Lois McMaster Bujold: Feminism and 'The Gernsback Continuum' in

Recent Women's SF

Originally published in "The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 10.1 (Winter 1998): 17-29."
Reprinted with permission of the author and the editor.

In William Gibson’s well-discussed story, a narrator commissioned to photograph Streamline Moderne architecture begins to hallucinate a future city out of SF pulp fiction, "soaring up through an architect’s perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires" (Gibson 46), its blonde and ideal people suggesting "all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth Propaganda" (47). This witty and sophisticated review of ‘30s futurism and its link to vintage science fiction is enforced by other self-reflexive critiques, such as the reminder that "the rockets on the covers of the Gernsback pulps [fell] on London in the dead of night" (41). But as the story also implies, a Gernsback continuum can be traced in science fiction, as it perpetuates the idea of the "Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision" (Gernsback, qtd. Clute and Nicholls 311).

The formula brings equally enduring critiques, from claims that SF is written by men for boys, to charges of cardboard characterisation, reliance on "adventure fiction plots" (McGuirk 126), and "all the infatuation with technology" that Pamela Sargent remarked in cyberpunk (Gunn 514). A corollary appears with repeated debates over the proper relation of science to fiction, or, more usually, the pre-eminence of ideas or character. A notable champion of the latter is Ursula Le Guin, whose well-known essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown" (1976), urged more emphasis on the human side of SF in the early ‘70s. The proponents of "character" in fiction or criticism have often been women, just as women’s SF has most often ventured into areas of grey or alternative science, such as the psychic jewel technologies of Andrea Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley.

This is a resistance to the overall tenor of the field as long-lived as the Gernsback continuum, and indeed an integral part of it. Its most recent high points have been the incursions of more or less overt feminist SF, with the famous works of Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ and Le Guin herself.. The ‘80s, however, have produced women writers, such as Connie Willis and Sheri S. Tepper, whose work Joan Gordon considers has moved to "assume, apply and subsume" (5) feminism. Such work, considerably harder to classify than texts like The Female Man, may be seen as existing in tension between the competing elements of feminism, woman-centred, subduing plot to character, wary if not chary of technology, and the traditional masculinist, idea and technology-focused format of the Gernsback continuum.

A less obvious example of Gordon’s "post feminist crypsi SF" (5) is Lois McMaster Bujold. Where Willis frequently uses female protagonists or narrators, and often deals with "women’s business" as in "Even the Queen," her well-known story about menstruation, Bujold is overtly much more implicated in the Gernsback continuum. She writes unabashed space opera, focusing on a long-term male protagonist who has maintained many adolescent characteristics of the traditional SF hero, and its milieu has often seen her work labelled military SF. Nevertheless, a closer examination argues that overall, Bujold’s work moves through an innovative and fruitful tension between the Gernsback continuum and some varieties of feminism. This appears in her ability to develop woman-centred technology, in her increasing move to blend what Bujold calls "malestuff" and "femalestuff" (Lake 9) rather than concentrating purely on women’s issues, and above all, in her characterisation. In Bujold’s case this has not only subverted and renovated military SF formulae, but produced a long-term and striking metamorphosis of the male SF hero.

Bujold’s resistance to the Gernsback continuum is particularly clear when her work is classified as military SF. She can turn a neat paragraph on space weapons’ evolution when necessary (Vor 267-68), but hardware occupies much more of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, and female characters are rare, if not minimised, in work like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s ‘70s success, The Mote in God’s Eye (1974). What makes Bujold’s work "military" is its usual setting in the armed forces of the planet Barrayar, its space opera plots of intrigue and border skirmish, and, by a paradox, its characters. Coupling masculinist and feminist concerns, Bujold writes about soldiers from the anti-war, ‘pro-people’ stances common to the peace movement and many feminists.

