Zipping Around the Galaxy on a Wing and a Prayer:
The Works of Lois McMaster Bujold

Richard Scriven

I enjoy the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, otherwise I would not be writing this article. For me a Bujold novel is fast paced, has well-rounded characters which are sufficiently complex to engage the reader's emotions, it has an interesting plot, is internally consistent, displays considerable intelligence and wit and is, well, fun. It is a good read.

Lois McMaster Bujold has been writing science fiction professionally since 1985, when she sold a story to Twilight Zone Magazine. However, her career didn't really take off until Baen Books purchased a package of her first three novels early in 1986. Since then she has developed a strong, widespread readership, has been published regularly in Analog Science Fiction Magazine, has completed six novels and a short story collection, and has won the Nebula Award for Best Novel. I hope to give you an idea of why she is so popular.

Lois McMaster Bujold won the 1989 Nebula Award for Best Novel with Falling Free. The story centres around the product of a genetic engineering experiment, the Quaddies. The Quaddies are descended from human stock, have four arms and no legs, and have been adapted to live in free fall so they can perform deep space construction work for the company which owns them. However, due to their adaptations, they are unable live on the surface of a planet for long. Told mostly from the view points of two young Quaddies, Tony and Claire, and Leo Graf, a human welding instructor, the plot centres around the Company's decision to strand the Quaddies on the surface of a nearby planet when a new invention destroys the project's economic viability. Indoctrinated from birth to love and obey the Company, the Quaddies are forced into rebellion and must gamble for their future with a desperate plan to escape the fate the Company has planned for them. Even though this is a good adventure story with engaging characters and is suited to a juvenile audience, Falling Free was for me a novel of responsibility, a strong theme in all Bujold's writing.

Shards Of Honor was Bujold's first published novel. The story centres around a war between the Imperial forces of Barrayara and the loose alliance of a more democratic group of planets in Bujold's universe. The protagonists are Cordelia Naismith, a survey commander from the planet Beta, and Aral Vorkosigan, a Barrayaran captain and former admiral who was demoted for being politically unpopular, i.e. telling the truth. Fighting on different sides in a war neither wants, they are thrown together by circumstance and eventually their experiences together and the secrets they share bring them to respect and like each other. Cordelia spends most of her time a prisoner of different factions of the Barrayaran forces, factions whose internal political conflicts are the real cause of the war.

This is, as the title suggests, a novel about honour, the conduct of honourable people when bound to the dishonourable, and the moral conflict about which is more important, one's own personal honour or one's duty to a dishonourable commander. Plus of course plenty of action, intrigue, treachery, adventure, excitement and a little romance to keep the reader reading.

The subject of most of Bujold's writing to date is Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, son of the protagonists in Shards Of Honor. Miles first appears in The Warrior's Apprentice, the story of Miles, his loyal bodyguard and a battle fleet he acquires. Crippled in his mother's womb by an assassination attempt on his parents, he lives on Barrayara, a planet that is only a hundred years out of a social and technological dark age that ended when the planet was invaded and the Barrayarans had to fight to survive as a culture. Ruled by the Emperor and the Vor aristocracy, Miles lives in a society that is full of unresolved political and moral conflict.

Bound by his heritage and forced by circumstance, Miles is many things to many people - thirteenth generation Vor Warrior, failed entrant to the Imperial Academy, son of a great man and a foreign war heroine, Admiral of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries and just plain Miles. Doomed to be seen only as one or other of these things, but never all, the complexity of his circumstances takes on comic proportions at times. With his complex background Miles is a lightning rod attracting adventures that are never simple or easy for him to survive. For me Bujold gives a life and believability to this character, making him humorous but at the same time showing that living with responsibility is never easy. Miles is also the central character in Brothers In Arms, his second full length adventure, where a quick and plausible lie to cover a secret identity turns out to be uncomfortably real, to the confusion of everybody. This novel is just as much fun as the first.

Bujold's four novellas all feature Miles as the central character. Three of these have been collected in Borders Of Infinity and have been linked by short joining pieces. Though they are all well worth reading, as each is enjoyable and has something to say in its own right, I particularly recommend "The Mountains Of Mourning".

In her novel Ethan Of Athos, Athos is an all-male planet whose founders left the mainstream civilisation to escape the evil influence of women. Ethan, the main character, is the chief biologist of a reproduction centre where the ovum cultures are failing due to old age. When the vitally needed replacements disappear, there is no choice but to send someone out into the barbarous and perverted planets of civilization.

Bujold's treatment of the homosexual element in this story is very low key. Ethan's homosexuality is never made explicit, being implied in the background of the novel and in Ethan's reactions to, and attitudes towards, women. Bujold has also dealt intelligently with the question of how to raise children in a single-sex culture. Although you may have the technology to nurture a child in-vitro, how do you allocate the resources to raise a child and ensure the responsible parenting of a valued resource and your future?

I found this adventure well paced, like all Bujold's writing, and she soon had me interested in the story and its central character. I had forgotten how good this book was until I reread it for this article. Bujold provides a plot with subtle twists, new characters to like, an ally for Ethan (Elli Quinn, from The Warrior's Apprentice), an assortment of villainous and pathetic enemies and a resolution which brings this story to a very satisfying end. It's not her best novel but still highly enjoyable. By the way, please don't be put off by the artwork on Bujold's books. The publishers have targeted her work at a section of the reading public that they feel will readily accept her. Follow the old saying and don't judge them by their covers. They do deserve your attention.

Lois McMaster Bujold does not seek to redefine her genre, rather she seeks to reinvigorate it. She has managed to become the most difficult thing a writer can aspire to - both populist and respectable. With her Nebula Awards for Falling Free (Best Novel, 1989) and "The Mountains Of Mourning" (Best Novella, 1990), and the commercial success of her work, Lois McMaster Bujold must be considered to be at the height of her career. I expect her to remain a favourite writer of mine in the future and I look forward to her next novella or novel with anticipation.


SHARDS OF HONOR (Baen Publishing Company, New York NY. June 1986)*
THE WARRIOR'S APPRENTICE (Baen Publishing Company, New York NY. August 1986)*
ETHAN OF ATHOS (Baen Publishing Company, New York NY. December 1986)*
FALLING FREE (Serialized in ANALOG December 1987 to February 1988 Baen Publishing Company, New York NY. April 1988)*
BROTHERS IN ARMS (Baen Publishing Company, New York NY. January 1989)
THE VOR GAME (Baen Publishing Company, New York NY. Forthcoming September 1990)
BORDERS OF INFINITY (Baen Publishing Company, New York NY. October 1989)
Short Fiction
"Barter" (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1985)
"Garage Sale" (American Fantasy, Spring 1987)
"Borders of Infinity" (Alien Stars Vol. 3 - Freelancers Ed.E.Mitchell, Baen Publishing Company, New York NY., September 1987)
"The Mountains of Mourning" (ANALOG, May 1989)
"Labyrinth" (ANALOG, August 1989)
"The Weatherman" (ANALOG, February 1990)

Originally appeared pp65-69, Eidolon Issue 01, May 1990.
Copyright © Eidolon Publications, 1990. All Rights Reserved.