Recently, I reviewed Karen Lord‘s highly enjoyable novel Redemption in Indigo, a rural fantasy that successfully mixing a modern sensibility and a tradition arising from oral narrative. Next week the spanish edition of her The Best of All Possible Worlds will be published, a very interesting science fiction novel that will soon be reviewed here at the Ilium’s Library. It’s a very different novel from Redemption in Indigo, a science fiction story exploring issues such as the formation of social networks and the interaction between cultures in a universe filled with life and mistery. I have been given the opportunity of interviewing Karen Lord for the Literatura Fantastica RBA imprint’s blog, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it, so I’m really happy to share the english version of the interview with all the international readers here at this internet thingy.
You can find the spanish version of the interview at the Literatura Fantastica RBA blog. There, you will also find the first chapter of the Spanish edition of the novel .
Ladies and gentlement, behold… Karen Lord!
Your novel has been published in a moment in which science fiction is increasingly paying attention to the work of writers with origins other than the United States and England. What are your views on this apparent trend to make of science fiction (and fantastic literature as a whole) a more internationally inclusive genre?
It benefits everyone. Readers in the US and the UK are not monocultural. Global literature and art is built from sharing, borrowing and blending the experiences of many. Science fiction is supposed to take us to the farthest reaches of the universe, to the end (and sometimes the beginning) of time. How authentic can all that invented diversity be if we can’t even acknowledge the diversity on our own planet?
On a related note, how does your Caribbean origin influence your novel, both in terms of content and of narrative approach?
I may be too close to my own work to answer that accurately, but I believe the style of my writing, and possibly even the structure of my novels, has been influenced by an oral tradition and also by that peculiar kind of British English that you unconsciously absorb from theology, politics and comedy. The Caribbean region is a place of many nations and peoples, and that too has enriched the content of my stories.
Redemption in Indigo was very well received both by readers and critics, and it is a very different book than The Best of Possible Worlds. What did you learn writing it and what new grounds did you set to explore with The Best of Possible Worlds?
The best thing I learned from Redemption in Indigo is that a complex narrative can be organic, that you can grow a story rather than plan a story, that pruning (editing) and grafting (rewriting) are key skills that make the final result so much more than a wild thing or a lifeless construct.
I used The Best of All Possible Worlds to experiment with a voice that was informal and occasionally unreliable rather than the voice of a trained storyteller who knows everything and withholds intentionally. Because the narrator doesn’t know, the reader doesn’t know or is forced to guess from other clues. I played with non-linear plots, connected mini-arcs, and most of all pacing – finding that balance between the highly dramatic and the reassuringly domestic, and sometimes purposely mixing the two in order to unsettle the reader.
This novel has been compared with the Ekumen books by Ursula K. Le Guin and it certainly seems to share several themes with them. Where do you see your science fiction in relation with the work of Le Guin or other science fiction writers more interested in the anthropological sciences than in the physical ones?
I am still in the process of understanding my work in the context of the genre, and I think that a critic or academic would answer this better than I could. Some believe that because the physical sciences are called ‘hard science’ that means the ‘soft sciences’ – anthropology, sociology, psychology – cannot produce hard SF. But, in my opinion, anthropological knowledge is what makes a created world, fantasy or science-based, feel real. I suspect that writers who like worldbuilding tend to write SF based on anthropology, whether or not they also include a physical science component. It’s just another kind of thought experiment, but with people and societies as the key variables.
The Best of Possible Worlds is delivered almost through a series of vignettes. This gives a feeling of a “fragmented” world, almost a fantasy land (it even has fairies!) in which races exist with almost no knowledge of each other. It certainly is an intriguing setting and I have the feeling (though I might be wrong) that you have just begun to tap its potential. Could you describe this world to our readers?
Cygnus Beta is a a frontier planet populated by refugees and pioneers. There are big urban centres with the latest in galactic tech and small rural settlements that preserve the old ways. Its peoples create and maintain community with a balance of assimilation, adaptation, preservation and participation.