Like Ursula Le Guin, who only developed female protagonists in the later ‘70s, Bujold produces ‘malestuff’ first. After Shards of Honor (1986) written in 1983, her Barrayar novels focus on Miles Vorkosigan, an orthodox young, disadvantaged male protagonist winning against enormous odds. Shards of Honor, however, concerns Cordelia Naismith, an "astrocartographer" (12) who finally marries an enemy from militaristic, quasi-feudal Barrayar. This SF version of The Tamarind Seed makes remarkable variations on generic formulae. To begin with, a male subordinate hit by a "nerve disruptor" in the first pages does not die but becomes a zombie whom Cordelia must tend on a trek through hostile country. At its end, Bujold stubbornly refuses the usual convenient elision of such casualties, instead spelling out his future, "an endless series of hospital days as straight and same as a tunnel to the end of his life" (86). The novel’s closure punctures the formulaic envelope even more fiercely by rewriting that cliché of SF, space battle. In The Mote in God’s Eye it is sanitised by distance, "lovely to see ... ships ... like smooth black eggs... drives radiating dazzling light... Scintillations in the black flanks ... lines of green and ruby" laser fire (Niven and Pournelle, 320-21). Drawing from Nelson’s navy, Weber offers high mortality rates but dignified deaths. Bujold, however, extrapolates the human cost with a space burial detail, where the reader confronts the ‘reality’ of death by decompression: a corpse "spinning fiercely, guts split open ... and hanging out in a frozen cascade" (Shards 312).

Beyond the anti-war discourse, Bujold remodels stock figures like the heroic space-fleet commander. Like the one from The Mote in God’s Eye, Cordelia’s husband Aral suffers military reverses but wins a woman, but unlike Niven and Pournelle’s character, he is an ex-lover of the equally military villain. Cordelia herself eventually sums him up as, ‘"bisexual, but subconsciously more attracted to men ... Or rather - to soldiers ... The first time he met me I was in uniform ... He thought it was love at first sight’" (Mirror 286). This undoes both military and romance cliches, in a manner characteristic of Bujold but highly unusual in either hard or military SF.

The effect increases with the figure of Sergeant Bothari, ‘"[a] very complex man with a very limited range of expression, who’s had some very bad experiences’" (Shards 54). Bothari mutates two stock figures, the tough, bullying sergeant of films like Platoon (1986) and Heartbreak Ridge (1986), and the uncomplicatedly evil villain of horror/thriller writers like Dean Koontz.. He enters Shards of Honor as a torturer, rapist and possibly serial killer. But where Koontz can only glance toward humanising such a figure, Bujold shapes her monster as a fellow-victim, before Cordelia’s own pity makes him her rescuer.

Bothari’s role as bodyguard through Miles’ childhood is largely over before the next novel, The Warrior’s Apprentice (1986), where Bothari lets himself be shot by another torture victim, whom he still ‘loves.’ If Bujold humanises, she does not idealise; the sequence of his ‘marriage’ with this catatonic victim manages the rare feat of evoking repulsion and sympathy at once. It is in Barrayar (1991), chronologically earlier but written later, "to grow in power and control before I could do justice to [its] themes" (Lake 8), that Bujold manages the equally rare double of a characterisation of ‘high’ literary subtlety, based on formulaic elements and slotting neatly into a space opera’s linear, suspenseful frame.

Here Bothari’s stock bad childhood as a whore’s bastard is glanced over, without either exaggeration or sentimentality, while the adult Bothari appears in succession as a true killer, sexually aroused by the prospect of violence, then as midwife for a rescued noblewoman, then, in the climactic scene, as Cordelia’s proxy executioner. By the book’s close the reader can echo Aral’s summary with true understanding. Yet none of this impedes the narrative. Among women’s interventions in the Gernsback continuum of action/suspense and technical focus, Bothari’s characterisation is a tour de force that almost overshadows Bujold’s main hero, Cordelia’s son Miles.

As Bujold perceives, Miles is actually a "female in disguise," or in Robin Roberts’ terms, a "codedly feminine" hero, a way to "explore a singularly feminine dilemma using a male character as stand-in" (16). A four-feet-nine dwarf, brittle-boned from fetal damage on a planet where mutants are still killed at birth, winning by "manipulation, intelligence and self control," Miles is "socially disadvantaged," just as women in patriarchal society are made to feel deformed (Lake 8). Atop his problems as an heir of military stars, he is an aristocrat in a service his father has democratised; this introduces class issues, yet sites Miles in the outlaw’s role, apparently a typical anti-hero. But hardly anything in Jim Villani’s description of women writers’ anti-heroes fits Miles. He is "highly intelligent" but not "rendered impotent by ... nature and/or culture" (26). If "not brave in the accepted masculine sense" he is anything but "indecisive," though often "lonely" he is not solitary, and he is above all a "charismatic leader" who does inspire "blind faith" everywhere (27). And unlike Frankenstein or Le Guin’s Shevek, his sexuality is not "emasculated" (27-28).

Instead, Miles’ charisma attracts readers along with fellow characters, and his long-term development slews Bujold’s oeuvre irrevocably toward the primacy of character, even as it has re-modelled the formulae of the military sub-genre. It is also a phenomenon in either mainstream or genre fiction. The popular serial hero is familiar from Mulder and Scully to Sherlock Holmes: but their very familiarity is predicated on stability. On the other hand, high literature has traditionally focussed on character and/or development of a protagonist, but from Dickens onwards the process has seldom gone beyond a single book. Miles, however, does not merely mature but metamorphoses across a series, bursting generic conventions as he goes.

Miles is also the focus of Bujold’s thematic concerns, which centre on questions of identity. This is a familiar theoretical field, from post-structuralist arguments on the death of the subject to post-colonial concentration on construction of subjectivities. It has been a cliché of second-wave feminist thought that women’s subjectivity has been elusive, fractured and difficult to attain. Drawing on post-structuralism, feminists such as Teresa de Lauretis have retorted that it is a humanist delusion that anyone can achieve an unfractured, unproblematic identity. Although Bujold’s concern is couched in the humanist terms of self-discovery and personality integration, its effect on the Gernsback continuum and the SF hero is a notable achievement.

Miles’ trajectory splits the Vorkosigan oeuvre neatly into earlier and later phases. The early phase is epitomized by The Warrior’s Apprentice: military space opera, where Miles’ ‘forward momentum’ moves from failure to enter the Barrayaran military academy to an imbroglio in a space-port that leaves him nominal owner of a decrepit space freighter and pilot, to gun-running for a planetary rebellion, to quondam leadership of a non-existent mercenary fleet. In these books Miles’ hyperactivity makes him appear a manic loose cannon who triumphs where superiors and enemies fail, a white Coyote prevailing not by gun or fist but wits. For this subversion of the SF heroic model, comedy is critical. Most notably, Bujold makes Miles both comic and able to laugh at himself. Beyond such comedies of chaos as Apprentice she often uses his point of view subversively, as in "Labyrinth" (1989), when he is propositioned by the equivalent of a virgin female Minotaur. Warned about the downside of lovemaking, she says, "‘I have a very high pain threshold’," to which an appalled Miles’ aside is, "But I don’t" (166).

Such bravado does exact a heavy price. In Apprentice Miles breaks both legs jumping off a wall in his attempt to enter the military academy, and the stress of impromptu space-fleet command gives him a stomach ulcer. The early books also highlight the after-effects of an embryonic mishap: brittle bones that break at the slightest stress, ostracism to overcome at home, and repeated hospitalisations during his under-cover military career. More central to Bujold’s thematic concerns is the fragmenting of his personality between the mercenary Admiral Naismith and the Barrayaran officer Lord Vorkosigan. In Brothers in Arms, Bujold complicates matters with a physical double, a clone, whom Miles acknowledges as his true brother. But as the series continues the strains of the psychic double become more and more evident. Miles invented Naismith, says Cordelia, because Barrayar gave him

‘so much unbearable stress, so much pain, he created an entire other personality to escape into. He then persuaded several thousand galactic mercenaries to support his psychosis, and … conned the Barrayaran Imperium into paying for it all.’ (Mirror 216)

Although the "safety valve" (217) works, Miles needs "the little Admiral" to survive.

As Naismith, Miles is frenetic, hyperactive, charismatic, a brilliant field commander, and unabashedly (hetero)sexual. Miles-Naismith’s sexuality is, indeed, one of his notable heroic deflections, not merely with his female Minotaur, but with his beautiful subordinate, Elli Quinn. As Vorkosigan or Naismith, however, his nearest approach to alternate sexualities is a flirtation with a hermaphrodite from technologically advanced and socially daring Beta Colony. As Lord Vorkosigan, Miles is strictured between the limits of his Service cover, as a lowly courier, and the demands of his future role as a district Count on Barrayar, while his love interest is limited to vain attempts at making some lover Lady Vorkosigan. By Cetaganda (1996), Lord Vorkosigan is in peril of being left on the shelf, and Miles of ossifying in the role of enfant terrible, caught outside the Barrayaran command structure, a brilliant but wacky freelance, a divided personality. This would make him a striking divergence from the military SF prototypes and the SF hero or anti-hero, but ultimately, only one more adolescent conqueror, a stabilised serial hero whose entrapment in the light-hearted world of genre SF and space opera will make sure he never grows up. But Bujold splits this chrysalis with her major later books, Barrayar, Mirror Dance (1994), Memory (1996) and Komarr (1997).

