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Lois McMaster Bujold: Essays cover

Essays on a Modern Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy is billed as a general collection on Lois McMaster Bujold, and is, to the best of my ability to discern, the first such collection or monograph to take Bujold's works for its topic. It comprises an introduction, an interview with Bujold, and eleven papers, nine of which concern themselves primarily with the (at time of compilation) fifteen "Vorkosiverse" novels and the material contained in Borders of Infinity (1989). For Bujold's eight other novels (the three Chalion novels, the Sharing Knife quartet, and The Spirit Ring [1993]) there are only two papers left, and The Spirit Ring is mentioned only in passing.

As a general collection, the breadth of its coverage is unbalanced. Among the papers concerned with the "Vorkosiverse," readings on (dis)abilities and the body predominate (Virginia Bemis, "Chaos and Quest: Miles Vorkosigan's Disability Narrative," 104-115; Linda Wight, "Broken Brothers in Arms: Acting the Man in The Warrior's Apprentice," 116-133; Shannan Palma, "Difference and Ability: Conceptualizing Bodily Variation in the Vorkosigan Series," 134-147; Sylvia Kelso, "The Decay of the Cyborg Body in Bujold's Memory," 148-158), closely followed by papers purporting to engage with the Vorkosigan novels in terms of gendered narratives (Regina Yung Lee, "Legitimacy and Legibility: Rereading Civil Discourse Through Feminist Figurations in Cordelia's Honor," 27-49; Sandra J. Lindow, "The Influence of Family and Moral Development in Bujold's Vorkosigan Series," 50-60; Croft, "The Soldier and the Cipher: Miles, Mark, and the Naming Plots of Bujold's Vorkosiverse," 61-76; Andrew Hallam, "The Emperor's Shoe: Power, Home, and the Other in the Vorkosigan Saga," 77-103). However, none of these papers step outside the main chronology of the Cordelia Naismith-Miles Vorkosigan progression to consider what light Falling Free (1988), with its othered "quaddie" bodies, its concern with the ethics of labor, ownership, strangeness/estrangement, might shed on the opera majora, or what Ethan of Athos (1986) has to say about a social revisioning of "women's work" and the concerns of the family.

In fact, this volume's absences are manifold and glaring. No paper engages with Bujold's work through a postcolonial lens, nor (even more glaringly absent) through a Marxist one. Nor does any paper strive to situate Bujold in her context: her literary antecedents, her peers, her influences, her conversation with her times. In a general collection, and particularly the first such, one rather expects some contextualization. But contextualizing isn't something the all too brief introduction takes within its remit either, being far more concerned with explaining/justifying a previous lack of (academic) critical engagement with Bujold's work, and patting the contributors on the back for recognizing (at last!) her virtues and use to academia. (I wish to note that while the introduction hopes "to point the way for new scholarly study," it, too, fails to mention Marxist or postcolonialist approaches as possibilities.)

"Our aim," says Croft in the introduction, "is to increase readers' appreciation of Bujold." And, again, "The aim was for scholarly yet readable prose—thought-provoking and challenging but always accessible" (p. 5).

Before I consider just quite how badly this collection has failed its stated aims (I'm not a product of literature studies, but I am doing postgraduate research myself, and if you can't make yourself intelligible and compelling to someone in a related discipline within the humanities . . . well, perhaps you should be thinking about your audience), however, let me note that this collection does contain a handful of essays that don't read like rushed undergraduate term papers.

These readable papers include Croft's own "The Soldier and the Cipher: Miles, Mark, and the Naming Plots of Bujold's Vorkosiverse." Reasonably readable and reasonably well-put-together, it possess internal coherence and makes logical sense. It has an argument on names and naming to make, and compared to the rest of the essays—at least, the ones on other matters than (dis)abilities—actually having something to say and saying it in a cohesive fashion makes it a distinguished entry.

The disability papers are in the main intelligible and solid. Sylvia Kelso's "The Decay of the Cyborg Body in Bujold's Memory" (148-158) clearly sets out its theoretical bases, contextualizes and defines them in intelligible ways, and uses them to carry out nuanced interrogation of text: in this case, the contrasting trajectories of the bodies of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan and Simon Illyan in light of cyborg theory and Bahktin's formulations of carnival and the grotesque. As the ninth essay in the collection and the fourth of four which concern themselves (in one way or another) with (dis)ability in Bujold's Vorkosigan novels, it shouldn't come as a thunderbolt of relief. But Kelso brings the A-game of a thorough, mature, engaged critical mind, and thus shows the lackluster remainder of the volume up as second rate. The Bemis and the Palma papers are somewhat on the obvious side (and the Palma suffers from a too-liberal use of quotation), but in comparison with some of the other offerings, distinctly unterrible. Wight's interrogation of disability, masculinity and performativity, while neither brilliant nor shocking, rises above the merely quotidian.

