Karen Lord's second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, will strike many SFF readers as familiar in all the ways that her first novel, Redemption in Indigo (2010), a retelling of a Senegalese tale, did not. While Redemption can easily be read as a literary novel, Best is written, unequivocally, in a genre idiom. But for all that, I daresay the form and pacing of Redemption in Indigo may strike those same readers as more conventional and (therefore) comfortable than those of the second. Second novels, particularly when they aren't sequels, often tell us something about how ambitious a writer the author may be stretching to grow into. In this case, Best's mash-up of numerous SF tropes within a semi-paratactic structure held together by a romance narrative arc suggests that Lord is plenty ambitious.
Television and novel series offer the most common examples of paratactic and semi-paratactic structure. After the pilot episode or novel, introducing the show's characters and situational parameters, each succeeding episode (or book) may proceed with or without an organic relation with the temporally adjacent episodes. This model doesn’t often operate within the tight confines of a single novel, except perhaps for road trip stories—which is exactly the case here. Best is a different kind of road trip story, though, for neither exploration of a planet (or galaxy) nor a hard-won, often delayed arrival at a final destination (the two usual goals of road trips in fiction) is the narrative point of the trip, but the development and consummation of a romance (which is never in the least bit of doubt) that the road trip makes possible, as the novel's two lead characters share a series of adventures.
Two pages into the book, before I knew the story was a romance, before I knew anything about its other lead character, I recognized the narrative's focus of desire as Dllenahkh. Although what happens in the opening, titled "Before," fits the SF trope of the man who learns that his entire world has been destroyed while he was off-planet, everything about his first appearance codes him not as the protagonist (which he is not), but as the potential object of romantic desire. Those unfamiliar with the codes of genre romance may not realize this and therefore be surprised (or even wrong-footed) to learn that the narrative's active role belongs to Grace Delarua, who narrates most of the book. The first three pages give us an image of Dllenahkh as disciplined, mature, sensitive, and self-possessed—traits virtually esssential for the hero of a romance. Every year Dllenahkh makes a retreat to a monastery far from home, to ensure that his solitude "could not be broken by convenient technologies" (p. 3). We are told that the guestmaster of his monastery long ago said to him, "Dllenahkh, with your level of sensitivity and strength, you must go on retreat regularly. . . . You are constantly looking to set things to rights, even within yourself. A retreat will teach you again and again that you are neither indispensable nor self-sufficient" (pp. 4-5). The remaining pages of "Before" show Dllenahkh receiving the devastating news of the genocide of his people, the Sadiri—and cutting himself on the bowl his shaking hands losea control of. The man of control, the hero of the romance, is wounded and bleeds. It is, really, the final important trait of any romance's object of desire, and it is an image readers will remember.
With the next chapter begins Delarua's narration, which, echoing Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, is addressed to "dear reader" and is later in the book identified as the first of two books of memoir. Delarua's tone is chatty, sometimes defiantly girlish, and sometimes implausibly ingenuous (as when she remarks "Plus, and keep this quiet, please, I'm kind of a language nut. Old languages, new languages, made-up languages—whatever, that's my hobby" (p. 10)—making one wonder what we are to infer from such faux naïveté, given that her linguistic talent only enhances her job performance and career assignments). She is a native of Cygnus Beta, "a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees" (p. 8); she works for a government bureaucracy as a "biotechnician"—her official title at the beginning of the story is "Second Assistant" and then "First Officer" during the road trip—and has been assigned the duty of liaison with the Sadiri settlers for the government's public health and agriculture departments. Dllenahkh is her "opposite number," with whom she perforce spends a great deal of time, visiting Sadiri homesteads throughout Tlaxce Province.
For much of the book, Delarua and Dllenahkh's relationship never exceeds the bounds of the amiable but impersonal professional, which is why, perhaps, the author is able to portray the issue that comes to dominate their work together as free of awkwardness. Due to the Sadiri's gender arrangements, most women were on Sadira at the time of the genocidal attack, resulting in a severe gender imbalance among the survivors. The Sadiri on Cygnus Beta, anxious to preserve their cultural and genetic identity, need to find a way to reproduce themselves and inculcate their children with their values. The problem? They can't do it without the help of the right kind of women. As Dllenahkh sees it, the Sadiri have three possible strategies. One would be an intensive effort of exclusivity, requiring the dedicated cooperation of "every person for this endeavor to succeed," producing as many female infants as possible, with most of the men waiting for the infants to reach child-bearing age (p. 15); another would be to integrate with the Ainya, an offshoot of Sadira that rejected Sadiri disciplines but are genetically close—and the very people who poisoned Sadira; while the third would involve recruiting "colonies of hybrids selected for Sadiri physical traits and mental abilities and raised according to Sadiri values and traditions" (p. 16). The issue becomes pressing when Dllenahkh shows up with a bruise on his face (which he dismisses as "an internal matter"). It seems that a few young Sadiri men have impregnated Cygnian women with results distressing to the Sadiri community. Cygnian women tend not to be monogamous, and they seem not to want to be assimilated into Sadiri culture. Delarua, sensing loneliness pouring "off him like mist" settling "into my bones with a pain as insistent as the ache of an old injury" (p. 21), suggests a solution: "take a short-lived Cygnian wife for the first part of that long life of yours, then go home to your girl-brides and start a fresh full-blooded family. Just be . . . respectful. Honest. And stop thinking you're the superior ones!" (p. 22).
