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 […]

You'll never see old Westerns the same way after reading Territory, Emma Bull's re-imagining of the frontier West. In 1881, a rider arrives in Tombstone, Arizona, with a man he has shot. The injured party dies, but no one cares his death is merely the first piece of frontier justice in this gritty novel. The survivor, Jesse Fox, is a horse wrangler whose secrets are slowly revealed.

One of the first people Jesse meets is Mildred Benjamin, a widow enjoying her reputation as an eccentric while setting type and proofreading one of the two local newspapers. Mildred tries her hand at journalism following a land grab a plotline which peters out but perhaps will be continued in another novel. She also runs up against the real powerhouses in town, the Earp brothers. Doc Holliday and his charismatic wife, Kate, have followed the Earps from Dodge City for two reasons. First, they are convinced it will make their fortune, and second, Wyatt Earp has a strange grip and influence over Holliday. Earp's charisma is strong enough to hold almost anyone and Jesse suspects there's more to it than meets the eye. But when Fox tries to tell Mildred his suspicions about the Earp family and their use of blood magic to rule the town, she won't believe him until she sees proof.

Bull, author of several novels, including Finder (1994) and, with Steven Brust, Freedom and Necessity (1997), lives in Arizona, and her version of Wild West mythology seems to rise naturalistically from her knowledge of the land. Many of the characters are living on the edge of the law in a time when the laws were often not yet fully written. Who owns land that belonged to a people who were pushed off of it? The law is maligned, bent and challenged. But Mildred and Jesse provide a high moral center to Territory that pulls the reader into the novel and, despite occasional slow patches (usually where Doc Holliday is the point of view character), right through to the ending at the OK Corral, when the Earps and their rule is shaken in a way that somehow never came up when cowboy movies ruled our imaginations. Gavin J. Grant is co-editor of The Year's Best Fantasy &andamp; Horror 2007: 20th Annual Collection, to be published this summer by St. Martin's Press.

You'll never see old Westerns the same way after reading Territory, Emma Bull's re-imagining of the frontier West. In 1881, a rider arrives in Tombstone, Arizona, with a man he has shot. The injured party dies, but no one cares his death is merely the first piece of frontier justice in this gritty novel. The […]

Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel is a tomorrow's-headlines-today technothriller with enough ideas packed aboard to rise out of its small subcategory and into the stratosphere of speculative fiction.

The Travis family is the focus as a nuclear bomb goes off at RAF Leuchars in Scotland. James Travis has been working as a programmer for defense and energy companies and has long expected the world to go down the tubes. When his daughter, Roisin, who has been in a peace camp outside the air force base, calls him at 4:00 a.m. to tell him she saw the bomb but is unharmed, he doesn't hesitate to act on his emergency survivalist plans. Alec, Roisin's brother, is in the army in Kazakhstan, and it is he, the most uncompromised of the three, who takes the brunt of the government's investigation into his family. After bombs blow up oil refineries and freeways, the U.K. goes into defensive mode. Rumors fly around the world about who is responsible and governments make ready to go to war. In this world, where Al Gore is the U.S. president and France is at the center of geopolitical peacekeeping attempts, little else has gone differently from the last half dozen years in the real world.

MacLeod uses the Travis family, among others, to demonstrate the inhuman uses of some recent Western laws on extraordinary rendition, torture and holding terrorism suspects without trial, as well as how quickly difference can be translated into otherness. At the end of many chapters there is a list of the most recent victims on the titular execution channel, an Internet and cable TV idea that MacLeod's glib description belies the horror of and the potential for its actuality.

MacLeod keeps the action moving swiftly along, all the while throwing out red herrings amid real clues as to where the book is unexpectedly heading: into a future imaginable only in physics labs and fever-dream science fiction novels. Gavin J. Grant runs Small Beer Press in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel is a tomorrow's-headlines-today technothriller with enough ideas packed aboard to rise out of its small subcategory and into the stratosphere of speculative fiction. The Travis family is the focus as a nuclear bomb goes off at RAF Leuchars in Scotland. James Travis has been working as a programmer for defense […]

Sandra McDonald's debut novel The Outback Stars should reach a broad swathe of readers from hard science fiction fans to romance readers and manage to please them all.

Lt. Jodenny Scott is a survivor of a spaceship disaster that killed almost 800 people. She doesn't feel like a hero because she doesn't remember saving people despite being injured in what was said to be a terrorist attack. Bored by a convalescent desk job, she pulls strings to get a position on another ship. As she soon discovers, her new ship, the Aral Sea, is not in great shape either.

Scott is put in charge of the Underway Stores department and quickly runs up against small-time gangs who run the other parts of the ship. She tries to make her department shipshape they have fallen behind in everything, even delivering new uniforms to sailors and finds that her best worker is Terry Myell, a semi-disgraced sailor who is trying to keep his head down until he can finish his deployment and leave the ship. Work rules mean she and Myell must ignore the spark between them, which is easy to do when they're confined to the ship. When they meet offship, however, it's a different story.

The Outback Stars sets sail rather slowly, as McDonald sorts out who is who and what job responsibilities each person holds. Once the characters are established, however, the various plots kick in and the reader is drawn along at full speed. McDonald's universe is fresh and intriguing: Humanity has tripped over a chain of interstellar shortcuts that run in a circuit to a series of habitable planets. The planets have been settled by different groups from a worn-out Earth who can only communicate through the ships sailing around the circuit.

A former U.S. Navy officer, McDonald combines her knowledge of naval operations with current fears of terrorism to craft a lively space tale filled with everything from Australian folklore to long-vanished aliens. She supplies enough answers to satisfy readers and enough questions to leave room for more stories in the future.

Gavin J. Grant runs Small Beer Press in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Sandra McDonald's debut novel The Outback Stars should reach a broad swathe of readers from hard science fiction fans to romance readers and manage to please them all. Lt. Jodenny Scott is a survivor of a spaceship disaster that killed almost 800 people. She doesn't feel like a hero because she doesn't remember saving people […]

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, […]

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