Jan 18 2012 6:00pm

A Soldier Like My Mother. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan sagaThe military has traditionally been a male preserve, and military SF, coming from the traditions of military fiction, has tended the same way. There’s no reason an army of the future need be a male army, and there’s no reason honour and duty and loyalty are exclusively male virtues, but that’s the way things have tended to be.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is more than military science fiction, but it started off firmly within MilSF. It’s also solidly feminist and written from a female perspective, while being about all the things military SF is about. Bujold constantly holds these things in tension — masculine, military mad Barrayar against feminine social controlled Beta; the glory of war against the reality of messy death; duty and honor against expedience and compromise. It’s partly these tensions that make the series so compelling. You can have the fun and excitement of galactic mercenary adventures, with a matchless depth of thought and character development.

“You have the competence one would look for in a mother of warriors,” Aral says to Cordelia in Shards of Honor, the first book of the series. She’s military herself, she’s an astrocartographer and the commander of a Betan exploration ship, she is his prisoner and and he means it as a compliment. She replies: “Save me from that! To pour yourself into sons for eighteen or twenty years and then have the government take them away and waste them cleaning up after some failure of politics — no thanks.” This is central to what Bujold’s doing with showing the human cost of war. She’s just as good at the rest of it — the honour and the glory — but she never forgets or lets you forget that the lights blinking on the screens represent ships full of human lives, and every one of them with a mother.

In The Warrior’s Apprentice, crippled Miles washes out of military training, and complains about it to Elena, his bodyguard’s daughter. She points out that she never even had the opportunity to try. Elena ends up as a mercenary captain and then a commodore in charge of a space fleet — except that it isn’t how she ends, the last time we see her (in Memory, seven books later) she’s retiring from the military and going to settle down and have children. Bujold recognises that people change and grow and want different things at 30 than they did at 18.

In The Vor Game, General Metzov, who is more complicated than a villain, remarks that with modern technology a soldier is no better than a woman. Miles considers asking if that means that a woman can be as good a soldier with modern technology. The answer in the series is a resounding yes — we see some hand to hand combat and some boarding actions, but most fighting we see uses weapons where personal strength doesn’t matter at all.

Miles improvises control of a mercenary fleet, and another contrast in the series is the difference between service to something — to Barrayar, to the Emperor — and service for pay. “There are things you just don’t ask of mercenaries,” Tung says, of Elena leading a charge. The cost is in lives and medical bills — the mercenaries want to know about pension benefits and paid holidays. And in the Dendarii mercenaries we see men, women, and one Betan hermaphrodite, Bel Thorne, one of the most interesting characters in the series. Bel is the captain of its own ship — it prefers “it” as a pronoun. Bel is both masculine and feminine, and a perfect soldier.

Bel is a genetic hermaphrodite — and other Betan herms are mentioned, as well as the ungendered “bas” of Cetaganda. The other genetic oddity to feature centrally in the series is Sergeant Taura — part of a cancelled supersoldier project, eight feet tall and with fangs and claws. There’s a scene in Mirror Dance where she puts a bow around her neck to look less intimidating. She’s a sweetheart, except when she’s absolutely lethal. There are no men in the series described as anything like as intimidating as Taura. Mostly, weapons make everyone equal, but when they don’t, Taura is definitely going to win. We almost never see her fighting, and her romance, Winterfair Gifts is charming and sweet.

One of the things Bujold seems most interested in is the social implications of technological change. We see military technology changing throughout the series as one innovation makes another obsolete. But the thing that’s making the most difference to Barrayar is the uterine replicator — an artificial womb that frees women from undergoing pregnancy and childbirth. We see the planet of Athos, where with ovaries and replicators the men get along without any women at all — or any military either. Ethan of Athos is definitely not MilSF. But on Barrayar, first they had a pill that allowed them to choose the gender of their babies, which led to a male glut. Now they have the uterine replicator, all the women want to use it, and everything is changing. We see them as a plot point as far back as Shards of Honor, where they were used to return the results of the forced pregnancies of raped Escobaran soldiers — a very interesting moral dilemma. They are the first ones Barrayar has ever seen. By Memory they are changing society.

