Fiction Reviews

The Blue, Beautiful World

(2023) Karen Lord, Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 249pp, ISBN 978-1-399-61886-1


This is a first contact story and as such I found the subject and some of the story ideas interesting. However, whilst the writing was good, the story telling was very slow and flat. It did not have any pace with which to grab me and it was one of those books that was far too easy to put down, even on a rainy day (and it really was a rainy day).

It is set sometime in the future though we are not told when; maybe a hundred or two years, perhaps more. Climate change has affected the world, resulting in new countries and different political structures, and major international organisations have relocated, for example from Geneva to Nairobi. The world is heading towards a Global Government and Global Law. Rather than explaining all the differences, something which some writers would labour at, the author has perhaps wisely mostly ignored them and the story could almost have been set pretty much today were it not for the occasional mentions of cities building themselves protective domes and building large seawalls for countries such as the Netherlands and ancient cities such as New York. Similarly technology is rarely mentioned other than the transport portals used by the aliens and the VR (virtual reality) equipment which has become ubiquitous (think of Zoom with exquisite 3D detail, so realistic that the people on the screens and large displays are as if they were sitting next to you, with offices designed to enhance the illusion, so natural that everyone effortlessly communicates through VR if distance is the slightest object). This lack of detail on the climatic and technology changes is not a problem; we do not need to know about such things, we are there to follow the story.

It opens as we join Owen, an extremely popular pop megastar, as he and his entourage travel on another long, exhausting tour of large, sell-out concerts. We learn through Noriko, his manager, that Owen has long term plans; he buys football clubs and other organisations that will provide him with income when his musical career fades. Later we learn that Owen’s motivations are much wider; he is really buying such organisations with the intent of fostering co-operation both amongst their members and with other organisations, his very long-term plan being to foster a natural spirit of co-operation between everyone worldwide. However, the storytelling is very slow and it takes a long time for the story to unfold; the page count is in the mid-40s before anything of much note happens (apart from a car being forced off the road, and even then we are not sure why), and is into the mid-60s before we start to get even near the nitty-gritty of what is going on. It slowly becomes apparent that many of the characters we have met so far are aliens; human-looking people (sometimes with human ancestry) who are not of this Earth.

We come to learn that there are a number of civilisations in different star systems, all under the banner of the Galactic Council and policed by the Galactic Gendarmerie. Aliens have been on the planet for a couple of centuries or so and the Earth is under an embargo not to be exploited but to be allowed to develop so that it may become the newest member of the Galactic Council, once it has become a united world. Owen and his team (many of whom are from Cygnus Beta) are part of that plan but there are others who do not have such good intentions, such as the infiltrators from Alpha Lyrae who have been slowly corrupting governments and large organisations round the world for their own profit. Unsurprisingly, as Owen and the Galactic Gendarmerie confront the infiltrators, a battle commences and soon the people of Earth realise that they are not alone, that the Galactic Council is out there. Earth had better get its act together but, with the help from Owen and his team, that task will at least be easier than it might otherwise have been.

So far this sounds good, certainly there were some good ideas, but one problem I had throughout was that the storytelling was so slow that I wondered if it would ever get anywhere (and in a way it never did). Another problem was that the characters were merely names on which to hang speech. The story is told mostly in the conversations between its many characters, at times augmented by descriptions of places and events, but all the main action occurs off-page. Even when we see characters about to undertake something interesting we do not follow them, we merely learn afterwards of what happened through their later conversations. This detached approach, with its lack of action that the reader can get involved with, results in the story lacking any impetus; there is no fire to encourage the reading of just a few more pages before turning out the light. I persevered to the end of the story and, overall, was fairly glad I had, though it never got in the slightest bit exciting. Nor did it go into any detail of how the first contact scenario worked out, which was quite a significant let-down. What I did learn was that ultimately the story was more about Owen than anything else, even though he was only one of the many players in the storyline. Come the end of the book, I cannot say I found the story particularly satisfying.

The story arc proved to be in two parts; first we met Owen, etc., and then eleven years later Earth learned of the aliens. Strangely, instead of the book being in two parts as you might expect, the time change is accomplished only by the italicised line ‘Eleven years later’ between two paragraphs, as if this jump forward was hardly worthy of mention. Weird.

There are many characters, some of whom just come and go as required and are never heard of again, and I found them difficult to differentiate between; after a while I found myself loosing track of who was who or why. There was no table of contents at the beginning of the book so it was only when I reached the end that I found a seven-page guide to the alien planets and the more important characters, though even if I had known it was there it was slight and would not have helped much. It did, though explain a couple of things. I was confused between Tarik and Tareq - was I getting the spelling wrong? - no, they are father and children; yes - children. I was confused that sometimes Tareq was ‘he’ and sometimes ‘she’ but it transpired that the name was more of a description for which ever of the twins, Kirat and his sister Siha, was currently ‘on duty’. That they are also referred to as Kirat and Siha in some places only added to the confusion. And they were not the only ones to have more than one name, a public one and a family one, which added more confusion. If you were a member of their family then you would know these things but as a reader, given the way the story is written, you do not.

The list is titled ‘The People and Places of the Cygnus Beta Series’ and thus it was that I discovered that this is the third in a series, or at least a collection, of books; it is preceded by The Best of all Possible Worlds and The Galaxy Game. There was no mention of the series elsewhere (such as in the cover blurb or the on the title page) and even the ‘About The Author’ at the end fails to mention the link between the three books. Perhaps if I had read these books first I would have understood more of what this one was about? Even so, I am not sure that this book had a storyline that resolved, being more in the way of meandering to somewhere other than where you thought it was going.

The final page tells us that the typeface is Fairfield and a little about its designer, though why this is in any way relevant is not mentioned. Again, weird.

The Guardian is quoted on the dust jacket as saying that ‘Lord is on a par with Ursula K. Le Guin’. Their words, certainly not mine.

Peter Tyers


[Up: Fiction Reviews Index | SF Author: Website Links | Home Page: Concatenation]

[One Page Futures Short Stories | Recent Site Additions | Most Recent Seasonal Science Fiction News]

[Updated: 24.1.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]