The Best of All Possible Worlds is part science fiction, part romance, part anthropological travel journal. It is set sometime in the future of the planet Cygnus Beta, which is a planet inhabited by diverse human species that, on the surface, happily live together. When a new Sadiri settlement arrives on Cygnus Beta after their home planet has been destroyed, latent fears resurface asking whether the Sadiri, the former ruling elite of the galaxy, will fit in and if they won’t disturb the Cygnus Beta way of life. The Sadiri, in turn, seek to reestablish their own lives in a new environment. Furthermore, their surviving population consists mainly of men. Therefore, their top priority is to find new wives.
This broader social setting is approached by focussing on a small travel party of Cygnus Beta’s government officials and Sadiri men, who travel to different settlements on Cygnus Beta to get to know their populations, culture, and assess whether they would make suitable wives for the Sadiri men. Most of the story is told through the eyes of civil servant Grace Delarua. The story is made up of sections reporting on the travel party’s encounter with diverse settlements. Because Grace Delarua is the key character, we learn most about her thoughts, feelings, considerations, interactions with other party members, and slowly but surely her past and her hopes for the future. Interspersed with Grace’s narrative are short fragments of Dllenahkh, the leader of the Sadiri members of the travel party.
What makes this book such a joy to read is definitely Delarua’s voice and character. She is smart and witty, full of agency, but also very serious and contemplative. She is very similar to Dllenahkh in the latter two characteristics, but where he is mostly withdrawn emotionally and socially, Grace is the opposite. I loved exploring the group’s dynamics through the eyes of Grace, seeing the interactions, the tensions, the puzzles that make up a party of different people working towards a common goal but with diverse backgrounds sometimes clouding their view. It is not that Grace is without “faults”, or at least things she considers faults of her own, and her contemplation and struggle to overcome or accept these was very interesting too. It added an extra shade to her character, as through her eyes, Karen Lord tackles the intertwinement of selfperception, social environment, and the possibilities of growing into your own.
Apart from this personal, character-based, side of the novel, I very much appreciated Karen Lord’s incorporation of a large selection of social questions in her story. I might not agree with some of the decisions and judgements made by the characters, at times I might have felt she does too little to fully discuss the issues raised, but she does complicate each and every one of them to some extent.
One of the major issues is, of course, the idea behind the Sadiri expedition. The Sadiri men seek to find wives that are most “similar” in genetic make-up to themselves, in order to enable their distinct people and culture to survive. To some extent, the novel takes this as a given. And there were times throughout the stories that I felt the motivation was not questioned enough. It is a very human reaction, something that I feel we struggle with in the world today, as with increased immigration and globalisation some of the same reasoning comes to the fore. On the other hand, because we follow this story mostly through Delarua’s eyes, we are witness to her private questioning concerning the need for “purity”. She herself has a more “mixed” background, and she believes most people are. There are definite hints towards this idea of, what in cultural theory is often called, hybridity in the novel, particularly towards the second half.
There is also a discussion of the uses of phenotype and genotype in diverse forms of oppression in societies. Which brings us, in the roundabout way my brain works, to the idea of an anthropological travelogue, as this raises its own questions. In exploring the different settlements on Cygnus Beta, the idea that the planet is peaceful and that equality of different species reign there, is questioned. Grace Delarua has a background in a rural setting, but has lived in an urban environment for years. In their expeditions, the civil servants confront their “others” in some ways. They encounter different forms of living, all with their own organisational structures, most of which function on the surface but have problematic power issues on closer inspection. Grace’s own rural setting was the site of her own personal struggles, and is thus not “perfect” either. Karen Lord’s manner of bringing out the issues of power and othering in diverse settings works very subtle and well. To some extent, this is inherent in the anthropological narrative, that was first formulated in the setting of the study of colonial “others”. Sometimes, some of these ideas are reiterated (for example, when the group encounters a remote, what we often call tribal, culture). But because it is one encounter in a series, the visits always offer personal encounters and opportunities of exchange, because every societal form is portrayed as lacking (but also having its in some form of beauty, except perhaps for one), and because the reader is aware that these are the perceptions of one character, it never becomes a reiteration of stereotypes. The one thing I am afraid to admit I do not remember is whether or not the city is portrayed in similar terms, or if it mostly functions as a neutral ground from which these other settlements are perceived?
Look, this book packs a lot. I think it would make a great choice for a book group, exactly because it so often dares to go there when it comes to issues we often choose to ignore. I loved the book for its story, its characters, but I think it will stay with me for a long time because of how many questions it raised for me, some in a positive and some in a negative way. I am still unsure how to read a couple of things. For example, in its emphasis on survival and genetics, does it portray how we often get caught up in biological and cultural distinctions, or does it also reinforce some of these ideas? Does the portrayal of the need to find females for the male Sadiri population, with the expectation of children being born, reinforce heterosexual monogamy, or do the gender-neutral character, the characters who have one night stands or want to explore open sexuality without them being shamed counter that? Does it portray women as, in some way, judged by their capacity to have children, or is it problematised through the narrative of choice between career, family, or both? These are questions I struggle with. I am not sure if I can give a positive answer to all of them. I feel I might have wanted more explicit discussion of these issues in some parts of the book. Then again, I admire it for bringing so many complicated ideas that address social power constellations in our world to the fore in such an incorporated way. There, let’s say I am undecided, that it did not make me love the book less, and yet complicated it so that I felt the need to raise them.
Which leaves me with the romance. Because this book is in part a romance story. I have seen many people remark that this might be what made them love the book most. I… don’t know. I think it is a romance that works in that you want the main characters to end up together, and that even the slightest hint, the slightest touch, can make you feel all the things. But for me, personally, the ending, the understanding between them, is what makes me hesitant to say I wholly loved this part of the story. I want to underline the word “personally” in that sentence, because for the most part, my dissatisfaction with the romance comes with the last pages of the story and is found in my own past, in which the way Dllennahkh conceptualises love for himself has ended up hurting me and putting me in a very unequal relationship with someone many many years ago. It is a thing I shrink from now, and I cannot help it. It does not mean it could not work for Dllennahkh and Delarua, I think the story shows it does, it just means that I find it difficult to, inretrospect, feel all the things, because of reasons.
Contrary to most people’s love for the romance then, what I appreciated most in Lord’s portrayal of human love relationships, was how she dealt with the other side of the coin: the unhappy relationships. I feel that The Best of All Possible Worlds does a stellar job in addressing the topic of abusive relationships, not just physical abuse, but mostly mental abuse. The book portrays the social stigma surrounding the open acknowledgement of abuse. It portrays the difficulty of overcoming the mental bruises and trust issues that come with it. The difficulty in letting go, even if you know it is for the best. I cannot speak for everyone who has been witness or part of abusive relationships, and it is only recently that I have come to accept that I had a minor incident of this kind in my own life, but I recognised so much. And it made me want to hug the book close at several places. I guess, in its portrayal of the fact that victims of abuse can find a happy ending, it in part redeems those complicated last pages of the romance story for me.
I fear this post might have raised more of my personal questions than it provides definite answers as to how much I enjoyed this book. Let me repeat that I did, very much so. That I felt it did a really good job at combining elements of diverse genres. That it raised some difficult and complicated questions, even if it does not always provide ultimately satisfying answers (although one has to wonder if that is even possible). I read this at the beginning of February, and a month later, I still find myself returning to it often. It is one of the reasons why this post took me so long to write; I simply do not know how to do this book justice. If you want a more thorough exploration of the book, I highly recommend Thea and Ana’s joint review of the book over at The Book Smugglers.