Starchild

With her complicated hero, Miles Vorkosigan, Minnesota science-fiction writer Lois Bujold leads an expedition into inner space

Since 1994's Mirror Dance, the series has taken a sharp turn away from adrenaline-charged high jinks. Indeed, Mirror Dance and its successor Memory read like a slow-motion spaceship wreck, with the ship being one Miles Vorkosigan. He spends most of the former book dead (and frozen for possible revivification), while a genetic clone named Mark strolls the stage learning to love all the yucky aspects of his "not-Miles" self. In simplistic terms, Miles goes underground to find his shadow, a creature of reckless greed and gluttony, envy and lust. That confrontation leads to psychic integration in the aptly titled Memory. But Bujold has made Mark such a fascinating, forlorn creature that it's ridiculous to merely write him off as Miles's "dark side." There's not a more merciless--and yet ultimately forgiving--portrayal of the abused psyche in science fiction: Mark's experience makes Miles's struggles to mature look self-indulgent.

Which is OK with Bujold. Miles's genius certainly isn't meant to be foolproof. "One of the things that a series structure has let me do is make far, FAR more complex characterizations than you could do in a single book," the author enthuses. "Because I can go over material and rethink it. I can re-examine certain assumptions. I can take it one book further, think about it more deeply." Mirror Dance (1994), she reveals, was a second take on the themes of 1989's Brothers in Arms, just as 1991's Barrayar once again explored Miles's imposing mother Cordelia, introduced in Shards of Honor.

Although Bujold's books have been scoring SF awards from both fans and critics since 1988, her thematic "sequels" were double winners. They account for two of the four Hugo rocket statuettes (the SF community's most prestigious fan honor) mounted in Bujold's living room, and the two Locus (a magazine fan poll) awards in her china cabinet. Finally, Bujold says, Memory (1996) sorts through the whole ragbag of the series: organizes it, quilts it into a final pattern, sets it aside. Perhaps this self-taught writer needed to address old material with the benefit of maturing skills before she could let it go. Certainly she is a more incisive and subtle novelist than she was a decade ago.

But Memory also marks an end and a beginning of a more personal nature: In 1995, Bujold finally left Ohio, where she had divorced her husband in 1992, and moved to Minnesota with her son and daughter. Her continuing friendship with Wrede and other Minneapolis SF writers was a major draw, she notes. It's rather ironic, though, that she landed in the Great White North of Edina, given that one salient critique of her books is that she's eliminated any racial culture on Barrayar. (Difference only lurks off-planet.) Bujold responds to this observation a bit testily. "It's an observation, but I'm not sure there's anything I can or should do about it. This is the kind of life I know. With Miles, I am writing about, if you like, the problems of privilege, because I grew up within a privileged milieu, with educational opportunity and so on. All of which I bollixed up; privilege will not save you!" she cries cheerfully, as if to warn the neighbors.

This fall's release, Komarr, depicts Miles's first official adventure as one of Barrayar's Imperial Auditors, a body of detectives, diplomats, and engineers whose job it is to police the police. It also describes Miles's first sexual conquest, at least while going under the identity of Miles Vorkosigan. With his projected selves (Naismith, Mark) at last moving under his own skin, little Lord Vorkosigan is finally able to act with a full deck. (Of course, he does get these random seizures....) Rather than hype the myth of psychic wholeness, though, Bujold splits her narrative into two halves: Miles's point of view, and that of a woman, Ekaterin, the unhappy wife of an unhappy career diplomat. By turns painful and bubbly, Komarr reads like a space-age version of Dorothy Sayers's definitive romantic negotiation, the Lord Peter and Harriet Vane mystery Gaudy Night. Not surprisingly, Bujold is a fan, as evidenced in a flirty, sparkling scene between the two would-be lovers: "She stared wildly around the room, groping for some suitably neutral remark with which to retrieve her reserve. It was a space station: There was no weather. My, the vacuum is hard out today...."

Komarr also allows Bujold to enter the province of Vor women. Unlike the babes-with-blasters of the Dendarii, Ekaterin is a typical woman of her planet and class: Sheltered as a child, she married young, bore a child, and now makes a home for her husband wherever they land, without complaint. Bujold playfully combines the promise of futuristic technology with conservative customs--as if 1950s ladies had access to the Internet and "uterine replicators."

"This space-opera setting allows you to set up cultures as culture dishes," she says. "You can separate out all the ideas you want to look at, the qualities of our culture, onto all these planets. And do little thought experiments. It's sort of a laboratory of cultural comparison analysis."

Where Miles's maturation involved a consolidation of selves, Ekaterin's journey is about opening up, stretching out, and testing new ways of being. There's a hint here of the young mother, marooned with her babies in Marion, Ohio, gradually discovering a great universe of voices and stories within her own head. "A lot of bad-mouthing of series goes on because of things that are done badly," Bujold declares. "Like writing the same plot over and over and over and OVER. I've got a main character with a lot of psychological range. I keep increasing that range as I add more characters. I can do more than one kind of story and theme. And I've set up a very large and open-ended universe with a lot of elbow room."

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