I realized something extraordinary while re-reading Lois McMaster Bujold's wonderful Barrayar books. First, these are as fresh today as when they were written nearly 30 years ago. There's not a thing dated about them - fortunately - because they're set in the far future in an imagined space world created by Lois. And yet they're not "strange," weird, or even filled with completely unpro'noun'c'ble names with in'eXp'lic'aa'bl apostrophes.
So Old Lady did some digging. By the way, "Old Lady" is one of my joke nicknames. Gambit and Ollie love "Old Lady" as differentiated from "Young Lady" (Meredith).
Shards of Honor is the first book in the Vorkosigan Saga, and was published in 1986. Seriously, here are two of the reviews - these are pull quotes - from the book's Amazon sales page:
"[Bujold] gives [her] characters enough emotional depth, and enough sense, to raise their story beyond cliché." --Locus
"Bujold has a nice hand with the complications . . . All in all, Shards is a worthy effort, and worth reading for any fan of SF romance." --Analog
Old Lady dug some more and also found these, to be perfectly fair -
"This superb first novel integrates a believable romance into a science fiction tale of adventure and war."
"Possibly the best first novel of the year"
- The Chicago Sun Times
And those second two are fair, and true. But if you only read the first two, you'd think these were "average" books, wouldn't you? Let's look at some of the other big contemporary books of that day.
Ender's Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card. Ender Wiggin is selected as a child able to combat the alien "Buggers" who are about to attack humanity for a third time. The boy believes he is playing a game, only to discover that the game is real, and he's killed, if my memory serves me right, millions of the insectoid aliens.
Ender's Game won the Hugo and Nebula Awards and of course, was recently made into a film, nearly 30 years after its first publication.
"Card has taken the venerable sf concepts of a superman and interstellar war against aliens, and, with superb characterization, pacing and language, combined them into a seamless story of compelling power. This is Card at the height of his very considerable powers—a major sf novel by any reasonable standards."—Booklist
Ender's competition for the Nebula Award included The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. This equally-famous book, set in the "Republic of Gilead," ostensibly within the borders of the former United States, tells the story of Offred, who is a "handmaid" who's having The Commander (Fred's) baby. Reading this book made me sick to my stomach. I was sickened by finding their illicit (in the bizarre culture proposed) love affair vaguely titillating. It's just sad, depressing, and the theoretical "renaissance" which follows the dark ages portrayed seems poor and thin.
How fascinating - the featured reviews of Canadian author Atwood's work are from Canadian publications ... and they are not so glowing as the Ender's Game reviews (SURPRISE! Not.)
"The most poetically satisfying and intense of all Atwood's novels."-Maclean's
"The Handmaid's Tale is in the honorable tradition of Brave New World and other warnings of dystopia. It's imaginative even audacious, and conveys a chilling sense of fear and menace."-The Globe and Mail
Our other 1986 big books include Greg Bear's Blood Music, in which nanotechnology goes wild and subsumes humanity. Greg Bear is a really great writer and this book is unforgettable. And sad and negative and apocalyptic. His opposing pole, David Brin, published The Postman that year, which is also post-apocalyptic, but posits that things we share - such as mail delivery - may eventually save us all despite ourselves. I remember reading the original Postman novella and thinking, "I love this writer. I love that it's not all doom and gloom and it's about love and hope and courage and humanity."
Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar books are not "space opera" in the denigrating terms that usually implies. I certainly cannot find any random, inexcusable failures in so-called "worldbuilding." They are meticulous in all aspects of "realism," and examine such issues as types of weaponry and their use, including moral and ethical concerns -- like stunners, which do not kill, vs. disruptors, which always kill or gravely disable, creating human "vegetables."
And in terms of "world," with all the cultures of Bujold's future space society, she brings together two total badasses, Cordelia Naismith (pictured on cover above) and Aral Vorkosigan - worthy of Cordelia's honor and general badassery (which he almost immediately recognizes). These books are extremely well-written, fast-paced, and just in general bigger-ass efforts than any of the more publically-famous and commented on/referenced contemporaneous books I mentioned.
Which of these is not like the others?
- Ender's Game: boy plays killing "game" and actually does kill millions.
- The Handmaid's Tale: enslaved woman trapped in sad, horrible life must have powerful man's baby just to stay alive.
- Blood Music: guy comes up with amazing nanotechnology that could lead to immortality; instead, it swallows everybody and makes us all biosoup.
- Shards of Honor: There's all these planets and a big-ass war brewing, and a powerful woman and man from the opposing sides and very different cultures navigate treacherous situations while falling in love ... eventually to found a dynasty that stands for the future and hope. The woman comes from a democratic, open society; the man from a closed, hierarchical one.
There's a Facebook Page dedicated to "Cordelia Naismith: Badass" - there are two members at present. Cordelia is a Betan survey ship Commander. Unlike attempts at portraying female commanders in some other media (i.e. Star Trek - who wants that lady captain?) this one works. Probably because Lois McMaster Bujold has something of a clue as to how people actually operate.
This morning, John Kessel commented on Facebook about how he'd been writing for some time about "What it is to be a man" in today's rapidly changing society. Well, I'd rather think it wouldn't be good to be a little boy tricked into killing millions, no matter how satisfying the "game" may seem at the time. Nor do I think it would be very good to be a guy who inadvertently invented nanotechnology that ate everybody alive. Nor would it be good to be The Commander, forced to enslave a woman to carry his child, and screw her behind closed doors while fending off questions from his understandably disgruntled wife.
Aral Vorkosigan's life was neither easy nor pleasant, but at least he could look himself in the mirror each morning and know he was looking on the face of an honorable man. And it happened all by accident, but he found a woman as powerful and honorable as himself in the course of his ... well, in the course of trying to keep his ass alive to fight another day. As to Cordelia, we all wish to find our mate or match, and so she did, although I don't think she ever got to finish her survey.
Is what I am saying clear? There was one book in 1985 that tagged where men and women need to go and can go. Can anybody make the intellectual argument that the machinery of making a child a stone-cold killer, or the machinery of human enslavement, or the deadly potential of out of control "science," is "better" - a better future vision - more "insightful," and better- written and generally all-around better for people to read? This book was not Ender's Game, nor was it The Handmaid's Tale, nor was it Blood Music, nor any of the others.
It wasn't about complaining. It was about doing. It showed how it's done with delight and flair and joy and thrills. This book was Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold.