The Breathtaking Beauty of Pain: The Vorkosigan Saga for the Hugo

This year the Hugos are including a new experimental category for Best Series in order to recognize the awesomeness that can’t be contained in one or even two books. I’m thrilled that one of my absolute favorites is on the ballot. The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold is aptly named, with over fifteen novels and several short stories and novellas following the Vorkosigan family through time and space. It mostly focuses on Miles in his journey from military academy reject to galactic covert operative to Imperial Auditor. But it takes brief (and not so brief) forays into stories about his badass parents, his seriously messed up clone-brother, and his passionately indolent cousin.

For full disclosure, I should make it clear that I am not a neutral party. Bujold could write a dictionary, and I would eagerly await its release. I love every book in this series for different reasons. But unfortunately, when asked, “Why should this series win the Hugo?” most people expect a more intelligent answer than, “Because it’s awesome!” So, I will attempt to give one. Spoiler free because I really want you to go read it when I’m done.

I could talk about how Bujold uses science fiction to examine prejudice and sexism, technology and social injustice, but that feels like pandering, and she does a much better job of it if you just read the series. So, I’ll leave it to her. Besides that’s not why this series is so important to me.

Several years ago now, I came across A Civil Campaign at a used book sale. It has a weirdly flashy cover picturing a couple dancing, some fireworks in the background, and a large bug crawling across it all. Yes, a bug. And the premise laid out in the summary is hilarious. A comedy of errors that made me laugh just standing there. So, I took it home, completely missing the fact that it was part of a larger series.

A Civil Campaign is in fact the eleventh in the series if you’re going in chronological order and not counting the short stories in between. I should have been confused as hell. Normally my obsessive self would have insisted I put the eleventh book down and start over from book one. But I couldn’t. Once I started it I could not physically step away from the book. A problem I’ve had with every novel by Bujold I’ve read since.

A Civil Campaign made me fall in love with Miles. I didn’t feel like I’d been dumped into the middle of a story. I felt like I was getting to know a person who had already experienced a ton of life. And I wanted to know him better.

There is a scene in the book where Miles is showing off his closet to his love interest, pulling out pieces of obsolete yet still beloved uniforms. I felt like I was standing in that room as he displayed these bits of his life with tantalizing anecdotes. I could see his heartbreaking history, his complicated relationships, and his consuming passion. I could tell that there was a reason and a story behind everything he displayed on the page, and I wanted to see those things firsthand. I wanted to share all those adventures with him.

So I went back and started from the beginning. There might be some debate about reading order (here is Bujold’s opinion), but I would suggest starting with Shards of Honor and Barrayar before moving on to The Warrior’s Apprentice. You get a really good look at where Miles comes from and why he doesn’t do things halfway.

He was blessed with his father’s brilliance, his mother’s compassion, and his own character-building deformities. He is one of the first (and only) characters I’ve read in science fiction with serious physical handicaps. In a world that has weeded out genetic abnormalities and reviles obvious weakness, Miles is born with a form of dwarfism and brittle bones. He has to be better, smarter, and faster than everyone else just to be seen as worthwhile. And while this isn’t the major focus of the series, it has shaped him into the character who can accidentally take over a mercenary fleet and inspire loyalty in complete strangers.

Miles does everything spectacularly, including fail. And Bujold doesn’t pull her punches. She sends Miles through hell and takes away everything that keeps him going, making his redemption resonate in our hearts and minds for days, years even, after we’ve put the book down. Mirror Dance took me apart and put me back together again before the end. I think Cordelia, Miles’s mother, explains it best in Barrayar. “You should have fallen in love with a happy man, if you wanted happiness. But no, you had to fall for the breathtaking beauty of pain…”

I’ve only read two of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik and none of the others that have been nominated for Best Series so it’s hard to compare. But this is one that I read over and over again looking for that beauty.

What’s always drawn me to The Vorkosigan Saga is the heartbreak and redemption. The way Miles makes huge mistakes in order to win big. Bujold always makes us feel the weight of every decision, every subtle glance, every chance encounter. Not just in the battles ranging across space and through wormhole jumps, but also in the dinner parties and the backroom politics.

Which is why I was just a little disappointed when I started reading Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, the newest installment which qualified the series for this Hugo. At first, Gentleman Jole just didn’t seem to have the weight of the others. The saga already has three Hugos for Best Novel, one for Best Novella, and six nominations. It is entirely possible this book squeaked by based on the loftiness of its predecessors. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the big secret to explode into heartbreak and chaos.

It never happened. And yet…I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down.

And in that, it was a true Vorkosigan novel. So of course, I had to sit and figure out why.

I think it’s because Bujold has never lost sight of what science fiction is really about. It’s not about the technology, or the explosions, or the space battles. Those are just setting. Like all good fiction, science fiction is about people. Whether as individuals, or the relationships between them, or humanity as a whole. And Gentleman Jole is no exception. Bujold is just a little quieter about it this time. No space battles, no prisoners of war. Just two people trying to figure out a new way forward.

There is still one explosion, though. Just for old times’ sake.

If this specific book was up for the Best Novel Hugo, I would be writing a very different post. It is not indicative of the rest (and especially not the best) of the series. But it’s not in the running for Best Novel. It’s not supposed to be taken standing alone. It is the tip of the iceberg. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how well it fit into what Bujold had already built.

She used The Vorkosigan Saga to explore story structure and genre expectations. There’s military adventure, mystery, maybe even some thriller. A Civil Campaign is a regency romance set in space (and it’s so so good at it). Gentleman Jole is just an extension of that, being at its heart a contemporary romance with some interesting discussions about age and reproductivity thrown in.

And it uses the genre expectations that go along with it to expand what we thought we knew about beloved characters. I can see why some people were upset by those additions, but that’s the trouble with a series. You can’t expect characters to remain the same. With every book they grow, and change, and live. And yes, your perceptions of them will change alongside them. I thought Bujold did this beautifully.

I can see this being the perfect cap for this series. It began (chronologically) with Cordelia and Aral. And in a lot of ways it ends with Cordelia and Aral.

It would be easy to dismiss this series as resting on its laurels. After all it’s certainly won its fair share of Hugos. Not to mention Nebula and Locus Awards. But with a new category we should be looking at the old through a new lens. Each book may or may not be worthy of award but with this series Bujold has created a legacy that is so much more than a sum of its individual parts. Her masterpiece is not a single book. Miles lives. Not just as a character but as a monument to human tenacity, error, and triumph.

Can a series be perfect? Maybe not. I know I definitely have my favorites within the saga and some others that I tend to skim. But I know a series can change you. It can change the way you think about yourself and about the world. And that in turn changes the world itself.

3 Comments

  • Shara White June 24, 2017 at 11:50 am

    Reading this definitely makes me want to keep going with the series. I’ve gotten through Warrior’s Apprentice. It’s just such a lengthy series that I get intimidated at the thought of ever finishing!

    Reply
    • Kendra Merritt June 24, 2017 at 10:13 pm

      The Vor Game is very very good. You might get bogged down in Cetaganda, it’s maybe my least favorite. But it’s well worth it to get to Brothers in Arms and then all the way through to A Civil Campaign. I think that middle stretch is the most rewarding part of the series.

      Reply
  • Andrew Lambdin-Abraham July 18, 2017 at 11:02 pm

    Lois’ “This is a book about grown ups” is the best summary of Gentleman Jole I can imagine.

    Reply

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