I’ve recently had the privilege of introducing a good friend to the novels of Lois McMaster Bujold, starting with The Curse of Chalion and proceeding through the Miles Vorkosigan novels.
Discussing books that mean a great deal to you with someone who’s reading them for the first time has the odd effect of highlighting both their best points, and their greatest flaws: where they work for one person and not another. Ista’s journey in Paladin of Souls still takes me by the throat and shortens my breath with its power, but its moments of greatest impact—for me—slid off my friend like water, like butter off a hot knife.
The moment where Ista asks the Bastard for her true eyes:
I have denied my eyes, both inner and outer. I am not a child, or virgin, or modest wife, fearing to offend. No one owns my eyes now but me. If I have not the stomach by now to look upon any sight in the world, good or evil, beautiful or vile, when shall I? It is far too late for innocence. My only hope is the much more painful consolation of wisdom. Which can grow out of knowledge alone. Give me my true eyes. I want to see. I have to know.
When Ista encounters the Father on the stair, and passes his blessing to poor doomed Arhys:
Your father calls you to his court. You need not pack. You go garbed in glory as you stand. He waits eagerly by his palace doors to welcome you, and has prepared a place at the high table, by his side, in the company of the great-souled, honored, and best-beloved.
Those passages give me chills, still. And yet, discussing them with others, the depth and power of their impact is far from universal. They seem to hit those of us who are or were once inclined to religious sentiment hardest. I may have been an atheist/agnostic since before I could vote, but I’ve still had what persons of deistical bent call “religious experiences.” One of the most powerful things about Bujold’s Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls, one of the things which gives it such emotional weight, is the sense of divinity. Oh. Oh. That’s divinity. That’s how it could be. A sense that calls back cathedrals, roadside shrines, the immense sweep of Delphi.
Numinous is a word sometimes misused. But the Chalion books have betimes been characterised as speculative theology, and it’s not a poor description in the least.
But that sense of divine presence only works if you have a background with divine possibility.
Contemporary with watching my friend devour the Vorkosiverse, I’ve been reading Bujold’s latest work myself. Sidelines: Talks and Essays collects Bujold’s never prolific nonfiction as an ebook: her speeches; her occasional essays; introductions and afterwords; three travel diaries, from Russia, Croatia, and Finland; a selection of blog posts.
Bujold is never less than interesting. Sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes wise, sometimes frustratingly facile—but never less than interesting. The development of her thought across decades is intriguing to watch, the hazy outline of an intellect whose effects on the SFF pond might not be visible on the surface but who’s left profound ripples underneath.
Naturally, this is a work for completists, but it may well appeal to the casual reader who cares to find something brief to dip into to illuminate Bujold’s career.
Although Sidelines fails to illuminate why the Vorkosigan series reached a pinnacle of emotional impact in Memory and Komarr, only thereafter to shy from emotionally challenging its protagonist in any serious way. It is difficult to return to reading space adventure stories in a series where one has seen one’s heart wrenched from one’s chest and put back in differently: going forward, expectations clash.
Speaking of a clash of expectations: Susan Jane Bigelow’s The Daughter Star. Its flap copy makes it sound like military science fiction/space adventure, but inside it’s a different can of worms entirely, and I’m not sure all the worms are baiting the right hooks. (But the protagonist Marta Grayline is a lesbian; in my view that’s at least one point in its favour.)
In many ways—the slow opening, Marta’s struggle with her parents and their oppressive mores, her strong connection to her sister—The Daughter Star reads like a YA coming-of-age, a discovery of agency and choice. But Marta is in her twenties, and what would be a reasonable reaction to buffeting-by-fate in a younger person reads like passive lack of direction and cop-on in an adult.
But there are psychic, mysterious aliens, and a destroyed Earth that may not in fact be dead; secret organisations, war and revolution. Give Bigelow credit for putting much Cool Shit(tm) on her skiffy canvas: this would be a good bridge novel between YA and the adult section for people complaining about the lack of non-dystopic YA science fiction.
If you’re wondering why this week’s column is meandering and meditative, it’s because I’m travelling back from Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space: A Science Fiction Foundation Conference. Talk among yourselves meanwhile.
Next week we’ll have the first of a series of four posts on noteworthy epic fantasist Kate Elliott. Mark your calendars.