The Bujold Nexus

Foreword to "Shards of Honor"

The following will be published in a new edition of Shards of Honor published by NESFA.

"Shards of Honor", written in 1983 and published three years later, is Lois McMaster Bujold's first novel. It is also the first story of her Vorkosigan series, a collection of over a dozen books set in the same Universe, most of them involving Miles Vorkosigan or his parents. She has also written a number of short stories and one historical fantasy novel, and plans more fantasy. Her work has garnered two Nebula awards and four Hugos, three of them for Best Novel - more in that category than any other author except Robert A. Heinlein.

Despite these achievements it is surprising how little known she is outside the world of SF. When the birth of Dolly (the cloned sheep) was announced, the media consulted the Great and the Good on the issues of human cloning - but no-one consulted Lois, who had considered the human problems of such cloning in half a dozen books, and had reached more humane and useful conclusions than most of those who were quoted. To mention but one - the result of the cloning process is a baby who must be reared and nurtured for at least a decade, more probably two, before becoming a productive member of society. The costs, economic and human, of this rearing are rarely considered by those prophesying cloned armies of slaves or soldiers. ("They call it women's work" [Ethan of Athos Chapter 5.])

She is a superb writer, with a wicked facility for emphasising points by clever choice of phrase. She has said that a book as a work of art is not the printed text but the engagement between the ideas of the author and the perceptions of the reader. It is the author's place to facilitate that engagement and Lois does. She may make us work to appreciate her allusions, but she is never deliberately obscure.

To those familiar with her works it is evident that Shards of Honor is an early one; the background to her Universe is still comparatively sketchy. But she already has all her skills of insight, compassion, characterisation, a sly and subtle wit which comes back and bites you three sentences down the page (never read an LMB story while eating or drinking), and an ability (which she ascribes to "an unreconstructed inner thirteen-year-old") to create plots which excite by leading the reader's expectations one way and then delivering an entirely unexpected dénouement. In "Barrayar" Cordelia reflects that as a stranger to the planet of Barrayar one must "Check your assumptions - in fact, check your assumptions at the door" [Barrayar Chapter 5.] Lois's readers should do so, too. ("Barrayar" [1991] is the direct sequel to Shards of Honor, and the second half of the story arc [Lois's term for an entity comprising two or more separate novels] which she has described as "The Price of Becoming a Parent".)

Lois is well read in many areas, including, of course, SF, and, as the daughter of an engineer and herself a sometime medical technician, does not confuse the unrealised with the unscientific. Her works contain echoes of Austen, Heinlein, Heyer, Russell (Eric Frank), Shakespeare, Tolstoy and many, many others.

Her skill in characterisation is impressive. