Beautiful Shape-Shifter: Karen Lord’s “The Best of All Possible Worlds”
By Nalo HopkinsonApril 22, 2013
The Best Of All Possible Worlds: A Novel by Karen Lord
KAREN LORD’S NOVELThe Best of All Possible Worlds put me in mind of Junot Díaz’s brilliant novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Not stylistically: while Oscar Wao is an experimental pelau of modes served up in Díaz’s distinctly Dominicano and in-your-face voice, The Best of All Possible Worlds is a beautiful shape-shifter. It reads like smooth jazz comfort food, deceptively familiar and easy going down, but subtly subversive. Lord and Díaz are Caribbean writers of color, as am I. As such, in a genre that ostensibly loves the alien, we are frequently regarded as suspicious outsiders. The pejorative term “slumming” gets thrown around. At readings, good ol’ boy white readers who consider themselves guardians of the purity of the canon ask whether we’ve heard of Asimov, Heinlein, and Le Guin (much to the embarrassment, it must be said, of the more welcoming majority of readers in the genre). So what’s an Afro-Caribbean sciencefiction writer got to do to prove that he or she is as geek as thou? As with Oscar Wao, The Best of All Possible Worlds is in part a declaration of pedigree, a dual love letter to science fiction/fantasy and to African diasporic cultures and realities. The novel explicitly invokes Ray Bradbury and Indiana Jones, echoes writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, and filters it all through a creolized landscape.
Dllenahkh, a humanoid man from a race that calls itself Sadiri, is away off-planet on a much-needed silent retreat from his job. He receives word that everyone and everything on his home planet has been obliterated in an instant by a race called the Ain; whether as vengeance, retaliation, or just plain orneriness, we aren’t told. The only survivors are those who were off planet at the time. Within a matter of seconds, those few are rendered utterly, profoundly homeless. It is an act of cultural genocide, writ large in the way that only the lens of science fiction can accomplish.
Lord gives us an intimate rendering of the effects of a sadly quite comprehensible brutality. She has a fine hand describing emotional reactions when the enormity of the situation is overwhelming. When Dllenahkh first hears the news that his world is gone, his hands go chill and numb. He loses his grip on his water bowl:
He snatched at it but only deflected it so that it struck hard on the side of the water jug and broke just in time to entangle his chasing fingers.
“Oh,” was all he said. The cut was so clean, he felt nothing.
“I’m sorry. Let me...” He crouched and tried to collect the larger fragments but found himself toppling sideways to rest on one knee.
The remaining Sadiri are predominantly male. (Lord is reflecting on the fact that the 2004 tsunami off the coast of Indonesia killed more women than men.) In order for them to not go extinct, they need, bluntly put, to find women. They also don’t want to lose the “psionic” abilities their race has carefully cultivated in itself over millennia, so it’s important to them to find mates who have these latent talents.
Dllenahkh and the other survivors are taken in by the planet Cygnus Beta, a “galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees.” The Cygnians are distantly related to the Sadiri, so there’s a chance that the Sadiri might find enough suitable women for their men of reproductive age. Where Cygnian cultures are “complex and vibrant” and its peoples expressive, Sadiri tend to be emotionally reserved. They have developed their mental and intellectual powers to a high degree. The intensely private, non-demonstrative Dllenahkh is assigned a Cygnian liaison, a female biotechnician named Grace Delarue, an expressive soul with a smattering of Sadiri language and an intense curiosity and empathy. It’s a Spock/Kirk dichotomy that smacks at first of the Star Trek monoculture syndrome, in which whole planets share one language and one culture. It appears at a glance that Cygnians and Sadiri could stand in for humans and Vulcans, with all the comic possibilities that the Star Trek franchise has explored ad nauseum.
Yet it’s not so simple. Lord’s homages in this book are never unquestioned capitulations to the tropes. She invokes them, then gently critiques them. Sadiri are not monolithically impassive, and some Cygnian body/mind achievements leave Dllenahkh in awe. The rest of the novel is a picaresque exploration of some of the cultures of Cygnus Beta (no monoculture here) as the Sadiri search for a suitable Cygnian community. This former Trinidadian resident was thrilled to find the Trinidad Carnival’s annual “las’ lap” around the Savannah — a 260-acre national park in Trinidad’s capital city of Port of Spain — transplanted into a science-fiction setting. I’ve done Carnival road marches around the Savannah. To my delight, in Lord’s afterword, she claims the Caribbean as the post-colonialist convergence of cultures that it is, pointing out that it is thereby an apt jumping-off place for speculative extrapolation. Sing it, sister. It’s all too common for the rest of the world to assume that the Caribbean is a bucolic vacation playground of villages and beaches, incapable of initiating any real scientific or technological progress.
More jarring for me was the introduction of a community of Cygnians who’ve had themselves modded in the form of a non-existent fantasy race with which many readers will be familiar. Lord is careful to make the premise science-fictionally believable, and while I appreciate the irony (it’s 24-7 role-play taken to an hilarious extreme), the effect for me was as if the novel had briefly jumped tracks. I think I would have been less startled had that story element been woven in more thoroughly.
Dllenahkh and Delarue grow increasingly close, find themselves in dangerous situations, and discover an important secret that links their peoples. The novel touches on questions of genocide, ethics, abuse, consent, retaliation, culture, and racial “purity,” while employing a fair bit of leavening in the form of humor and romance. It’s a chancy mix that for the most part works surprisingly well. However, perhaps because there’s so much meaty stuff packed into The Best of All Possible Worlds, it can occasionally feel as though you’re in a tour bus being whisked past a war zone, lingering just long enough to snap a few voyeuristic photos before being taken to the next “exotic” tourist site.
It’s obvious from the afterword that Lord thinks deeply about tragedy and injustice, and does not allow herself to shy away from their ugliness or the pain and loss that they cause. This sophomore novel was for me a glimpse into the widely ranging palette of influences on which she draws. I was entertained and intrigued, and I look forward to seeing how her future works develop the types of concerns that are introduced in this one.
Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica, grew up in Trinidad and Guyana, and settled in Toronto for two decades before taking up a position in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Her five novels, which span (and mingle) the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, have won numerous awards.
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