Review of Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold

Review of Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold

Jerome Winter

Regina Yung Lee and Una McCormack, editors. Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold. Liverpool University Press, 2020. Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies 64. Hardcover. 320 pg. $120.00. ISBN: 9781789621730. Ebook ISBN: 9781789627534.

By any reasonable critical scorekeeping, the fan-favorite work of Lois McMaster Bujold has been sorely overlooked by sf academics; however, happily enough, that critical neglect seems to be now becoming quickly corrected. A winner of six Hugo and two Nebula awards, whose numerous books—including one massive space opera series and two fantasy series, not to mention the many novellas and short stories—had sold by one estimate over two million copies by 2010, Bujold received only approximately a dozen scholarly articles devoted to her work until the mid-2000s, as meticulously shown in Robin Anne Reid’s history of Bujold scholarship that begins the current volume. In roughly the last decade, however, there has been one in-depth monographs on Bujold, Edward James’s Bujold entry in University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series; some focus on Bujold in thematically organized books such as John Lennard’s Of Sex and Fairy; and two essay collections on Bujold, including an entry, edited by Janet Brennan Croft, in McFarland’s Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series, in addition to the present volume under review, Biology and Manners, edited by Regina Yung Lee and Una McCormack, which takes its title from the subtitle to Bujold’s A Civil Campaign: A Comedy of Biology and Manners (1999).

The reasons for the critical neglect have been subject to fascinating speculation. Is it a lack of sustained interest in feminist utopias? Is it because of the military sf elements? Is it the widespread critical disdain for space opera? Is it her uncool focus on parenting? Is it her whiteness? My more humdrum suspicion, though, is a less conspiratorial one; I agree with Reid’s argument that there is a “growing disparity between the [sff] genres’ growth in multiple mediums and the number of academics specializing in a marginalized field” (14). It is hard to discount the fact that a vast amount of sf literature and media goes largely unstudied for no more complicated justification than an embarrassment of riches in cultural production dwarfing the random, stringent contingencies of the niche, non-commercial market of academic publishing. Such a harsh reality, of course, means we should celebrate all the more when a worthy new author, text, or movement does begin to receive more extensive and concerted scholarly treatments, as has clearly been occurring with Bujold. There is a lot of interesting thematic and theoretical overlap across this whole essay collection; however, the collection is ostensibly divided into an introduction section of two essays on said emergence of Bujold studies and five more sections of two or three essays each, focusing respectively on “Bujold’s Women,” “Heroes’ Journeys,” “Potential Futures and Imagined Pasts,” “Holy Families,” and “Beyond the Books.”

One pronounced focus of this anthology as a whole is on critically overlooked aspects of Bujold’s two high-fantasy series, The World of the Five Gods (2001-21) and The Sharing Knife (2006-2019), especially its representations of gender and sexuality. Regina Yung Lee’s essay “Untimely Graces”  reads the widowed protagonist of Paladin of Souls (2003), Ista dy Chalion, and her pointed failures to fit conventional normative scripts as recuperating the character as covertly queered. Likewise, Caitlin Herington, in “You Wish to Have the Curse Reversed?”, argues that the Chalion novels resist the arrogation of women to the stereotyped roles of dutiful mother, wife, or daughter. Moreover, in “The Shape of a Hero’s Soul,” C. Palmer-Patel limns the Chalion novels for the tension between prophetic destiny and heroic freedom in their high fantasy conceit of mortals channeling divine avatars, stressing that Lady Ista’s active invoking of supernatural fate subverts charges of passivity endemic to this trope. Despite Bujold’s stated protestations that she is no “unconscious gonfalonier” (113) for feminist viewpoints, Sylvia Kelso nevertheless productively examines the four novels in the Sharing Knife series for their unique contributions to women’s writing, especially their rewriting of masculinized romantic quest story structure.                   

Tackling the conjunction of biology and manners from a different emphasis than exclusively one of gender and sexuality, Joanne Woiak’s “Pain Made Holy” narrows in on the torture-victim Castillar Lupe dy Cazaril from The Curse of Chalion (2001) as a figure whose hellish suffering challenges both ableist presumptions of what counts as legitimate embodiment and also subverts some of the prerogatives of disability studies that broadly advocate for more normalizing portrayals of the differently abled instead of an overriding focus on care or healing. Reid’s second essay in the collection, “The Holy Family,” also draws on disability studies to analyze The Curse of Chalion and its prequel The Hallowed Hunt (2005) as well as the more recent Penric and Desdemona series of novellas (2015-2021). Reid argues that the depiction of spiritual visions in these works resists hegemonic narratives about ability, gender, and sexuality. Meg MacDonald, in the essay “Bastard Balances All,” also discusses the Penric and Desdemona series in terms of queer theory but adds to the discussion Bujold’s fashioning of an antiauthoritarian theology.

The Vorkosigan Saga (1986-2016), a primary focus of Croft’s essay collection, also receives the due attention of a handful of essays in this book. In “Quiet Converse,” Katherine Woods pairs A Civil Campaign with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) to suggest Cordelia Naismith, Miles Vorkosigan’s mother, is not the boring character some readers have dismissed her as, given her subtle cultivation of multiple identities as captain, refugee, mother, and hidden power behind the regent. In “Queering Barrayar,” Jey Saung reads the more recent novel Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (2016) and the pregnancy-sidestepping novum of the uterine replicator, which has long been a keystone in the extrapolative world-building of the Vorkosiverse, for its opening up of utopian personal and public alternatives to normative biological temporalities. Oppositely, Ally Wolfe’s “Womb with a View” examines the early novel Ethan of Athos (1986) for its nuanced critique of the heterotopia of a misogynist all-male society also extrapolated from the uterine replicator. More broadly, blending visions of the future and the past in the merging of cod-medieval fantasy and space opera tropes, the Vorkosigan books enact an estranged time warp, a “futuristic feudalism” (171), as Sarah Lindsay writes in an analysis of the very first Miles book, The Warrior’s Apprentice (1986).

Expanding beyond the authorial focus, Jennifer Woodward and Peter Wright’s “The Naismith Strategem” explores Genevieve Cogman’s Bujold-themed tabletop role-playing game, The Vorkosigan Saga. Woodwood and Wright demonstrate how this game ludically systemizes Bujold’s intricate universe into a playable format, even to the point of assigning point values to characters that reflect the stigmas that often pervade feudal male-dominated and heterosexist monocultures. Kristina Busse’s “Canon Compliance and Creative Analysis in the Vorkosigan Saga Fan Fiction” reverses Bujold’s own stated endorsements of fan fiction to show how specific forms of Vorkosigan fan fiction—namely, in the slash, alternate universe, and Mary Sue subgenres—deeply engage with Bujold’s novels. Regardless of the belated scholarly recognition of Bujold’s work, these last two essays suggest that the growth of an active fandom that critically appreciates Bujold’s achievement continues apace.

Jerome Winter, PhD, is a full-time lecturer at the University of California, Riverside. His first book, Science Fiction, New Space Opera, and Neoliberal Globalism, was published by the University of Wales Press as part of their New Dimensions in Science Fiction series. His second book, Citizen Science Fiction, was published in 2021. His scholarship has appeared in The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, Extrapolation, Journal of Fantastic and the Arts, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Foundation, SFRA Review, and Science Fiction Studies.   

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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