to create a thematic, tonal continuity with Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo, although the two books are otherwise very different animals.
The Best of All Possible Worlds opens with the annual meditation retreat of a Sadiri man, Dllenahkh. His solitude is abruptly shattered when word comes – in the person of an old friend – to break the news: the Sadiri homeworld has been destroyed. All that remains of the Sadiri people are those who were off-planet when the attack came, and the Sadiri have gone from being the most influential people in the galaxy to a remnant who will need help to maintain their customs and their bloodline.
The narration picks up some time later with the first-person perspective of Grace Delarua, native and junior government official of Cygnus Beta, where a significant proportion of the surviving Sadiri men have come, searching for marriage partners among descendants of the long-ago Sadiri diaspora. Delarua and Dllenahkh work together on a cultural mission, travelling with a small team to Cygnus Beta’s far-flung settlements, attempting to build the foundations by which the Sadiri will be able to intermarry with the taSadiri – descendants of diasporas. Their journey is a series of episodes through which Lord explores both her world in all its odd and fantastic variety, and Delarua and Dllenahkh’s working – and eventually more than working – relationship. The influence of Vulcan on the Sadiri is visible, but the parallels are not exact, and this reader gradually came to realise that what on the surface seems a cheerful meandering straightforwardly personal little book is several times more complex than it first appears.
The Best of All Possible Worlds is an interesting novel on several levels. Its sensibility falls halfway between the SF novel and the fairytale. It uses SFnal images in a quasi-fairytale structure, whose mythic resonances operate on more universal levels than science fiction: Delarua and Dllenahkh visit people who do revenge-murder, an impregnable city with caste divisions, a secret monastery, the court of Faerie. And, too, the valencies of The Best of All Possible Worlds‘ metaphors are fluid. It has one foot in the river of science fiction, and the other in the ocean of literary fiction: employing science fiction’s concretisation of metaphor in one instant and then in another literary fiction’s metaphor as metaphor – labile, not concrete – maintaining a constant fluid tension between the two modes.
Although it’s an utterly different sort of book, reading it, I found myself wanting to compare it to Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar. It enforces the same off-kilter alienation from the reading protocols of the SFF genre, a magic realist mood (though not as direct, or as obvious, as in Trafalgar) among the furniture of the scientific future.
It’s not quite fish, not quite flesh, and not quite fowl, and perhaps it has an imperfect execution. But The Best of All Possible Worlds stretches the boundaries of the kind of stories it’s possible for science fiction to tell. This is one reader who’s very glad to have read it.