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."
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."
The series book she's just finishing will continue the arc of Miles's romance, while cracking a fresh can of plots. Minor characters encouraged the bulk of the new ideas, Bujold says. As a consequence, she has complicated Miles's narrative dominance still further. She will write from the viewpoints of five characters in A Civil Campaign: Miles, Ekaterin, Miles's cousin Ivan, Mark, and Mark's amour Kareen. "The plots all cross one another, and everybody ends up solving each other's problems," Bujold notes. "It's good fun, but, structurally, difficult and complex." She makes a sour face, and laughs. "It's like wrestling pythons."
Bujold has discovered that, if she wants to finish a book a year--as her fiscal needs demand--she must follow what she calls a "big" or challenging novel with a frothier one. So next she'll take a break and write something light and outside the series like her 1992 fantasy novel The Spirit Ring. (Her other two nonseries novels take place within the Barrayar universe but do not feature Miles; one, Falling Free, won a Nebula, the SF writer peer award.)
"I've got to refill my back brain!" Bujold vows. "Really," she continues, with a wry smile, "it's about me digesting my experiences growing up and growing up and growing up, as you keep doing. They don't tell you it doesn't stop at 20."