Lois McMaster Bujold - Author Review

Who is Lois McMaster Bujold

Ms. Bujold is a science fiction and fantasy author. She was born in Columbus Ohio on November 2, 1949. Her father, Robert Charles McMaster1, is famous in his own right in both engineering circles and as author of the tome "Non Destructive Testing Handbook."

On Spec
This is shorthand for On Speculation. Ms. Bujold wrote three books before ever being published. These were Shards of Honor, The Warrior's Apprentice, and Ethan of Athos. In this regard the novels above were written "on speculation," in the hope that a publisher would pick up her works and print & distribute the novels.

She experienced at least four rejections of these works before being picked up by Baen Books who offered to publish all three works if she wrote an additional two bracketing novels.

Interestingly, though The Warrior's Apprentice was the very first purchase it was not the first book Baen published. In 1986 Shards of Honor was published followed by The Warrior's Apprentice and then Ethan of Athos.

Because the release of the books has not followed the actual writing of them Ms. Bujold is also known for providing the reader a time-line of information woven into each story in clever and seamless ways. Because of this effort it really doesn't matter where you start in the series; you are never truly lost.

She has been writing steadily since 1986, every year in fact, and has won four (4) Hugo awards (chosen by Hugo members) and three (3) Nebula awards. The Nebula winners are actually selected by fellow writers.

Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois McMaster Bujold | Source
Artists concept of Wormhole Travel
Artists concept of Wormhole Travel | Source

Mountains of Mourning

This was my first introduction to Ms. Bujold's primary character, Miles Vorkosigan, and indeed her writing and style. I was reading an anthology of SciFi favorites for the year 1990. This is how I typically find new SciFi authors I want to read.

The story was a bit off-putting at first. It was about a count's son, in a monarchic2 society who has been assigned to solve a mysterious death by his father the Count of Vorkosigan District. The death has occurred in a back-country village near the Dendarii mountains. All of this takes place on a planet settled primarily by Russian and Greek colonists. At some point the planet is cut off from faster-than-light-travel wormholes and falls back into a feudal state.

At the time of this story the planet, Barryar, has been rediscovered, but it's royal houses and the emperor are working hard to bring the population back in to modern times. One of the problems faced is the old habit of killing children (or grandchildren) if they are mutated.

Miles must travel to the village and sort out the death of a baby. By Barryaran law, a count's appointee must investigate if the local constable is away; which he is.

In essence the story is a test for Miles assigned by his father. It's part of his continuing education in how to become a Count. In the process we are invited into a world that it grappling with iron age and space age technology. It's an interesting mix of cowboy opera and high tech wizardry.

Miles himself is an odd character. He is all of 4'9" tall, viewed by many older Barryarans as a mutation himself (though that's not the real problem) who has learned, because of his deformities, that a quick wit and wry humor are the best way to break down barriers to communication. He also happens to be "genius-level" smart.

Naturally he solves the crime, metes out a very fair justice and returns home to his Ma and Da to enjoy some downtime.

Now to say that a tall dwarf is an odd choice of character is an understatement, but after the first chapter you wish you knew someone like Miles yourself.

Embarassment
After reading this I visited one of my favorite blogs about science fiction (link at bottom of page) and someone had asked if Lois McMaster Bujold was a hard science fiction writer. I stated that even though I enjoyed her writing I could not put her in the same class as writers like Larry Niven or Issac Asimov.

I was wrong.

Miles, Mutants and Mayhem

This is the second work I read. It is actually three books in one. It includes Falling Free, Labyrinth and Diplomatic Immunity.

Falling Free is actually an homage of sorts to Bujold's father. It is basically about a thousand genetically engineered humans that have four arms and hands but no legs. They have been bred specifically to work in free-fall. As such they don't suffer bone-loss in weightlessness, have no problem thinking in three dimensions and are somewhat long lived

Due to the location of their space habitat the company that owns them can do whatever they want with them without facing any real legal problems. This includes "disposing" of them as "biological waste" if the entrepreneurial experiment does not work out.

Unfortunately, as the "quaddies" are finally ready to begin making the company profits, gravity control is developed at another colony planet and the "quaddies" become obsolete. An engineer assigned from Earth, to help teach the quaddies good engineering practices realizes that the "biological waste" threat is very real. He therefore pitches and carries off a bloodless revolt, thus freeing the quaddies from ultimate doom by the parent company that suddenly sees their creation as an unnecessary expense.

This story takes place two hundred years prior to the Vorkosigan saga.

Labyrinth is also a human genetic engineering themed story, but this time one of the companies on a colony planet called Jackson's Whole3 has created the ultimate soldier under contract. When contract funds run dry the creations are sold off to less than ethical companies. The ultimate soldier is a human engineered from fertilized ovum to full grown human with genes from both horses and wolves. As far fetched as this sounds geneticists today often cross plant and animal genes for experimental purposes.

Their creation, ultimately named Tarua, looks like an eight foot tall werewolf. Miles Vorkosigan inadvertently "rescues" then befriends her. Actually, Taura does most of the rescuing, but Miles has something to offer; freedom.

Diplomatic Immunity the final story in this volume deals with yet another colonial planet that has taken genetic engineering of humans to yet another extreme. Pho Ceta has two classes of humans. The Ghem and the Haut.

The Ghem are the most populace class of people on Ceta, but their breeding and population are not tightly controlled though they serve as breed-stock to the Haut. The Haut, on the other hand, take all of the breeding and place into the hands of a select group of women who determine which human gene stocks are used to breed future generations of Haut. As such they control what each Haut family gets in the way of children. A device called a uterine replicator (used widely in this Bujold universe) allows the Haut to combine ideal gene sequences, gestate children artificially, and then assign the completed children to their families.