Although it does get rather tedious when each paper feels the need to recap a very similar synopsis of character and event to the one before—by the eighth paper, one really does know who the main players are.

The interview with Bujold which opens the volume ("Granted, when one is young, death can indeed seem to be something that only happens to someone else, but one gets over that") is a marvel of grace, clarity, honesty, and intelligence that only makes the intellectual barrenness and critical blandness of the remaining papers all the more apparent. Amy H. Sturgis's "From Both Sides Now: Bujold and the Fan Fiction Phenomenon" is a shallow attempt to trace Bujold's engagement with fanfic that does not illuminate either Bujold's work or fanfic itself in any serious way, for its only thesis appears to be that Bujold engaged with fanfic. Fanfic is therefore worthy of attention. Yay! To quote the conclusion: "Her experience as a fan fiction writer prepared her not only to create professional fiction, but also to relate to the many fans who read and enjoy it. . . . Being a consumer of fan fiction has allowed Bujold to gain insights that have informed everything from her strategies about the writing of sex scenes to her understanding of the very nature of literature herself . . . the credit she gives to fan fiction encourages others to take it seriously both as a legitimate reader response and as a fruitful subject of study" (p. 25). (Yes, and?)

Lee's "Legitimacy and Legibility: Rereading Civil Discourse Through Feminist Figurations in Cordelia's Honor" has, beneath its smothering, uncritically adopted gender-essentialist framework (never trust anyone who uncritically employs the work of Luce Irigaray) potentially an interesting point or two to make about legitimate and legible social bodies. But its failure to define its terms (e.g.: "In Cordelia's Honor, recognition of [sexual] difference becomes a kind of passage, not toward any single purpose or ending, but from a dystopic equilibrium into something else" [p. 27]; define the dystopic equilibrium from which passage occurs, please) or interrogate its assumptions, and its tendency to deploy self-contradictory statements such as, "Through Cordelia's radical speculative futures, all presently-illegible alienated bodies become birthed into a speculative legitimacy, awaiting their actualisation into the future tense" (p. 29)[1] fundamentally undermines any legitimate argument it has to make.

In contrast, the next paper, Lindow's "The Influence of Family and Moral Development in Bujold's Vorkosigan Series," makes intelligible points about familial and moral modes. But the theoretical background which informs this interrogation of the text is insufficiently well integrated into the paper's argument, leaving it off-balance and disjoint, and its conclusion—"On a very deep level we are glad that friend Miles, like us, is imperfect. We identify with him, are pleased with his success, and are comforted. Imperfect is okay and that, dear readers, is the moral of the story" (p. 59)—leaves me, at least, baffled. This is what passes for a critical conclusion?

Hallam's "The Emperor's Shoe: Power, Home, and the Other in the Vorkosigan Saga" in actuality only significantly engages with Barrayar (1991). It deploys theory by the impenetrable bucketload to justify an obsession with the image of Gregor's lost shoe in Barrayar. The problem with Hallam's approach is that the emotional and symbolic weight of the shoe is explicit in the text, and that the conclusions he attempts to draw regarding "abstractive tendencies in government practice" (and reliance on things as falling into "masculine" or "feminine" modes) rely upon narrow, restricted, primarily symbolic readings of Bujold's world-building. Further, he fails to define his terms—should I care what Otto Rank says about doubling if you're not going to make clear how you are employing the term?—and refers to Freud and Darko Suvin instead of to his own common sense. (Theory is a tool, not a goal. Not a crutch, if you can already walk the same route alone.) It's possible to overthink things—and without solid underpinnings, for this reader, concluding, "For all power proceeds from this intimate encounter with the strangely familiar other, even when power proceeds from the simple presentation of a child's shoe" (p. 101), is a bridge too far.

David D. Oberhelman's "From Iberian to Ibran and Catholic to Quintarian: Bujold's Alternate History of the Spanish Reconquest in the Chalion Series" is . . . to be generous, unimpressive. Full of wild surmises (that, for example, the Roknari correspond to Muslims, and the Chalionese to Christians, a direct correspondence Bujold is careful to avoid in her depiction of non-dualistic Quintarian religion and its dualistic Quadrene heresy) and uninterrogated assumptions, it takes as read that Bujold's use of elements inspired by medieval Spain in the Chalion books is some kind of . . . mappable plan. Can one draw legitimate parallels between historical events and events in fantasy novels, if the correspondences are not obviously the point of the novel? Yes, of course. Should one pretend that one is making an original contribution to research by deriving a bunch of correspondences from the novel's Wikipedia entry and proceeding to a) sketch an excursus on the history of the medieval Iberian peninsula and b) draw a really obvious conclusion? Says Oberhelman, Bujold "use[s] the familiar outline of the Spanish Reconquest and the complex religious issues that in it and from it to serve as the scaffolding upon which she builds her own meditations on religious tolerance, acceptance of otherness or oddity, and respect for the difference that is inherent in the human experience" (p. 170). This is his conclusion. Is it worth a paper? You tell me.

