I am a huge fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series. Every time I finish a book, I can’t wait to grab the next, because I just have to find out what happens next. It rarely takes me more than a few days to finish one of her stories because it’s just so hard to put the book down! As a reader, I love losing myself in the story, trying (and usually failing) to anticipate the plot twists, feeling the character’s joy and pain as my own. As a writer (though not an author…yet, I hope!), I’m blown away by her storycrafting skills.
McMaster Bujold is one of those writers who manage to simultaneously inspire and terrify me. This is about the highest praise I can manage for any author.
I finish one of her books inspired to start writing immediately. I get about a thousand ideas when reading a good book: but what if the character had chosen this instead of that, or if s/he hadn’t been allowed to choose at all, or what would this scene look like from his/her perspective, or how would so-and-so’s mother/friend/husband/child/servant/teacher/etc react to this event? I naturally forget most of them as soon as I move on to the next paragraph, but a good book gets my brain percolating on overdrive. (“And the coffee percolator…” Sorry, not relevant)
As I’m reading, and after I finish, I’m also extremely intimidated. There’s just no way I could possibly be that good! I could never think of all those plot twists, keep track of all those characters and their motivations, all the nuances in their interactions. What kind of a brain does it take to create a character so…present…as Miles, or Cordelia, or Aral, or…?
Of course McMaster Bujold has been working with these characters for over a quarter of a century now, and has had that time to get to know them, to watch them evolve and change. When she first started writing Shards of Honor, she probably had no idea where Cordelia and Aral’s son would end up years later. When I’m feeling sensible enough, I remind myself that I don’t have to have characters’ whole lives sketched out for them when I begin writing. It takes time for them to evolve—and anyway, they’re going to do so whether I want them to or not (fictional personalities are terribly insubordinate). The real question is, can I come up with a set of characters that I’ll want to stick with for thirty years?
One thing I have greatly enjoyed about reading the omnibus editions of the Miles books is reading McMaster Bujold’s afterwords, getting a little insight into how she creates her masterpieces. The afterword for Miles in Love (containing Komarr, A Civil Campaign, and “Winterfair Gifts”), which I have just finished, was especially thought-provoking.
In the afterword, McMaster Bujold discusses many things, but one of the things that engaged my brain the most was about the crossover between science fiction and romance. As an avid reader (and writer) of both, I was a little surprised to read her comment about “the usually immiscible genres of F&SF and Romance.”* Most of my stories are both! But looking at the other comments McMaster Bujold makes about SF and romance, the more I appreciate her take on them.
She asks the question, “What could this future setting and its technology do to romances?”* It’s this question which really sets apart her writing from other romantic SF. I’ve always admired the way McMaster Bujold handles gender, sexuality, and reproduction in her books (here comes the intimidation again…). Her exploration of the social consequences of the uterine replicator on Barrayar, for example, is inspired.
I was a little hung up when I first read the question, though. Why should an SF setting change a romance? People are people; shouldn’t the patterns of falling in love be more or less consistent regardless of their temporal proximity to the current date?
The answer, I think, is no—not quite. We don’t fall in love in a vacuum. There are elements which may be found in romances in the real world, in histories, in contemporary fiction, in SF; between a man and a woman, two women, two men, multiple partners. But our surroundings, most notably the social mores that we must navigate, have a profound shaping effect on our relationships, be they sexual, romantic, familial, platonic, antagonistic, ambivalent, or otherwise.
And, whether we like it or not, our technology has a huge impact on the structure of society. My current job search process is vastly different from what it would have been ten years ago, which is again vastly different from how my parents’ generation took on similar searches forty years ago. My relationship with my ex, both while we were together and afterwards, would have been vastly different without email, Skype, Facebook, or cell phones. These are all simply communications technologies. But as McMaster Bujold explores in her works, biological and reproductive technologies can have perhaps an even more profound effect on relationships. Even today we face choices due to situations that were not possible a century ago—in-vitro fertilization, surrogate pregnancies, legal abortions, rudimentary genetic screening, even being able to see the sex of your child while it is still in the womb.
There’s so much moral and emotional ground to cover even with the technologies we have today. The technologies of tomorrow offer still further lenses through which to examine the human condition. I sincerely hope McMaster Bujold will continue to do so. And while I’m hardly in the same league, I’m going to continue taking stabs at it myself. I’ve got too many dreams to stay on Earth, after all…
* Quotes from p.862 of the 2008 Baen omnibus.