Gavin Grant

Caribbean author Karen Lord has taught physics, trained soldiers, worked in the Foreign Service and earned a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion. In her new novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, Lord manages to combine many of these experiences—along with her telling eye for detail—in the story of Grace Delarua, a mid-level scientist who has to work with a high-level refugee. Against the odds, the two begin to fall for each other. Although it begins with a tragedy, Lord’s inviting storytelling and range of voices make this novel a fascinating read, and we asked Lord, who lives in Barbados, a few questions about it.

What was the genesis of The Best of All Possible Worlds?
The precursors were the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami (more women and children than men were killed in certain fishing communities); gender imbalance in countries with prenatal screening and/or family size restrictions; and the effects of female-scarcity on societies. It didn’t become a story until one day I read a blog post about the Star Trek movie reboot, commenting that from what they’d seen of Vulcans offplanet, most of the survivors were likely male . . . and what would that mean for future societal dynamics?

From there I started some postcolonial musings. What happens when an empire is suddenly wiped out? How does a society transition from wealth and widespread influence to dependency and refugee status among those once considered inferior? I thought about the British and the Japanese empires during the 20th century. I imagined a benevolent and slightly aloof paternalism deeply shaken by unanticipated defeat.

I imagined a planet, Cygnus Beta, to provide a context to highlight those issues. Founded by refugees and adventurers from all over the galaxy, it is a place where groups have mixed and blended their genetic and cultural heritages while others have tried to hold onto a certain amount of tradition and homogeneity. The full gamut of preservation, adaptation and assimilation has been played out many times by different communities. I slipped in bits of history and myth when creating some of those communities. (In one case I was directly inspired by a modern-day news article about an actor who sliced his throat on stage when a prop knife was accidentally switched with a real knife!)

I took visual inspiration from countries I’ve visited, or wanted to visit: Guyana, Colombia, Trinidad, Montserrat, India, New Zealand, Australia (or at least the opera!), Malta, Wales, Jordan, Argentina and Iceland.

What happens when an empire is suddenly wiped out?

The Best of All Possible Worlds begins with an ungraspable tragedy and moves on leaving us in the same state as the novel's characters: with the ground swept away from beneath our feet. What drew you to this beginning?
With a tragedy of that magnitude your centre is shaken, your sense of up and down is destroyed and somehow, amidst the hugeness of the tumult, mundane life goes on, expecting you to have a drink of water, or a cup of tea, or get out of bed and get dressed. It’s almost laughable, but life doesn’t stop for tragedy even when you want it to. Grief is experienced as vertigo. How do people find their ground again?

Grace Delarua, who tells the story of The Best of All Possible Worlds, is at once highly observant and, although there are other reasons for it, a little obtuse. Why can't she see what others see? Was she based on anyone you know?
I have always found people to be variably observant. There are some things they are very good at noticing and other things that pass them by completely. There are, as you say, reasons for that, including fear and denial, lazy expectations based on deeply ingrained stereotypes and lack of key information. The worst offenders are those who are convinced that they are observant, certain that they are unbiased and completely unaware that they don’t have all the facts.

Delarua’s not directly based on anyone I know, but I was inspired by something someone told me years ago. She had to briefly work with a frivolous, chatty and completely irritating woman. Then, near the end of her stint, she got to know the woman better and discovered that she was extremely intelligent, hardworking and ambitious. In fact, they had a lot in common and she thought they could have been great friends if she hadn’t been stuck for so long with her bad first impression.

Was there anything about this book that surprised you as you wrote about it?
The romance surprised me. There wasn’t supposed to be any! I was also surprised at the explanation for psionic abilities [like telekinesis or telepathy]. It was strangely fascinating and I was tempted to write pseudo-academic papers on the topic. The Elves . . . yes, the Elves surprised me by being astonishingly plausible when by rights they should have been pure farce.

The biggest shock was inventing the savannah dog, then doing research on the name only to discover that there actually is a savannah dog . . . which looked like I imagined it and is located in the real-life region on which I based the Cygnian region.