I’m really trying to talk about the series without spoilers, but almost anything I say about Elli Quinn is going to be a spoiler, or sadly incomplete. But she’s a mercenary we see her gravely injured, we see her working alone, we see her rising through the ranks, and we see her putting her job above her personal life. When she’s proposed to she asks where that leaves the future Admiral Quinn.

There would have been an easy thing for Bujold to do if she wanted to write feminist MilSF — to focus on Cordelia or Elena or Elli or Taura or Bel, and give us their kickass adventures across the galaxy. Instead, we get all of them, all these alternatives, and we get them as part of the complex life of the hyperactive Miles, himself torn by contraditions. Miles is a disabled supersoldier, a man who fails the entrance to military college and becomes a self appointed admiral. Because Miles can’t be physically kickass, we have a different kind of story. Miles is torn between his father’s instinctive loyalty and honour and his mother’s compassion and perception. Cordelia never quite believes in Barrayar, Aral can’t see past it, but Miles can, though he’s still completely caught up in it.

Bujold uses Miles and his overwhelming need to succeed as our way into truly complex issues. These are eminently readable fun books that can be enjoyed by a ten year old, and which still give you a lot to think about on multiple readings as an adult.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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Edward Brennan
1. Edward Brennan
I would say that the military has traditionally been the preserve of a certain sort of male. I love that Miles is lacking many of those manly virtues, I love that even Aral has a more complex sexuality than generally put forth in worlds of guns and glory.

Beta Colony is also not a utopia by any stretch of the imagination. However, in reading her books, I don't really get the impression that Bujold believes in Utopias. Bujolds societies always seem to rest on more human levels than cardboard heavens and hells. Even her villians generally are not just pure evil but have understandable motivations, and sometimes families.

I think Bujold does write feminist MilSF in the best tradition of feminism. One rooted in an empathy for people and the societies in which they live while striving for a world with more freedom and opprotunities for all people.
Edward Brennan
2. J Mccaffery
Coincidentally, the cover art for Mirror Dance is 100% percent stolen from the movie poster for the Dennis Quaid flick Enemy Mine, in case anyone was wondering why Dennis Quaid was on the cover of that novel.
Edward Brennan
3. Micael2030
I always have a hard time explaining to people why i love these books. This is a good start
Liz Bourke
4. hawkwing-lb
This. Yes. This is why I keep going back to the Vorkosigan series, again and again. Bujold thinks about implications, both social and human.

And the exchange the title quote comes from is one of my favorites in the entire series.
Rob Munnelly
5. RobMRobM
Very nice, Jo.

I'm betting that the military sci-fi component will come back with a vengeance two books from now (after the Ivan book, expected in November) when the long-foreshadowed next/final war between Cetaganda and Barrayar takes place. I see in my crystal ball that Miles will be elevated to General with a key role in the campaign and that one or more of his kids will be on the front lines (i.e., I can easily envision circumstances that would place his eldest daughter among the Dendarii Mercenaries). I can't wait.

Steve Allan
6. Lastyear
Too bad her books are given such terrible covers.
Ursula L
7. Ursula
The covers - ugh.

Although the cover for the upcoming NESFA printing of Barrayar is surprisingly good:n
Pamela Adams
8. PamAdams
In Shards of Honor, we don't just get Cordelia's view of the waste- we see it ourselves in that odd little finale, where the dead soldiers are being picked up from space.
Edward Brennan
9. AlBrown
Any attempt to describe the virtues of Ms. Bujold's work will be woefully incomplete. Her books, at their heart, examine what it is to be human, and she is better than anyone at getting me to feel what the characters are feeling. There is excitement, adventure, thoughtful extrapolation, tragedy, loss, struggle, and lots and lots of humor in those tales. I rarely re-read books, but I read the whole series again the summer before last, and liked it even better the second time around. To all who have never read her books, GO OUT, BUY THEM, AND READ THEM! You won't be sorry.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
The Ivan book is called Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, and it's due out from Baen in November.
Edward Brennan
11. AlBrown
Can't wait, I have always loved Ivan. It'll be good to see him step out from the shadows of the other characters and take the spotlight.
john mullen
12. johntheirishmongol
@1 I dont know how you can say that Miles doesn't have any manly virtues. He has duty, honor and country. He is incredibly brave, persevering over odds that would dispair a lesser man. Being a man has never been a matter of size or shape, it's what you do with your life.