But let me give a little background. I live on a small island, and I once thought that people who lived on continents with boundaries beyond the horizon were naturally immune to both the joys and sorrows of insularity. After I’d travelled around for a bit, I realised that whatever the size of the city, the country or the continent, there are some people who will create a village for themselves defined by boundaries of class, religion, ethnicity or any combination of factors, and they will stay in that village of a few thousand people. Some villages overlap geographically but the human networks rarely connect.
The Sadiri are like that. They travel throughout the galaxy, but they carry their village with them. They never really mix because they’re convinced of their superiority and self-sufficiency. It was interesting to take that kind of society and put it through a series of ‘what ifs’ by looking at the encounter between present-day Sadiri and the descendants of previous Sadiri migrants to Cygnus Beta. Few things challenge the identity as much as people who you expect to be like you, but aren’t. They meet people who look like pure Sadiri but prove to be genetically varied and lack telepathic abilities. They find others who have the mental abilities but frame it in a different morality. They find a group who share the same the genetic heritage but have completely discarded the cultural heritage. This kind of drift and variation is common in Cygnus Beta, but for the Sadiri it is a new experience.
Speaking of untapped potential: Is there any chance of you writing about Naraldi previous adventures? That would really be something to behold. Or more broadly: are you planning to revisit this universe?
I have thought about writing short stories based on Naraldi’s travels, but that might be a bit too much like Doctor Who meets Quantum Leap. Don’t worry, though – I’m working on the sequel to Best right now and we will definitely be exploring the galaxy.
I can’t help to think that the approach to love and the search for life partners depicted in the novel is somewhat cold. Granted, the Sadiri have an enormous “esprit de corps” and they are under extreme circumstances, but even for other Cygnian societies the search for partners seem to be… too checklist-based. Would you like to comment on that?
That’s a very good observation about the Sadiri. My reasoning is that the two elder species of humanity, Sadiri and Ntshune, use their superior brain power in two quite different areas. The Sadiri excel at law, mathematics, physics and philosophy, which can be solitary and theoretical pursuits. Even their work as judges and diplomats puts them in social situations where they are expected to stand a little apart from the rest of the crowd. Their social skills are rather basic, and that is why their family networks are so structured and planned, including the simplification of mate selection.
The Ntshune, on the other hand, are highly social. They understand complex, organic systems. They have complicated family networks and several variants of marriage and adoption. They can remember and recognise more names, faces and histories than any of the other human species. They are known for their expertise in sociology, anthropology and network AI. Their modes of mate selection would be quite different from the Sadiri approach.
One of the more intriguing issues in the setting of the novel is the relation between the four main races depicted, particularly regarding the standing of Earth (Terra) among the other races. Some hints are given that the Sadiri have visited Earth in the past and that some Earthlings may have abandoned Earth. In fact, even though references to art from Terra are plentiful, I’m not sure that the story is set in so far a future. I would very much like to know more of this, if it’s something you are willing to disclose.
I’d rather not reveal the time in which the book is set, at least not yet, but I will say that the evidence is contradictory because some Cygnians come from different times and parallel Earths. However, with respect to the rest of the galaxy, Terra is very much the junior sibling.
Recently, several writers have suggested that science fiction may be “exhausted”, that it has ceased to be socially relevant. Do you thing this is the case?
That’s a very broad statement. I might be able to make that criticism of some science fiction, but I have also seen works that are very relevant. Part of the problem is lack of agreement on the definition of science fiction. Some might argue that the works I find relevant are literary rather than SF.
Where do you see science fiction literature going in the coming years?
I don’t know, and that’s as it should be. You would have to be a dual-prophet, predicting not only how the literature will evolve, but also how science will develop.
Can you tell us what are your next literary projects?
I’ve already mentioned the sequel for The Best of All Possible Worlds. There is also a sequel to Redemption in Indigo and a handful of short stories, some related to Cygnus Beta.
Are there any words that you would like to address to your Spanish readers?
My apologies for naming my main character Delarua and not de la Rúa! Her heritage does include Spanish ancestry but that was generations ago and names change. Her family’s homestead is in Montserrat, which was inspired by Monserrate (Bogotá, Colombia) and Montserrat (the island in the West Indies).