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The Worst of All Possible Worlds

April 7, 2021

As an almost life-long fan of Candide (first the musical and then the satire by Voltaire), how could I resist the third book in Alex White’s series, The Worst of All Possible Worlds? Following on from A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy and A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, the action in The Worst of All Possible Worlds begins with one of the main characters already dead and the others demoralized and injured.

The Captain, Cordell, says “We’re lucky to be alive. None of us are capable of running marathons.” But then “I am,” said Nilah and “Me too” said Orna. Turns out they’re not too demoralized to try saving the universe again. They’re still chasing down the six gods of the Harrow, but now they’re learning more about their god-like powers and how they can combine to form “alchemy.” And by the way they discover the secrets and finally the location of a planet called Origin.

The dialogue, as ever, is one of the delights of this book. When Nilah realizes that “I missed my chance because of my sodding pride,” she and Boots have this exchange:
“Teacup’s code was rubbish, and Orna’s code—”
“Is much better, but you won’t use it,” said Boots. “I’ve already heard this part of the story from Orna.”
“You talk to Orna about me?”
“Kid, you’re on a marauder. There are like seven people to talk to. You know her code is better than yours, so why not use it?”
“Because I wanted my baby to be bespoke in every way.”
Boots shrugged. “Now you know your best isn’t good enough, and you can get over yourself.”
“Cheeky!”
“You’ll live. Borrow Orna’s code and move on. Can’t get wound up in little crap like that if you want results.”
“You’re the worst therapist I’ve ever seen.”
“Ask yourself,” said Boots, “what’s more important, the purity of every module of your code, or Harriet Fulsom’s head? You don’t have to be the best at everything, blah blah tough love.”

Another of my favorite parts of dialogue comes when they’re arming themselves:
“I’m not trying to be critical, love,” Nilah began, touching Boot’s arm as she picked up a long-barrelled, high-caliber slinger, “but have you considered something less…precise?”
“Oh, come on. I’m not that bad of a shot.”
“You absolutely are,” said Cordell, striding past to fetch a pair of pistols and an assault slinger. “Remember when you shot me in the Battle of the Harrow?”
“Okay, fine.” Boots picked up her own assault slinger. “Where are the scattershot rounds?”
“If I may,” said Orna, bringing over a weatherproof case and popping it open to reveal a vast array of golden casings with swirling, smoky tips. She affected a luxurious Taitutian accent as she said, “This particular hand-crafted model has notes of flashlight and incineration, with a strong disintegration finish. It pairs nicely with small organic targets like flesh vines and cultists. And, of course, it’s this year’s vintage, made by yours truly on this very vessel.”
“Not a bad pitch,” said Nilah.
“I’m the sommelier of slaying,” said Orna.

For extra fun, some of the bad guys, who call themselves Conservators, are necromancers, as “when a Conservator perishes, their essence travels to the next person in their genetic line.” And there’s some real-world resonance when the crew sees a news ticker that reads “AIOR UNDER SIEGE BY UNKNOWN FORCES” and this conversation ensues:
“They’re not ‘unknown,’” said Boots, plopping down into her chair. “We know exactly who they are.”
“They’re trying to avoid generalized panic,” said Malik. “If the galaxy was aware…”
“Sir,” said Boots, “I’m ninety-nine percent sure that they should’ve been shouting about Witts from the rooftops at every opportunity. What good does sheltering the public from existential threats do?”
“Makes me wonder how often the government faces something like this—galactic extinction,” said Cordell, kicking his boots up onto the table. “How many other stories are they keeping from us?”

The fun of the dialogue comes from the real sympathy readers feel for the characters, who keep getting knocked down and then getting back up again. At one point, when they meet an old man who let his employees leave a losing fight and go home, he says:
“Those with young children took the deal, mostly.”
“I remember,” said Boots. “At the end, maintenance techs got real rare, and we had to make our own repairs. It wasn’t the most popular decision.”
“And how did you feel, as a pilot?” he said.
“For a hot minute, I hated your guts, Mister Rook.”
“Call me Jackie. The best we can do is struggle in our time, Miss Elsworth,” said the old man, ushering them onward into the lounge. “When we put our pasts on trial, the only verdict is ‘guilty.’”
These characters live their belief that “justice isn’t something you expect. It’s something you effect.”

There are some very touching moments in unlikely situations, like when Cordell gets out of bed to officiate at Nilah and Orna’s wedding and when Boots tells her AI, Kin, that it’s okay that his virus keeps trying to kill her. Kin confesses:
“I can’t stop giving you bad advice, Lizzie. Potentially harmful advice that could cause you to have a shorter life expectancy.”
“Yeah. That’s what bodies do.”
“They try to make you kill yourself?”
“Hell, mine does. Stomach never wants to stop eating. Cordell’s brain always wants carcinogens. I’m guessing Orna constantly thirsts for blood.”

In the end, Boots, the most unlikely of heroes, saves the day because she has no magic, although she does get a moment when “she finally sensed the presence of magic like she had a cardioid and understood what everyone had been talking about the entire time.”

The end of the novel takes place on a planet that may be Earth and may well be the worst of all possible worlds, but what happens will make you think it’s a brave new universe that has such people in it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2021 11:59 am

    This sounds delightfully like an homage to The Hitchhiker’s Guide! I’m intrigued!

    • April 8, 2021 1:52 pm

      I’ve sometimes said that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is my favorite book of all (particularly The Restaurant at the End of the Universe), so I’d say there’s probably an element of homage, but the humor is quite different. There are stakes here, and less silliness for its own sake.

      • April 8, 2021 3:28 pm

        Ah, so less absurdist and less chaotic. I remember, by the end of Mostly Harmless, the story had gotten to a very “Existence Is Completely Random and Ultimately Pointless” place. I prefer to think the real ending is Arthur and Fenchurch riding scooters into the sunset.

  2. April 7, 2021 2:25 pm

    I am a great fan of Candide too. I should read this book. It sounds wonderful. You must have loved the part about necromancers. 😊

    • April 8, 2021 1:54 pm

      Candide, in all its variations, always delivers a particular kind of exaggerated humor, and there’s some of that in this book. I once saw a production at Arena Stage where, after the intermission, Pangloss led the company around the stage for a while as everyone was coming back to their seats. The blind leading the blind.
      I did love the part about necromancers, especially as it had the proper judgmental attitude.

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