Hmm. Space Opera? Melodrama?
Lois McMaster Bujold seems to be one of the most successful, or at least most recognised, science fiction authors ever. She has apparently received the prestigious(TM) Hugo Award for best novel four times, something only she and Robert A. Heinlein have achieved. As far as I can tell she’s still going strong, and since Heinlein is over twenty years dead at this point there’s likely nothing can stop her knocking even him off that most lofty perch.
As for me, I’ve been book-swapping recently. Last month a French pal loaned me a few Pratchet novels (which once formed a valuable aspect of his learning English and now do so for his girlfriend; for me it was more a return to childhood) and this month I handed over my four Kurt Vonnegut titles in return; but he also left me with Cordelia’s Honor, prequel to the Vorkosigan Saga which currently stands at thirteen titles, not including six omniboid compilations of the same, none of which I’ve read.
So, what’s the scoop? Well, it follows the impassioned travails of heroine Cordelia Naismith, a planetary surveyor from a high-tech, ultra-liberal domocratic civilisation some thousand years in the future, who finds herself cast onto the front line of a galactic conflict with a more regressive, elitist and highly conservative society styled after the Russian Empire – adventures which include war, politics, betrayal, murder and, in the tersely decisive form of Count Aral Vorkosigan, twue wove.
…and now I feel a bit guilty for poking fun, because while to me it smacked a little of some mutant offspring between romance literature and Buck Rodgers*, it’s not as bad as all that. Cover art notwithstanding (picture a red-headed Janeaway at the helm in a ball-gown, with Space Captain D’Arcy lurking at her shoulder), the protagonists prove to be more than simple sf heroes. Neither are pretty young star-things, in fact both are bordering middle age and with some degree of regretful baggage: before crisis first strikes Cordelia has resigned herself to an old maid future playing mother only to her crew, while her paramore-to-be is regarded as a war criminal by her culture and a principled inconvenience by his own.
Cordelia’s Honor is actually two books. In the first, Shards of Honor, Cordelia and Aral are thrown together and torn apart by one circumstance or another as their cultures edge back and forth on the brink of interstellar conflict, eventually leading to their unification in wedded bliss as the guardians of Aral’s future emperor; the second, set on the titular planet of Barrayan, details the political upheavals to the empire which follow in that wake, as viewed by Cordelia as a social outsider and soon-to-be mother.
There is a reasonable degree of derring-do throughout, rather less epic-tech battles between the stars than I was hoping for, but a pretty good yarn overall. While on the surface this is basically a romantic adventure, there was also more conceptual depth to it than I initially gave it credit for. As I said, Cordelia’s Honor is a prequel, and the larger Vorkosigan Saga to come relates the story of her son, physically crippled in a society that views any such weakness as mortally unacceptable, but who apparently proves himself quite capable of repeatedly saving the day. In her afterword here, McMaster Bujold says that her intention with this story was principally to explore the fears of motherhood; while this theme is only overtly realised in the second book, Shards of Honor cleverly expresses the difficulties and anxieties of protecting and caring for someone as utterly helpless as a child in a way that science fiction is perhaps uniquely prepared for. Though I didn’t make the connection myself, with hindsight it’s quite a nice detail.
Generally this was a quick and easy read, but it was also one which left me wondering. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land won that best novel Hugo back in 1962, Barrayan took it thirty years later – but while I acknowledge the motherhood theme to be interestingly explored, to me Cordelia’s Honor doesn’t really stand on the same ground, either as strong sf or as literature. Nor does it hold up in comparison to other classic winners, such as (taking just those I’ve read) Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, Walter M. Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer. More recent winners have included Neil Gaiman twice (who’s writing I generally like) and one of the Harry Potter books (which I don’t), all more on the fantasy side of things – the Hugo is awarded to both genres, a grouping which I generally find more than a bit annoying.
But that is hardly McMaster Bujold’s fault, nor is it that some of the finest works of sf have been awarded the same prize she has. Cordelia’s Honor is a light but decent piece of entertainment, if not much more than that.
* Mills and Boom, more or less