15 November 2015

The Best of All Possible Worlds

This is the first book I've read by this author, and I really enjoyed it.

The Best of All Possible Worlds
Karen Lord

My version has the hummingbird cover, but the elephant one is also cool.
The Sadiri home-world was destroyed leaving the galaxy's elite diminished and scattered. Many refugees were taken in by Cygnus Beta, a planet that has always been accepting of exiles and refugees. Councillor Dllenahkh is a leader in this new, mostly male, Sadiri community. Grace Delarua is a Biotechnician and translator working for the government in the area where the Sadiri have settled. They devise a scientific mission that involves travelling around the diverse and varied communities of Cygnus Beta, searching for communities that might wish to follow Sadiri ways, or women who have Sadiri traits and might be willing to become wives and mothers of the next generation. The missions faces various adventures and set backs and even a few disasters. Meanwhile Delarua discovers bad history within her own family and some surprising capabilities within herself. Growing closer to the Sadiri, especially Dllenahkh, she learns to see through their emotional restraint and they learn to accept their new environment while overcoming their reduced circumstamces.

Delarua is so great, I love her. The bulk of the book is told from her point of view and I found her narrative voice very easy to get along with. She's confident and competent in her work, she has a fun manner and a good sense of humour. She's mostly cheerful and positive with her friends, clearly loyal and kind of protective to those who mean a lot to her. It's clear she cares greatly about her family, even though that turns out to be a source of pain and conflict within the story. She's not perfect though, like anyone she's capable of focusing on her own flaws and failings. She can overlook or diminish her own accomplishments and achievements. She's happy to help others but wary of asking for/accepting help because she fears being a burden on anyone. She seemed like precisely the sort of person I might want to be friends with, but might equally be a bit intimidated about approaching. Plus a lot of her internal irritation at herself seems familiar to me. Dllenhkh is also  good character, we see shorter sections of his viewpoint, which makes sense as he's less open and effusive than Delarua. Despite this the book gradually uncovers a deep well of feeling within him that is compelling.

The tour of the planet is interesting because it displays so many varied kinds of societies and cultures. That shouldn't be surprising really (just look at our planet now), but I think I'd gotten used to the SF shorthand 'planet of hats' trope, where each planet/nation/species/race displays a single type or quality. At the end of the book the author explicitly states that she was basing the the varied cultures of the planet on the Caribbean. I knew that I didn't know much about the Caribbean, but that was a moment that made me realise the depths of my ignorance while also piquing my interest. Within the world of the book the reader is given glimpses of things that have a wider unseen context. I think the word 'matriarchy' is only mentioned once, and it's not a big thing in context, just a passing comment. I realised that quite a few of the cultures we're shown seen seemed to be equal or matriarchal, but it's not in your face, or making a point, it's just background. That makes sense, why would someone who'd always lived in a matriarchy find it something worth commenting on? There is much mention of different types of people, and it was never explained because the characters never needed to explain it to each other, that's the way their world is. I got the impression that various groups that are mentioned are all different types of human from different worlds, and can be considered akin to ethnic/racial groups or heredities, but with different types of abilities. Of course I could be very wrong as I was just picking up on hints.. There's a lot of world around the edges of the story we see here, which is great. The focus isn't on those edges but there's just enough details or mystery to intrigue. The occasional references to Terra (Earth, I assume) were enigmatic, and I felt sure that I was getting only a glimpse of something. In fact I could see potential for lots of different stories on different scales to what we get here, and it's both clever and tantalising.

The central story itself was really rewarding. In some respect it's a bit strange to have a scientific mission focusing on what is essentially a search for genetically suitable wives. There could easily be something off with this concept, but Lord avoids any creepy eugenics tone. It is clear that the Sadiri have little choice but to find new (and creative) solutions for their civilisation, and this is just one option. There's no denigration of those who are different to the Sadiri, nothing imperial or controlling about the project. If anything looks like it could go that way Delarua and her Cygnian colleagues would shut it down fast. With so many cultures that have varied social structures, including polyamory and selective breeding, a different approach is not something that is hard for everyone to understand. The set up initially seemed like the kind of scientific mission that gets interrupted by something else which turns out to be the true focus of the plot (like in a certain TV show I have written many reviews of on this very blog). Except that here the scientific mission is the focus of the plot. Though things often don't go smoothly, and at times are actually disastrous, that is all part of the mission itself. It's a series of adventures -like you might get in sci-fi TV- some linked to place, some to circumstance/events and some to character background. Some are resolved in a fairly short time, others have deep and underlying consequences that ripple through the story and beyond. Throughout all this the core of the story is seeing this group of characters who have been thrown together in a professional capacity grow into a strong group with friendships and romantic tensions.

I would like to talk about the romantic tensions for a moment, because it turns out that this book has exactly the kind of thing I like and didn't realise I needed in my life. This isn't a romance story and it certainly isn't erotica (not that there is anything wrong with either of those genres). It's a science fiction story which has a strong character-focus and it turns out that certain of those characters are in love. I liked that there was an established married couple on the mission, because it's nice to see stable, long-term relationships represented. Then there is a blooming romance which grows, without the characters quite realising at first, between someone who has various issues in that area and someone whose culture is emotionally restrained. I loved that so much! Also I've had issues and can be a bit restrained, so it was great to see that neither character was shamed for who or what they were. I loved that both had good intentions and no one was trying to 'win' or get control. That it was just two people whose circumstances took a while to line up was brilliant. I love slow-burn romances! When done well I find them so much more satisfying and effective than characters falling in love (or into bed) in a sudden, emotional whirlwind. Now this is just my own preference, and one I'm only gradually coming to realise (my own slow-burn romance with slow-burn romances, perhaps?) Also I really prefer romances where people are nice to each other and support and show respect, not that everything has to be all sweetness and light all the time, but it really helps if no one involved is behaving like a jerk.

I consider myself more of a fantasy reader than a science fiction one, but I realise that I may well have a slightly blinkered view of science fiction as a genre of writing. If this is the kind of thing that's out there then I would like more please (not that my to-read pile isn't big enough as it is - I went to a convention last month). So if anyone has any recommendations of stories like this, or ones that contain the type of romances I was just talking about, I would be glad to hear them.

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