I can't quite believe I'm writing these words, but, here I go: for issue 6 of Holdfast, we are more than thrilled to bring you an interview with the absolutely amazing Lois McMaster Bujold, author of the Vorkosigan Saga.
If you haven't read the Vorkosigan Saga, I can't recommend the books enough. Focusing mostly on the life of Miles Vorkosigan, a hyperactive, intelligent and daring man with ties to his planet's elite, they are humorous, thrilling, touching, and brilliantly plotted. The saga begins with his parents' meet-cute, deals with his difficult younger years post-military academy (Miles' mother Cordelia's pregnancy was complicated by a poison gas attack, leading to Miles developing very brittle bones and a short stature), and continues into his thirties. With 20 novels and novellas in the series, and a new one due next year, I talked to Lois about how she feels about its popularity and achievements.
"Well, I started out with the hope of making a living, so I was certainly envisioning some minimum degree of success. It actually took the better part of a decade to get from the cold start to that point, where I could be self-supporting and support my family without having to take on a third job. Not knowing how much it would take, I gave it everything I had. Might have been overkill...’
Lucy talks to the author of the Vorkosigan Saga about her career, the development of the series, and the politics of its universe, from interplanetary warfare to feminist body politics.
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One of the things I love most about the books is the growth of all the characters and their relationships – watching the development of Miles from hyperactive teen into his more responsible adult years is fascinating. I asked Lois how much of this she had planned from the start.
"In my first book, Shards of Honor, all my attention was on writing my way to the end of it. (Which I overshot, but I was later able to recycle the excess into the start of Barrayar). I had, after all, never written a novel before, and was learning by doing. The second book was The Warrior’s Apprentice, which grew rather directly out of Shards. As nothing had yet sold, I tried to make the third book, Ethan of Athos, a potential stand-alone. By the time I got to my fourth book, Falling Free, I had captured my publisher, along with a clearer direction for going on with. There followed the first novella, “The Borders of Infinity”, then Brothers in Arms, at which point the idea of a series centering on Miles had taken shape. By that time I was aware, by experience, that each book changed the potential of every book following it, so I kept my planning loose, to take advantage of Better Ideas as they came along."
Miles' parents are from two very different worlds. His father Aral is Barrayan, and an important military commander and politician. Cordelia, his explorer/scientist/spaceship captain mother, is from the far more liberal Beta Colony, a technologically superior planet famed for its sex positive attitudes. Barrayar seems rather backwards in comparison – women can't join the military or inherit titles for example. I wondered if Lois developed these wildly contrasting societies side-by-side.
"Beta Colony, and an initial sketch of the Nexus background and history, actually came first, as background to a novelette I wrote just before starting Shards. So I had that bit pre-fab as a place for Cordelia and her ship to be from. Barrayar started with Aral, and grew from him and around him. (Insert metaphors about grains of sand and pearls ad lib.) Here was this guy, standing boots in the mud; what must have existed, both immediately and as deeper background, to produce him, there, in that condition? So the characters and their worlds developed together, transactionally, as they and their plot traveled through time, with the finer details of the setting built around them as they went. By the time I finished Shards of Honor, I knew a great deal more about it all than when I’d started. Which is rather the point of writing a book, for me; it teaches me things I didn’t know before."
Cordelia moves to Barrayar to be with Aral, often finding life on the more conservative planet difficult (one of her favourite swear words is simply: "Barrayarans"). She is frustrated by the lack of female-friendly technology that Beta Colonists have long used, including reproducing using replicators and laser-cutting a girl's hymen painlessly so that she is able to enjoy sex the first time that she has it. I asked Lois what inspired her to include feminist body politics in the books.
"However many years I’d had of life as a woman, I suppose; run through a science fictional version of, 'There has to be a better way than this! What if...' It also seemed to me that women’s lives, and especially their reproductive lives, were largely ignored by the SF I’d grown up reading. Women taking on "men's" roles, as they were thought of back then, sure; women grappling with that core biological task, not so much. If one wants to be visible as a writer, go dance where the crowd isn’t. I also had long-running interests in the biological sciences and medicine– from school, from my work and observations as a tech in hospital patient care, and as a science fan and popular-science reader.
In the department of SF as metaphor for our times, there are also the overt and covert changes in our society stemming pretty directly from changes in our own reproductive technologies. The Pill is obvious; I think the effect of DNA paternity-testing, as it renders obsolete a whole lot of ancient programs built into the male psyche, will happen more stealthily, but just as profoundly. Advances in OB-GYN have had a huge impact on women – not noticed by males who are not intimately involved with women, but also big for those who are – not just in reducing maternal mortality and morbidity, but in sustaining that cadre of women who would in prior times have died in their 40s and 50s from assorted female cancers, etc. (I would have been one of those, as would my own mother, who instead lived to 91.) An old SF trope was about the increasing of human lifespans; for my gender, that future is here. Now we have to figure out what to do with it."