I do adore this series. Love Cordelia and Aral, Ivan and his family. The only one I don't particularly care for is Elena. I don't really think of the books as feminist, basically because when they start, Barrayar is a more conservative society than ours.
Edward Brennan
13. a1ay
They're very definitely milSF, sure, but have you ever noticed how few battles are involved? Less than a handful, if you limit it to battles that are actually "onscreen". There's a big space battle in Shards and another in The Vor Game and that's about it, as far as I can remember. You could stretch to include the evacuation in Borders of Infinity. Barrayar takes place during a civil war, but we never actually see any serious fighting. But other than that? Sure, scuffles, gunfights, fistfights etc. But for milSF, they're pretty war-free.

As I've mentioned before, the Ivan book would be nice, but I want to read a Piotr book. We've only had hints of what he was like as a young man, when he was Ezar's right hand in a particularly cruel and bloody conflict. But he's been overshadowing the entire series from the start as a kind of (mostly) Benign Monster. Miles has been in Aral's shadow all his life; Aral's been in Piotr's shadow. How do you live with that? (Answer: you can't, it breaks you and you become a suicidal alcoholic.)
Edward Brennan
14. Merrian
The Vorkosigan books are buried deep in my heart. They are thoughtful, humane and spirited while being what they are - riproaring MilSpaceOpera. I love that generations are represented in the stories and that the world of Barrayar evolves through massive social shifts while remaining itself e.g. not importing Betan law on clones wholesale but working out their own.

I remember when Cordelia is asked to look at the vid of Kareen and talks about the Lords and officer's failures as betraying her and Kareen living to spit on their graves as the only way Kareen can claim any victory given how her life is constructed and shaped by Barrayar - that is a feminist discussion on women's roles in Barrayaran culture that advances the story and underpins the heart of it. I also think that Miles' disabled body constructs him as female in Barrayaran terms so his is a story of resistance and a life made out of re-defining the terms he was given - which is a nice segue into thinking about Piotr whose life is also one of resistance - against a mad Emperor and invading Cetagandans and then against the changing Barrayar; what did Miles learn at his knee? I too would love to see Piotr's story because he was a ghost there at the end as the world evolved past him but he made that world.

These are books that are comfort reads but always have me thinking and they are feminist in their intention.
Edward Brennan
15. MeliJ
Shards of Honor is one of my favorite ROMANCE novels ever. I really like how Bujold puts human emotion in extraordinary circumstances.
Edward Brennan
16. DebF
I'm reading Bujold's series for the first time, mostly on audio-book, and am absolutely loving them. One thing I find fascinating is that even in societies where the role of each sex might be seen to be quite restricted, there's more to it when you dig beneath the surface. Witness the Cetagandans, who start off as a force of military might, reporting to a patriarchal king, until you find out that underneath everything is the Star Creche, and the constant need to improve the 'stock'.
I'm hoping Ms Bujold eventually writes a follow up to Shards of Honour/ Barryar, where we actually get to see Cordelia Naismith's viewpoint on recent history. We hear a lot about what she thinks from Miles' POV, but I'd love to read her opinion!
Edward Brennan
17. JoeNotCharles
I recall reading a review of The Warrior's Apprentice, I forget where, whose author said they were uninterested in the "obviously military" setting until they got to the scene with the Wall. (Which is only a few pages in, anyway...) And they said, "Oh, now THAT is clearly a metaphor for a woman's struggles! Now THAT I understand! Miles is taking the female role in this story!" Which strikes me as somewhat accurate in The Warrior's Apprentice, less so as the series goes on and Miles becomes more of a well-rounded character and less of a symbol.
Ambar Diaz
18. ambar
Missing word alert:
"In The Vor Game, General Metzov, who is more complicated than a villain, remarks that with modern technology a soldier is no better than a woman. Miles considers asking if that means that a woman can be as good a soldier with modern technology."

I think General Metzov is saying that without modern technology, etc.
Maiane Bakroeva
19. Isilel
RobM @5:

I'm betting that the military sci-fi component will come back with a
vengeance two books from now (after the Ivan book, expected in
November) when the long-foreshadowed next/final war between Cetaganda
and Barrayar takes place.

Do you have any privileged knowledge about this? Because I adore the Vorkosigan saga and the one thing that saddens me is that after Memory Bujold was persistently unwilling to do another dark and dramatic book. IMHO, she has become too attached to her characters and unwilling to do something really bad to them.

Not that I didn't thoroughly enjoy The Civil Campaign, which has some really deep and interesting stuff underneath the great comedy, but since then I hunker for something deeply poignant and epic in that universe.
Like WW II in space, with substantial roles for Gregor, Cordelia and Ivan, with Miles taking a more background role. I have grown tired of him resolving every crisis largely single-handedly and would prefer something with more of an ensemble cast.

I'd also kill for (a) Piotr/Ezar/Xav book(s), but IIRC Bujold said at some point that that period was too dark for her to want to write in it. Sigh :(.
Ursula L
20. Ursula
I think General Metzov is saying that without modern technology, etc.

No, Metzov is saying "with." He's complaining that the modern military, with its technology, is soft and feminized. Nostalgic for the old days when soldiers were "real" men who fought each other physically. Miles quickly becomes, for Metzov, a symbol of all that is wrong with the modern, technological military, as Miles is physically weak but can succeed in the technical areas of the military.
Edward Brennan
21. AlBrown
There are not a lot of huge battles in Bujold's work, but nor are there in real life. Too much fiction has people going from battle to battle to battle, when in real life, most military careers have vast portions of other activities mixed in with short exposures to combat. I wouldn't say the lack of big setpiece battles makes the series less accurate on the military front.

One thing I love about Bujold is the fact that she doesn't seem to have a political axe to grind. Her societies, and her characters, are presented with all their strengths and weaknesses readily apparent. In the totalitarian Barrayan culture, the hedonistic Betans, the mysterious Centagerians, we see both the best and worst that those cultures have to offer. We can see both the virtues and excesses of the rigid Barrayan military culture, for example. This makes the world(s) she presents feel real, lived in, and believable. I have always felt that the author's viewpoint was most apparent in Cordelia's world view, which is skeptical of every political system, and judges people as individuals, based on their character, not on where they were born. And come to think of it, not based on their gender or physical abilities. Not a bad way to approach the world, come to think of it!
Rob Munnelly
22. RobMRobM
Isilel - no privileged info, alas, but the path seems laid out for a big finish to the series, preferably one with big ideas and big risks for all of the Vorkosigans and their circle.

Bujold has been clear publicly that she doesn't want to write Saga novels forever. Also seems Miles is definitely going to die young - too many things have happened to his body over years and especially due to harm in Diplomatic Immunity. Sounds just about right that he'll be breaking down just as his kids turn into late teens and young adults and will be ready for his final mission, with a handoff to the next generation. Too many jokes that he has more battle experience than any of his compatriots, and none of them will recognize it - but Gregor will. Too many hints that there will be a second big encounter with the Cetas (see end of Civil Campaign, where Miles warns Benin not to do anything that will require Naismith to be resurrected; end of DI, where Miles encounters Ghaja (again) and I think Miles has a thought that their encounters are not yet done; all the talk of consolidation versus expanion of the Cetas in Centaganda and DI). I also see hints in DI and Cryoburn that the active, opionated eldest daughter is going to be worth following, and would serve a likely focus point of a future novel. So it is all teed up for Gregor, Cordelia, Ivan, Miles, Gregor's kids, Miles' kids all to have something big at stake. I hope it turns out that way.

Edward Brennan
23. Terror and Love
Truly a great series. I found out about her from a now defunct podcast. Describing a man who because of the debilating status of his body instead focuses on the realm of the mind to excel in the world that way. This series ended up surpassing my expectations.

Its one of those rare series where after I get done with a book or done listening to the audiobooks I feel really sad that the people in it dont really exist.

