The Bujold Nexus

Satire or Romance ­ a False Dilemma
A Reply to James Burbidge’s Analysis of A Civil Campaign
by Sergei Alderman

In "The Novel, Romance, and the Recent Works of Lois McMaster Bujold," James Burbidge asserts that "the reader is called upon to judge all of the characters" in A Civil Campaign, placing it in the critical tradition of Jane Austen, rather than the romantic tradition of Charlotte Brontë His essay is erudite and thought provoking, but I profoundly disagree with his premise. The mode of A Civil Campaign is neither escapist character identification nor blunt pedagogy. The protagonists grow by meeting moral challenges, but they are never held up for comparison to some illusory moral ideal.

Basically, Mr. Burbidge has established two opposing paradigms for us. In the Romance, the reader is expected to identify with the protagonists and root for them to succeed ­ whether or not one would agree with their goals were they not the protagonists. In the Novel ­ though I would prefer to label this paradigm the Satire ­ the reader is expected to judge the characters on moral grounds, and expects them to receive their just desserts. In Ms. Bujold's novels, on the other hand, one is expected neither to judge from afar, nor to blindly identify; rather, the reader is invited to empathize with the characters and to root for them ­ not merely to succeed, but to grow and learn.

Let us take, for example, Captain Ivan Vorpatril:
Mr. Burbidge's initial reaction upon seeing him from the inside for the first time is an impulse to "swat [him] upside the head with a plank. He's thirty and needs to grow up." An understandable response, but let's examine its roots. Ivan has two major character flaws:
he's a womanizer, and he's an underachiever ­ in a word, a dilettante. (But is this a fatal flaw? If you needed some help in a sticky situation, would you call up Captain Vorpatril, or a good, solid, family man like, say, Hugo Vorvayne?) Mr. Burbidge claims that Ivan is too self-limiting for reader identification, but how many of us are entirely free of self-imposed limitations? In any case, the stumbling-blocks reinforcing Ivan's self-limitation have been falling away, one by one, since Memory. First, his mother found a love-life of her own, and lost interest in his. Then his cousin stopped trying to enveigle him in his schemes. (To look at it another way, Alys and Miles have progressed to a more effective, reverse-psychology sort of manipulation ­ i.e. "We're not going to push you anymore, so if you're planning to grow up, you'll have to do it on your own. Choose!") And Gregor is well on his way to putting lots of little Vorbarras between Ivan and the Imperium. With these obstacles out of the way, Ivan's dilettantism is not so much a flaw as a challenge ­ an opportunity for personal growth. While it is true that it takes a threat to the genitalia of the male Vor class (and, by extension, his own) to bestir him to meet this challenge, meet it he does, and with enviable panache.

When Ivan walks into the Council of Counts with the four stragglers in tow, having taken Dono Vorrutyer's part without anyone to talk him into it but himself, and finally makes Miles eat his "Ivan-you-idiot" for once, he's stepping into a new chapter in his life, one in which he takes responsibility for the consequences of inaction, rather than making excuses and waiting to be cajoled into helping. In a way, he's internalized Miles ­ in the future, I expect we'll see him badger himself into taking the rash, dangerous, (and necessary) course of action. He's a reluctant hero, but a hero nonetheless. Ivan's dilettante days are behind him, and I suspect that his bachelor days are numbered as well. While it's true that he is the only protagonist who isn't paired off at the end of A Civil Campaign, this isn't some authorial punishment for his imperfections ­ the other protagonists reconcile with a lover; Ivan finally reconciles with himself.

While Mr. Burbidge is rather harsh on the other three protagonists, he goes suspiciously easy on Ekaterin and Miles. Much is excused of Miles on account of being in love. (I'm not sure why this standard is not applied equally to Kareen.) But Miles and Ekaterin don't make their mistakes because they're in love, but because of deeply rooted character flaws that they had before they ever met ­ in Miles's case, instinctive, unconscious manipulativeness, and in Ekaterin's, an utter blindness to her own (estimable) worth. It's because of the obstacle that these failings present to their budding romance that they have the impetus to recognize them, and reform.

Mr. Burbidge says that the "key point of moral choice in the book (again, in the attic scene) is that refusal of Ekaterin to compromise on the public issue of the Vorrutyer countship which Miles has raised privately as an option because of its private impact on them both." While this is an important scene, and an important decision, it's not the critical one, since neither Ekaterin nor Miles would have made the incorrect decision in a similar situation in a previous novel, (in fact, Mr. Burbidge quite rightly points out that a choice between the public and private good is the climactic moral decision for the two of them in Komarr,) so no moral growth is demonstrated when they make the correct one. Miles and Ekaterin resolve their romantic difficulties in the attic scene, but first they each had to resolve a character flaw which had been impeding them.

Miles has his crucial revelation after Mark conveys Ekaterin's reaction to his letter, when he finally realizes that scam and manipulation "just wouldn't do it for the long haul." To use the sort of military metaphor Miles is so fond of, a scorched-earth campaign is hardly appropriate if you're planning to stay long. If we have reason to doubt Miles's ability to overcome this weakness, he proves his sincerity a few pages later when he refrains from his habitual maneuvering of Ivan. The "key point" for Ekaterin is during the scene when Vassily Vorsoisson and her brother Hugo are paying her a visit. In the midst of the desultory argument, she finally breaks through the habitual self-abnegation her disastrous marriage had imbedded in her psyche. When Hugo tries to put her back into the sort of conceptual box she is no longer acclimated to, she finds she has outgrown it.