John Lennard's "(Absent) Gods and Sharing Knives: The Purposes of Lois McMaster Bujold's Fantastic Ir/Religions," the volume's final essay, would be a decent paper if it could get the weird chip on its shoulder out of its way.

In some ways academic reluctance to engage with Bujold is predictable . . . [she] is equally unpalatable to the critical left and devotees of the technosublime. As a white Mid-Westerner she fails to serve the agendas of minority writing attached to her close contemporary Octavia E Butler (1947-2006), while as an independent post-war woman unimpressed by feminist orthodoxies and deeply interested in the mal/practice of parenthood she has been far less amenable than the older Ursula Le Guin (b1929) and Joanna Russ (1937-2011) to recruitment in the gender wars. (p. 172-3)

I congratulate Lennard on his determination to earn maximum marks for snideness in his second paragraph. I am, however, deeply disinclined to take seriously anyone who unironically uses the phrase "gender wars" or brushes off "the agendas of minority writing." This may not be entirely fair and objectively academic of me, but it's the sort of phrasing that speaks to an unwillingness to engage non-white-straight-male ways of interacting with the world with intellectual honesty. And that does rather affect my willingness to trust the speaker's judgement. Furthermore, I find it hard to take seriously anyone who claims regarding the "Vorkosiverse" novels, "there are narratives of grace to be discerned, but equally a Soviet-era overlay of godlessness" (p. 173).

This does not strike me as a value-neutral statement, nor does it strike me as a particularly accurate claim. Still more unfortunately for my inclination to take Lennard's paper seriously, it confuses dystopia with post-apocalypse with regard to The Sharing Knife quartet ("In SF&F terms the novel could be labeled dystopia, for there are, here and there in its world, traces of a lost civilization whose catastrophic collapse was presumably linked to the coming of malices" [p. 183]), posits God and Darwin as opposites in a poorly phrased analogy (Lois McMaster Bujold deploys her thematic toolkit to encompass "a pervasive mode of human thought and society that tends strongly to manipulate rather than understand biology, and that in contemporary US politics is as polarized from it as God from Darwin" [p. 190-1]), and characterizes academia's previous lack of engagement with Bujold as down to seeing her as "a politically incorrect conservative" (p. 191).

The paper's treatment of Bujold's works' orientation toward the divine is nuanced and bespeaks some methodological integrity. But ultimately, disappointingly, it can't keep the chip on its shoulder out of its own way.

Disappointing is my final judgement on this collection. Bujold is an author with wide appeal among SFF readers, and a scholarly collection on her work presents an opportunity to engage in academic outreach—to bring people from other disciplines and ordinary fans into dialogue. Every time you set pen to paper you are your information's advocate, and your argument's advocate, and your own advocate, and if a jury of People Who Read Paperback Novels can't read what you wrote and at least understand your main points in outline . . . if they're not your audience, who is?

In an age of widespread anti-intellectualism and declining public respect for the academic humanities, it's a pressing question. My particular discipline is not literature, and perhaps I wrong the contributors to this volume by suggesting that half of them were either phoning it in or just bloody bad at writing. On the other hand, fewer than half the papers here present an intelligible argument in such a way as to persuade me (an SFF reviewer, a person possessed of some academic engagement with phenomenology and theories of the body and gender, generally Not, I hope, Too Thick) that I can actually trust the person making said argument to know what they're talking about.

Much less communicate it clearly.

[1] Translated from the impenetrable jargon, this statement appears to be: 1. Cordelia wants different possibilities than are socially acceptable. 2. Because of her actions, differently marked bodies have the possibility of legitimate existence. 3. But this hasn't happened yet. 4. And awaits a future (potential) realization.

Thus 1+2+3+4= 5: Something has happened that hasn't actually happened yet. ("birthed into speculative legitimacy, awaiting actualisation in the future tense.")

