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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

A strange book, to be sure. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord wears its influences on its sleeves so much that it's more patchwork quilt than whole cloth. Star Trek (lots of Star Trek), Ray Bradbury, possibly Bujold (though it could just be similar influences, but the central characters remind me very much of Aral & Cordelia), the Janes Austen and Eyre (and I know it is monumentally unfair to conflate a real writer with a fictional character just because they have the same first name, but still I do it), the obvious Voltaire (or possibly Candide), LeGuin's anthropology that often quests for the humaneness in our humanity. This is not going to work for many readers, especially after giving the usual your mileage may vary disclaimer about the influences. But the quilted quality, for me anyway, worked pretty decently with the the overriding themes of the novel: hybridization (as Mike notes, and you should read his review), the intersection of the domestic with societal, and love, love, love, baby.

This is the second science fiction novel I've read in the last month that focused at least as much attention to their interpersonal and romantic upheavals as to the more traditionally science fictional elements, and I find I like this a good deal. (And, the science fictional stuff here - like aspects cribbed pretty hard from some of my least favorite things, like Star Trek's The Chase - were the least interesting part of the story for me.) Space opera especially can be very dudes-in-smoking-jackets-avuncularly-solving-society-with-reason, and that this book takes that reasonable computation - here is how we will solve our problems with Science! - and then puts the rubber to the road is actually quietly subversive. Yes, that's a very nice theory you've got there, but when you resolve that plan down to specific human beings, who tend not to run to spec, you're gonna have some problems. And the problems are not with the people, but with the plan.

Speaking of Star Trek, the opening is very much what happens in the third act of the most recent Star Trek movie - so spoiler alert on that, if you haven't seen it - where the entire planet of Vulcan is destroyed, leaving a smattering of Vulcans in exile traumatized by genocide and weighted with the monumental task of rebuilding/preserving an entire culture. (I suppose this also happens in Star Wars when Leia's home world of Alderaan is vaporized - seriously, that is not a spoiler - but that's treated so topically as to be callous. Hey, a boy's quest to manhood is way more important.) Ms. Lord notes in her afterward that this idea for her was sparked by reading about the lingering effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people and displaced millions more. Because of a quirk of timing and culture, women were killed disproportionately, leaving sometimes whole communities of family-less men. A culture without women, without children, is not one that going to survive. (The reverse is true, certainly, but that's not what happened.) So this is where we are with the Sadiri as well, and Cygnus Beta is suddenly a pioneer settlement filled mostly with Sadiri men.

Because the Sadiri are pretty much Vulcans - cool, mannered, intellectual - they build a little plan to entice (functionally) mail-order brides from the pluralistic society of Cygnus Beta to act as the new mothers of Sadiri. Ambassador Spock is tasked with surveying outlying communities for quanta of Sadiri genes, and mid-level Cygean bureaucrat/scientist Grace Delarua is sent along with him and his team. This is a pretty terrible idea - the whole assessing ladies for their breeding/genetic potential - and Grace even knows it. But whatever, road trip! We'll just sort this shit out on the way. There's a lot of sly commentary on racial construction in the novel - how the ways people look define how others respond to them, how racial characteristics are constructed and enforced, etc. (I actually laughed when someone exclaims "But slavery is illegal!" when the dawning realization that they are dealing with a culture predicated on slavery hits the group.) Which makes the white-washing of the cover that much more discouraging; I don't think there is one character in this novel described as having white skin, and certainly Grace (who that is?) does not. But this has been going on in sff covers for a long time, witness the very dark-skinned Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea who has been subjected to whitewashed covers and "color-blind casting" (snort, as if) for decades. I kind of can't imagine Ms. Lord had anything to do with this cover decision, and boycotting her work is punching a bystander, so I don't really know what the solution is here. Strongly worded email to the publisher? Vocal bitching? Heaving dramatically ironic sighs?

The story is told mostly in Grace's voice, which, as I gestured to in my last paragraph, is pretty breezy and chatty, sometimes irritatingly so. Sometimes less than snappy banter goes on for too long, and there are occasional dips into preciousness. But I think part of it is deliberate. Grace has an encounter with someone (trying not to go spoiler here) which is a pretty brutal assault on her mental autonomy, and it took me several chapters to have the magnitude of the assault sink in, partially because Grace jumps up and dusts off. Well, are we getting back to work or what? She's got the glossomania of the traumatized, running scads of cheerful commentary on everything but the injury (not unlike Rae from Sunshine.) Mr Spock is doing the same thing, in his way, retreating into logic and genetics as solutions to a problem that is cultural, and therefore infinitely more non-linear. (To put it super dorkily; jeez.) It's only through a series of glancing conversations - ones not about their traumas at all - that I began to see the avoidance mechanisms at work. Very subtly done.

Anyway, I predict that there will be many reviews of this book that dismiss it as just a love story, but The Best of All Possible Worlds - very overtly in places - reads to me as that sly kind of women's fiction that says occasionally dangerous things about how we construct our societies, very gently and chattily drawing out our idealized visions of how people work and resolving them down to individuals. The syllabus is not the moment of insight. That Ms. Lord pulls this off in the historically all-male fantasy playset of the space opera is charmingly subversive as well. So, as I said in my opening, an odd book, patchy in places, with the kind of narrator who can even set the teeth of those inclined to like her voice (and for those who aren't, forget about it). This book puts the soap in space opera, and I enjoyed greatly what came out in the wash.


I received my copy from NetGalley.com

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