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The Blue, Beautiful World cover

Karen Lord thinks big. She has a huge, creative imagination. Her stories alternate between grand science fiction and more personal fantasy. Her award-winning debut novel, Redemption in Indigo, was concerned with the mythology of her Caribbean and Senegalese heritage. The Barbadian’s science fiction stories address how societies and races might interact in galactic settings. What works best in these novels, however, is her focus on individuals, on how the small details of their lives and loves are played out during these massively significant events.

Lord’s latest addition to her Cygnus Beta universe, The Blue, Beautiful World, follows a familiar trajectory to those earlier novels, although it doesn’t feel like this so much in the initial chapters. Only once the story reveals itself does the scale of Lord’s galactic setting and imagination become apparent. The narrative begins with a coronation ceremony, where we are introduced to Owen, not the crowned monarch but a charismatic rock star who is later revealed to have hidden purpose and some substantial power. We follow his life as a megastar who is almost messianic. The charismatic “hometown hero” persona that has been such a success carried him through numerous tours, as he smokes and looks cool in a limo with his entourage in tow, his fans chanting the distinctly un-rock-star name “Owen, Owen, Owen!” None of this seemed in keeping with Lord’s previous science fiction outings and I immediately felt unsettled with the early plot and the storytelling, which felt distant and oddly unengaging. We only really know that this isn’t our world by mentions of advanced VR (run by a company called ParaVee, the world’s largest VR research institute) and Owen’s tours of space stations. Where was this story going and what did it have to do with the initial ceremony?

Owen’s manager, Noriko, initially appears to have a starring role, manoeuvring her charge around “Owenmania.” I at first enjoyed following Noriko’s story, especially when Owen takes an interest in buying a football team, although not a hugely successful one. Perhaps Lord was focusing on the current zeitgeist of celebrity sports-team ownership and using science fiction to critique fame? Not so much, as the story develops. Owen has other plans for the team.

We are introduced to characters who seem more otherworldly, such as Tariq and Ahn, and who remind Owen of a higher purpose: not just to be famous, but to, perhaps, galvanise humanity. About a quarter of the way in, the story moves ahead eleven years to focus on Owen’s efforts to unify Earth’s factions and achieve representation on a Galactic Council. He meets Kanoa Havili, a student representing the Federated States of Polynesia in Havana at a World Council Global Government Project who also trains in football. Along with his fellow students, he is using VR to solve a challenge: what if an alien civilisation came to Earth? The students are somehow involved with Owen, Tariq, and the others. Lord keeps the reader guessing about their connections. Slowly, however, it is revealed that this isn’t a simulation, and that the students will have to navigate a real first-contact situation, with Owen as an ally.

The Blue, Beautiful World reveals itself to be a novel about alien races, their power dynamics in a Galactic Council, and a battle, of sorts, to control Earth. This alien threat is unveiled as an attack on Earth, with the potential to lead to a struggle for control of the planet—although it is never too clear on why. Still, once the realisation of what is happening has solidified, the story starts to make more sense, but conversely becomes a little less satisfying. There are a number of alien factions on Earth, all from the Cygnus Beta universe. They are described as cartels. They have infiltrated the leadership of several nations. They work under an embargo, agreed by the various galactic civilisations, on involving themselves directly with the government of Earth. Again, why a group of (admittedly extremely talented) students are chosen to represent Earth in its first contact with the wider galaxy from which these factions hail is a little underexplained. When it is announced to humanity that many alien civilisations—albeit human ones—have been on Earth for some time (some for about two hundred years), the students, to be fair, demonstrate the skills they have developed in their VR scenarios. But a little too much jumping around between characters, and a little less telling rather than showing might have helped my engagement in their efforts.

