Tuesday, June 25, 2013

1980s Feminism in Lois McMaster Bujold's SHARDS OF HONOR

After the recent fracas over sexism in the science fiction writing community earlier this month (see this post), I promised myself to spend this summer spending more time tracking down and reading science fiction romance. But where to start? I decided to begin with one of the most acclaimed writers in the field, the multi-award-winning Lois McMaster Bujold. Before I began writing this blog, I had read two books in her The Sharing Knife fantasy series, enjoying the first but finding the second a bit frustrating, romance-wise. But I'd never tackled her science fiction, worried that the 1986 publication date of the first book in the Vorkosigan series might indicate a rather dated presentation of sexual politics, a datedness that would seem all the more awkward in a genre meant to depict the future, not the past. But jumping in mid-series seemed wrong, too, so off I went to the library, to pick up a copy of Shards of Honor.

Shards tells the story of the romance between thirty three-year-old Commander Cordelia Naismith, head of a scientific survey team from Beta Colony, and forty-something Captain Aral Vorkosigan, a former admiral in the militaristic Barrayar fleet. Stranded together on a partially-explored planet after Vorkosigan's enemies foment a mutiny and attack Naismith's party, Cordelia and Vorkosigan must work together while they navigate unfamiliar territory to meet up with and retake Vorkosigan's ship. Several back-and-forth tussles between Vorkosigan and his betrayers follow their days-long trek, days during which the two shared stories as well as stores. After Vorkosigan regains his command, and his ship, he proposes marriage to his prisoner, Cordelia, but acknowledges that a plan to invade Escobar, an ally of Beta, that factions in Barrayan are pushing but which he opposes, might make such a relationship problematic. Before Cordelia gives him her answer, her own crew, with the aid of Vorkosigan's betrayers, sneaks in to rescue her. Knowing that their rescue has once again put Vorkosigan in danger, Cordelia takes out the plotters before departing with her team to inform her home planet of the impending invasion.

The two meet again in the book's second act, under even more highly charged circumstances: The proposed Barrayan invasion of Escobar now underway, Cornelia has been sent (rather improbably, but since this is Bujold's first book, we can cut her some slack) on a mission to distract the Barrayan fleet while another team delivers a war-changing weapon to Escobar. Lives, governments, even entire societies are at stake as both Cornelia and Vorkosigan fight to keep war-changing secrets from each other, even while maintaining their own personal sense of honor in the face of their growing respect and love.

The novel's depiction of the star-crossed romance is understated, but satisfying. Both Cordelia and Vorkosigan are mature, sensible adults, not given to histrionics despite the difficult situations in which they find themselves. Each feels compelled by his or her own sense of duty and honor, and respects the same desire in the other, even when it conflicts with his or her own. Brief, but heartfelt moments of connection make their feelings for one another believable, even after being together for such a short time. Can their romance, or the book in which it appears, though, be read as feminist?

Sylvia Kelso terms Bujold a "covert feminist," one whose feminism lies in incorporating (heterosexual) "femalestuff" into the predominantly "malestuff" world of SF rather than in openly espousing feminist ideas or themes. In Shards, much of this covert feminism lies in demonstrating Cordelia's competence in a male-oriented world of political intrigue and battle. Cordelia weathers the difficult multi-day hike without complaint, as physically tough if not quite as strong as Vorkosigan. She can tie up and threaten to drown a psychiatrist who endangers Vorkosigan, can outwit and defeat a group of mutineers, and can command male subordinates with aplomb. She proves herself over and over to be as competent as any male SF hero.

Yet even while proving Cordelia's competence, Bujold must simultaneously code her as distinctly and reassuringly "feminine." Cordelia is an astrocartographer, not a fighter. She mourns her subordinate killed by the attacking Barrayans, and insists that she will not leave another injured man behind while she and Vokosigan make their cross-country journey, even though Vorkosigan argues that it would be kinder to slit the mentally-incapacitated boy's throat. She serves as caretaker for the injured man throughout their journey, comforting, guiding, even feeding him just like a baby. Even as she comes to admire and care for the bitingly honest Vorkosigan, she still regards his culture as barbaric in its militaristic focus and disregard for human life.

Such qualities can be seen as a feminist assertion of the importance of typically denigrated feminine qualities of caretaking and life-giving. But they serve to reassure both Vorkosigan and male readers that allowing women to serve in the military will not lead to their inevitable emasculation: As Vorkosigan notes, Cordelia is as "professional as any officer I've ever served with, without once trying to be an imitation man."

If the book had continued in this vein, I would have found its engagement with feminism typical of its era, a time when pushback against the gains of 1970s feminism required a difficult balancing act between depicting strong women and assuaging male fears of newly-empowered female protagonists. The book's third section, which depicts Cordelia's second separation from Vorkosigan and her ultimate decision to return to him, leaving her own society to become a part of his, mirrors the sexual politics of this opening section, depicting a competent, independent woman whose most important role ultimately becomes that of caretaker: this time, of a drunken, despondent Vorkosigan.

But Shards' middle section introduces a sexual predator antagonist who fashions himself the current-day embodiment of the Marquis de Sade. An old boyhood friend of Vorkosigan's, Admiral Vorrutyer purportedly serves as the embodiment of the wider corruption of the Barrayan political structure that Vorkosigan must sacrifice himself to defeat. Even though Vorrutyer appears in only ten pages of the book, the ghost of his decidedly non-consensual female-directed sadism hangs like a pall over the balance of the book. The pall takes on ghastly physical presence in the form of seventeen "uterine replicators" sent to Vorkosigan, containing fetuses apparently extracted from women who were raped by Barrayaran soldiers during the invasion, several on orders from Vorrutyer. The perverted Admiral, who almost but not quite succeeds in raping Cordelia, can be read not only as the cancer at the heart of Barrayan society, but also more disturbingly, as the threat of punishment against the competent SF woman heroine that always lurks in the wings.

I'm looking forward to reading more of the Vorkosigan series, to see if and how Bujold's feminism changes as the books' publication dates grow closer in time to the present. And if the whiff of sexual violence against competent women continues to linger, a sexist smog, in the Barrayaran air...


Photo/Illustration Credits:
What Can I Do?: Real Life. Woman Talk.
Uterine Replicator: TV Tropes





Baen Books, 1986.











Next time on RNFF:
What's new about "New Adult"?


15 comments:

  1. One of my all-time favorite books (and series).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What about them makes you love them so, ayelle?

      Delete
  2. I read this published as "Cordelia's Honor" which contained both this book and the follow-up "Barrayar". I think I loved "Barrayar" even more than "Shards". For books written in the eighties I think they hold up very well on a sci-fi level, as romance, and as feminist texts. I think watching Cordelia navigate life on Barrayar which has a patriarchal culture to say the least further informs the feminist thrust of these books. They might not live up to our more modern ideals, but I often think that many women in our day and age don't have the opportunity to live anywhere close to those ideals anyway.
    I still have every intention of reading the Miles Vorkosigan books (all about their son), but my TBR pile (although mostly ebooks) is in danger of burying me.
    Great review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, mepamelia. Glad to hear from fans of Bujold.

      I'm looking forward to reading BARRAYAR, as well as the Miles books. Ah, so many books, so little time...

      Delete
  3. I wish I could come up and watch you read Barrayar in real time, and I'm looking forward to reading your posts on all of them and the Chalion trilogy. She has some very fun insights about women's "biological agenda" and how society is structured (but can be restructured!) to carry out the labor of childbearing and childrearing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Very cool to hear of science fiction tackling typically "women's" issues! I'm off to the library tomorrow to get the next volume...

    ReplyDelete
  5. Very interesting points, Jackie! When I read Shards, I didn't think it was as feminist as it could be -though I agree the heroine's strong in a lot of ways and Vorkosigan likes that in her and allows her to be her. Usually, I cut authors slack. They're writing a story, not discussing theory in a classroom, so inevitably their characters or scenarios can't avoid every single stereotype or fulfill every ideal. But that line! She's not an imitation man?! I must have been reading too slowly or too quickly or *something!* That would have had me steaming, LOL. You can never amount to us, wominz!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't read that line as a put down at all. It comes over to me as admiration for Cordelia being true to herself rather than taking on the trappings of male power to achieve her aims. Aral always seems to me to be watching how masculinity is performed and critiquing the roles played. He knows the cost for people in a heavily surveilled, politically fraught world whose inner self is congruent with their outer performance of self. He is also very aware of how his privilege as a man and a Vor has helped him skate through the risks of such surveillance.

      Looking forward to you reading Barrayar Jackie. I have always been moved by Cordelia's point that victory for Crown Princess Kareen at this point of Vordarian's War was living to spit on all their graves. Such a reminder about sexism and relative power as the men around the table judge Kareen for her powerlessness - the very thing created by the Barrayaran version of patriarchy.

      Delete
    2. In the context of the book, it's not a put-down. Keep in mind that the character saying it has been raised in a very patriarchal and militarist society.

      Aral Vorkosigan is -- and the books make this very, explicitly clear -- not perfect. Bujold's authorial stance is that he's a very imperfect man from a deeply flawed society, but that he's nonetheless admirable and heroic because (1) he has real and great virtues, and (2) he is trying to be better.

      Here's a thing that is implicit in Shards, but made explicit in Barrayar: Aral is bisexual, which is a huge taboo on Barrayar. He has to some extent succeeded in sublimating his attraction to men by making himself a great commander. Nonetheless, he's rather lonely and frustrated. Cordelia solves his problems by being a woman who has "male" characteristics (i.e., is in a military, is a leader, etc.) Bujold is actually subverting a classic romance trope here -- Aral falls hard for Cordelia and she is the True Love of his life, but that's because he is (by the standards of his own society) a repressed freak.