Although Barrayar opens the later stage, most obviously because of its quantum jump in power, complexity and originality, such as the handling of Bothari, in Miles’ trajectory it operates like a regression to the womb, since he spends most of the book in utero – or, more accurately, half in utero and half transferred to a "uterine replicator, "one of Bujold’s notable examples of woman-centred technology. After this symbolic rebirth follows his literal death in Mirror Dance.

Resurrected heroes are not unknown in SF, but few are series protagonists who spend half the novel in a cryogenic revival clinic. In Miles’ progress, however, Mirror Dance is both a side-step and a necessary preliminary, because it centres on his clone-brother Mark. Originally trained to impersonate Miles and physically warped to match his physique, he was intended as a pawn in the overthrow of the Barrayaran emperor. In Mirror Dance he kills Miles attempting to match his brother’s military prowess in a raid on the clone-factories of his birthplace, Jackson’s Whole. The novel turns on Mark’s integrations and dis-integrations as he must come to terms with Miles’ family and Barrayaran society, and as his fragile personality fragments under the tortures of a mutual enemy. When the novel closes with Miles recovered, in both senses, and Mark reconciled to these sub-personalities, Mirror Dance emerges as a double reach for psychic equilibrium, for Miles with his physical double, for Mark with the unstable, as yet undefined and often dark limits of his own subjectivity. But Miles is also left with chronic, unpredictable convulsions, that threaten not only his persona as Admiral Naismith but his entire military career. It is this "death" and its associated casualties that occupy Memory.

Military SF heroes may be disgraced or expelled from service, even for several books, as with David Weber’s Honor Harrington, but never with true cause. Miles, however, is caught lying to cover the effects of a convulsion, and expelled permanently. For the moment, Bujold redeems him with a spy-plot variation where he unearths a traitor and saves the man who expelled him from "Impsec" from the effects of a disintegrating memory chip. To do so Miles must jump to a far higher rank than that of Naismith: at the end of the novel he has been appointed permanently as a type of supreme troubleshooter cum Viceroy, an Imperial Auditor.

Despite this ultimate victory, much of Memory has an elegiac tone as Miles loses all three lovers or beloved women, visits the site of past victories and finds them hollow, and confronts losing his longest-lived ambition and excising rather than integrating half of himself. Despite a moment of almost pure humanist self-resolution, when he decides, amid the tortures of loss and un-direction, that "I elect to be … myself" (387), the novel closes with him alone in the empty family mansion, with nothing but a bottle and the consciousness that he has survived the worst traumas of his traumatic life. The "repossession" of Naismith, as Bujold terms it ("Letterspace", Letter 8) , also comes at a high cost to the novel, which sounds a note of arduously achieved maturity as clear as in Wordsworth’s "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality."

At the same time Memory initiates Bujold’s most daring resistance to the continuum of Gernsbackian SF. She has not simply grown up a stereotypic hero but shifted him clear out of the military ambience that had underwritten his readership appeal, a risky step both aesthetically and economically. As the reception of Samuel Delany’s later books and of Patricia Anthony’s Alien novels indicate, SF readers can be extremely resistant to excursions beyond the stereotypical "adventure fiction plotlines" (McGuirk 126) and idea-centred writing of the Gernsback continuum. Nevertheless, it is notable that Barrayar and Mirror Dance both won their year’s Hugo, while Memory was a final nominee for both Hugo and Nebula awards.

As Komarr unfolds the new personality Memory heralded, Miles appears at once more subdued and more redoubtable than ever before, an effect enhanced by the point of view’s division between Miles and female protagonist. Where the long-term reader has known him as young officer, adolescent, genius brat, even embryo, to Ekaterin Vorsoisson he has never been anything but an Imperial Auditor; and since she first gauges his height as "speaking to her cleavage" (Bujold, Komarr 7), he achieves another instant adult status. For the first time, Lord Vorkosigan rather than Admiral Naismith appears as a sexual being.

