Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Tuesday, May 09, 2000

ex libris: civilly campaigning

A note: all of the pictures below are links either to Baen Publishing or to Amazon.

"the one thing you can't give up for your heart's desire is your heart."
Miles Vorkosigan in Memory

I've been reading A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold. (NOTE: the picture link goes to a page with ten sample chapters online.) It's part of her series of books about Miles Vorkosigan (more or less--the first two books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, recently repackaged as one book called Cordelia's Honor--are about Miles' parents, and Mirror Dance is ... well, we'll get there). It's the end of a four book sequence within the series. (Well ... maybe the end--one can't tell yet--and there's actually another book in there, but it takes place earlier and was written for a specific purpose ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

What I like about her most recent books is that she's been writing Big Books (and I'm not just referring to the page count).

What do I mean by BIG? Well, honestly, I'm not quite sure. Big ideas, big characters (good, strong, believable in context) big themes, great writing ... all of that, at least.

Bujold is no stranger to BIG books; her second, Barrayar was about as big as they get. The story of one woman's affect on an entire culture, more or less. Or at least about how she gets the chance to do so. (The cover here isn't the original cover but it is kind of ... indicative. And somehow much less lurid than the "Cordelia's Honor" cover that replaces it on the portmanteau edition--though I suppose that's understandable, since "Cordelia's Honor" is pulling double duty.)

After Barrayar, she wrote a lot of space opera type stories. Fun, entertaining, but not BIG in the same way. I think she was trying for another Big story with Brothers at Arms, but as she remarked once, the story was meant to be about another character completely and somehow got hijacked by Miles. Which made the story not at all what she meant it to be.

She got another chance at a BIG story with Mirror Dance. Basically, the story is about one person beginning to discover who he is. And, almost as important, who he isn't. And what can happen when he does.

In Memory, we got more of the BIG themes. What happens when you lose your life, and how you find it again. Or how you find SOMETHING again, anyway.

I have to admit, at that point in time, Memory was kind of speaking to me. Mostly because I was trying to lose my life, and couldn't quite figure out how to do it or how to make it work. I suppose that would be another qualification for a big book, a big story, wouldn't it? That somehow, it speaks to something in you, even if it's not something major like "how to lose your life and rebuild it again". Of course, I was rather more interested in the rebuilding part--I'd already blown up large sections without meaning to, so it was mostly a matter of clearing out the rubble and starting over again. I suppose I was looking for inspiration on how to approach the subject.

In Komarr --- I suppose, technically, it was a continuation of Memory's themes. It was still BIG, but I'm damned if I can explain how or why. Watching characters discover more about themselves? I'm really not sure. It's sort of ... a waiting book, in some ways. It sets up A Civil Campaign by putting all the right people in all the right places.

A Civil Campaign is basically about marriage and how not to go about it. (I know. That doesn't sound BIG, does it? Trust me, it is.) I sat in the restaurant and the coffee shop, chortling and chuckling and saying "This is wonderful!" and "This is SO good!" to myself until people were looking at me even more strangely than they were the day I read an Ntozake Shange book in there. (Story for another time, perhaps.)

It's a book I would give almost anything to be able to write. It's funny, it's deep, it's periodically about bugs, sometimes it's about butter, it's about love, it's ... wonderful. It's an emotionally satisfying cap to this five book set inside the entire series.

Er ... did I say five books?

Well ... yes.

See, in between Mirror Dance and Memory, there came ... Cetaganda. Now, to be sure, there's not a damned thing wrong with the book. It's just ...

A trifle.

See, I would be willing to bet that Cetaganda was written, at the very least, after Memory was started. Probably after it was finished. The purpose of Cetaganda is to explain a detail that crops up in Memory. A throwaway detail within the context of the book, but a rather important one within the life of the character. I mean, it's not often that you're honored by your people's worst enemy--at least, not without landing in prison or exile--and so the detail of the decoration was desperately in need of explication. But coming in the middle of all these Big Books, Cetaganda was not only sequentially out of place (it occurs much earlier in the character's career), it was contextually out of place. It wasn't another Big Book, and so, despite being perfectly good space opera in its own right, it felt like a disappointment.

I feel like I'm dismissing an entire genre here, and I don't mean to be. I like space opera. It's fun, it's escapist, and that's generally all good (or even bad) space opera desires to be. The modern day Western, if you will.

But sometimes, one of the space operas breaks out and aspires to be something more. And really, good space opera is always about the people and not the toys or the shooting.

And Bujold writes good space opera. In fact, she writes GREAT space opera.

Interestingly enough, however, Mirror Dance is the only one of her Big Books that could come close to being described as space opera. It's the only one of them that actually has any action in space, and most of it takes place on one planet or another.

All of her books are science fiction/fantasy, in that they take place in a civilization that Is Not Yet.

Of course, imagining this taking place in our own civilization would be utterly impossible ... right?

Link to, the official Lois McMaster Bujold Fan site Yes, I know. The LAST thing today's entry needed was another picture. But it's always a good idea to see who you're talking about, isn't it? This is a picture of Lois McMaster Bujold, the author of the books I'm talking about today. Clicking on the pic takes you to her official fan site.

I swear, between this and all the links to Baen and Amazon, I feel like a public relations shill.

And, somehow, not a very good one.

I need a Bigger Budget!

Posted by iain at 10:55 PM in category