Karen Lord's new novel starts out with a horrific act of genocide. Sadira, the homeworld of the Sadiri race, is completely wiped out, with countless Sadiri dead. The remaining Sadiri, living on other planets, struggle with preserving their culture and keeping their race alive in some form. With that sort of set-up, you'd expect a terribly grim book.
What you don't expect is a giddy romance, which is so light-hearted it almost approaches being a screwball comedy at times. But that's what Lord gives us, and it's delightful. Spoilers ahead...
But suffice to say, it's the far future, and Terrans have discovered we're not the only humans in the universe. There are three other races that appear to be offshoots of the same species as humans, including the Sadiri, who are basically like Vulcans. They're super-logical and have highly developed mental powers, but are also capable of intense emotion, particularly when it comes to matters of mating.
(And the Sadiri homeworld is destroyed by an offshoot of their race who embraced emotion, who seem very much like the Romulans — but we basically never meet those guys. They're already dealt with by the time the novel really gets going.) So the remaining Sadiri need places to live, but they also need communities. And they need mates — there are more male Sadiri than female Sadiri left, for various reasons.
So some of the Sadiri come to the planet Cygnus Beta, where various groups of Sadiri descendants — known as the Ta-Sadiri — live in scattered communities. The Ta-Sadiri don't embrace the full mental disciplines of "proper" Sadiri, or rather they do to varying degrees. At one extreme, there's a secluded community where the locals have refined their brains to an astonishing degree. At the other, there are some seriously messed-up Ta-Sadiri realms, including the one where they pretend to be fairies (as seen in the excerpt we published yesterday.)
Joining this mission is Grace Delarua, a government official on Cygnus Beta who's almost — almost! — too old to get married, but still full of vim and vigor. And most of the book is told from Grace's first-person point of view, except for very brief third-person segments from the POV of Dllenahkh, a Sadiri who's traveling around with Grace's crew. Grace's POV is so irreverent and silly, that any heaviness in the story of the survivors of a catastrophe soon gets lost in the funny observations and sweet moments. But don't worry — the horrors of genocide and the terrible question of how you go on after your world has been destroyed are not ignored in this book, which keeps circling back to them in ways that are all the more poignant for being surrounded with levity.
So Grace and Dllenahkh are traveling around, with a group of scientists and officials, surveying all of the very different settlements that seem to have some Sadiri ancestry. And given that the Sadiri all have mental powers, it's not surprising that a big focus of the book is on coping with the implications of mental abilities, including the ability to read or project thoughts and feelings. Complicating matters, Grace's own family turns out to be quite complicated — her sister is married to a man who turns out to have some mental abilities of his own, making for a uniquely abusive situation whose shadow hangs over Grace the whole time.
So there's a lot of heavy stuff going on in this novel, and yet it's a quick, fun read, that might make you laugh and keep flipping pages to see what happens next to the characters, even as incredibly intense topics are being processed right under the surface. I wish I knew how Karen Lord pulled this off — it's a pretty unique accomplishment.
The overall structure of the book is quite episodic, with our heroes traveling from place to place and encountering different societies — there is some peril at times, and even a bit of swashbuckling. There are also some huge ethical dilemmas that our heroes face. And one of the questions Lord teases out is: What makes a good society? What kind of rights and responsibilities should the individual have, and how do families interact with the larger units of the state and society as a whole?
And Lord does a pretty amazing job with the world-building, too, shaping four separate races and the countless planets they live on without ever bludgeoning the reader with information. We learn tons about separate alien cultures, and see them combining and reproducing in endless variations, without ever getting overwhelmed.
Along the way, Lord also takes in questions of predestination, alternate timelines, causality and panspermia, without dropping a beat.
And as a romance, as a story of intimate relations between people, Lord's writing is note-perfect. All of the romantic relationships in this book are passionate and emotionally complex, but they're also built on mutual respect among smart people. Here's one passage, where Grace is talking to a man she's had an all-too-brief fling with:
"We've had too little time, you and I," he said quietly. "And now you go this way," he continued, nodding toward the forest, "and I return this way." He looked in the direction of the savanna. "So it goes."
"No jokes?" I said breathlessly. "No lighthearted humor to make it easier?"
He gave a half smile, touching my cheek softly with the back of his hand. "I don't want easy. I want true."
"Then this," and I kissed him lightly on the lips, "is not easy, but it is true."
But Lord's writing can also turn lyrical and deep, like when the characters are visiting a memorial for the Sadiri genocide, consisting of candles on a lake, under the stars. Lord writes:
The moonless night pressed on the eyes like thick, heavy felt, making the small flames sear the vision as they danced on the dark water. The stars added their cold fire overhead, and yet the night remained dim enough to hide my attempts to dash away tears.
This novel is already getting compared to Le Guin and Mieville, but really what Lord has done here is an achievement all her own. By taking what could have been an incredibly depressing, mournful story of survival after an unthinkable disaster and turning it into a light, comedic romance, she's created something that paradoxically makes it harder to avoid the big, important questions she's addressing. If you want to see science fiction doing something new and fascinating in 2013, then you shouldn't sleep on Best of All Possible Worlds.