Komarr reaches another perilous balance by splitting the kudos for the eventual solution between Miles and Ekaterin. This possible off-putting of the stereotypic male SF reader is balanced by the realisation that Miles has finally met a potential Lady Vorkosigan, and the skilled depiction of their developing relationship, a rapport between two equally scarred, equally wary people, with mutual attraction but reciprocal embarrassments and vulnerabilities. Ekaterin emerges as a fitting match for this new Miles, more constricted by past and upbringing than his mother Cordelia, but cool, resourceful, independent, and the agent of the villains’ final defeat. Once again, Komarr ends rather than closes, this time at the later stages of the classic psychoanalytic schema, with a Freudian subject whom the series has taken from infancy to adulthood, integrating a fragmented personality, activating his super-ego, moving out of both his father’s shadow – Miles carefully points out that he was never an Imperial Auditor (Memory 447) – and his mother’s lightly sketched ascendancy – she guesses wrongly over his choice between Naismith and Vorkosigan (319) – to choose his own mate and complete the trajectory. I can think of no other SF characterisation that combines such appeal with such a sustained and complex development, far less such an expansion of generic boundaries.

Less palatable ‘women’s business’ emerges with Mark’s development. Like Le Guin’s Estraven, a "manwoman" (Le Guin, "Redux" 15) usurping glamorous male roles, Miles is a bravura military success, an intellectual judo champion, whose victories never erase his compassion and sensitivity, the ‘daylight’ version of the codedly feminine. Mark is the night-time version: his body is also warped, but he suffers the women’s trials of weight problems and eating disorders, and although he "will become a very rich man" (Bujold, "Letterspace,"Letter 4) he never does become a military success. Moreover, Mark suffers for most of Mirror Dance from self-hate and masochism, proverbial women’s psychic problems, and a clear case of Multiple Personality Disorder, another women’s affliction. Again, Mark has the truly horrendous, abused and loveless childhood, Mark displays the hate and rancour and envy that women are culturally conditioned to suppress, and most importantly, Mark, lacking Miles’ brittle bones, can kill; and by his own hand. Such female violence, as attested by the response to Russ’s assassin in The Female Man (1975) and later films like Basic Instinct, is the most rigorously suppressed of all the ‘night-time feminine.’ In Bujold’s own work, only the purely villainous female character Cavilo, in The Vor Game, can kill in cold blood.

Beyond these re-alignments of Gernsbackian space opera, Bujold produces outright "femalestuff," novels that consider female rather than feminine problems, with a female protagonist. This strand runs from Shards of Honor to Barrayar, and expands with Komarr, where the double viewpoint puts male and femalestuff side by side. As later books give the deeper, less acceptable but more powerful versions of identity problems and the codedly feminine, femalestuff also moves toward the "night-time side." In Shards of Honor, Cordelia encounters the dangers of war, imprisonment, enemy torture, and misunderstanding by her own side; nevertheless, she functions as a ‘daytime’ version of the feminist-influenced SF female hero. Such figures reveal a tension between the Amazon, the woman-centred warrior like Russ’s Alyx who is at base "independent of men" (Lefanu 34) and the rough, tough, unquestioningly heterosexual female hero, drawing on the liberal feminist discourse of gender equality, from Heinlein’s Friday to Ripley in the Alien movies. Cordelia combines the two strands. "’[A]s professional as any officer I’ve ever served with, without once trying be an, an imitation man’" (58), ethically determined to protest war and preserve life, she can still command a ship, wield a stunner, and anticipate the men in heading off a mutiny. Foreshadowing Miles’s development, however, she replaces physical toughness with wits. Other version of this hero appear with Elli Quinn, Sergeant Taura, the "female Minotaur", and Elena Bothari-Jesek, Miles’ first love. Elena extends the military female hero furthest: Sergeant Bothari’s daughter, barred from the military on sexist Barrayar, she becomes a superbly efficient galactic mercenary. In The Warrior’s Apprentice she also sketches the woman’s story of discovering and reconciling with an alienated mother. In Mirror Dance an equally brief sketch shows her coming to terms with her father’s complex past along with Barrayar. And in Memory, another episode recapitulates the main plot, as Elena and her husband leave the mercenary fleet because Elena is finished soldiering. "‘I’ve proved Barrayar wrong. I’ve been a soldier, and a damn good one." Now "I want to find out who else I can be’" (Memory 21).

