Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Adventure classics -- War, outer space and true love

Shards of Honor

by Lois McMaster Bujold


Science fiction often gets defined as a literature of ideas. As usual, Isaac Asimov said it best, calling the genre back in 1953 “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” This July of science fiction adventures has had ideas by the starship load, from Michael Crichton’s reconstruction of extinct species, to Aldous Huxley’s vision of social evolution, to Asimov’s own thousand-year plan for the galaxy. Ideas in plenty. Emotions, though, have mostly been missing in action¾ a dab of greed here, of grief there, of lust for political power¾ is there even a word for that? And if we’re going to talk about human beings, how can we do that without emotions¾ the messier and more urgent the better?

Enter Lois McMaster Bujold with 1986’s Shards of Honor, the opening volume of her ongoing Vorkosigan saga. Seriously, can you imagine any other master of the science fiction genre using as emotionally-laden a word as “honor” in a title? And then there’s love (in myriad forms), lust (ditto), rage, treachery, sorrow, compassion, pride, duplicity. Holy faster than light¾ it’s a cornucopia of emotions.

What threw me, reading Shards for the first time to prepare for this post, is that it doesn’t contain any mention of the person who will be the main character of the entire series, Miles Vorkosigan. Not to worry. Miles is the child of the highly unlikely relationship between the main character of Shards of Honor, Captain Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony, and her planet’s archenemy, Aral Vorkosigan.

Cordelia is on an exploration trip to a newly-discovered planet when her crew is attacked by a ship from Vorkosigan’s aggressively militaristic world of Barrayar. Aral is left for dead by his expedition but takes Cordelia and a wounded crewmember prisoner.

It hardly sounds like a recipe for true love, but as science fiction author Jo Walton writes in What Makes This Book So Great, her anthology of genre classics, Bujold is amazing for “the emotional depth she manages to get into this space opera plot. It’s not so much the romance (though the romance is actually very sweet) as the genuine ethical dilemmas.”

Actually, I thought the romance, though admittedly sweet and rather chaste, happened way too fast. Cordelia’s people have nicknamed Vorkosigan “the butcher of Komarr” for a planetary bloodbath under his command, but Cordelia decides, on his unsupported word, that he wasn’t really to blame. Why, except so that Bujold can get her and Aral on to the job of making the baby who will grow up to be a major character?

On the way to that goal, Cordelia will imperil a rescue attempt by her own crew in order to save Aral from the treachery of his own crew, waterboard the therapist using illicit drugs to figure out how much brainwashing the Barrayarans have done to Cordelia, and defect to Barrayar in order to take Aral up on his previous offer of marriage to her. As a reader making her first foray into the Vorkosigan chronicles, I’ll have to admit wondering whether Cordelia really had been brainwashed, and whether Aral’s nobility was a figment of her imagination.

Fortunately for the remainder of the saga, Cordelia is right and I’m just being paranoid, although more evil will fall to the lot of their son, Miles, stricken with multiple birth defects as the result of a mutagenic chemical attack on his parents. But that’s a shadow for the future.

See Bujold's site,, for the complete Vorkosigan chronology.  

I’ve totally fallen for Walton’s book, What Makes This Book So Great, based on a series of blogs she wrote for Many of her posts are still available at Tor’s site. Or of course, you can read the book itself, which is widely available.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a July of science fiction adventures with Octavia Butler’s time travel story, Kindred.)

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