The Blue, Beautiful World by Karen Lord, the latest in her Cygnus Beta novels, is unlike any science fictional work I’ve recently read. It depicts familiar elements: a vast scale of galactic politics, a humanoid diaspora in space, a climate-changed Earth where cities are being enclosed in protective globes and many current nation states have disappeared. But it also probes family relationships and projects a kind of human transformation as a future that can save the galaxy.
While set in the same universe as her earlier The Best of All Possible Worlds, it differs completely from that much more intimate story of relationships. It also differs from The Galaxy Game, which covers the coming of age of several characters in this new book. This latest novel, which can be read as a stand-alone (though all the references to the galactic background might take time to sink in) combines epic scale with powerful feelings that can unite humanity, yet without any simple pitting of good against evil or set-piece battles. It is intense without being violent and offers a vision of a potentially peaceful future that humans could enjoy – or could break apart. The Blue, Beautiful World is a story I love, even though it underplays all the usual SFF tropes after leading you to expect many of them to drive the story.
At one point, we read that the Earth, a couple of centuries from now, is at a “tipping point, ripe for salvation or destruction, angels of deliverance or barbarians,” and Karen Lord manages to keep the reader at that difficult point of balance. The story begins with a brief scene at the coronation ceremony of the Patrona (monarch of an unnamed planet) and a question from a bumbling emissary, who first praises her rise to the throne in place of her whimsical brother, then abruptly asks where is that brother. She answers: Paris, with a “Did you not know?” that reveals the limitation of the emissary’s spy network. We are not told any more about the monarchy or who the emissary represents. Instead, the scene shifts to Paris where “the streets were screaming” as the entourage of the world rock star, Owen, the Patrona’s errant brother, drives past adoring crowds.
That first section dramatizes Owen’s vast popular appeal as a rock star, but his elaborate security force, headed by General Ahn, hints at a far different purpose than simply ensuring the safety of a pop icon. Owen has the kind of power that could turn him into a ruler of the world, or perhaps its unifier in a more benign way. An attack on his manager, Noriko, is revealed as one prong of an attack on Earth by an advance guard of aliens who have for centuries been infiltrating all walks of human life. They are effectively concealed by masks, but Ahn’s security force can readily identify them through a tell-tale shimmer under the chin. Noriko, who has been kept in the dark about this larger purpose of Ahn’s security force, is finally brought into the loop of Owen’s inner circle, and we see through her eyes as she realizes just how widespread the alien threat has become.
This first section is rounded out by the capture of aliens responsible for the attack on Owen’s entourage and shipping them off to Antarctica where they can be sent through a portal to face galactic justice. Then we get a glimpse of the Patrona again, who is donning clothes of the colors traditional to wartime. That war against the “barbarians” who seek control of Earth and other planets is approaching, she warns, but is not yet here. There is then a break in the text with a subtitle that announces a jump ahead in time of eleven years, and we are abruptly introduced to a new set of characters. But it is clear that a story that started out as one focused on a crowd-riveting rock star has turned into a galactic struggle for control.
The way that larger story develops, however, is completely different from most with such a space operatic setting. At one point, the Patrona announces to the citizens of Earth (in a terrifying first contact experience) that they have been infiltrated by rogue actors and that these are being eliminated by the Galactic Gendarmarie. But that occurs mostly offstage, and the action the novel brings to the foreground is the multi-dimensional effort, led by Owen, to unify the contending factions and rulers of Earth so that they can take a place on the Galactic Council for the first time. Owen’s attempts to do this test his resolve to use his charismatic power over people for good.
The novel is partly about power – the human drive to control things – even love, or what passes for love, does not turn, as the writer puts it, from using leashes and shackles. The story embodies nothing less than a great vision of creating an alternative to coercive power, changing dominion over others to communion with them. As central as that idea is to the development of the story, the human reality is so far from achieving it that it takes the occasional appearance in human form of a very different race of beings, dwelling in the oceans, to remind the central characters of their greater purpose. Those beings have surrendered the physical dimension of existence in a way that looks like death to the people they leave behind. Among the many mysteries in this story, there is so much gentleness and love suffusing the novel, always rooted in its complex characters, that it avoids any hint of preachiness and simply becomes the feelings its leading characters want to instill in all humanity. That’s a remarkable feat of writing.
As one character of this immaterial group of beings puts it: “All roads that do not lead to destruction lead to us. In communion. One flesh, one spirit. One heart, one mind. A transformation like that … it makes a vast, unfriendly universe as small and close as home.” It’s a force that draws people together like family in a way that has nothing to do with blood or inheritance. The Blue, Beautiful World is a truly visionary novel that projects a path for humanity through the long-term recovery from colonization to a potential recognition of all that its many peoples share. It’s a path fraught with danger, the abuse of power, backsliding into ancient enmities, but capable of leading to a fundamental transformation. Reading it, I find myself compelled to go back and reread the earlier books set in this universe to see how all of its worlds and ideas fit together. Karen Lord’s work in this series is a treasure of insight to the possible future of humanity.
My thanks to Random House/Del Ray and NetGalley for an advance review copy on which to base this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.