I think my sci-fi kick is officially over. I started reading this book after seeing a gushing post about it at io9, a preeminent sci-fi website. The post was titled “If you want to see what science fiction is capable of in 2013, you ought to pick up this book.” There are other bold claims in the piece (like “it’s a quick, fun read”), but the title is heart of the matter. If this is all science fiction is capable of these days, I don’t want any part of it.
In The Best of All Possible Worlds, there are four races of humans in the galaxy: Terrans, Ntshune, Sadiri, and Zhinuvians. The Sadiri are long-lived telepaths who have explored the universe with their “mindships”—they’re basically halfway between Vulcans and Elves. In fact, one Sadiri clan actually calls themselves Elves. It’s almost stupefyingly derivative, and the world-building is by far the best part of the novel.
The Terrans are humans as we think of them, the Zhinuvians are performers are something, and the Ntshune are… I don’t even know. Partially that’s because the utterly dry and life-devoid prose put me to sleep every time I started to read this book, and partially it’s because it doesn’t matter what the Ntshune are, because they have nothing to do with anything.
The inciting incident of the novel (I actually hesitate to call it a novel, more on that shortly), is a horrible act of genocide, committed by the Ainya against the Sadiri. Specifically, the Ainya blew up Sadira altogether. Which seems to have been a stupid decision, because the Sadiri and their semi-allies the Zhinuvians are the only ones with ships that can reach the Ain. So the Ainya are stranded wherever that planet is, and they literally don’t factor into the novel again, ever.
Instead, Lord focuses her novel on Grace Delarua, a scientist or a military officer working in a small crew of sociologists or government workers who are trying to get the remaining Sadiri on various worlds to register in some kind of marriage database to save their species. Or maybe to keep the unmarried male Sadiri from homicidal mania, which is evidently something they do despite being the smartest and wisest race in the universe. Or just the area, or whatever.
I’m sorry that I’m a little vague on the details, but I had one hell of a time paying attention. The prose and especially the dialogue is often aggressively formal and stilted, and the characters are completely flat when they’re not behaving in bizarre, unexplainable ways.
Here’s an example, when the team goes to an opera and, while waiting outside, they see the super-sexy Zhinuvian opera star, wearing a skimpy dress, duck into the backstage entrance. Delarua’s male colleagues watch the star duck into the door, and then this happens (the “I” voice is Delarua).
Heads everywhere were turning, not just the Sadiri ones. There was a small collective sigh when she disappeared from view. I stared at my colleagues in amazement.
“You—all of you—you were looking that girl up and down!” I didn’t know whether to be appalled or hugely entertained.
“First Officer Delarua,” Joral said in a tone so severe that he almost sounded like Dllenahkh in chastising mode, “while it is true that we are Sadiri and therefore not prone to mental distractions, we are more than capable of aesthetic appreciation of the feminine human form.”
I had no answer to that, so I rounded on Tarik. “Well, then, you—you’re married!”
“I am allowed to look,” he said uncertainly.
“I’d confirm that with Nasiha if I were you,” I said skeptically.
Dllenahkh’s voice was utterly composed. “There is no need to be concerned, Delarua.”
A prize to the man with the unpronounceable name! There is no need to be concerned. For my money, this is the worst rut sci-fi falls into: a carefully imagined world full of diverse species, written by an author who must awkwardly dissect every incident of normal human behavior because it’s out of character for her non-human creations.
There’s simply nothing new here, these guys are acting pretty normal. Even Delarua herself can’t articulate why she gets so worked up about it, and ultimately there’s simply no point to this scene. There’s also the trying-too-hard sci-fi cadence of the prose (“almost sounded like Dllenahkh in chastising mode”), and the problem of having too many personality-free characters to keep track of (the difference between Joral and Tarik is that one is married).
Oh, and Delarua? The woman who’s so uncomfortable with the meekest sexual urge that she flies into histrionics over glances? She’s also the subject of the novel’s love story. So you can imagine just how chaste and passionless and utterly utterly boring that is. (There’s a lot of hand-holding. That’s not a joke.) io9 called it “a giddy romance, which is so light-hearted it almost approaches being a screwball comedy at times,” which means I just can’t trust io9 recommendations anymore.
Anyway, this kind of kludginess pervades the novel, but what really dooms it is the lack of a novel’s plot. Instead of a novel-sized arc, we get a series of discrete stories. The team deals with Delarua’s semi-telepathic ex-husband for 40 pages, then a thorny diplomatic mission for 50, there’s a cave-in at one point (I know, what?), etc., etc. None of it really adds to the others, and the destruction of the Sadiri homeworld—by which the novel measures time (“Zero hour plus one year five months four days”)—ultimately never develops past a backdrop. I kept waiting for something to fall into place and it never did.
So, in summation, avoid this novel. And I, at least, will be avoiding io9, because I don’t need a site that lists all of the sci-fi in the world, I need a site with smart reviews by passionate fans that will lead me to good books. And io9 is unfortunately not that.
Similar reads: Instead of listing books I also hated, here are a couple of my favorite recent sci-fi books (recent as in, the past two years): Constellation Games, by Leonard Richardson; Immobility, by Brian Evenson; Machine Man, by Max Barry