Space opera, science fiction's most popular and often cheesiest subgenre--that is, the strain that encompasses the Star Trek franchise--prefers its heroes in the Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk mold: Whether eager boys or competent men, they tend to come strong, skilled, and Caucasian. Since the '60s, the odd female and/or brown-skinned character has grabbed the controls of the spaceship: leading raids, arranging truces between warring planets, going undercover to thwart some dastardly plot. Writers Emma Bull and Joan Vinge have meanwhile destabilized the white male champion by fashioning him as a biological time-bomb and a scorned half-breed, respectively. But perhaps no SF author has crippled that heroic prototype so ruthlessly and winningly as Edina author Lois McMaster Bujold with her Miles Vorkosigan series, now at 12 books and counting.
Because of a poison-gas bomb pitched at his mother during her pregnancy, Lord Miles Vorkosigan grew up with extremely brittle bones, a bowed spine, and a child-sized stature. On his home planet, Barrayar (pronounced "barrier"), he is often mistaken for a "mutie"--a genetic defective traditionally destroyed at birth. Based on Miles's physical vulnerability, his sensitivity, and the discrimination he has faced, some readers have typed him as a female in drag. His creator wouldn't disagree. However, as Bujold stresses precisely, over tea in her spare, white living room, "he has a lot of other qualities that are assigned to the masculine in our culture: his assertiveness, a sense of his own innate superiority." Miles, in other words, doesn't represent simple gender switching, nor merely a parody, deconstruction, or reflection of the space hero: He is all those things and he is more. Far from the comfortable constancy of so many SF heroes, it's Miles's expanding inner universe that keeps fans on his trail.
Well-spoken and widely read, Bujold is game to critique her protagonist sideways till Sunday--and with another breezy and brainy Miles novel, Komarr, published this fall, there are fresh psychological developments to dissect. Still, in significant ways, the man who has so altered the 49-year-old author's life remains a mystery to her as well. Back in 1982, Bujold was a housewife with two small children, living on a quiet street in a small Ohio town. Raised in Columbus, she'd picked up her father's SF habit early and penned reams of detective and space stories as an adolescent. This pale, big-boned woman was deep in what she calls the "lacuna" of family care when a childhood buddy started writing SF stories and sending them to her. With that friend, Lillian Stewart Carl, and chancefully met Minneapolis author Patricia Wrede as her far-flung writing group, Bujold developed Miles's parents in her debut novel, Shards of Honor, and then the conflicted man himself in Warrior's Apprentice (both finally published in 1986 by Baen, which continues to put out her work today).
As soon as she had Miles up, he was running--away from his protected life as an heir within the Vor aristocracy on Barrayar, and outside the suffocating realm of his career army father, whose wartime feats had won him the position of Imperial Regent. Barred from the military for his physical handicaps, Miles escapes all with the invention of a foxy alter ego, Adm. Naismith. Pretending to be an independent adventurer in the Han Solo mode, he leads a merry band of mercenaries in and out of wormholes, danger, and death through brilliant strategy. His manic Peter Pan energy even attracts a variety of women--comrades and enemies both--who will overlook, even cherish, the misshapen body that Naismith too must wear. Miles's Free Dendarii Mercenaries eventually hook up with Barrayar's "covert ops"; without that sheen of purpose, Bujold points out, they'd be little more than rented thugs. And, yes, the moral ambivalence of the Dendarii missions--and Miles's frustrated attempts to become a Great Soldier without a Great War--do recall recent American history.
"I grew up in the '50s, where we watched Combat every week," explains Bujold, in her rather arch professorial drawl. "We replayed the battle of Normandy for six years. There was that whole post-World War II 'war is good' period, which is partly why we got into Vietnam. That was going on in my youth as well--generally during dinner, as we watched the news. Burned peas and body counts will be forever associated for me."
The Barrayar books have been praised, and justly so, for depicting the brutal cost of battle (more fallout, no doubt, from dinner hours accompanied by Vietnam, the first war to be telecast in all its carnage). Part of that cost, Bujold has emphasized, is Barrayar's sternly sexist war culture. But it's just as true that the series--up until the latest novels--thrived on the thrill and precision of its military maneuvers. Which is an odd tactic for a feminist writer.
"Looking back over the hump of Vietnam to what [came] before," Bujold remembers, "it seemed to me there was a lot of good in military themes that had been lost in the hideous shuffle. I wanted to touch back on the virtues: a sense of honor; patriotism; subordinating yourself to a group effort to do something that one person couldn't do alone; discipline. Without losing sight of the fact that good virtues in service of bad goals don't add up to a win. Now we've come out of that phase." Bujold smiles thinly. "We're back to not needing that as part of our public discourse."