"It...seemed to me that women's lives and especially their reproductive lives, were largely ignored by the SF I'd grown up reading.
Barrayar seems such an old-fashioned planet because it went through the Time of Isolation; shortly after settlement, its nearby wormhole collapsed, leaving it unable to communicate with other planets. So, it is not a democratic planet but rather a highly-militarised one, led by the Emperor Gregor (one of the nicest, least dictator-y regents ever) and his Council of Counts. The social elite are the Vor, a military caste. I asked Lois how much of this socio-political system she had planned when she began the books.
"I developed it all gradually, as I went along and as each book required. All those many years of thought did accumulate to a nice world-building density in due course. Over time, it grew apparent to me that Barrayar was functioning, among other things, as a metaphor for the 20th century. I was, of course, also having fun with the old "lost colony" SF trope, and working out how one could logically have lords 'n swords in space. I was also much inspired by Meiji Japan, another place where the future broke in from the outside and changed everything will or nil. The Vor have more roots in the samurai class than in European nobility.
At the time and place I grew up, there were still bits of the 19th century lying around; the future doesn’t happen all at once."
Barrayar becomes more liberal in just Miles’ lifetime, signified by the lessening reactions from other Barrayans he receives about his disabilities as he ages. I asked Lois about how she sees politics progressing further, and if she thinks a Countess will ever sit on the Council.
"Well, there’s Dono... [In A Civil Campaign, Lady Donna Vorrutyer gets a sex change on Beta Colony in order to claim an inherited title] Yes, Barrayar can’t help but grow and change, and will continue to do so, in its own fits and starts. To a huge extent, technology creates culture, enlarging the ambit of the possible. As tech and wealth penetrate both across Barrayar’s inhospitable geography, and down through its social classes, everything else will change to accommodate it. The names and forms may linger, but what’s underneath will alter out of all recognition. A certain cadre of my fans is pumping for violent political revolution, to sweep out everything that makes Barrayar itself and turn it into a replica of our own modernity. I think this misses the point."
One of the central themes in the Saga is that of colonialism. Once its nearby wormhole was re-opened, Barrayar was violently occupied by the Cetagandans. After years of guerilla warfare, the Cetagandans retreated, but the Barrayans, furious with their wormhole neighbour Komarr for allowing the Cetagandans to pass through, invade Komarr. Miles' generation must deal with the resulting tension, and Miles more than anyone, often receives the brunt – his father Aral's nickname, although an undeserved one, is the 'Butcher of Komarr'. Lois discusses how colonialism came to be part of the Saga:
"I don’t start with an agenda or a point to prove; I set characters in motion in their settings, and see what happens. Aral’s initial situation has more oblique sources in my experiences watching America’s disastrous involvement in the Viet Nam war than with anything more direct. There is also a little of that, flipped around, in his father Piotr’s prior generation’s experience with throwing off a technologically superior invader. What goes around, comes around; the Barrayaran invasion of Komarr had its traumatic roots in the Cetagandan invasion of Barrayar much as WWII had its roots in WWI."
The SF I grew up reading mostly left religion out, with some notable exceptions...partly it was, I suspect, an effect of science taking over from religion the task of explaining the world, making religion seem obsolete.
On the whole, most societies seen in the Saga's universe don’t seem that religious. The hair-burning memorials of Barrayar are the main religious aspect that we see, but they seem closer to ancestor worship than anything else. I asked Lois if she thought that the lack of religion was anything to do with technological progression – eg the availability of cryofreezing in this universe.
"The SF I grew up reading mostly left religion out, with some notable exceptions. Partly this was safe marketing; partly it was, I suspect, an effect of science taking over from religion the task of explaining the world, making religion seem obsolete. (It is still unclear if science can take over tasks of moral guidance and do any better. Or worse.) Since Miles’s universe is putatively a descendant of our own, extrapolating this trend seems more default than decision. The books also present the world filtered through Miles’s mind, and, when he isn’t in a foxhole, he’s a pretty agnostic sort of fellow.
There are plenty of religions still around in the Nexus – Athos is a major case in point, being a theocracy of sorts. So I don’t imagine them as having all gone away. But when I want to deal closely with religion, I switch to fantasy worlds, where I can know the gods are real."
Lois is referring to the other series for which she is famous, the Chalion series, set in the World of the Five Gods. She has a new novella in this series, "Penric's Demon", due out as an e-publication later this summer. Check out her Goodreads blog, where she'll be posting the opening scene soon!
I plan on re-reading all the Vorkosigan Saga by February 2016, when a new book in the series is due to be published by Baen: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Join me! Whether it's your first time or your third time like me, you won't regret spending time in this marvelous universe.