Back in the late 1990s, I was a member of a mailing list (remember them?) devoted to the discussion and analysis of Blake’s 7 (remember that— yes of course you do). We were a lively, eclectic, opinionated and – though I say it myself – phenomenally well-informed set of individuals. I was partway through a Master’s degree at the time, and about to start on a PhD, but a substantial part of my education came from the people I met on those lists. But apart from all that – and the long-term friendships which came from time – I’m particularly grateful to whoever on that list recommended to us the novels of Lois McMaster Bujold.
The person reccing the books was fairly sure that Bujold had seen Blake’s 7, pointing to her 1989 novel Brothers in Arms (which is a mid-period entry in her science fiction series the Vorkosigan Saga). There was a character (Duv Galeni) who seemed to have echoes of Paul Darrow’s Avon (saturnine appearance and cool intellect), and another (short-haired ruthless commander) who surely owed something to Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan. I hadn’t – for various reasons – read much science fiction at the time, but I dived into Brothers in Arms, and thought, “Oh, that’s not bad. I think I’ll try a couple more.” There are complicated discussions (and firm opinions) about where to start with Bujold’s novels (particularly her sf Vorkosigan Saga): fortunately, I didn’t know anything about this, and just carried on chronologically, moving on next to The Vor Game (1990).
This was a good way into her writing. The novels before Brothers in Arms and The Vor Game are highly accomplished space operas, written with verve, wit, imagination, and energy. From Mirror Dance (1994) onwards, Bujold’s writing goes up a gear. There is a seriousness of intent to the Vorkosigan books from here on that transforms the series: they become steadily more ambitious; her facility with her trademark genre-bending becomes even more skilled; the novels are enjoyable on their own terms, but vastly more satisfying when read in the context of the full body of work. With A Civil Campaign (1999), the crowning entry in the Vorkosigan Saga, Bujold shifts between space opera, romantic novel, comedy of manners… and two of the best set-pieces I’ve ever read. The dedication in A Civil Campaign reads: “To Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy – long may they rule.” Austen, Brontë, Heyer, Sayer – Bujold knows her tradition, and her name is not out of place added to that list.
I’ve not even mentioned her fantasy series. The Curse of Chalion (2001) and Paladin of Souls (2003), with a world inspired by southern Europe during the Spanish Reconquista and a fully worked out theological and religious system, contain profound reflections on fate, destiny, free will, and individual agency. Bujold has come back to this setting with an ongoing set of novellas, the ‘Penric and Desdemona’ series. In her other main set of books, The Sharing Knife tetralogy (2006-2009), Bujold dispenses with the traditional European fantasy setting, and creates a distinctively American setting. Although these novels are not, to my mind, as immediately gripping as her other series, they subtly blur the line between science fiction and fantasy. Often, in these books, what seems like magic turns out to have a rational basis.
To say that reading Bujold has had significant impact on me is an understatement. Let’s scurry forwards to 2013, when I was a university lecturer in creative writing within an English department that was friendly to genre fiction, and I had the bright idea of holding a one-day conference on Lois McMaster Bujold. I hadn’t organized an academic conference before (I’d run other events in various previous lives). How hard could it be? To be honest, it wasn’t that hard, although it was made slightly more complicated by the fact that I went on maternity leave that September. Nevertheless, I used some of the time after my daughter was born to get the conference off the ground. In August 2014 (checking the date, I see that I am writing this blog post six years to the day), around thirty of us from three continents gather to geek about a beloved author. Could anything be more enjoyable?
As it turns out, yes: deciding to work with one of the presenters (Regina Yung Lee) to turn that conference into a collection of essays on Bujold’s work. This book, Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold, was published by Liverpool University Press in June 2020, and is only the second scholarly collection of essays on her work. We got through the indexing during the first weeks of lockdown and, shortly after we sent the final proofs back, Bujold published a new entry in her ‘Penric’ series, ‘The Physicians of Vilnoc’. This novella concerns the outbreak of deadly plague in an army camp and the variety of responses to bringing it under control. I can’t regret that our volume doesn’t cover this publication, because it means that Bujold is still writing – and that her ideas are as vigorous and timely as ever.
Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold, edited by Regina Yung Lee and Una McCormack, is published by Liverpool University Press:
Short But Concentrated: an essay symposium on the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, edited by Una McCormack and Regina Yung Lee, is available as a free e-book:
Dr Una McCormack is a New York Times bestselling science fiction author. She is passionate about women’s writing, science fiction, and helping people find their words and voices. Her Star Trek: Picard novel, The Last Best Hope, is published by Simon and Schuster in 2020.