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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Corrina Lawson on Reading Bujold

Corrina Lawson is a former newspaper reporter with a degree in journalism from Boston University. A mom of four, she now works from home writing romance novels with a geeky twist and as the Content Director and co-founder of GeekMom.com.

She’s also is the co-writer of GeekMom Book: Projects, Tips and Adventures for Moms and Their 21st Century Families.

Her novels include The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, a romantic steampunk mystery; the alternate history Seneca series: Freya’s GiftDinah of Seneca and Eagle of Seneca; and the superhero romance Phoenix Institute series: Phoenix Rising, Luminous, Phoenix Legacy and the upcoming Ghost Phoenix, Ghosts of Christmas Past, and Phoenix Inheritance.

And, every now and then, she’s Wonder Woman. Read more about her on her website.

Reading Bujold

by Corrina Lawson

Read Bujold.

“Wounded in body, mind and spirit.”

That’s how Cordelia Naismith first describes the men surrounding her at the beginning of Barrayar, a novel contained in Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold.

It’s those kinds of wounds and how they are healed that are the heart of the Vorkosigan series by Bujold, a vastly underrated SF series that should be read not just because of its treatment of the mentally and physically disabled but because the novels are damn fine stories.

About ten years ago, a fellow romance writer literally shoved Cordelia’s Honor into my hand and said “You will love this. Read it.”

At that point, I’d given up reading SF because everything I picked up focused on concepts only. Great concepts are needed for great SF but I also crave, as a reader, a great story with three-dimensional characters.

But my friend loved the book so much that I couldn’t resist, even if it was SF. I read Cordelia’s Honor immediately read it again. And again.

I immediately collected the rest of the Vorkosigan series, not easy at the time because it was before Bujold’s books were collected in omnibus volumes.

I inhaled every single book and every single short story set in this universe. I haven’t been this in love with a series since I first read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien as a teenager.

Why do I love it so much?

Admittedly, the concept of the Vorkosigan is basic: galactic SF with different worlds based on different cultures that arose because of the difficulty in maintaining contact with the home planet.

But combine the complex people that populate these stories, with their involvement in situations that resonate to our present day, and the novels became compelling.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized how far ahead of her time Bujold was, in ways relevant to this column, especially in the portrayal of those with physical and mental disabilities. To me, the characters were simply incredible people who seemed to live and breathe even after I closed the books.

But consider these characters and what shaped them:

The main protagonist of the Vorkosigan series, Miles Vorkosigan, is a physically challenged man on a planet that views any deviation from the physical norm as cause for shunning, if not outright execution. Picture Tyrion Lannister (a character who came along ten years after Miles) in all his intelligence and his sarcasm, now add supportive parents but a world where he’s deemed a useless freak, and add a chance for him to recreate himself in a wider galactic world where he can thrive. Then there’s his hyper-activity, and his limited attention span, and his racing mind. For Miles alone, Bujold’s Vorkosigan series explores concepts of mental and physical disabilities rarely seen in SF.

But it’s not just Miles.

Aral Vorkosigan, Miles’ father, is revealed early on to be bisexual, attracted to a particular type of person—someone who can be a full partner on his level—and because of the patriarchy that rules his world of Barrayar, doesn’t bond to a woman until he meets Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony, a woman who’s his equal.

Bothari, who at first seems the worst kind of human monster, a sociopath, is portrayed three-dimensionally across several novels, a man struggling with his mental illness in a society that knows very little about treating him successfully and views his murderous instincts as an asset, if directed properly. His character arc from supposedly stupid, violent brute to a self-aware protector who fully accepts culpability in his crimes is heart-breaking.

Mark, a character introduced in Mirror Dance, has all of Miles’ physical problems wedded to mental illness created by his upbringing and later torture. Cordelia describes him as just as much a casualty of war as any soldier. Mark’s broken, knows it, and tries (and mostly succeeds) in overcoming it.

Cordelia Naismith? Where to start with the heart of the series, a woman whose compassion informs and inspires everyone character I’ve mentioned, and with a feminist edge to her compassion. She’s thrust into a society that values her not at all at the same time she’s overcoming her own PTSD and yet still manages to pull everyone up to her level.

There’s more.

To tell exactly who it is would be a spoiler for A Civil Campaign but this story includes a transman who’s my favorite character in the book, and, bonus, the very aptly named Byerly Vorrutyer plays a supporting role. Later, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance sees the return of Byerly.

There’s also the racial diversity found on several planets in the Vorkosigan series. An entire novel, Ethan of Athos, is devoted to a man from a planet inhabited only by men. The quaddies of Falling Free are four-armed people who view themselves as unique and wonderful, not as freaks.

At no time when I was reading the books did I ever think “what a wonderfully way to explore disabilities of all kinds.”

Instead, I was thinking, “Oh, God, I love these people. I want to hug them and talk to them, and see the world through their eyes, and walk in their steps, and have the compassion and courage that they possess.”

Because the writer’s compassion for all her characters stands out. Everyone is important, no matter what their physical or mental disabilities or sexual preference.

“It’s an impossible job,” Aral says of changing hearts and minds at one point in Shards of Honor.

“That happens sometimes,” Cordelia tells him, knowing full well they might fail but also knowing the attempt must be made because there’s no one else who can.

Impossible jobs happen sometimes. That doesn’t mean we can turn away from them.

5 Comments on [GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Corrina Lawson on Reading Bujold

  1. Peter Willard // January 27, 2015 at 8:56 am //

    I would hardly describe them as underrated. I have heard a great many people refer to her as one of the best writers in the field today. Her four Hugo’s for best novel, a number only matched by Heinlein, speaks to that. They are wonderful books, and she is one of the few authors I will always buy in hardcover as soon as they are released.

    • You rarely hear buzz about her books. She’s not part of the new generation of SF/F writers and she’s not part of the honored Old Guard either and I’ve often heard the Vorkosigan series derisively dismissed as “space opera.”
      When people talk the best modern SF sagas, Bujold should always be in the conversation, as C.J. Cherryh is. Heck, I’ve had more people tell me how awesome David Weber’s Honor series is for female characters and not to knock that series, but it’s not the Vorkosigan Saga.

  2. Only series I ever got my almost no reading husband to devour. Adore them!

  3. Most series books start to wear out, for me, after the first three or four books. (I start to get bored.) The Vorkosigan books? I’ve read them all, and want more.

  4. I have cerebral palsy myself, and I once asked Lois how she did such a great job of “getting Miles’ disability right.”
    She said “I’ve never thought of Miles as disabled. Miles is just Miles.”

    Which pretty much answers the question.

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