The real meaning of the title The Best of All Possible Worlds doesn’t become apparent until the end of the book. Nevertheless, Karen Lord makes a strong case from the beginning that Leibniz’s pronouncement is correct, although whether it’s because of Caretakers, angels, or simply the strong anthropic principle might ultimately be left up to you. Science fiction likes to tantalize with the prospect of alternative realities—and it is a great idea, to be sure. Yet when we get down to it, no matter what disasters or catastrophes confront us, we have only this world. We have to do what we can with it.
Set against the backdrop of such disaster, this book follows a Cygnian woman, Grace Delarua, as she works closely with survivors from the planet Sadira. With many Sadirans settling on Cygnus Beta, and many more men than women, they are interested in discovering the extent to which Sadiran genes remain in the Cygnian population, which is a mixture of genes from the various offshoots of humanity that have spread amongst the stars. Grace accompanies Dllenahkh, an older Sadiran male, and a mixed group of Cygnians and Sadirans, on a circumnavigation of Cygnus Beta to test and interview the diverse groups who inhabit this world.
There’s so much I enjoyed about the way Lord tells this story. First, the focus on recovering from the destruction of Sadira is inescapably personal. This is not a grand space opera in which the characters are players and pawns in some interstellar strategy game. Although Lord refers to the political background, it is always just that—background noise, which doesn’t encroach upon or affect the main characters directly. The Ain supergeneral or whoever perpetrated Sadira’s destruction never shows up in a battleship, only for Grace and Dllenahkh to defeat him in single unarmed combat. Our heroes do not cross light-years or hold intense diplomatic discussions. Instead, Lord concerns herself with how Dllenahkh and a small group of his Sadiran associates are handling the trauma of losing their homeworld and becoming permanent exiles.
Second, Grace has an appealing fallibility that makes her a relatable protagonist. She isn’t preternaturally skilled at her job, nor is she always in the right. Sometimes she does the right things for the wrong reason, or the wrong things for the right reasons—she acts unethically but “appropriately,” as the Sadirans might say. These flaws also offset what otherwise might be a trend towards Mary Sueishness (in particular, Grace for some reason comes up with the inspiration for the literal deus ex machina that saves two other characters). It also helps that the ensemble of supporting characters get their chances to shine; Qeturah and Tarik and Nasiha and the others are all valuable members of the team.
Third, The Best of All Possible Worlds is inclusive and open-minded in nice, subtle ways. There are numerous mentions of polyamory. Lian, a supporting cast member, is agender. These things are mentioned and discussed, but never in a way that feels preachy. Rather, they are depicted simply as normal, which is what we need to strive for, both in fiction and in real life. I have some reservations, to be sure. For example, when Grace first explains that Lian is agender, she says, “This may or may not mean that Lian is asexual, though many of those who are registered as gender-neutral are indeed so.” When I first read that line, I—and I don’t feel alone in this, from a few other comments I’ve seen—interpreted it as meaning that only agender people can identify as asexual, and that otherwise, having gender implies some form of sexual attraction. Being asexual myself but cis male all the same, that somewhat rankled me. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Lord intended to imply, but combined with the fairly intense emphasis on hetero-romantic feelings in the main plot, and you can see why people have mixed feelings about this aspect of the book. Even so, lest I quote out of context, I should add that the following sentence reads, “However, it doesn’t matter, because this i has no bearing on our mission and is thus none of our business” (emphasis original). And that line made me cheer as much as the previous one made me frown. So Lord tries hard, and it pays off—mostly.
Related to this inclusivity and open-mindedness is the diversity of Cygnus Beta. Planet of Hats (TVTropes) is a rather defining trope of the genre, for good reasons. I’m really happy to see Lord avert it here. Cygnus Beta might have a one-world government, but it’s clear this is more of a bureaucratic fiction than anything else. Its societies are distinct and spread out around the world, with different languages and unique cultures and values. Sometimes these conflict slightly with the expedition’s mission or ideals (more on that in a bit). But Lord reminds us that if ever we end up colonizing other worlds, those planets will be just as diffident as our own. It won’t be “colony of smiths” and “colony of intellectuals” and “colony of phone sanitizers” (we put those in the B ark).
So let’s talk about this elephant (for those who have read the book, no pun intended!) in the book: Grace and Dllenahkh, sitting in a tree, not-so-K-I-S-S-I-N-G. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the story comprises a romance between them, since Lord makes no secret that events and characters are conspire to match them from the beginning. (I will not reveal whether they actually get together in the end, though.) I’m so ambivalent about this. On one hand, romance plots don’t do a lot for me, although I admire them when they are well done (see: Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith). On the other hand, I really like that the book tries to be a balanced, science-fiction romance. The romantic undertones might not be subtle, but they are also not exaggerated in the sense that there are precious few shouting matches or last-minute-running-through-the-airport scenes. So, you know, while I wasn’t left clutching the book to my heart and smiling at the resolution, or sobbing over the last page as all my hopes were dashed, I at the very least enjoyed the experience.
I did not enjoy the episodic nature of this epistolary tale. New chapter, new settlement, new central conflict. A kind of “problem of the week,” if you will, usually with Grace smack in the middle, making a mess of it. The first few times, it was almost cute, but as it kept happening, it started to wear thin. There is no sense of continuity, no feeling that these small encounters matter. Worse, the conflict feels like a flimsy attempt to compensate for a lack of conflict among the main and supporting characters. Aside from some token confrontations that everyone moves on from very quickly, these people just don’t disagree all that much. There is almost never any disappointment, any bitterness, any acrimony. They’re a little too happy and synergetic. So all these external conflicts, culminating in Lian and Joral being trapped in a cave-in, feel that much more contrived.
Similarly, that ending! Literal deus ex machina? The whole angle of time travel and parallel worlds comes out of nowhere, but it isn’t all that troubling. Nevertheless, the way Grace manages to resolve Lian and Joral’s situation, only for everyone else to go back to status quo without so much as blinking, just frustrated me. Lord does such a great job of remaining coy throughout the novel, only to interfere at that last moment.
Raising my hopes only to dash them at the last moment is a fitting summary of The Best of All Possible Worlds, I think. It’s a science fiction romance novel that is an all right example of both genres but doesn’t quite exceed expectations in either. I see a lot of comparisons to Le Guin, but for me the anthropological aspects hearkened more towards Mary Doria Russell’s portrayal of different civilizations. While I like Lord’s choice of processing trauma by focusing on a single pair of characters, her handling of the core romantic narrative leaves much to be desired. I had a great time reading this book, but it has left me with very mixed feelings. Good for discussion then, I guess?