Karen Lord’s novel The Blue Beautiful World (to be published on August 29, 2023; I got to read an advance copy through Netgalley) is the third in her “Cygnus Beta” series of science fiction novels, following The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013) and The Galaxy Game (2014). (Lord has also written a series on novels based on West African and Caribbean folktales: Redemption in Indigo (2010) and Unraveling (2019), with at least one more forthcoming.
In any case, The Blue Beautiful World is the first book in the Cygnus Beta series to be set on Earth, rather than on other planets. The series as a whole takes place in the near- to mid-range future, on a number of planets that contain humanoid life, all of which are more technologically advanced than we (Earth) are. The planets all orbit stars that are relatively near us, in galactic terms: Vega, Fomalhaut, Pollux, Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Eridani, Epsilon Tauri, and 16 Cygni B. Most of these stars are within 25 light years of the Sol system — though Epsilon Tauri is considerably further away (147 light years), and has been quarantined from the others. Lord is careful about most of her cosmological details, although the two least likely aspects of her set-up (both of which are necessary to the novels) are only hand-wavingly explained: the method of FTL travel, and the genetic similarity between Earth humans and the near-humans on other planets. The Blue Beautiful World in fact shares some characters with the earlier novels, but it can be read independently from them.
It is not easy to describe what The Blue Beautiful World is about — it has a sort of wavering quality that is central to its charm. All three of the novels in Lord’s series work on multiple levels. The Best of All Possible Worlds begins with a shocking incident of planetary genocide; but gradually it turns into something like a romance novel combined with an anthropological tour of multiple cultures. While there is nothing that extreme in The Blue Beautiful World, it also plays with a similarly disconcerting mix of levels and themes. A lot of readers on Goodreads and similar sites seem to find it ‘confusing’ — which simply means that its plot is not entirely linear, and there are changes of focus throughout. That is to say, the elements that other readers complained about are precisely what delighted me about the book.
The Blue Beautiful World starts (after a single-page preface) with a pop star named Owen, who is extremely charismatic and is the most popular entertainer on Earth. But it shortly turns out that he is not actually human (i.e. he comes from one of the other humanoid planets), and that his mission is not just fame and popularity, but has political elements to it as well — he seeks, either to take over our planet (not literally, but in a manner of speaking), and/or to produce the conditions which will make it possible for Earth to enter the galactic commonwealth with the other inhabited planets.
After a few chapters with Owen, and with his human manager Noriko, who is eventually initiated into the ways he is more than just a pop star, the novel jumps forward a decade or two, and focuses on a different set of characters (though Owen and Noriko eventually reappear). These are young people (20ish) from around the world who have been chosen for a sort of junior diplomatic corps (actually, their mission will be to provide diplomatic representation for Earth to the other planets, only they don’t know this yet). Owen and the other passing-for-human extraterrestrials are trying to manage the gradual entry of Earth into galactic society. But it turns out that the Earth is already being exploited, in a covert but clearly neo-colonialist sort of way, by capitalist cartels from one of the two habitable planets of the star Vega. A covert war is going on throughout Earth. Eventually this bursts into the open, and the entire population of the Earth suddenly receives the unexpected message that they are not alone in the galaxy. All hell breaks loose, but the more benevolent people from non-Earth planets do their best to manage the situation.
In describing the plot in this way, I am not doing a good job of conveying the mood or affect of the novel. Part of its brilliance in my eyes is the way it juggles different levels of action. The Blue Beautiful World is a First Contact novel, but it remains focused on individual characters who are affected in their personal, private lives by the grand events, without quite being actors in them. Actually, that is not quite a correct description either, since Owen is centrally involved in the grand politics and economics of the novel, and the young people in the latter part of the book also find themselves centrally involved with those politics. But the book mostly gives us the ways in which these grand events are not depicted in themselves, but make themselves known through the ways they filter into, and affect, the everyday lives of people. The novel is very canny and creative in the ways it fluctuates between backgrounds and foregrounds, mutating each into the other in various ways. I know what happens in terms of the plot, but the shifts and different interiorities are so subtly blended together that I find it hard to qualify the novel tonally — and this is a big part of why I find it so wonderful.
There are a number of other aspects of the book that need mentioning here as well, ranging from discussions of cuisine and clothing, to a subplot involving an intelligence deep in the Earth’s oceans that is willing to negotiate with us, the surface dwellers, but remains wary of being victimized by human exploitation in the way many human beings have been by the British and other empires. Also, there is something about the texture of the novel that I find it difficult to convey: some chapters are quite meditative, while in others events spiral and multiply frantically, and yet it all seems to hang together.
Karen Lord is from Barbados — and I saw a reading/inteview with her, over Zoom, where she talks about the positionality of being from a largely Black small island country that is nonetheless connected to other parts of the world in all sorts of ways. It is both isolated, and a kind of international crossroads. And it is part of the Commonwealth, which both benefits them economically and reminds them of the British colonial subjugation and exploitation from which they have historically suffered. Lord emphasized that she sees her work as not just science fiction or speculative fiction but also as “sociological fiction”, referring here to C. Wright Mills’ notion of “the sociological imagination” — which for Lord translates into equal consideration of “the personal concerns of the characters, the public issues of their community, and the historical context that has produced both the community and the characters.” Lord also cited the idea of what Brian Aldiss called “cozy catastrophe”, meaning apocalyptic stories that nonetheless provide comfort for their middle-class bourgeois readers. Lord said that she wanted to address issues of great scope, including the most horrific ones, and yet still provide the reader with a certain “cozy” sense nonetheless.
Lord’s general comments seem to me to apply quite well to the way that The Blue Beautiful World — like her previous science fiction novels — is as shifting and as subtle as it is in its movements and especially in its continually modulating tonalities. Coming out of this novel, I had a strange lingering sense that something important had really happened, but that it would take me a while to sort it all out and to get a sense of just what it was that moved and affected me.