The Sadiri, though now all refugees, had before the genocide "been the backbone of galactic law, diplomacy, and scientific discovery for centuries" (p. 13). They are also telepathic. Delarua may cheerfully tell Dllenahkh that the Sadiri need to stop thinking of themselves as superior, but she's all too conscious of feeling like a coarse provincial when she's around sophisticated Sadiri. Her offhand remarks about her colleague and chum Gilda (who seems to exist in the narrative simply to offer a foil for Delarua) epitomizes everything about Cygnian women that Delarua believes must put off any Sadiri. She's sexually promiscuous, "a bad influence on just about everyone" (p. 12), keeps her husband "under her thumb," and, in marked contrast to Dllenahkh's reserve, talks incessantly about everything, especially sex. When Delarua tells us that Dllenahkh has a deep voice, "somewhat slow, and very precise . . . a voice that matched his thoroughness and professionalism. I wish I had a voice that matched what I do," she then remarks that her own voice, when talking about work, sounds like that of "an overexcited rooster" (p. 11).
Lord's construction of the romance—unlike Charlotte Brontë's—weights moral power with the Sadiri. In Jane Eyre, it is Rochester whose moral failings must be exposed (and atoned for—even if he's partially excused by his hidden wife's insanity); Jane must resist the allure of his status and power and patriarchal authority to avoid compounding his moral failing. Here, though, Delarua sees no moral failing in Dllenahkh or indeed the Sadiri (apart, perhaps, from hubris) and asks no questions about what sort of gender arrangements would result in keeping most women on-planet. Nor does she ever raise an eyebrow at the way Sadiri men speak about "Terran females" or the casual information that discovering that their wives have been adulterous sends Sadiri men (including Dllenahkh) into murderous rages. The only time Delarua levels any sort of judgment on Dllenahkh is when he contemplates not returning to the research team (which I discuss below). When Delarua chides him about not acting as though he were superior to all Cygnians, we never do doubt that she thinks that he actually is superior—at least to her.
Taken with Delarua's idea for preserving Sadiri cultural and genetic identity, Dllenahkh pulls some strings and without consulting Delarua gets her assigned to help coordinate a long research trip intended to identify settlements and groups with the right genetic stuff and cultural adaptability for replenishing Sadiri stock. Dllenahkh may be Delarua's "opposite number," but his status is ultimately superior to Delarua's, since she has no say in this reassignment (reinforcing the sense that they are not, in Delarua's eyes, equals). Most of the narrative unfolds over the course of the research trip, so there would seem to be ample time to explore the social and ethical problems this strategy of genetic and cultural replenishment necessarily entails. Not least among these is the question raised by the decision (made by whom?) that mature men will be marrying women (or girls) young enough to be their granddaughters one generation hence. In fact, though, Lord leaves the issue unexamined, presumably because her heroine sees nothing troubling in destining a whole generation of girls to be raised to be the (life-long monogamous) wives of men decades their senior.
Delarua's inattention to the ethical issues of raising girls from infancy to be the brides of old men is troubling, perhaps suggesting she holds the naïve view that whatever another culture does to whole classes of persons is their business and not open to judgment by outsiders (although her outrage over the practice of slavery she discovers later in the book would be inconsistent with such an interpretation). Presumably she is too morally muddled to ask herself what the cost of Sadiri’s gender arrangements are and have been for Sadiri women and what they might in the future be to girls "culturally conditioned," as she puts it (p. 21), to serve the needs of Sadiri identity in general and old men in particular. Delarua herself appears to be so infatuated with Sadiri superiority that they seem, for her, beyond any criticism except that of feeling superior to non-Sadiri.
But stepping away from Delarua's blinkered perspective, any feminist reader is also going to wonder how it is that Sadiri society is so unquestionably heteronormative. That aspect of the world-building, taken with Delarua's failure to see or even look for the costs of gender oppression, makes me wonder if Lord intended to suggest that as long as one doesn't notice such things, women, both straight and gay, will be perfectly happy in this "best of all possible worlds." For a feminist, the prospect is suffocating—and unbelievable.
