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Bujold, Lois McMaster

Entry updated 24 April 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1949-    ) US author who began publishing sf with "Barter" for Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, March/April 1985. Almost all her published sf work is part of a loose series of often humorous adventures set in a future of feuding galactic colonies connected by Faster-than-Light "Wormhole jumps". Most of these stories feature members of the Vorkosigan family, part of an elite military caste from the planet Barrayar, recently rediscovered by galactic civilization after regressing into semifeudalism. Shards of Honor (1986) and its immediate sequel Barrayar (July-October 1991 Analog; 1991) which won a 1992 Hugo, deal with the romance between Lord Aral Vorkosigan and the sophisticated off-worlder Cordelia Naismith; the child of their marriage is Miles Vorkosigan, born with severe physical handicaps due to a politically inspired attempt to Poison his father. Miles grows up to become a supremely charismatic, witty, compulsively driven military genius who triumphantly transcends the difficulties caused by his brittle bones and 4ft 9in (1.45m) stature. His complicated double life in the Barrayaran Navy (as an ensign, soon transferred to Imperial Security) and the Dendarii Mercenaries (of which he accidentally becomes the founder and admiral) is followed, in order of internal chronology, in The Warrior's Apprentice (1986) – assembled with Shards of Honor as Test of Honor (omni 1987) – The Vor Game (first part February 1990 Analog as "Weatherman"; exp 1990), which won a 1991 Hugo; Cetaganda (October-December 1995 Analog; 1996), set on the titular homeworld of an interstellar empire controlled by a hierarchy of artificially created human subspecies; Brothers in Arms (1989) and the ambitious Mirror Dance (1994) (see Clones; Identity; Torture), recipient of a 1995 Hugo. The short stories in Borders of Infinity (fixup 1989) – assembled with The Vor Game as Vorkosigan's Game (omni 1990) – including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning "The Mountains of Mourning" (May 1989 Analog; 2014), feature Miles at various points in his early career. Ethan of Athos (1986), set after The Vor Game, focuses on Elli Quinn, who eventually becomes Miles's lover, and a representative of a male separatist culture threatened by the imminent failure of the technology which creates its children.

In Memory (1996), perhaps Bujold's most impressive novel, Miles is forced to confront the contradictions of his multiple identities and tangled loyalties, in the end choosing a vision of himself as an enlightened Barrayaran aristocrat over his life as a galactic mercenary. Chronologically subsequent volumes in the series present Miles as an older, more political and somewhat saner individual; to date these works comprise Komarr (1998), A Civil Campaign (1999), Diplomatic Immunity (2003) and Cryoburn (2010); in the last of these, Miles is kidnapped on a planet whose Cryonics industry is simultaneously covering up a major internal scandal and planning large-scale Political shenanigans; here he solves a fussily over-elaborate mystery. His deceptively feckless-seeming cousin and ally Ivan Vorpatril takes centre stage in the comedy Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (2012), while the focus of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (2015 ebook; rev 2016) is on a developing relationship between the eponymous Admiral Jole and the now-widowed Cordelia Vorkosigan. The sequence as a whole won the newly introduced regular (as distinct from the 1966 one-off) Hugo for best series in 2017.

Falling Free (December 1987-February 1988 Analog; 1988), winner of the 1988 Nebula and for some years Bujold's best known single novel, is set 200 years before Shards of Honor and tells the story of a rebellion – by humans modified by Genetic Engineering to live in zero Gravity as "quaddies", with extra arms in place of legs – against the company which has created them and plans, once their commercial value has expired, to dump them on a planetary surface; their descendants feature in the later series, in particular Diplomatic Immunity. Throughout the main sequence of Miles Vorkosigan stories Bujold displays a considerable range, from the adventure fiction of The Warrior's Apprentice to the romantic comedy of manners of A Civil Campaign; from the murder mystery of "The Mountains of Mourning" to the questions of personal Identity raised by Mirror Dance and Memory. Considered as a whole, the sequence achieves a notable density of internal reference, forming what is almost a single narrative – a march to the music of time resembling that of Poul Anderson's Dominic Flandry, but one explored in rather greater psychological depth.

Bujold's only other works which could be treated as sf are those in the Sharing Knife sequence, consisting of Beguilement (2006), Legacy (2007), Passage (2008) and Horizon (2009). These books, which concentrate on the relationship between one of Bujold's characteristically damaged male protagonists and the woman who rekindles his interest in life, are essentially romances, set in a Pastoral Post-Holocaust world in which a few individuals possess limited extranormal Psi Powers and rustic tranquillity is from time to time disrupted by mind-enslaving and life-force-devouring Monsters presumably spawned by the unspecified past Disaster. The loose World of the Five Gods sequence opening with The Curse of Chalion (2001), whose second novel Paladin of Souls (2003) won both a Hugo and a Nebula in 2004, is Fantasy, as is the unrelated standalone novel The Spirit Ring (1992). Arguably, however, these works display a more traditionally science-fictional concern with logical extrapolation than much of her sf; certainly the theological background (see Religion) of the World of the Five Gods novels and novellas shows a taste for rigorous invention. A decade after the third Five Gods novel, Bujold returned to this world with the lighter-hearted Penric sequence of novellas whose title character inadvertently acquires a quasi-symbiotic "chaos demon" in Penric's Demon (2015 ebook) and establishes a plausible working relationship with this creature of many personalities, all female, inherited from past "riders". In 2018, World of the Five Gods won the second regular Hugo presented for best series, just a year after Miles Vorkosigan had won the first. The Physicians of Vilnoc (2020) is of Science Fantasy interest for its puzzle in Medicine: what is the transmission vector of a localized but dangerous plague? Rats and their fleas are considered but prove to be false trails: the "contagion" (which Penric's demon-aided senses perceive as "alive", distinct from unliving Poison) is jumping between species by another route.