How has your life changed since your first novel was published?
I co-write research reports for socioeconomic projects but I haven’t written an academic paper in a good while. I’m certainly not famous yet. The local newspapers are learning not to misspell my last name (there are more Lordes than Lords in Barbados). This year I’m going to the Adelaide Writers’ Week, which will be my first time in Australia, and I’m really looking forward to it!

I know you read far and wide. Have you read anything recently you'd especially recommend?
I love to recommend Caribbean science fiction, [like] Ghosts by Curdella Forbes (2012) and The Rainmaker’s Mistake by Erna Brodber (2007). I’ve gained a new appreciation for short story collections. I recently read Ted Chiang’s brilliant Stories of Your Life and Others (I know, I’m late). Karin Tidbeck’s recent debut collection Jagannath is beautiful, and The Weird anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is essential reading.

 

Gavin Grant is the publisher of Small Beer Press, which published Karen Lord’s debut novel, Redemption in Indigo. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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Read our review of Best of All Possible Worlds.

Caribbean author Karen Lord has taught physics, trained soldiers, worked in the Foreign Service and earned a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion. In her new novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, Lord manages to combine many of these experiences—along with her telling eye for detail—in the story of Grace Delarua, a mid-level scientist […]

Margo Lanagan's Red Spikes is one of the best short story collections of the year in any genre. You might find it on the science fiction, fiction or young adult shelves of your local bookstore or library, depending on the whims of the shelver. These stories are deceptively simple yet this slim collection will be a prized possession long after other epic fantasies have been forgotten.

The author of two earlier story collections, Black Juice (winner of a Printz honor and two World Fantasy Awards) and White Time, Lanagan excels at dropping readers into situations which are seemingly familiar yet disturbingly different. The author is Australian, but only a few of her stories are so tied to place that the reader could say with any certainty where they are set. The story is what matters, not the setting, and Lanagan is one of the pre-eminent storytellers of the moment.

In Winkie, Lanagan throws Wee Willie Winkie on its side, fills it with panic and transforms it into something completely fresh. Hero Vale is a stand-out story, a re-imagining of the heroic quest, in this case beginning in a boarding school and moving to the depths of a forest where a boy discovers he had better be made of sterner stuff than he had previously realized. A couple of stories touch on religious themes. Under Hell, Over Heaven concerns those who ferry souls that have ended up in the wrong place to their rightful home. It is, as might be expected, beautiful and horrifying. In A Feather in the Breast of God, a tiny budgie stands in for God, while in Forever Upward a religion on the edge of extinction rewards one believer's faith. Forever Upward is also one of Lanagan's stories in which the reader feels the ache of characters who want something so badly they can barely stand their daily life. But all of these aspects the characters with overwhelming needs, the religions, the fear are barely describable elements of these 10 amazing stories which will reward the reader with unexpected places, unfamiliar feelings, new experiences. And after reading one, teen readers (and adults, too) will want more and more.

Margo Lanagan's Red Spikes is one of the best short story collections of the year in any genre. You might find it on the science fiction, fiction or young adult shelves of your local bookstore or library, depending on the whims of the shelver. These stories are deceptively simple yet this slim collection will be […]

Every senator, especially the ones with presidential aspirations, should read Kim Stanley Robinson's Sixty Days and Counting, probably the most hopeful book of the year. The novel is the third in the series that began with Forty Days of Rain, in which the nation's capital is flooded in a Hurricane Katrina-like event. In the follow-up, Fifty Degrees Below, the weather becomes increasingly erratic and the capital all but freezes.

However, the weather isn't the only troubling thing in Robinson's series. Frank Vanderwal, a California scientist on loan to the National Science Foundation in Washington, meets a woman who discloses that her undercover government agency has plans to subvert an upcoming presidential election. In Fifty Degrees Below, Frank passes this information to others, hoping against hope that the election-riggers can be stopped.

Sixty Days and Counting collects everything about weather and politics that Robinson presented in the first two books and sews the elements together like a map to a better future. Frank, who sustained a head injury while obtaining the election-rigging information, is struggling to decide what to do should he stay in D.C. or return to his home in San Diego? Wait for his mysterious undercover woman to return or follow up on his attraction to his boss? Or should he just go and have his head examined? While Frank vacillates, newly elected President Phil Chase takes up the challenges of global warming, China's economic overdrive and even an assassination attempt.