Rather than exploring the ethical issues underlying the Sadiri's solution to their problem, Lord instead shows the developing cohesion and tensions of a research team composed of scientists, military officers, and bureaucrats, both Cygnian and Sadiri, whose professional relations are variously stressed and strengthened as they profile settlement after settlement, as is Delarua's relationship with Dllenahkh. Along the way, Delarua takes the opportunity to visit her family—only to have to be rescued from the telepathic thrall of her brother-in-law. Shortly after this, Delarua's compatibility with Dllenahkh is supported by the discovery that although Delarua is not telepathic, she has a natural psionic ability to discern and suppress emotions. Tellingly, it is Delarua who is given the task of rousing Dllenahkh from a stupor he retreats into after a nasty incident involving a mass of telepathically linked people, just as it is Dllenahkh who is with Delarua when they literally fall into a sort of Shangri-la, where its fully telepathic adepts guide Dllenahkh to heal Delarua (having arrived unconscious and injured). Also telling is that Dllenahkh is so at home in this hidden community that when they are given the choice of never leaving or leaving without their memories of the place, he argues they should stay. When Delarua insists on leaving and he suggests she return without him, she prevails by telling him that if she returns alone, everyone will assume he's dead, which would especially pain his assistant, Joral. Two pages later, though, she refuses to take responsibility for his returning: "Don't make me feel that I stood between you and your dream," she tells him (p. 111). He responds that he might return some day, but that she was right to remind him of his duty. The adepts then employ telekinesis giving Dllenahkh and Delarua a thrill-packed joyride back to civilization—"Indiana Jones holovid fans, eat your hearts out," she exults (p. 111)—but with their memories intact, thanks to Dllenahkh's interference with the "injunction" placed on them, even if they can't communicate their memories to anyone else, and thus will always have shared exclusive knowledge of a secret utopia.
Reading my way from one episode to the next, my sense grew that Lord envisioned the research team as a Star Trek-ish ensemble cast working through various ethical problems (often involving telepathy), including one that results in a professional crisis for Delarua. Some of these episodes would have sufficed on their own to provide the setting, situation, and plot for an entire novel. Lord chose instead to compress them and, perhaps to avoid melodrama, to drain them of drama—making them simply the workaday events that form the life of a bureaucrat assigned to the field. This makes a certain kind of sense—emphasizing what is new and different in this novel, viz., that the heroine of this romance is a government bureaucrat. Her shifting feelings about her co-workers and her crush on Dllenahkh take precedence over everything else in the narrative, but in a way that doesn't entail her being self-absorbed (much less needy, which she never is). I like this aspect of the novel very well.
And yet the pacing in the book often feels off, particularly toward the end, where the romance comes to fruition. Even more uncomfortably, the emotional calculus of the romance seems strangely opaque to me—perhaps because it is absent eroticism, which is a standard ingredient in current-day genre romance. Delarua's cultural background makes it difficult for me to interpret that absence as simple reticence, much as it might make sense to take this absence as part of her habit of restraining the expression of emotions where Dllenahkh is concerned. I might better believe in this interpretation had Lord given us clues for Delarua's purpose in even writing a "memoir" and who her audience—addressed simply as "dear reader"—is (fictionally) intended to be. As it is her coyness about her romantic relationship, contrasting as it does with her frankness about everything else, grates on my aesthetic sensibilities.
Another possible interpretation—but one so unlikely that it would take a sequel to confirm—is that Delarua's infatuation with a telepath has led to her lack of clarity about the Sadiri’s gender arrangements and their willingness to destine an entire generation of females to unquestioned subjugation. The only support I can find for such an interpretation is in the narrative's unfolding of Delarua's telepathic subjugation to her brother-in-law—from which Dllenahkh rescued her. Is it possible that the second part of Delarua’s memoir will tell the story of Delarua's rescue from Dllenahkh?
In sum, The Best of All Possible Worlds rings refreshing changes on both the formula romance and the ensemble SF adventure series. The romance refuses the narrative of trivial misunderstandings that usually send the hero and heroine, negotiating an erotic soup, temporarily out of their minds until the clarifying moment of climax, in favor of a long growth of affection and understanding. And the adventure series, featuring episodes ranging from uncomfortable to exhilarating to dangerous and harrowing for the characters, is reported from the calm, steady perspective of a bureaucrat refusing to dramatize the danger for the sake of making it a more exciting (and familiar) story. This approach allows Lord to concentrate on the interpersonal professional workings of her research team as well as explore the ethical ramifications that arise from situation to situation—even if she does decline to confront the novel's most prominent ethical and political questions, those inherent in the proposed policy of breeding and raising a generation of little girls exclusively and explicitly intended to serve the purposes and needs of a group of much older people, mostly men, which troubles me. Also troubling is the narrative's acceptance of gender oppression and heteronormativity, possibly in the name of cultural relativism. Still, if the novel isn't entirely successful in all it sets out to do, that is perhaps forgivable, given the scope of its ambitions.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.