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Another fine mess

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The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Novel - Karen Lord Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds seems on its surface somewhat frothy. The venerable critic John Clute dismisses it as "romance", a critique he qualifies slightly--not that there's anything wrong with that--while in the next breath citing with a sneer a passage that does come across all gee-willikers. And some readers may stare stonily at what might seem more Candide than Voltaire -- "LeGuin lite," in Clute's eyes, (ab)using science-fictional tropes to adorn an old-fashioned tale of the sincere lady wooing a distant, but worthy, man.

Lord makes no bones about swiping the skeletal structure of this plot from Jane Eyre and Jane Austen (the guile-free goodhearted protagonist even late in the novel directly accosting the "Reader"). But as in those referenced works, a smooth surface belies the masterful complexity of Lord's allusive, engaging novel. For instance, she also explicitly cribs from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, another writer whose casual grace can seem naive, whose optimistic sense of wonder sugared often dark, bitter understandings of human behavior, who used the vistas of another world to open up new windows on our own. The novel is polyvocal, singing in all kinds of keys, but such influences never drown out the author's own beautiful voice. The Best of All Possible Worlds is smart, compassionate science fiction, by which I mean smart, compassionate fiction.

The story hinges on an unimaginable catastrophe. An entire race nearly wiped out, more men than women surviving, the remnant population struggling to maintain or revive its culture. A team of surviving Sadiri joins officials from the home planet and sets out on a picaresque tour of disparate communities where, long before, emigrant Sadiri had put down stakes. The novel's attention to the complicated consequences of diaspora is a core thematic thread. However, Lord is fascinated by the shaping of new hybrid communities, not just mapping power dynamics between self and other. Tracing multiple influences, finding new opportunities -- hers is an optimistic but never trite vision of cross-cultural exchange (and such hybridity is embodied through the novel itself).

And it is at core a study of one focused set of relationships on this team, particularly the blossoming respect and intimacy between biologist Grace Delarua and the Sadiri councillor Dllenahkh. Much happens--the pleasures of the "road" novel--even as the core arc toward coupledom is quite familiar. I'll admit that I, too, sometimes stumbled over some obvious devices, fretted with the tonal shifts from light comedy to darker tragedy. But there's a richness--in design and in delivery--that will delight attentive readers. To dismiss it, dear reader, would be a shame if not a scandal.

Thanks to DelRey and to NetGalley for providing an advance reader's copy in exchange for an honest review.