Bujold is a writer whose books are both witty and humane. Her characters have strong feelings for each other and are often remarkably (and perhaps unrealistically) gentle, when compared to similar figures in the Military SF of such male writers as Jerry Pournelle. Her work is notable for its considerable intelligence and complexity, but this may not be immediately obvious. Her limpid style, and its apparent transparency, which can be read as making a virtue of simplicity, seduces some readers into thinking they are being offered a narrative-driven, good old-fashioned read – as indeed they are, but subliminally there is much more going on, including a taste for unsignalled metaphor. It is almost as though she writes in two different languages for two different readerships. This sort of style can render Bujold a particularly tricky subject for the critic. There seems to be very nearly a consensus about two important issues relating to her work, and both are demonstrably wrong. The first is that she is not a Feminist writer. (She is a feminist writer, and an important one, but not obtrusively; tub-thumping is foreign to the way her books work, by stealth.) The second is that she is not a writer to whom ideas are important. The truth is quite the reverse, but she does not usually draw attention to the density of her mentation, though she seems to derive enjoyment from her slippery use of genre, where adventure, historical fiction, Space Opera, comedy, romance, detective fiction, Dystopia and Political analysis are entertainingly and unusually conjured up as disparate elements in an overall pattern. It has often been observed that much of Bujold's creative energy has been put into character creation. It may not be quite so clear how much work must have been put into the worlds the characters inhabit. Bujold's worlds are realistic and very detailed, yet seemingly conjured out of thin air. There is seldom a trace of the arduous research she must have done to make them. She is a world-builder worthy of putting alongside, say, Tolkien, but more economical than he was. Perhaps the comparison should be with Frank Herbert, but Bujold's world-building is less melodramatic than his. With all this emphasis on character and milieu, one might expect the science would be neglected. Not so; it is not normally foregrounded, but it is there. Her use of science is strong and effective. She even implies enough Cosmology to make the Wormhole-jump device (that enables relatively speedy contact between planets) appear almost plausible. Cryonics (whose Technology fuels her recent Mile Vorkosigan novel Cryoburn) is also convincingly extrapolated. Though even her Physics is normally convincing, she is stronger in the Biological sciences, and there is much well-judged and interesting material about Clones, Genetic Engineering and Medicine. Soft sciences like Anthropology and Sociology are employed to illuminate questions of Politics and history. As Bujold once wrote, one of the things that make her work indubitably sf is the recurring subject of "the stresses on people of technological change driving social change". That was in the same essay "Space Opera, Miles and Me" (2007 web) as the following frank account which shows a total awareness of her deliberate subversion of reader conservatism:

"That my novels of character were packaged and sold as military SF by Baen Books was probably a lucky break for me, as it allowed me to sneak in under the radar of genre expectations. By the time folks began to notice that nothing about my work was quite what it appeared, I had begun to acquire the readership who have sustained my art ever since."

See links below for the full essay. Another instance of typecasting Bujold for roles she does not precisely fit is to see her as primarily an author of comic novels (see Humour). She is a very witty writer, but sometimes when she is at her funniest she is like Chaucer's "smyler with the knyf under the cloke". She is the boisterous girl next door, but also the quiet woman who looks like Greta Garbo playing Mata Hari, both living on the same street. Comedy and tragedy are the two sides of her coin.

In December 2019 Bujold was announced as the 2020 recipient of the Damon Knight SFWA Grand Master Award award for life achievement. [PN/NT/DRL]

see also: Analog; Colonization of Other Worlds; Future War; Skylark Award; Yinhe Award.

Lois Joy McMaster Bujold

born Columbus, Ohio: 2 November 1949



Miles Vorkosigan (in order of publication)

World of the Five Gods: Chalion

  • The Curse of Chalion (New York: HarperCollins/Eos, 2001) [World of the Five Gods: Chalion: hb/David Bowers]
  • Paladin of Souls (New York: HarperCollins/Eos, 2003) [World of the Five Gods: Chalion: hb/David Bowers]
  • The Hallowed Hunt (New York: HarperCollins/Eos, 2005) [World of the Five Gods: Chalion: hb/David Bowers]

The Sharing Knife

World of the Five Gods: Penric

  • Penric's Demon (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2015) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/]
  • Penric and the Shaman (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2016) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/]
    • Penric's Progress (New York: Baen Books, 2020) [omni of the above two plus Penric's Fox below: hb/Daniel Dos Santos]
  • Penric's Mission (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2016) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/]
  • Mira's Last Dance (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2017) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/]
    • Penric's Travels (New York: Baen Books, 2020) [omni of the above two plus The Prisoner of Limnos below: hb/Daniel Dos Santos]
  • Penric's Fox (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2017) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/]
  • The Prisoner of Limnos (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2017) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/]
  • The Orphans of Raspay (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2019) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/Ron Miller]
  • The Physicians of Vilnoc (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2020) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/Ron Miller]
  • Masquerade in Lodi (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2020) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/Ron Miller]
    • Penric's Labors (New York: Baen Books, 2022) [omni of the above three: World of the Five Gods: Penric: hb/]
  • The Assassins of Thasalon (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2021) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/]
  • Knot of Shadows (New York: Spectrum Literary Agency, 2021) [ebook: World of the Five Gods: Penric: na/]

individual titles

works as editor

about the author


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