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Karen Lord Interview – 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festival

Karen LordKaren Lord is an exciting writer of speculative fiction from Barbados. Her novel The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013) is a powerful science fiction novel that explores two people in the aftermath of a planetary genocide. Its follow up The Galaxy Game (2015) is out now from Jo Fletcher Books. Her debut novel Redemption in Indigo (2010) is a fantasy that draws on Senegalese folklore, and won both the Mythopoeic Award and the Kitschies Golden Tentacle.

Karen Lord was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and kindly agreed to speak to Fantasy-Faction while she was there.

Your new book The Galaxy Game is out now with Jo Fletcher books, and is the follow up to The Best of All Possible Worlds. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?

Okay. It’s a little bit of a departure. Because I think every book I write is a little bit different. And you’re kind of nodding already! So instead of being an intimate first person you know, this is more or less, just more about us, it’s a broader look at the galaxy and some of the ramifications of what happens when you have a power vacuum when the Sadiri disappear. Which is something I’ve been ramping up to for a while. There are some critics who argue, you know, what a benign and cheerful example of genocide. It’s like yeah, just you guys wait. Things have to take a little while to bubble over, and that’s what happens in The Galaxy Game, we begin to see where some of the cracks are and where some of the things start to disintegrate a bit.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is in the aftermath of the genocide of the Sadiri, but not looking at it directly. Was that an intentional choice when you set out to write it?

The Best of All Possible Worlds (cover)It’s an intentional choice, but specifically because I think that disasters of that nature are both deeply personal and very wide ranging. So, if you look at it almost from a Hollywood perspective, someone is going to go out with their guns blazing and try to get their revenge. Which is a story, but it’s certainly not the only story. Sometimes when you have something that traumatic happen, the first instinct is survival, is stability, is finding your feet again. And that was the kind of story that I wanted to tell.

And things also happen with artificial speed sometimes in genre books and definitely in movies, and I know that when it comes to collapse of empire it can be actually a very slow and painful and tortuous process. We don’t change course very quickly. And it was nice to have a book where the first thing was about the individuals trying to find stability, and then the next book being more about well, ‘okay, what does the galaxy do when they’re trying to find stability and all the things are off kilter?’

I was really interested in the controlling element that comes through in The Best of All Possible Worlds with the father controlling the kids, and in The Galaxy Game it’s the son, so is that something that’s going to be explored more in this book?

It’s going to be explored more, but I don’t want you to lean on it too heavily in case there’s less of it than you hope, but it does inform where he starts from. And it informs his character a lot, because he’s terrified of becoming like his father. And that really puts a certain level of restriction on some of his choices, and even opens up some other choices for that matter.

But one of the things I found fascinating about this and maybe where I might have tussled a bit with marketers is, they thought it was a story about him. And I was like no, this is about the galaxy, he’s an observer. He’s not an actor, he’s part of the plot, he’s part of the particles being pushed around in Brownian motion by various forces that are beyond his control. I don’t think they quite liked that and they wanted it almost as a YA type thing, I was like, I told you I was not giving you this. So that’s why I’m hesitant to say to you, because I don’t want you to have that focus on him. But it does become very crucial to who he becomes later on, in ways you may not expect.

Both novels look at colonialism and the fallout from Empire and all these people being displaced. Was this something specifically you wanted to explore in these books?

The Galaxy Game (cover)I did, because Cygnus Beta is in a way the West Indies. And in our own history we do deal with the whole shifts of power and shifts of spheres of influence. I know what it’s like to be in a region where first you’re looking towards London, and that’s in terms of your culture and your education and everything, and then you start looking towards your neighbours, you start saying maybe it’s time for people to have Spanish as a second language, and central and south America are going to be our natural partners and so forth. So, doing that but on a galactic scale was something I especially wanted to examine.

And I especially wanted to examine it from the point of view of breaking this SF trope of monolithic galactic societies and the baddies being so clearly identified, and the good guys all very clearly on this side. I understand the narrative reasons for it, but there’s a laziness to that that I think is not necessarily beneficial to us in terms of how we form our thinking of world peoples. So, it entertained me to look at Cygnus Beta and make it a group of different cultures all together, and it fascinated me to look at The Galaxy Game and to extend that because Cygnus Beta was easy, they were still Earth cultures.

Galaxy Game stretched me, because it was like, these are not Terran cultures. One of the societies is actually an oral society that has reached a high level of technology. And that looks very different. So, you have something like the internet, but it’s completely based by voice. So yes, you have a situation where you want something like the internet, what does it look like. It’s totally vocally based, it’s like radio channels, people’s brains hook up so they can listen to more and more conversations at the same time and understand what’s happening at both. So, stuff like that where you’ve got to stretch your understanding of understanding, and that was both painful and joyful for me.

The oral tradition crops up in Redemption in Indigo, which has such a strong narrative voice when you read it, and has these links through to Senegalese folklore. Was that something that you were interested in exploring when you wrote it?

Redemption In Indigo (cover)I do want to point out that although it is the West African folk tale in origin, it’s the West African folk tale as filtered through the western ethnographer. So, I was conscious what I was doing, and I do correct people that, this is not me being the voice for West African literature here, this is me creating a kind of a version of an alternate continental Caribbean, and working with that. But what I will say is, when you talk about the voice, that is Caribbean literature.

Caribbean literature does have an oral tradition, does have a strong voice, you will often find that very distinctive voice in any kind of author you look at. And even when I’m thinking I’m not doing it, I do it. And I recognise it’s just part of the environment that I’m just absorbing, that I’m constantly in. So, I guess I just try and make it work for me.

What’s next for Karen Lord?

I’m supposed to be working on the sequel to Redemption in Indigo, that should be out next year. I continue working on the Tremontaine team, the serial fiction, and we should be launching in September or thereabouts, so that’s the final season, so get it while it’s hot!

Thank you, Karen Lord, for speaking with us! You can learn more about her many works on her website or follow her on Twitter!

Title image by Adrian Charles.

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