Liz Bourke is presently reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She has also reviewed for Ideomancer and

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is published by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she's been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
11 comments on “Lois McMaster Bujold: Essays on a Modern Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Janet Brennan Croft”
David Roof

Back up one step here. This review illustrates why the public's respect for academic humanities is declining. On that basis I don't understand why the lack of marxist or post-colonialist perspectives is a problem, since these represent merely the deployment of more "impenetrable theory by the bucketload" in support of pre-ordained conclusions.

Liz Bourke

Unpack your statement a bit?

Fade Manley

I would've loved to see someone tackle the No Aliens thing from a post-colonial perspective, especially when talking about Barrayar. It's such an interesting example of the Uninhabited Frontier that needs to be tamed, because right when it's about to get a little uncomfortable when viewed from that angle, the Cetegandans show up and suddenly it's the invasion of technologically advanced colonizers full of disdain for the natives such that they view them as nearly (?) sub-human.
...but rather than talk about all the interesting essays I wish were in this collection, I am going to put this on my "Get it from the library list," so that I can cherry-pick the essays that do sound interesting. Especially the disability papers, since that's an area where I feel I know little enough that an informed, analytical perspective would be really useful.

Liz Bourke

Well, the Cetagandans are practically (at least in some senses of the word) posthuman - which is interesting, because they're biologically, not, exactly, technologically, altered.

Fade Manley

It's the "practically" that makes it especially interesting from the post-colonial perspective, especially given that if the trend is away from "baseline" human, it would have been a little closer to said baseline during the invasion. There is something fascinating in the idea of having invaders who are both technologically superior and--at least by their own standards--biologically superior in a way that isn't completely imaginary being quite explicitly The Bad Guys, when they invade a society of violent, sexist barbarians. As it were.
(Not that the Cetegandans aren't sexist too. They're just doing it in a different way. Parallels with the Western world decrying the sexism of other cultures spring to mind, and then are too depressing to contemplate at length.)
But then, Bujold is good at those sorts of moral tangles. "Yes, these people are doing a horrible thing. And trying to force them to do otherwise can also be horrible. And here's something horrible that happened because of miscommunication once in the midst of doing something that was unpleasant but necessary, though whether or not it's necessary depends on who you ask, and all we have to go on is hindsight..."
Which is exactly why a book of essays on her stuff ought to be doing a fair sight more in discussing these sorts of tangles. I don't want to be reassured that we warm and fuzzy family of readers like Miles because he's spiffy; I want to read a detailed unpacking of the ethics of responding to the orders of the moribund king in CoC.

Maya Chhabra

Oberhelmen's essay sounds painful.
As to the "Soviet overlay of godlessness"...I don't think it's a coincidence that "Shards of Honor," which was written during the Cold War, is the book that deals most with Barrayaran atheism. The decision to have a feudal society be non-religious is an unusual world-building choice.
I wouldn't be surprised if the USSR's official atheism was part of the inspiration. Otherwise you would think a society settled by Russians and Greeks, among others, would have some Eastern Orthodox influence. But I don't know if that's what Lennard meant. And that quote makes it look as if he really didn't understand the ending of "Shards of Honor."
And eww, "agendas of minority writing." Because minorities can't just write for the heck of it, we can't have anything universal to say, we're just serving an agenda. Ick.
@David Roof:
While I don't think the absence of Marxist analysis is "glaring", there are clearly a lot of elements of the setting that could make for interesting post-colonial analysis. The various repercussions of the conquest of Komarr, particularly Galeni's arc, the legacy of the resistance to the Cetagandan invasion, Cordelia's position coming from a more technologically advanced and "Western" society than Barrayar- there's a lot of interesting stuff there that need not produce "pre-ordained conclusions."

Maya Chhabra

I would love a post-colonial analysis of Galeni. What do you do when the Empire is never-ever leaving? What are the implications for the resistance vs. collaboration dynamic when the resistance can't win? And how do you know or decide that that's the case?
I can't say I especially like the implications of Galeni's arc, but it certainly makes me think.

Disability, check, families and gender roles, check; nothing about colonization, race, ethnicity, language; nothing about queer and trans* issues. Well, that's 50% of the things I'd expect people to write academic papers about . . . ?

There's another book-- The Vorkosigan Companion.
I don't feel a need for a Marxist analysis, but I wouldn't mind seeing something about Bujold's ambivalence about commerce-- Jackson's Hole vs. development on Barrayar. I don't see anything as crudely anti-military as Jackson's Hole (which I'm not sure would even work as a society) is anti-business.


Sheesh, nothing on trans stuff given Lord Dono in Civil Campaign or Betan herms? Seems like an essay on tech and the fluidity of gender would be a given.

>nor (even more glaringly absent) through a Marxist one.
-- ah, that takes me back.

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