Miles and Ekaterin are facing similar problems:
destructive habits of mind. We all know that habits are hard to break, and I'm not claiming that they have overcome them completely. During the attic scene, they specifically discuss the dangers those habits still pose to their relationship:

"Admiral Naismith began as a lie, one I redeemed by making him come true later. And it worked really well, for a while; the little Admiral brought me everything I ever thought I wanted. After a while I began to think all sins could be redeemed like that. Lie now, fix it later. Same as I tried to do with you. Even love is not as strong as habit, eh?"


She inhaled, and ventured, "Habits. Yes. I feel as if I'm half crippled with old reflexes." Old scars of mind. "Tien seems never more than a thought away from me."

So, while the bad habits that were sabotaging their relationship haven't disappeared, something has changed. Previously, their habits were unconscious ­ as natural to each of them as breathing. By this point, they have both become aware of, and on guard against, these self-destructive tendencies. That's their moral test, because that's the hard part for them, not the relatively simple ethical question of whether or not they should stand up to Richars Vorrutyer's blackmail.

Mr. Burbidge claims that, of the five protagonists, Kareen and Mark are the "most limited in their general scope" and that their "moral stature is not as high" as the others. I'll grant that their relationship serves as an earthier reflection of their elders'. (Miles is thin; Mark is fat. Kareen is gregarious; Ekaterin, reserved. Ekaterin and Miles wind up very publicly engaged, while Kareen and Mark remain lustily unwed.) But if Mark and Kareen are coarser than their counterparts, that does not make them inferior, or less moral.

Both Kareen and Mark are taken to task for a lack of perception, but the other protagonists are not judged by the same standard. Miles, for instance, does not see any further beyond the surface of Mark and Kareen's feelings and troubles than they do his. For example, when Miles notes the "sense of sexual frustration rising from" the two of them, he over-simplifies Kareen's situation in just the same way she does his. Neither Miles nor Kareen is actually all that dense, they just don't really know each other that well. In a similar instance, Miles specifically denies any special depth of perception into Mark's feelings during their conversation upon Mark's return from the better butter-bug meeting, saying:
"I can't tell what you're thinking just because you look surly. You usually look surly." In any case, if Mark and Kareen's perceptiveness regarding issues that do not directly impact them is imperfect, at least they can't be accused of lacking self-perception ­ the primary flaw of both Miles and Ekaterin.

Mark and Kareen also stand accused of callousness ­ Mark for his dismissal Tien Vorsoisson's death, Kareen for her willingness to forsake her family. But Countess Vorkosigan, in her role as normative observer, specifically validates their views. When Mark apologizes, unrepentantly, for his lack of concern as to whether Miles killed Tien or not, Cordelia replies, "I am moved by your insincerity." I think it's worth noting that not one of the four members of the Vorkosigan clan has never committed murder. Now, as far as Kareen "just dropping" her family goes, the truth is, it's Commodore Koudelka who forces his daughter to choose between her family and her love. Cordelia shows her support for Kareen's priorities when she takes her part in the confrontation between the lovers and the parents ­ which should come as no surprise, considering that she was estranged from her own family (her whole society, in fact!) for years for the sake of love. The Countess is not a perfect judge of character ­ she misjudges Miles in Memory ­ but she comes awfully close. An individual reader may disagree with Mark or Kareen, but it's facile to argue that evoking our censure is the author's intent, when her most acute character specifically endorses their views.

During her summit with her parents, Kareen confronts her moral crisis:
should she be Beta Colony's idea of a "good girl", or Barrayar's? She, quite properly, rejects this false dilemma, and chooses to be Kareen, thus passing her test. Ultimately it's Mark (not Ivan) who achieves the least growth in this novel. Unlike the other four protagonists, he faces no daunting moral challenge, (unless I'm just missing it.) This is no indication of inferiority ­ I think he simply had enough character growth in Mirror Dance to last him two books. His primary remaining problem is his difficulty in relating to people. In contrast to Ekaterin, he's undersocialized. But, unlike his less self-aware fellow protagonists, he's aware of the problem, he's working on it, and it's not the sort of thing that's amenable to a dramatic denouement.

In a way, I suppose, it looks as though my view is not that different from Mr. Burbidge's. He says that each character meets a moral challenge; with the caveat of Mark, I agree. But this is the kernel of the matter:
Mr. Burbidge claims that we sympathize with the characters, to a greater or lesser degree, but fail to identify with them completely ­ that we distance ourselves from them ­ because of their flaws. This theory makes a great deal of sense, if you posit an audience of angels. But I believe that most human readers identify with a protagonist because of character flaws, not despite them. While we may faintly praise the character who demonstrates a strength, we cheer the one who overcomes a weakness.

In Shards of Honor, Cordelia teaches us that "tests are a gift." It is in this spirit that Ms. Bujold inflicts trials and tribulations on her characters ­ not to chastise them for their flaws, but to challenge them to overcome them. Their moral goal is not to adhere to some arbitrary universal standard, but to become more and more their own best selves. Just as Kareen rejects her false dilemma, we should reject the choice between "Romance" and "Novel". A Civil Campaign is neither a social satire nor an escapist romance, but a novel of character set in a space opera milieu.

The material on this page attributable to Mr. Burbidge is © 2000 by James Burbidge

The material on this page attributable to Ms. Bujold is © 2000 by Lois McMaster Bujold

The rest of the material on this page is © 2000 by Sergei Alderman originally published at
Added to The Bujold Nexus: December 8th 2000

Webpage design by Michael Bernardi,

[ Home Page | What's New | The Author | The Books | Mailing List | Inspired | Nexus Specials | Links ]

All comments or queries about this Web page to:

Last updated: November 20th 2002