With Barrayar, Bujold moves into darker aspects of femalestuff, notably pregnancy. Such biological femalestuff is rare in SF, beyond the work of Marion Zimmer Bradley. Bradley herself repeats a comment that, "‘You can always tell a Bradley story - someone has a baby’" (29). But Bradley tends to elide "all the complications of pregnancy and childbirth that women think of every day during the nine months" (Lake 7). Let alone the nightmares of finding the child imperfect, learning that your father-in-law wants it aborted, and having the embryo stolen by a political enemy. But Bujold neatly dodges Bradley’s problems in Darkover Landfall (1972), whose anti-abortion discourse drew heavy critiques from SF feminists. Cordelia fights against Miles’s abortion, rather than facing the thornier problem of whether an abortion should be done.

Though two women do have babies in Barrayar, neither Bujold nor her women accept Bradley’s Darkovan saw that "the world will go as it will, and not as you or I will have it." Cordelia saves Miles with the Betan technology of the uterine replicator, then by a rescue raid in defiance of her husband, then by having Bothari execute the usurper on her order. She also has a female support system: the noblewoman whose baby Bothari delivers has befriended her, and her female bodyguard guides the palace raid. Finally, the most powerful femalestuff of the novel is the scene where the fate of Barrayar is decided as Cordelia and the child emperor’s captive mother trade the whereabouts of their sons.

Despite Bujold’s intent to write more femalestuff (Lake 9), the series’ structure marginalised Cordelia, as The Warrior’s Apprentice was followed by Brothers in Arms, Borders of Infinity, and The Vor Game, and Barrayar was succeeded by Mirror Dance and Memory. With Miles’ metamorphosis, any further femalestuff demanded a new female protagonist, from outside Miles’ family, and optimally, to provide Miles’ adult, non-transient love interest. All these options, and a new expansion of femalestuff, appear with Ekaterin Vorsoisson in Komarr.

Komarr extends Bujold’s repertoire of femalestuff to the so-called domestic SF once scorned by Joanna Russ (88), but present in the genre since Gernsback’s day: stories rarely long in print, their tone resolutely unheroic, their focus on the nuts and bolts of not-so-everyday life. Connie Willis supplies the up-dated version with stories such as "Spice Pogrom" (1986) that extrapolate housing problems in a space habitat. This approach naturally militates against the serious, high-technology tone of the Gernsback continuum, and it is a considerable feat to combine the two without clashes. Komarr manages it through the use of the double viewpoint, as Ekaterin’s world of middle-class off-Earth life, hiring a gravity bed for a guest, travelling in the countryside in a breather-mask, eating vat-grown protein, heightens the tension in Miles’ view of the technological and political intrigue.

The deepest femalestuff in Komarr, however, plumbs the social rather than biological battlefield of an unhappy marriage, at a depth few mainstream novels achieve. Beyond the squabbles, the endemic disagreements, the social embarrassments and bitter strain of mismanagement and failed ambition, the scenes where Ekaterin has to "study Tien warily" and decide "she had better offer sex very soon" because "it was past time to defuse him" (Komarr 55), replace the potential glamor of sex in SF with the excruciating truth of many "mundane" relationships. At the same time, Komarr offers the uncodedly female version of the metamorphoses in Memory and Mirror Dance, of a woman, usually married or no longer a girl, who struggles from a chrysalis of stagnation to begin a second life. This is a staple of feminist fiction, including SF like Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass (1989).

Nevertheless, like Willis (Gordon 5), Bujold disavows feminism, preferring to "call myself a human beingist" (Lake 9). Her credo includes "to journey from the self to the other is an improvement ... People are more important than things ... Good and evil are only meaningful as a quality of individuals possessing free will" (11). These comments evoke not merely classic liberal humanism but one of the hegemonic strands in what Katie King calls "taxonomies of feminism" (124), the liberal-heterosexual component that opposes, most obviously, radical lesbian feminism. The division, figured in the ‘60s activism of NOW and the WLM, is repeated in feminist SF’s founding mothers, Le Guin and Joanna Russ; Le Guin’s SF offers an orthodox liberal trajectory from concerns with race to those of gender, and on into the positions of essentialist feminism, while Russ matches the starburst of radical and lesbian theory and action in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Given this perspective, Bujold aligns immediately with Le Guin, not simply for her liberal manifesto but because her notable expansions of femalestuff are unquestioningly heterosexually based. As mentioned, although male bisexuals and hermaphrodites appear, the Vorkosigan universe offers no lesbians. Moreover, as Le Guin moves in the ‘80s toward what is now called essentialist feminism, with its monolithic oppositions of "Men" and "Women," beyond the unshaded dichotomy of Bujold’s male and femalestuff, there are remarks like "everything I’ve written is by definition through female eyes" (Lake 9). And if male readers miss these nuances, "I don’t write like a man, you just read like one" (8). Even in the early ‘80s, black and Third World as well as lesbian feminists were teaching the white straight middle-class feminist mainstream that "Woman" was an illusion which could conceal class and racial, not to mention sexual prejudice.

