On This Day

Write All the Genres, Lois McMaster Bujold!

Lois McMaster Bujold is already one of the greats. She has been nominated for 12 Hugo Awards, and has won for “Best Novel” four times (a tie with Robert Heinlein) for The Vor Game, Barrayar, Mirror Dance, and Paladin of Souls. She was also nominated for eight Nebulas, and has won for Falling Free, The Mountains of Mourning, and Paladin of Souls. She’s won a Mythopoeic Award for The Curse of Chalion, and three Locus Awards—two for Best Science Fiction Novel (Barrayar and Mirror Dance) and one for Best Fantasy Novel (Paladin of Souls).

The true mark of her greatness, however, is her wide-ranging mind and imagination. Having created a massively successful space opera in the Vorkosigan Saga (with a massively popular hero, Miles Vorkosigan) Bujold went on to tackle the fantasy and romance genres as well.

Bujold was born in 1949, and grew up in Ohio (whose landscape later influenced her Sharing Knife series) the daughter of electrical engineer Robert Charles McMaster. McMaster was a professor at Ohio State University, an editor of the monumental Nondestructive Testing Handbook, and, having decided that all that wasn’t enough, became one of the nation’s first television weathermen as well. In addition to influencing his daughter’s love of science fiction, he also may have influenced one of her greatest characters, Miles Vorkosigan. Miles grows up in the shadow of his heroic, royal father, just as Bujold grew up with a father who was world famous in engineering circles. “…Miles’s ‘great man’s son syndrome’, his daunted drive to equal his father’s achievements, owes something to my relationship to my own father.”

As she became more involved in fandom, she joined the Central Ohio Science Fiction Society, and eventually became co-publisher of StarDate, a science fiction fanzine. Her first published story was “Barter,” which came out in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine in March/April 1985.

Bujold wrote her first three books on spec in the 1980s, saying that she wrote them “…very much in isolation from the genre influences of the day. (Stuck in a rural town with two small children and no money, I was pretty much isolated from everything, really.) But what I pulled out of the accumulated contents of my head, somehow, was a universe.” Eventually she published The Warrior’s Apprentice, part of what became the Vorkosigan Saga, with Baen Books in 1986. Since then, she has continued writing stories of the Saga out of chronological order, creating a giant tapestry that (more or less) follows the life of one man, Miles Vorkosigan. Bujold created a vast world for the Saga, in which many individual planets and cultures are connected through a system of wormholes. Having given her series two noble and gifted protagonists in ‘Admiral Viceroy Count Aral Vorkosigan, Former Regent and Prime Minister of Barrayar’ and Commander Cordelia Naismith, who becomes ‘Vicereine Countess Vorkosigan,’ she promptly moved on from them to a far more unlikely protagonist: their son, Miles. Miles, poisoned in utero, has a bone disorder that crooks his spine and weakens his bones. His full height reaches less than 5 feet. What Miles has, however, is a quick wit and almost boundless determination and ambition. He acts as a soldier, a pilot, a con artist, an ambassador, whatever life demands of him, and becomes an even larger-than-life character than his father. Even within the space opera boundaries, Bujold pushed her characters into new genres: in A Civil Campaign: A Comedy of Biology and Manners she uses the conventions of a high-society romance in a nearly Regency style to tell the tale of Miles’ betrothal, while in Diplomatic Immunity Miles becomes the detective in a whodunit.

Bujold also delves into larger class issues in Free Fall, and in Ethan of Athos, she gives us an all-male world, in which homosexuality is the norm and women are an unthinkable Other. Because of this, Bujold is able to show us a society in which “women’s work”—everything from housekeeping to child-rearing to emotional maintenance within a relationship – is simply part of everyone’s work. She also sends one of her characters, the obstetrician Ethan, on a desperate quest that forces him to interact with a woman, the mercenary Elli Quinn. As Jo Walton points out, “It’s interesting that Athos is a Planet of Men, because it’s the only one I know of, and I can think of quite a few examples of Planets of Women.”

Rather than staying in space, however, Bujold has written in several other genres, giving us an epic fantasy in the Chalion series, and a romance-fantasy with The Sharing Knife series. With Chalion, Bujold brought the same meticulous world-building to the project that made her space operas great. Where the worlds of her Vorkosigan Saga are bound together through a system of wormholes, Chalion is a world shot through with magic. Based on Reconquista Spain, The Curse of Chalion gives us a land where political machinations intersect with magic and divinity. Bujold also created a giant theology for the series, planning one book for each of the gods in the pantheon, of which three have been released: The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt. In an interview for Clarkesworld, Bujold said of the series:

Notions for the last two Chalion books have been rattling around in my head for years, but neither has reached critical mass yet. It feels like it’s about time to remake myself as a writer yet again, think of something new and unexpected, but really, the pleasures of slacking loom ever larger.

The Sharing Knife, meanwhile, draws on the 19th Century American frontier, imaging a society of nomadic hunter-gatherers who are left in the wake of the collapse of a high-magic society.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction talks about Bujold’s extraordinary world-building:

Bujold’s worlds are realistic and very detailed, yet seemingly conjured out of thin air. There is seldom a trace of the arduous research she must have done to make them. She is a world-builder worthy of putting alongside, say, Tolkien, but more economical than he was. Perhaps the comparison should be with Frank Herbert, but Bujold’s world-building is less melodramatic than his.

And concludes that it is her clear and witty writing style that enables her to embed sophisticated social critique into the traditionally conservative realm of military sci-fi. Bujold has a slightly different take, saying:

The mind of a man is not the sort of broad galactic scope traditional space opera had dealt with, but I found it universe enough for my tale. Which is yet another way my ‘space opera’ ran counter to the expected norms of the genre, and so helped to change them.

Lois McMaster Bujold may have worked her way through all of the genres by now, but if anyone could invent a new one, it would be her.


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