In this way the high Haut women control the ruling class of the planet.

Signature Technology

Every science fiction author worth the ink on paper creates her or his own signature technology. For Larry Niven it was teleportation and a ring shaped world. For Issac Asimov it was robots. Both these authors explored many facets of their chosen key technology.

For Niven it was how instant teleportation would change the face of the world. Everything from turning freeways into parks to using the equipment to forestall old age.

For Asimov it was the long (future) history of teaching robots to recognize and not harm humans. The exploration culminated in the ultimate effect of how an extremely intelligent machine would interpret "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

Uterine Replicator
For Ms. Bujold the signature technology is a future machine that is originally designed to function as an artificial uterus in case of  pregnant mother becomes incapacitated or severely injured through accident or disease.

"I am increasingly convinced that technological culture is the entire root of women's liberation." - Lois McMaster Bujold.

As other authors have with their signature technology, Ms. Bujold extrapolated the effect of this technological fiction over time. In future novels this device frees women of pregnancy, allows geneticists to tinker, and also gives parents unprecedented control over genetic abnormalities and traits. The technology also ends mutagenic disease, miscarriages, other birth defects and allows some colonial planets to purposely create hermaphrodites. There is even one colony planet in the story Ethan of Athos that is entirely populated by males; on purpose.

I Was Wrong
This is hard science fiction without a doubt.

Fantasy

After years of toiling away (I say this tongue in cheek) as a science fiction writer, Ms. Bujold has finally been able (starting in 2006) to explore the fantasy world she so longed to write about.

Though there's "magic" involved, the characters, scenes, situations, and circumstances are just as engaging as her science fiction yarns. She started with The Spirit Ring in 1993 and began again with The Sharing Knife starting in 2006. I've read two the the four novels in the "Knife" series and I can tell you they are just as good as her other works.

Themes

If I wanted you, dear reader, to have a one sentence description of Ms. Bujold's primary writing style I could lie and tell you it's "murder mystery" clothed in "hard science fiction."

Both of these themes happen to be true, but if I didn't tell you more I'd be leaving out a substantial amount of information. Please note that the following categories are not listed in any particular order. Ms. Bujold is more than capable of carrying all these themes in a single story and still making it very hard to put down.

Engineering and Medicine
First the science fiction is thoroughly researched and is based not only on materials science, but medicine. Thankfully she has a repository of experts to help sanity check her work. In one instance she floated the idea of uterine replicator to two doctor friends. Oddly the bachelor doctor rejected the idea, almost out of hand, and the married doctor embraced it.

"Don't worry about that depressing old dictum 'Write what you know'. If you need to know something, look it up. Learn how to find out what you need to know to make it right. Be passionate, be picky, have enough self-criticism to demand of yourself your best and not sort of let it slide by. And remember that the greatest defect any piece of fiction can have is not to be finished." - Lois McMaster Bujold

Murder Mystery
Almost every tale involves a mysterious death and the solving of it.

War and Combat
Ms. Bujold not only tells good war stories her heros are often women who are just as efficient and effective as any male Navy Seal.

"I have a catchphrase to describe my plot-generation technique — 'What's the worst possible thing I can do to these people?'" - Lois McMaster Bujold

Politics and Societies
Because her universe is populated with numerous colony planets she can explore a wide variety of social systems. Barryar is feudal. Beta Colony and Quaddie Space democratic. Pho Ceta an odd mixture of hegemony and monarchy, but spread out among fifty women who rule by committee. Jackson's Whole is entrepreneurial anarchy. And finally, Earth is a rich repository of continued technological advancement and history. Interestingly her Earth (one thousand year hence?4) is still a collection of nation states with no central government.

Character Development
Not only does she tell a good yarn wrapped around plausible scientific possibility she also manages to create endearing and believable characters. Her women are strong, funny and wise. Her men solid, wise enough to seek council from women, and full of humor.

Fashion
Yup. She even delves into fashion.

Coda

I hope I've given the reader a good reason to explore this author. I fell in love with her style and story telling from the first novella onward. Though Mountain of Mourning wasn't all that unusual , I fell in love with the characters and had the nagging feeling that I knew them all. She was also able to give me, the reader, a sense of the place. By the end I felt I'd been there and had a hand in the plot.

I do blame her, indirectly, for a less than normal amount of sleep on occasion. If I'm down to the last three chapters I just can't put the book down and go to bed; I have to see how things turn out.

I devoted just over two thousand words to this article. It feels like I should have devoted six thousand.

Her latest work is Cryoburn, released in 2010 and it takes up the Miles Vorkosigan series again.

Finally, if you want to read a sample of her work you can at no cost. Baen books and Bujold both have the philosophy that if you enjoy a free story you might pay for a longer one. Check the links section below for the Baen Free Library.


Footnotes

1 Robert Charles McMaster is the author of Non Destructive Testing Handbook. He co-authored two other books. To this day the handbook mentioned above is a must have for any engineer's library.

2 I'm not wild about the idea of monarchy. As an American I find the idea alien and repulsive.

3 Jackson's Whole is a colony planet that demonstrates free enterprise run rampant. No states or government oversight exist. Instead the planet is known for human ownership (slavery) and being able to supply other colonies with anything; including items any other civilization would have outlawed.

4 Somehow Ms. Bujold is able to tell a story and give the reader a good sense of time passage without ever mentioning a date.

Disclaimer

The author was not compensated in any way, either monetarily, with discounts, or freebies by any of the companies mentioned.

Though the author does make a small profit for the word count of this article none of that comes directly from the manufacturers mentioned. The author also stands to make a small profit from advertising attached to this article.

The author has no control over either the advertising or the contents of those ads.

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