P.S. - Cant figure out who I am more in love with Cordelia or Aral. Have a big crush on them both. Always get a big thump in my chest when they show up in the later novels.
Jared Mills
24. JaredMills
I also started this series on audiobook (read by the amazing Grover Gardner who does lots of other sff titles) and immediately proceeded to talk about it nonstop to anyone who would listen to get them to read it (I'm a reader's advisory librarian). I've never been big on series fiction, but Bujold manages to make every book fresh and actually show change and growth. The series is so utterly perfect I would feel comfortable recommending to absolutely anyone and know they would enjoy it.
Edward Brennan
25. Komarr Fan
Komarr actually changed my life. I was many years married to a man like Tien Vorsoisson. Reading that book helped me find the courage to see my marriage for what it was: oppressive and harmful to both of us. Ekaterin's courage and grace helped me get through a very difficult transition.
Sara H
26. LadyBelaine
Pam Adams @8,

I am so glad you mentioned that; that little vignette(?) at the end still makes me cry every time I read about it. Poor Tersa Boni.


I cannot tell you how happy that makes me. I will always in my heart of hearts love Ivan Vorpatril above all others, and even my husband has come to understand :)
Edward Brennan
27. AlBrown
I, for one, do not need a giant grand finale for the series. Despite all its unbelievable adventures, it has always felt very lifelike to me, with twists and turns over the long haul that don't serve any overarching plot. Instead, life just happens. For example, when Miles had to give up his military career, and instead become an Imperial Auditor, leaving his mercenary adventures behind himself. Those kind of reversals happen all the time in real life, but are often avoided by novelists because they don't serve the plot.
And besides, a giant grand finale means no more adventures of Miles and friends!
Edward Brennan
28. Elena1701A
These are some of my favourite books! I was put off reading them for ages due to the cover art, but eventually tried Komarr and loved it (my husband had been recommending them to me for ages, and was understandably smug when I was converted!).

I've had a difficult couple of years with family illnesses and bereavement, and there are parts of the books that have really helped me - Harra in Memory saying 'You just go on', Ekaterin coming to the 'end of herself' in Komarr, among others. These have really resonated with me during difficult times.

I'm glad the article mentioned the way the books consider the impact of
technology, specifically the uterine replicator - I'm sure I read
(somewhere on the internet) an article or review that dismissed the
books as not having any 'significant' sf ideas, because the reviewer in
question hadn't registered that the uterine replicator was a
world-changing piece of technology!
Terry Duggins
29. tdugie
I love Lois McMaster Bujold and especially the Vorkosigan saga and the Chalion series. I really believe LMB took her reading of another of our joint favorites--Georgette Heyer--to new heights. For those of you who haven't read Heyer, one of the best things she was able to do was to take characters that others would discard as background noise and make them main characters, showing us how even fops with little obvious personality could be fascinating to readers.

LMB has done that time and time again with her characters. Miles is the best example, of course. He's a crippled dwarf with definite personality flaws who nonetheless becomes greatly loved for his great heart. Aral, Cordelia, Ivan are all less traditional heroes, and there are a slew of wonderful sub-villains and sub-heroes alike who fit the same unconventional mold.

With that fabulous characterization, LMB manages to invest her backdrops with imagination and wonder, helping us to see Cetaganda, the prison colony, and Barrayar in their beauty and paucity both.

I can't explain why I love LMB's books so much except to say that she's one of the few authors that I can reread nearly annually and still find huge enjoyment every time.

And I can hardly wait for Ivan's book! If I were continuing the series, he'd be my next major star! I am pumped!
Edward Brennan
30. Pumeza
I've been slowly reading my way through the series and now, having just finished Mirror Dance, there is one sub-plot I'm desperate to know more about: The two Elenas. What kind of reconcilation happened, and how? What did Cordelia and Elena talk about, that first time Elena went back to Barrayar? Those are two whole lives I'm desperately curious about but it seems I'm destined to remain unsatisfied. Fanfic?
Edward Brennan
31. Jason 0110
I just finished The Ivan Book. It was perfect. That is all.

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