Robinson has long been one of the most thoughtful and future-positive science fiction writers, and in this novel he tops his previous bests. The page-turning near-future of Sixty Days features an appealing governmental belief in science to mitigate the damage we are doing to our own world. None of that gets in the way of the plot, though, which kicks along in higher and higher gears until it is running (using a hybrid engine, to extend the metaphor) at top speed all the way to a cleaner, brighter tomorrow.

Every senator, especially the ones with presidential aspirations, should read Kim Stanley Robinson's Sixty Days and Counting, probably the most hopeful book of the year. The novel is the third in the series that began with Forty Days of Rain, in which the nation's capital is flooded in a Hurricane Katrina-like event. In the follow-up, […]

Neal Stephenson practices alchemy of the literary variety, turning words into gold in the successful conclusion of his Baroque Cycle, The System of the World. Perhaps because he's been racing to get to this third and final volume, this book is the most accessible of the series (not counting his earlier linked novel, Cryptonomicon).

Stephenson dives straight into the political and religious machinations that will, within decades, turn 18th-century England into the industrial powerhouse of the western world. While familiarity with the previous two entries in the series, Quicksilver and The Confusion, is probably a given for any reader of this novel, a brief summary of "The story thus far" is provided at the beginning of the book for readers who are just getting started.

Natural Philosopher Daniel Waterhouse returns from the New World to England only to find himself caught up in a number of intertwining intrigues. He is intimately involved in the private manufacturing of a new machine about which other parties are very curious; the Tory and Whig parties are positioning themselves in readiness for the succession battle after Queen Anne's death; and mysterious assassins have been attacking eminent Natural Philosophers including Daniel himself on the day he arrives in London.

Daniel, who has also been tasked with trying to heal the rift between Sir Isaac Newton and the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz over who invented calculus, teams with Newton to investigate the attacks. However, Newton has a secondary, private motive. In his role as Master of the Mint, he has long been at war with Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, a counterfeiter also known as Jack the Coiner, who intends to sabotage the realm.

There is of course much more going on in this wide-ranging 900-page novel. Daniel's return to England after long years away gives Stephenson plenty of opportunities to use his extensive historical research on the era. The character's observations and asides on aspects of 18th-century British life and society slip seamlessly into the narrative.

At nearly 3,000 pages, Stephenson's exceptional trilogy is an achievement on an epic scale that will delight science fiction readers for years to come.

 

Gavin Grant writes from Northampton, Massachusetts.

Neal Stephenson practices alchemy of the literary variety, turning words into gold in the successful conclusion of his Baroque Cycle, The System of the World. Perhaps because he's been racing to get to this third and final volume, this book is the most accessible of the series (not counting his earlier linked novel, Cryptonomicon). Stephenson […]

How can a painter create a portrait of a model he never actually sees? That question is at the center of Jeffrey Ford's fascinating new novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. Set like Caleb Carr's The Alienist in 1890s New York, Ford's book is a masterpiece of suspense. But unlike The Alienist, which used actual historical characters, The Portrait relies for the most part on the author's imagination. And what an imagination it is! Ford has honed his creative voice in a rich outpouring of short stories and novels, including the unique allegorical trilogy, The Physiognomy, Memoranda and The Beyond. The first book in the trilogy won the 1998 World Fantasy Award.

Ford's latest novel takes place in the top tiers of New York society in 1893. Piero Piambo, an artist slumming as a portraitist, is hoping to make enough money to allow him to paint what he wants although he's not at all sure what that might be. The Portrait kicks into gear when Piambo is given a mysterious and high-paying commission: to paint the eponymous Mrs. Charbuque. The job has one difficult condition, however; he must paint her without ever seeing her. Piambo cannot resist the challenge and is soon attempting to paint Mrs. Charbuque (who sits in the same room with him, but behind a curtain) while listening to her strange tales. As Piambo becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind Mrs. Charbuque and her increasingly strange and frightening stories, he lets own life, his friends and his lover, Samantha, a beautiful actress, slip out of his hands. Painting an unseen subject is a captivating idea that sprang from Ford's own experience as a reader. I see the characters of a novel in my mind, he said in a recent interview. They take on features, hair color and expressions, and bulk and height, becoming real individuals. When Piambo tries to see Mrs. Charbuque in his mind, the image keeps changing. I want the reader to have the same experience as Piambo is having as he tries to decipher her looks form her words, Ford says.

The author faced another challenge in creating the novel: how could he convey a painter at work or the beauty of a painting so that it would feel real to the reader? To solve this dilemma, Ford interviewed painters and read up on the subject particularly in James Elkin's insightful book, What Painting Is. He also used his own experience as a painter in the Henry Miller school of paint what you like and die happy.' One aspect of writing the novel came easily to Ford the setting. A New York-area native with a long-standing interest in local history, he grew up on Long Island and as a child was often taken into Manhattan. He later worked in the city, and he and his family now live within easy reach of New York in South Jersey, where he teaches English at Brookdale Community College. Despite his local background, Ford spent considerable time researching the New York of 1893. He discovered just how much difference 109 years makes: coffee cost less than a penny; an all-naked review in the name of high art was popular (although it didn't last long); and many of the buildings of the period are long gone. However, not everything he discovered made it into the book; otherwise he'd never have finished. As his editor pointed out, a little research goes a long way.

Although he made his name as a fantasy author, in The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, Ford handles the mystery genre with apparent ease, building suspense right from the start when Piambo is handed a note by a blind man. Ford says his primary goal in writing the novel was to see how far his character would go to successfully paint his unseen subject. As Piambo is drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery behind the curtain, the novel moves from one climax to the next, slowly and skillfully increasing the tension so that as the ending nears, the reader, like Piambo who lives for the stories and will do almost anything to find out more about Mrs Charbuque has to know what happens. Gavin J. Grant lives in Brooklyn with the usual overload of books.

How can a painter create a portrait of a model he never actually sees? That question is at the center of Jeffrey Ford's fascinating new novel, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. Set like Caleb Carr's The Alienist in 1890s New York, Ford's book is a masterpiece of suspense. But unlike The Alienist, which used actual […]

The Other Wind is the sixth book in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series, which becomes, with this addition, one of the richest fantasies ever created. Le Guin has written an amazingly spare novel, yet from the beginning, every word is weighed and crafted to add depth and resonance. It's like reading a time-release story, where some of the effects are felt much later. Weeks after reading it, I found myself considering different aspects of the story—the meetings of cultures, the inevitability of love, the process of aging and realizing anew how well they all fit together.

After an absence of 10 years, Le Guin returns to the ongoing fantasy realm of Earthsea, a land where actions have consequences, where characters live their lives, are influenced by others and change in unexpected ways. Le Guin's first book in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea, was published some 30 years ago. In it, we were introduced to Ged, who would one day become Archmage, one of the most powerful people on Earthsea. Now Ged is an old man who has given up his power. He and his wife are scraping by on a farm far from the center of the action. He is a minor character, anchoring us in the world, bringing other characters together, yet keeping out of the way of the wizards and rulers of the lands. He has stepped aside for the younger generation, now facing the central question: What is death?

In earlier Earthsea novels, Ged and others crossed the border into the land of the dead. It was a truly frightening place: there were no animals or plants, and the dead walked in silence, never acknowledging one another. Now, Le Guin examines her fictional land of the dead, and finds it wanting. Death is the great and inevitable unknown. No matter how much we fear it or poke and prod at it, we the living cannot truly understand it. In The Other Wind Le Guin makes us face our own mortality, and, without falling back into cliches, new age mantras or religious imagery, gives us a deeply powerful and satisfying conclusion.

Gavin J. Grant lives in Brooklyn, where he reviews, writes and publishes speculative fiction.

 

The Other Wind is the sixth book in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series, which becomes, with this addition, one of the richest fantasies ever created. Le Guin has written an amazingly spare novel, yet from the beginning, every word is weighed and crafted to add depth and resonance. It's like reading a time-release story, where […]

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