When pushed, Bujold will defend her covert feminism on the grounds that "[n]o feminist, writing a feminist tract" can "change any man’s ... fixed mind" but that "a book packaged as militarist SF" might bring in "alien ideas" unnoticed (Lake 9). But her need to stress the female aspects of her work suggests that male readers ignore these elements. In fact, they compliment her on "writing like a man" (7), a phrase that must throw her subversive claim into serious doubt. Moreover, for some feminists, liberalism and its ties to individualism, and thence, less happily, to capitalism, are actually a handicap. To Sarah Lefanu, Le Guin’s earlier and most famous male protagonists are "a dead weight in the centre of the novels," because they are "caught in the stranglehold of liberal individualism" (137). And the feminist philosopher Andrea Nye considers liberalism is inherently masculinist (526).

Such critiques can be levelled at Bujold, if not directly for her depictions of women: "liberal-heterosexual" has usually taken "white" as its third cluster-term; and the racial myopia of ‘70s mainstream feminism marks the Vorkosigan universe. While there is a vestigial echo of the long-lived US/Russian opposition in the siting of Barrayar, with its Cyrillic alphabet, its harsh environment, savage history and quasi-feudal society, against the glossy but flawed democracy of "galactics" like Beta Colony, Barrayar itself appears to lack racial tensions. Hillmen and city men may jeer at each other, districts may be backward and ethnic minorities preserved in a Greek dialect, but of ethnic enclaves, racial or even religious conflicts, Barrayar appears remarkably free.

This myopia surfaces in Komarr with an outcrop of imperialist ideology. Through the series the world/society of Komarr has declined insensibly from a hostile but equal rival, geographically demanding conquest to free Barrayar’s sole outlet to the galaxy, into the more orthodox position of subtly inferior colony. The Komarran freedom fighters are either warped to lunacy, as in Brothers in Arms, or in Komarr, both disastrously short-sighted and mildly ludicrous. This raises the spectre of live US imperialism; and as an Australian, at once colonizer and colonized, my hackles rise at some of the comments about foolish rebels who ought to recognise a benevolent tyranny when they see one. However well meaning, I have difficulty identifying colonizers as heroes, atypical or not.

Such flaws invoke feminist standpoint theory, developed notably by Nancy Hartsock and Donna Haraway, which conscripted Marx’s claim that only those under a system see it with clarity, to argue that only "women" could see their oppression clear. Less happily, this paved the way for more essentialist claims that only women, by virtue of their bare biological status, could perceive "the truth." It has been more usefully modified by Sandra Harding, who argued that if feminism is to make any difference, it must posit that men can learn from "women’s" picture of them, just as white feminists learnt from the critiques of blacks, middle-class women from working class women, and so on. The crucial point is that to modify the "top-down" standpoint, it is necessary to re-invent that hegemonic Self as Other. While Bujold has made remarkable innovations in the traditions of the Gernsback continuum, such self-subversion has not yet begun to emerge. Nevertheless, her work remains an exciting and remarkably sustained balance act between the poles of overt, politicised feminism and the masculinist, plot rather than character-driven, technologically-minded staples of Gernsbackian SF.


Bradley, Marion Zimmer. "Responsibilities and Temptations of Women Science Fiction Writers." Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy Ed. Jane B. Weedman. Lubbock: Texas Tech, 1985. 25-42.

Bujold, Lois McMaster. Barrayar. New York: Baen, 1991.

---. Brothers in Arms. 1989. London: Headline, 1990.

---. Cetaganda. New York: Baen, 1996.

---. Komarr. New York: Baen, 1997.

---. "Labyrinth." 1989. Borders of Infinity. 1989. New York: Baen, 1991. 103-211.

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© 1998 Sylvia Kelso

Current version by Michael Bernardi, mike@dendarii.co.uk

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