      Aral is a little screwed up in other ways, too. Dynastic politics in Barrayar regularly involve Game-of-Thrones levels of violence. Aral lost his mother and his older brother to them, and is a classic second-son-who-must-try-harder.

      In later books, Bujold's characters are going to get even more complicated and troubled; just wait until you meet Lord Mark. But that's a topic for another thread.


      Doug M.


      Delete
  6. Sexual predation and violence are themes that will appear again in the books. Whether Bujold handles them well... give it another couple of books, and tell us what you think.

    Barrayar is the immediate sequel to Shards. The first 100 pages or so were written immediately after Shards, the other 2/3 of the book were written about a decade later. See if you can spot the dividing point!


    Doug M.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Bujold is one of my auto-buys and her women are always interesting to read. I picked up Shards of Honor back in 1986 and was delighted to find a strong, capable woman as a main character. Barrayar is also good but came much later, after she had started writing about Miles Vorkosigan who is a incredibly complex character. Lois works in all those themes about disability, prejudice, great man's son, and over-achiever. Miles keeps seeking out strong women and giving them wings but none of them will follow him back to Barrayar. Very smart women...
    Jenny

    ReplyDelete
  8. My take: Bujold's books are problematic, progressive, and important. I read all of the Vorkosigan saga that existed in my early teens. It was the first place I heard the word "bisexual," and my immediate understanding, without judgment, was recognition: that word described me.

    It was also my first experience with sci-fi that was really character-centric. Dune, Asimov, Douglas Adams, probably some more recent books focusing on wars in space--Bujold's novels are worlds apart in how they treat characterization.

    And her second Chalion book was the first novel I read, in any genre, where the protagonist was a middle-aged woman.

    The Miles books are frustrating in that he has a much more important relationship with his father, even though they describe him (rightly) as being more like his mother. The point about her being portrayed in a nurturing role is interesting because Miles inherited her beyond-reason care for the lives of his subordinates and others, yet never has such a direct nurturing role that I can think of, other than bandaging a child's blistered feet.

    If anything, I think Bujold's problem is too nonjudgmental--there's a point where a character crosses a line and really shouldn't be sympathetic anymore, and Bujold's line is way farther out than mine.

    But the strength of her writing is that she's invaded a very macho corner of the genre with overwhelming success, and injected complex characters who feel and grow, who as a bonus are relatable while breaking conventions: being a middle-aged woman, a bisexual male soldier, a female mercenary, both male and female, a soldier with physical disabilities, a widow who doesn't escape the taint of divorce since she left her husband right before he died (there's a theme of inner shame/pride vs. outer reputation throughout the series), someone struggling with mental illness, someone who fears a genetic taint in their family, a queen-by-marriage who's highly educated and sharp rather than just a male fantasy, and so on. Bujold takes an audience who aren't looking for their eyes to be opened and introduces them to a wide array of possibilities beyond cultural constraints and stereotypes. These are books my openly homophobic, anti-feminist father read and was happy for his children to read because of the smart, militaristic protagonist who loves his conservative homeland and succeeds despite having a disability, yet they taught me so much more than that.

    It's pretty amazing for a light YA-ish sci-fi action/mystery read to teach a teenager about empathy and the complexity of social change, but that's what many of Bujold's books did. I think that ability to teach empathy and complexity is ultimately more important than portraying the "correct" heroes and heroines (and hero-herms?), because the messages Bujold's books impart give a teen the tools to derive more-advanced feminist messages: Think for yourself. You're responsible for your actions. Wrestle with your conscience. Don't be afraid to act. Differences enrich lives. Societal hatred often comes from different types of pain, and it's a long battle. Casual prejudice for one person can be a lifetime of grinding struggle for the ones it's directed against. Everyone is flawed, but don't give up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, anonymous, for sharing your thoughts, and your stories. It's fascinating to me to think about how books can be covertly progressive for some readers (your father), openly progressive for others (you), and be both progressive and conservative to yet others (me).

      I'm planning to read BARRYAR in the next week or two, and am looking forward to discovering more of the ways that Bujold brings a feminist viewpoint to the largely male-oriented world of SF.

      Delete
  9. I wonder if you aren't missing an important element when you describe VorRuttyer as "An old boyhood friend of Vorkosigan's". He was not just an old friend, he was his lover and source of dissipation as seductive to Aral as alcohol or violence. He is the antithesis of Cordelia and a twisted negative to everything positive about her. Viewed in isolation this relationship could be portrayed as base homophobia on Bujold's part (patently ridiculous in light of her larger oeuvre), but in this case I think it function as a dialectic for Aral's transformation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But you don't know the details about Aral and Vorruttyer's prior relationship in this book. It's only after you read further in the series do you discover this. Interesting to think about how authors "rewrite" previous books in many ways by information they give about past events in later titles in a series...

      Delete