Saturday, 26 November 2016

Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds

The Best of All Possible Worlds The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that are becoming more common these days: thoughtful; slow-moving and mostly low-tension, with occasional bursts of action; good-hearted characters who are essentially early-21st-century liberals in their worldview; beautifully written and impeccably edited; fresh in premise; masterful in execution. Into this nameless and assorted category I would group Ann Leckie's Ancillary series; The Goblin Emperor; A Natural History of Dragons; and Chalice, among books I've read relatively recently.

It's also the kind of modern planetary romance that, say, Sherri S. Tepper or Julian May wrote; not a space opera, because it's not in space, and technically science-fictional, but with psychic powers playing a prominent role. It's even more reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I would be astonished if Le Guin was not a huge influence on the author.

Now that I've set it in a context of other books and authors, what is it about? Well, one of the most prominent and highly respected races of humans, in a galaxy with several of those, have lost their planet and most of their people to enemy action. Because, for sociological reasons, more men than women spent time off-planet, there's now a shortage of women among the survivors, and they want to find ways to preserve their culture as well as their genetic heritage. (It turns out late in the book that, because of the way their psychic powers work, they actually don't do well at all if they're not pair-bonded, and they may even become dangerous; but this isn't developed very much.)

Accordingly, on a planet which for various reasons has become a destination for many groups of refugees and displaced people, the proud and self-disciplined race are looking among the cultural groups descended from those of their people who left their planet or were pushed out in the past, in the hope of finding brides. The main character, a local civil servant, is assigned to help them in this quest, and ends up having the universe's least romantic romance with the leader of the search.

Even though I call it an unromantic romance, it was still quite sweet, just as the civil servant was interesting (and wryly funny). The pace is unhurried, but it doesn't feel too stretched out; I wasn't bored, it just wasn't a constant barrage of plot incidents. There are certainly moments of tension, but if tension, passion, conflict and drama are what you mainly look for in a book, you shouldn't look here. They all occur, but, like the events of the plot, they're widely spaced and not, for the most part, built up to any great heights. It's more a thoughtful book than it is a spectacular one, and the overall tone is of warm-hearted maturity.

The title, of course, is from Voltaire's satire Candide, and he took it from Leibnitz; I'm afraid I didn't quite get the significance of the reference. The refuge planet is neither utopian nor dystopian, though it's peaceful, and with a few notable exceptions the people living there are well-disposed towards others.

It took me a while to figure out what the deal was with Earth, and where we were in the timeline. Earth is under a ban, meaning that nobody is meant to interfere with it or make open contact, but I wasn't sure until late in the book whether this was at our time or after it (it appears to be more or less at our time, though it could easily be some time before or after). Various groups have been rescued from disasters on Earth at different times, though, by mysterious guardians, and brought to the planet of refuge, which justifies - I suppose - the fact that most of the cultural references are to Earth culture. It's a bit of a worldbuilding shortcut, if not accompanied by any cultural references to any of the other cultures, and that, for me, was the most noticeable weakness in the book - if you don't count the missed opportunities to build up tension, conflict and drama, and I think that was a deliberate and understandable choice by the author rather than a failure of craft. (I also want to reiterate that those elements were present, just not front and centre.)

I do find, though, that I mostly respect these books more than I love them. Tension and conflict are the salt and fat of literature, and if you have a book that's all salt and fat, then you have literary junk food - meaning that it will be popular, comparatively easy to produce, and profitable, but not critically acclaimed or respected. But there are haute cuisine ways to use salt and fat to enhance the flavour of fine food, and sometimes these more languid books do miss opportunities to bring out their philosophical flavour with better seasoning. It's a tricky balance to strike. You don't want to distract from the reflective, insightful nature of the book by setting off fireworks all the time, but you also want to engage your audience emotionally as well as intellectually. For me, The Best of All Possible Worlds walked that line well, but for other people's taste it will fail.

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