The 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.