In the opening pages of The Best Of All Possible Worlds, author Karen Lord shatters the universe she’s created. A heavily populated planet, virtually the galaxy’s capital, has been poisoned. An ambitious novel with such a premise might focus on who committed the crime, why it was done, the galactic fallout, the power vacuum, wars, refugees, and so on. Lord doesn’t do that. Instead, she tries something that might be even more ambitious, even when it doesn’t fully succeed: She turns her novel into a low-key travel and romance story.
A group of almost entirely male refugees from the destroyed planet Sadira has landed on The Best Of All Possible Worlds’ world. As they settle into their new homes, the Sadiri struggle to preserve their culture and genetics in the face of increasing logistical difficulties, so they recruit the local government to help them explore the world and run genetic tests. The point-of-view character, a government scientist/bureaucrat named Grace Delarua, becomes a translator and guide to the Sadiri refugees, and her relationship with the Sadiri, specifically their councilor, Dllenahkh, becomes the novel’s low-key core.
Lord does a fantastic job of making the universe and world of Cygnus Beta support the story’s premise. The different peoples in The Best Of All Possible Worlds are different branches of humanity, which allows for interbreeding, but also significant physical and cultural differences. She examines the potential of a world filled with many different kinds of humans, with an authorial touch worthy of Ursula K. Le Guin. The Sadiri have mental and psychic gifts, and their society has developed in a way that makes them appear externally emotionless even as they form deep telepathic bonds—thus, their motive for resisting genetic compatibility isn’t simple racism, but rather a struggle between embracing their new home and diluting that which makes them unique, or trying to recreate their old ways. Testing people for genetic compatibility may seem overly mercenary, but Cygnian culture embraces arranged marriages. Cygnus Beta’s technology level is at a point where communities can survive, even thrive, and they can acknowledge a central government, but each community can have an entirely different social structure, which is a perfect setup for a book structured as a series of traveler’s vignettes.
Worlds’ core problem is that those vignettes lack stakes. Even ignoring the initial premise of the extermination of an entire planet, nothing much of permanence occurs. Delarua and her party travel from town to town, meet the locals, have an adventure, fix a problem, and move on their way. If there’s a cultural misunderstanding that’s fixable, such as when one of the younger Sadiri men attempts to discover the gender of an androgynous-presenting local, it’s resolved with a kind but firm explanation of what’s appropriate to ask, and what constitutes prying. Occasionally, the cultural differences are greater than misunderstandings, but these insurmountable conflicts between the characters’ governmental powers and the injustice they’re fighting end up easily surmounted at an emotional level, the fallout is resolved in a few pages, and the team proceeds onto the next location.
Focusing on the intensely personal during events of great import works for science-fiction novels like Sheri Tepper’s Grass, but The Best Of All Possible Worlds swings much too far away from “epic.” Even personally tense situations like murder plots and attempted kidnappings are treated as nothing more than methods for Grace to understand herself, and the only point of tension that threads through the entire book is how long it’ll take her and Dllenahkh to realize their compatibility. It isn’t a bad story, and Lord tells it well throughout the course of the novel. She even takes late steps to give the novel greater thematic and mythological depth, but those revelations are still filtered almost entirely though the eyes of her POV character. The Best Of All Possible Worlds can’t help but feel trifling, given the depth possible within Lord’s marvelously formed universe.