Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Women of Science Fiction Book Club: Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Finally! I have been waiting for this one to come up on the list for months now. Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my absolute all-time favorite authors, and best of all she's someone who makes me want to write. Bujold's writing is smart, warm, chatty, quick, and above all readable, much more so than I expect from a repeat award winner. (Does it say something about me, or about book awards in general, that when I hear a book has won an award I steel myself for impenetrability?) She so clearly adores science fiction, fantasy, romance, and all their best-loved tropes - her books' best-known Big Damn Hero, Miles Vorkosigan, is a gleeful mix of trope adherence and trope subversion - and she is not picky about the genre elements she commandeers. For example, my favorite of hers, A Civil Campaign, is a military space opera Regency romance political farce. Yes, it works. It works gloriously. Bujold is the writer I should have been reading since I first picked up a Dragonlance book/turned on Star Trek: The Next Generation in my impressionable preteen years and thought "This is so awesome but it would be better with better writing and more women in it." If I can someday muster a tenth of the character development and sheer enjoyability of her work I'll be happy.

Anyway. Cordelia's Honor! It's actually two books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, set maybe a month apart but written years apart. Shards of Honor immediately introduces Our Heroine, Cordelia Naismith, space captain and scientist. Who is then captured by the enemy commander, one Aral Vorkosigan, and yes, he's kind of noble and broody, how did you guess? And he's not really the bad guy. The situation is more complex than one would originally think, and oh, he has a dark past! You know right where this book is going from the very beginning - as I mentioned above, "trope" is not a dirty word for Bujold - but it's an enjoyable ride, especially with Cordelia as our POV character. She's practical, caring, and brave without crossing into Mary Sue territory as too many lady captains in space operas tend to do; she never shrinks from what needs to be done, even if her opinion of "what needs to be done" differs vastly from that of the people around her, such as her captor and later husband, whose harsh militaristic culture clashes with the more, shall we say, Starfleet attitude of Cordelia's homeworld. Needless to say, Cordelia's move to the backwards sexist military monarchy of Barrayar is a move she makes because she's centered enough to know the culture can't change her. Instead, she intends to change it.

Then, Barrayar. I have to say, I love Barrayar - the book and also the planet, the aforementioned backwards society being made up of people just doing the best they can with what they're given. Often I wonder what makes writers of science fiction decide to write a sexist future - hundreds of years, thousands even, and you want that to be one of the things we keep? The Golden Age writers, alas, thought that was right and proper. Bujold, on the other hand, is doing one of the things science fiction is actually for, which is using a potential future to criticize the current status quo. (And she doesn't seem to get any enjoyment out of writing misogyny, unlike George R.R. Martin, who, while obviously intending to use a misogynist fantasy world to critique the status quo, often comes off as feeding women to the wolves - literally, on occasion - just for shock-and-horror value. By the way, despite this, A Dance with Dragons got really good about 2/3 of the way through. Digression!)

I will say something right now: I would not be pregnant at this moment if it weren't for Barrayar. That's not an exaggeration. I read this book two years ago and was immediately struck with something I hadn't seen before: a pregnant POV heroine, cheerfully regarding the whole process as a weird and fascinating endeavor. Cordelia would be perfectly willing to offload her protobaby to a uterine replicator as one does on Beta Colony, but medical science on Barrayar has not quite gotten there yet, so she makes the best of the biological method. She's a little scared, somewhat unnerved by her body doing something so bizarre as building another human being in it, but she's also very excited - without being changed at all from the person we were reading about a book ago. Let me repeat: YOU NEVER SEE THIS. Pregnant women, if you ever see them anywhere in the media at all, are either placid baby-drunk Madonnas of the Precious Moments school or hormone-crazed harpies lumbering around a desert island shrieking "MAAH BAAYBEEEE". They're barely human. They do not in any way go about their business in a perfectly normal fashion, except maybe peeing more often, and they especially do not get to be POV characters, much less awesome POV characters. It was the first hint I'd had that maybe being pregnant/a mom would not warp me beyond all human recognition.

And then there's the bit with the poison gas and the uterine replicator that, frankly, made me wonder if Bujold was trying to make an anti-abortion point. Cordelia is poisoned during an attempt on her husband's life; she recovers, but the baby will die unless they do an experimental treatment that would, unfortunately, kill her, and at the very least the baby's going to come out of it with deformed bones. Luckily they have one of those uterine replicators sitting around after all, and at great risk to herself and with great opposition from her father-in-law (who refuses to let a cripple be Count Vorkosigan - there's huge anti-disability stigma on Barrayar, due to prior use of mutagens as biological weapons), she has the kid switched over and starts treatment. She nearly dies during the removal process. At the time this struck me as a Twilight-esque the-baby-at-all-costs message, but upon reread, it does not come across that way. The combination of factors involved - her husband's reproductive capacity may have been damaged by the poison, they're rich, the uterine replicator is RIGHT THERE, her father-in-law is such an ass that to NOT defy him would be unthinkable, and mostly that Cordelia is from a highly technological society and is used to science being able to solve medical problems - influence her decision, and then there's her decision itself: she's not choosing to save the baby because she thinks it's the empirical 100 percent correct and right thing to do in all cases. She just WANTS to. Right then, in that situation, with those factors, she wants to, and that's all that matters. It's a choice message. I approve of choice messages.

Or am I just construing it that way because that way I can keep loving the book as much as I do?

Because I do love the book. I love the universe Bujold creates, whether she's working in fantasy or science fiction. The best way I can describe it is that there's always a note of hope running through everything. There are tragedies and atrocities galore (the end of Mirror Dance, for example, is pure nightmare fuel) and no character gets out unscathed, but wounds heal, memories fade, and people go on with their lives, weary, wiser and glad to be alive. That's what makes Bujold's work comfort reading for me.


  1. Or am I just construing it that way because that way I can keep loving the book as much as I do?

    I don't really think there's anything to construe or misconstrue. Like you said, there's logical reasons for trying to save the child, and no matter what a person's stance on abortion is, I think that being faced with the prospect of aborting a WANTED child versus doing whatever you can to save it would be an easy choice to make. Then again, I've never been pregnant, so what do I know?

  2. I actually thought about putting a line in there about prenatal testing (which I just had done, it's that time) and the difficult call you would have to make if something comes back problematic, which is the context I was reading this in. If Cordelia had just given up, if the condition had been a dealbreaker, we would not have Miles effin' Vorkosigan, so was Bujold supporting never-abort-at-all-costs? Am I evil for even having testing done? A solid number of people would say yes. I'm just so used to everything I read on the Internet whanging me over the head with ideology that I'm immediately skeptical of anyone who tries to say anything about pregnancy/motherhood - what's their point? what are they trying to tell me to do? It's hard sometimes to switch from reading-the-internet mode to reading fiction and realizing that not every piece of writing is trying to boss me around.

  3. Also thank you so much for my first comment! Yay readers!!