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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold

For a decade or more, I read suggestions that Lois McMaster Bujold is an important science fiction author. I sampled one of the many books from her Vorkosigan saga several years ago, but dismissed it as space opera, and read no more of the books.

Sometime last year, I came upon Bujold's The Curse of Chalion. This is how. I was looking for Mythopoeic Fantasy Award winning books that I had not read, but which might be worthwhile to read. The Wikipedia article on The Curse of Chalion had this amazing statement: The Curse of Chalion is noted for its focus on religion and metaphysics. This is not only a novel about self-sacrifice and redemption, but also a piece of speculative theological fiction which closely examines the relationship between free will, fate, and divine intervention.

I have now read that book, and two sequels. The Wikipedia article is correct in its analysis. I have a post that considers the question of whether The Curse of Chalion is a Christian novel. The short answer is no. Nonetheless, I found it well written and interesting, and with some Christian themes, such as self-sacrifice. Well, said I, what about the Vorkosigan Saga? Am I missing something interesting? After all, stories from the series have won four Hugo awards and a Nebula award.

(As an aside, Bujold is in rare company, indeed, as an author writing in English who has won important awards for both science fiction and fantasy. I am aware of only two others, Ursula K. Le Guin and Elizabeth Moon, who belong in this company with Bujold.)

What about the Vorkosigan saga? It is space opera, in that the stories are played out on a grand scale, between solar systems. It is also space opera in that it is melodramatic, romantic, and involves warfare with powerful weapons. But it is more than that. The characters are well drawn. Miles Vorkosigan is the main character in most of the books, and he clearly wants to do good, and is clearly flawed -- among other things, he doesn't take orders well. He is also physically flawed, being extremely short, and with weak bone structure. There are some ethical issues raised, but they aren't raised very high. For example, is it right to use artificial wombs? Some characters think so, some don't. In the books I have read (about half of the series) such issues are minor. Political, romantic, and business decisions make up the main parts of the plots. Every now and then, some character will make fleeting reference to a god, or use God's name in vain, but no one seems serious about it, with one exception.

I found something that I didn't expect. One character, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, who is the mother of Miles, is apparently meant, by Bujold, to be taken as a Christian. Here's my evidence:
. . . "I suppose -- I see myself. Or someone like myself. We're both looking for the same thing. We call it by different names, and look in different places. I believe he calls it honor. I guess I'd call it the grace of God. We both come up empty, mostly."
"Ah, yes. I recall from your file that you are some sort of theist," said the Emperor. "I am an atheist, myself. A simple faith, but a great comfort to me, in these last days."
(Barrayar, 1996 version, published as the second part of Cordelia's Honor. New York: Baen, p. 230. Emperor Ezar, who is dying, to Cordelia, about Aral Vorkosigan, her new husband.)

"Besides, your mother's religion grants some kind of good karma for visiting the sick and prisoners, and I hear you've been the two in one." (The Vor Game. 1990, Riverdale, New York: Baen, 103) Emperor Gregor, to Miles, about Cordelia. (See Matthew 25:31-40)

Does this make the saga Christian? I wouldn't say so, any more than having, say, a devout priest on a couple of episodes of Law and Order would make the series Christian. But it's nice that Bujold includes a Christian character, even though the evidence of her faith (unless I missed it) is scarce, indeed. There are a few references to prayer, or to a God, but these are never more than a sentence or two, except for the passages above. In Ethan of Athos, there is a reference to whether Ethan can absolve another character's sins (p. 333) Cee, that character, who is the result of biological engineering, thinks that he isn't human. Ethan sets him straight, however:
"So what is the test of humanity?"
"Well -- you have free will, obviously, or you could not be opposing your creators. Therefore you are not an automaton, but a child of God the Father, answerable to Him according to your abilities," Ethan catechized. (335)

Bujold deals with ethics relating to medical ethics, but they aren't allowed to get in the way of her stories, although sometimes her stories depend on them. In Falling Free, there is a race of humans with no legs and feet, but a second set of arms and hands in their place. Miles, Mystery & Mayhem, (Baen, 2001) combines her Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos, and "Labyrinth." Bujold wrote, in the afterword, that, although all three works deal with reproductive technology:
"Yet in all these different societies, the test of humanity comes out the same, and it has nothing to do with genetics. No one can be guilty of their own birth, no matter what form it takes. We need not fear our technology if we do not mistake the real springs of our humanity. It's not how we get here that counts; it's what we do after we arrive." (p. 502)

A Civil Campaign has genetic engineering of insects as an important feature. And, of course, Miles himself would not have been born without the use of an artificial womb. Some of the societies on the Hegen Hub use these, in some it is a matter of choice. At least one planetary society, Athos, is absolutely dependent on these devices, as this race is without females.

All that being said, I wouldn't say that Bujold explores the implications of biological technology so much that the books are mainly about it. And she doesn't explore the implications of some sort of alternate society as much as Ursula K. Le Guin did in The Left Hand of Darkness (which was about a planet where an individual could be either male or female in any reproductive cycle, according to mostly chance factors). But Bujold is well worth reading, and if we want to read about biotechnology, I guess there are more factual sources.

So, in sum, I'm glad I started the Vorkosigan books. I have read almost all of them, and hope to finish them some day.


Kate said...

I am taking a Fantasy and Science Fiction class right now, for which we just read Falling Free by Bujold. I spent an entire class period at my secular school listening to my self-proclaimed agnostic professor (who is nuts anyhow...she sings opera in class. But that's another story) give a lecture on the story's parallel to the book of Exodus. At the end of said lecture, she said, "If there is a God, I hate Him!" While I get easily frustrated with the teacher, I think your post is interesting. I enjoyed the book, I would like to read more of the series, I can see the parallel to Exodus, but I didn't think it was very well written. Thank you for writing!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Kate. Most professors, whatever their religious preference, are a little nuts, and I should know. Too bad about this one.

I confess that I haven't gotten into Falling Free yet. I started it, but didn't like it as well as some of the other Vorkosigan books, or the Chalion works. I should get serious about it, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Here is some Biblical metaphysics and science fiction:

Bible Trek

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you, anonymous. Melchizedek is interesting, indeed, but I haven't come to a firm conclusion about him.

It isn't clear that Paul wrote Hebrews, although there are some authorities who believe that he did.