It becomes clear that Lord is telling the reader the history of her Earth via the various lives of Owen, Noriko, and the others. These are mostly lived in Europe. There was a population collapse in the 2070s. There are climate disasters. There is a Global Law which codified the laws of over two hundred states into a single legislature. Yet life goes on. Music and sport are still hugely relevant. Corporations still do corporate things. Accountants are still sending invoices. Characteristically for Lord, there is big stuff and little stuff. The big stuff is the to-be-expected worldbuilding within the novel, but it is the little stuff that makes this novel readable, and which helped me balance the confusing storylines. There is plenty of focus on Owen’s place within his family. He was raised, apparently, by his aunt and uncle, who treat him as their own child. There are hints he is damaged by his childhood—he has some serious father issues. I couldn’t quite get my head around the conversation between Owen and his aunt late in the book, where they wait for the kettle to boil from the stove before filling the teapot; but I did enjoy the sections when the students were just being students, chatting in the dining hall over fish and rice, for example.

Ultimately, the VR company ParaVee, and by extension Lord, is interested in identity. The company makes masks which alter a person’s appearance. They allow Owen and others to walk the streets unhindered by fans. On occasion, this left me confused about who was who, as some characters take other names when disguised. Other characters come and go throughout the story. Others still who seem human are in fact alien. The whole concept of aliens amongst us is interesting, of course, but I was just unsure about some characters: some are introduced and revealed as someone we’ve already met, but others are who they always appear to be. Still, with so many characters coming and going, I became less invested in what was happening. A character called Jon is involved with the students before he lets them know that he is, of course, Owen—the same Owen who suddenly and mysteriously retires and, much later, becomes Rafi. Halfway through the book I was beginning to wonder if the stories would ever come together to make a coherent plot.

But then, well beyond halfway through, we’re told about the death of Kanoa’s father, and how Kanoa still dreams of communicating with him, and how there are, perhaps, other consciousnesses living within the ocean deeps—consciousnesses that may have access to dimensional travel. They have moved beyond the physical. They can communicate with Owen via the spirit of Kanoa’s dead dad. And this has implications for the various alien factions on Earth, as these entities neither want to rule nor to be ruled. At the very least the revelation means a reinforcement of the embargo—although by the time the implications of this newly discovered intelligent life in the ocean depths are discussed, the alien presence on Earth has already been announced with the kind of response one might expect (riots, religious angst—in a refreshingly original moment, a mob attacks a basketball team in case they are tall aliens). Regardless, the novel was now in the realms of personal mythology, legends, how we remember the dead. There is, perhaps, an environmental message: mess with the oceans and we’re messing with not only our future but our past as well. But all this came completely out of the blue (pun intended). Maybe if this focus had come into the plot earlier, rather than stayed in the background amid all the history lessons and personal stories, it might have worked better.

Though I’ve always liked Karen Lord’s writing style, in The Blue, Beautiful World I found it stilted and unnatural in places. “The immaculately dressed businesswoman stood to welcome Noriko” and “many travels through time and space had brought him great knowledge at a heavy price” are examples of a prose style that seems to be working too hard. Some dialogue was oddly expositional as well. Perhaps Lord’s writing style here is deliberately distant and basic, to represent the nature of the alien contact, the comings and goings of various characters, and the focus on all that small stuff, especially regarding Owen’s family. But the approach becomes more of a distraction than a grounding. For example, the bonding of various groups outside of families is a clear trope (and the students are key here), but I rarely felt any personal emotional connection, any immediacy or deep understanding of their stories. Lord acknowledges that this novel was inspired by a line of a poem by Theo Dorgan and that she is inspired by the tension between the familiar and unfamiliar. The Blue, Beautiful World is attempting to present this tension but, as a whole, its structure simply doesn’t assist in the project. Sadly, the more I think about it, the less satisfying the book becomes.

Ian J. Simpson is an academic library manager who has contributed science fiction and fantasy book and film reviews to, amongst others, The Third Alternative and Geek Syndicate. When not reading, he’s out with his camera, or in his allotment. Follow him on Twitter at @ianjsimpson.
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