Showing posts with label Lois McMaster Bujold. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lois McMaster Bujold. Show all posts

15 December 2012

Authors Who Blow My Mind: Lois McMaster Bujold

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Lois McMaster Bujold is another of those authors whose work sits squarely on the three-legged stool of writing, storytelling, and characterization. The blurb her publishers put on many of her book jackets, with which I agree heartily, is SF writer Anne McCaffrey’s comment, “Boy, can she write!” The difference between her work and Michael Gruber’s, about which I’ve already written, is that Gruber’s language is the kind that we think of—in the most positive way—as “prose.” Bujold’s prose is the invisible kind whose sole purpose is to focus our attention on the story and the characters.

One aspect of Bujold’s genius is the deft mixing of genres. The Vorkosigan saga is inevitably shelved as science fiction. Its fictional universe is galactic in scope, and Bujold, the daughter of an engineer, handles the scientific aspects of speculative fiction with intelligence and without getting tedious. But many of the books are also mysteries that are solved only because Miles Vorkosigan is very, very smart, doesn’t need much sleep, and has a genius for thinking outside the box.

Although the series takes place in a galactic setting, it focuses on the conflict between a science-fiction kind of universe and a planet that has recently emerged from a low-tech Time of Isolation, complete with horses and a feudal aristocracy. The stories are engrossing, the world-building impressive, wit and ideas and moral dilemmas abound. On top of that, The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game are coming-of-age novels. Memory is definitely a character-driven mystery. Komarr is a political thriller with elements of romance and psychological suspense. Cryoburn is science fiction, mystery, galactic political thriller, and immensely satisfying character-driven novel all at once.My favorite, A Civil Campaign, crosses galactic space opera with comedy of manners and comes up with a complex, intensely satisfying, and laugh-out-loud funny read. Bujold dedicates the book to Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy—and I think Austen, Bronte, Heyer, and Sayers, once they adjusted to the premises of the SF genre, would all love it.

And the characters—oh, the characters! Those typing monkeys could never have come up with Miles: stunted and fragile due to exposure to poison gas in utero, hyperactive, magnificently brainy and irreverent, complex, sensitive, and attractive to women smart enough to appreciate him. One of his tribulations is the fact that on his planet, still recovering from being nuked two generations ago, they have an aversion to mutants and are just beginning to learn not to kill deformed babies at birth. Another is the way he gets punished for pushing himself physically, from breaking both legs during a military training exercise to getting killed in a galactic battle, which would be okay, because he’s immediately prepped for cryorevival, except somebody goes and loses the container they’ve popped him into, and when he wakes up he has amnesia....

Here’s the flavor, in a delightfully feminist scene at the end of Komarr between Miles and Ekaterin, who’s been badly burned by an emotionally abusive marriage in a culture that represses women.
“Have you had a great many girlfriends?” If he hadn’t, she’d have to dismiss her whole gender as congenital idiots. The man could charm snakes from their holes, nine-year-olds from locked bathrooms, and Komarran terrorists from their bunkers. Why weren’t females following him around in herds?...

“The usual progression, I suppose. Hopeless first love, this and that over the years, unrequited mad crushes.”

“Who was the hopeless first love?” she asked, fascinated.

“Elena. The daughter of one of my father’s Armsmen, who was my bodyguard when I was young.”

“Is she still on Barrayar?”

“No, she emigrated years ago. Had a galactic military career and retired with the rank of captain. She’s a commercial shipmaster now.”


“Yes....There was Elli, She was a free mercenary trainee when I first met her.”

“What is she now?”

“Fleet Admiral. Actually.”

“So she was this. Who was that?”

“There was Taura.”

“What was she, when you first met her?”

“A Jacksonian body-slave....”

“So what is she now?

“Master Sergeant in a mercenary fleet.”

“The same fleet as, um, the this?”


... “And...?” she led him on, beginning to be immensely curious as to how long he’d keep going. Why in the world did he think all this romantic history was something she ought to know? Not that she would stop him....

“Mm...there was Rowan....”

“And she was...?”

“A technical serf of House Fell. She’s a cryo-revival surgeon in an independent clinic on Escobar, now....”

...Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.

... “So...what about the unrequited mad crush?”

“Ah, that was Rian. I was young, just a new lieutenant on a diplomatic mission.”

“And what does she do, now?”

He cleared his throat. “Now? She’s an empress.”

Miles and Ekaterin remind me a lot of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. And like Lord Peter and Harriet, Miles and his family and friends are the kind of people readers like me fall in love with, wish they could meet and befriend and invite over for dinner, and hunger to hear more about. They are endearing, smart, and funny—intensely real, achingly delicious. I can read about characters like these till the cows come home, over and over.

25 February 2012

Getting Lost in a Good Book

by Elizabeth Zelvin

One of the great joys of reading novels is the opportunity to “get lost in a good book.” As a mental health professional, I can tell you that the psychological phenomenon involved is dissociation. Getting lost in a book or movie is at the mild end of the dissociative spectrum, along with the long-distance driver’s road trance. At the other end is dissociative identity disorder: the pathological condition, resulting from extreme trauma such as childhood sexual abuse, that used to be called multiple personality. Getting lost in a book, while it’s certainly not pathological, produces the same effect of coming to with a jolt from a world that made the one you’re actually in vanish completely. There’s the same sense of having been somewhere else and having no idea how much time has passed.

People who don’t read miss this pleasure. So do those who don’t read fiction, or so I believe. My husband is a history buff and inveterate non-fiction reader. He’s always trying to involve me in his reading. He’ll chuckle aloud and say, “Listen to this!” as a preface to telling me some priceless tidbit about Napoleon or Frederick the Great. (Readers of my mysteries know I borrowed this trait for one of my characters.)

The standard answer to that or any other interruption in our house is, “Shush! I’m reading my bookie.” “Bookie” is our private baby talk for genre fiction, a novel on the light side of what the Brits call “a good read”—a story absorbing enough to sweep the reader away. It goes with teddy bears and cuddling up to read.

My husband sometimes complains that it’s not fair, since I don’t always refrain from talking to him while he’s reading. But the truth is that he’s more willing to be interrupted when he’s reading serious history or something dense and weighty. He’s absorbed, but not to the point of dissociation. I’ve noticed that when he lightens up enough to pick up a mystery, science fiction, or fantasy, he too says, “Shush! I’m reading my bookie.”

What lures me most intensely into an alternate world? My briar patch is the character-driven traditional mystery, but crime is not a necessity. Historical fiction with endearing characters and a dollop of romance can do it, as can character-driven speculative fiction or fantasy.
I remember gasping with pleasure the first time I read Diana Gabaldon’s outstanding time-travel historical novel, Outlander. It utterly pulled me into the 18th century. Dorothy Dunnett’s novels about Francis Crawford of Lymond take me just as thoroughly to the 16th century. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, set in the galactic future and on an old-fashioned planet within it, does the same.
So do Sharon Shinn’s perfectly constructed Samaria novels about genetically engineered angels.

The common elements are lovability and the touch of romance, combined with highly intelligent writing, brilliant characterization, and superb storytelling. Of course, there’s plenty of that in mystery too. I don’t want to come back from Judge Deborah Knott’s North Carolina or Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes’s England either. So shush! I’m reading my bookie.