I was slow to discover works of Lois McMaster Bujold. For decades, I believed her marketing, and dismissed her books as space opera or military SF. However, thanks to Jo Walton’s blog on the pleasures of re-reading, which devotes several entries to Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, I was persuaded to look beyond the covers. Consequently, the fifteen or so books in the series have formed the major part of my fiction reading in the last month, and I find myself wanting to whimper impatiently as I wait for more.
Bujold’s marketing does her no favors, because her stories of Miles Vorkosigan bear the same relation to standard space opera as John Le Carre’s novels do to the average spy thriller. You won’t find long, lovingly detailed accounts in her novels of ship to ship combat in deep space, or, in fact, very many short ones. In fact, many of the battles take place off-stage. You won’t even find that many descriptions of hand-to-hand combat, since a pre-natal poisoning has left Miles stunted and with brittle leg and arm bones. Miles does pass through the inevitable military academy, but only a small part of those years is ever narrated. Far from the usual war-porn, many novels in the series are better described as mysteries, or perhaps as thrillers.
At one point, Bujold does offer an info dump on the changing military technologies in her universe, but, more often, her concerns are the sociological effects of technology. Falling Free, for example, is about what happens when humans engineered for construction in space suddenly find themselves obsolete. Similarly, an important element in many of the novels in the series is the effect of the uterine replicators that free women from the necessity of childbirth.
In general, too, Bujold shows an acceptance of diversity that contrasts with the conservatism of modern space opera. Her Beta Colony is cosmopolitan and liberal, her Jackson’s Whole Libertarian, and her Cetaganda baroquely hierarchal. If Mile’s home planet Barrayar is still emerging from patriarchy and remains a monarchy, these traits are not depicted with any approval, but provide an opportunity for character and social dilemmas – as well, of course, as inviting a comparison with our own culture.
However, while Bujold’s attitudes are refreshing, they are only part of her appeal. A good deal of Bujold’s appeal is her characters: Miles’ mother Cordelia, a Betan who marries the man she defeats in the first book of the series; his father Aral, leader of the Barrayar progressives and a regent who confounds expectations by giving up power; his emperor Gregor, who grows up thoughtful and humane; his cousin Ivan, born to privilege, but redeemed by his laziness and basic decency;; the genetically modified super-soldier Taura, whose fangs conceal a girlish heart, and a dozen more, all of whom are given a convincing inner complexity and their own voice. Bujold even manages to give Miles’ clone Mark a voice that is both reminiscent yet yet different from Miles’ own when he is the viewpoint character.
Then there is Miles himself, an over-achiever compensating for his deformities, by upbringing half an aristocratic Barrayaran and half a liberal Betan. Full of self-doubts, he still emerges as a leader like Lawrence of Arabia who inspires everyone around him to greater efforts than they could manage by themselves. So far during the course of the series, he has gone from the founder and leader of a mercenary fleet to an imperial troubleshooter invalided out of active service, and from a perpetual bachelor to a man in his early thirties forced very much against his will to slow down because of his injuries and find a new life as a husband and father. All the aspects of his personality are not on display at the same time, but overall, Miles emerges as one of the most complex and satisfyingly complete characters in science fiction.
Another important aspect of Bujold’s success is her writing ability. Cover blurbs frequently describe her as witty, and it is true that her characters often banter in a way reminiscent of Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey. Also, unless I am mistaken, Bujold often drops allusions to everything from Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the first meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers.
All the same, “wit” is not quite the word I would use to describe Bujold’s writing. At times, the comedy is broad as when the woman Miles loves is running away from a banquet at his ancestral home just as his parents return home and he introduces her with, “Mother, Father, let me introduce – she’s getting away!” Similarly, his cousin Ivan interrupts his vows during a marriage of convenience to ask his bride, “what did you say your name was again?”
More often, though, her writing has a wry, even facetious tone that an intelligent person might use to themselves when worried or self-doubting. For instance, here are Miles’ thoughts when he learns that another man has written poetry to the same woman who fled his banquet:
Good God, Enrique was writing poetry to her? Yes, and why hadn’t he thought of poetry? Besides the obvious reason of his absence of talent in that direction. He wondered if she’d like to read a really clever combat-drop mission plan, instead. Sonnets, damn. All he’d ever come up with in that line were limericks.
Obviously, Miles does not mean his thoughts literally. Yet, equally obviously, their not-quite successful lightness is an attempt to cope with the worries that the news causes him.
Bujold’s humor is responsible for the least typical yet strongest novel in the series, A Civil Campaign, which can best be described as a mixture of a Shakespearean comedy and a Georgette Heyer romance. In A Civil Campaign, Miles has fallen in love with a recently widowed woman. Reluctant to intrude on her grief, he decides to court her in secret, while telling everyone except the woman herself about his intentions. Needless to say, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, yet somehow all the plot strands resolve, and at the end, both Miles and the Emperor are both facing marriage. The book is a mixture of all Bujold’s styles of humor, and the only book in years that I have re-read within a couple of weeks of finishing it for the first time.
Having read the complete series to date, I am now embarrassed to have snubbed it for so long. But ignorance is its own punishment, and I can only reflect that my judgment of Bujold’s work by its marketing has deprived me of years of pleasure. Walton, I conclude, is entirely right: Bujold is a writer not only worth reading, but re-reading as well.
I can hardly wait.