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AISHWARYA  SUBRAMANIAN
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

A futuristic adventure bogged down by echoes of the past

enturies from now, people will still be reading Shakespeare. I know this not because his work is so wonderful (though it is pretty amazing) as to be immortal, but because I have it on the best possible authority: Star Trek. The Original Series and the movies based upon it contain a number of references to the bard, including a rather wonderful one about reading him "in the original Klingon".

Shakespeare has survived in some form on Cygnus Beta, the planet on which most of the action of Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds takes place. Cygnus Beta is populated by peoples descended from four other planets, of which our own is one. Its popular cultural references are, presumably, inherited from all of these planets as well as some that are the product of its own multicultural history. But most of those mentioned, or the ones the (Terran, or Earth-based) reader notices, are from Earth.

So what aspects of our culture have survived into whatever point in the future this is? The Wizard of Oz (movie, not book)—Delarua, our narrator, describes a character as looking like "a tall, middle-aged Wicked Witch of the West except not, you know, being actually green". The Indiana Jones movies. Casablanca. A Superman movie, in 3D. Othello. What doesn't make it is Star Trek, but I'll come back to that.

The Best of All Possible Worlds takes its title from Voltaire's Candide and like Candide is something of a picaresque adventure. After the destruction of the planet Sadira, some of the remaining Sadiri seek refuge on Cygnus Beta. In a scientific expedition to assess the potential for the remaining Sadiri to intermarry with Cygnus Beta's part-Sadiri population, a small group of experts visits each of a number of "taSadiri" colonies. They include Delarua, a woman from Cygnus Beta, and Dllenahkh, a Sadiri councillor. Delarua is our heroine, Dllenahkh is brooding and tragic. Naturally, this is a romance.

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The little homages may be fun, but they don’t lead anywhere, and all the resolution we’re offered is a happy ending for its lead couple whose romance, muted throughout, has never felt like the point of the book.

As a result it's rather episodic—each new colony provides a different model of society and a different challenge. But many of these societies are drawn almost directly from (earth) pop culture. There are Faeries, for example; Sadiri who have chosen to live entirely by the precepts of Terran folktales about elves and similar creatures. They are organised into the Seelie and Unseelie as in various stories, there's something of the Eloi/Morlock divide from H.G. Wells, and definite hints of Tolkien (mysteriously, no non-Western aspects of Earth culture seem to have survived into the future). There are secret societies of telekinetic monks.

nd there are the Sadiri themselves. I said earlier that Star Trek no longer seemed to form a part of this world's popculture, but perhaps that's because on a more fundamental level the text itself is a piece of Star Trek fanfiction with the Sadiri being obvious stand-ins for the Vulcans. It's probably a coincidence that this book should have been published soon after the 2009 Star Trek reboot which destroyed the planet Vulcan, leaving its survivors homeless and trying to establish a new colony, but this is hardly the only parallel between these two fictional races.

But this obsession with Earth's pop culture is only one of many things that eventually weighs The Best of All Possible Worlds down. The little homages may be fun, but they don't lead anywhere, and all the resolution we're offered is a happy ending for its lead couple whose romance, muted throughout, has never felt like the point of the book. And those homages mean that this is a science fiction novel obsessed with the past, not the future; which would explain why so many of the things its characters take for granted (genetic determination, government-determined marriage, heteronormativity, entire planets where the men travel and the women stay home) feel so out of keeping with the liberal, far-future setting. The Best of All Possible Worlds loves its pop culture traditions, but it doesn't seem interesting in thinking about them, nor does it seem to know what to do with them. As a result, it's rather a mess.

 
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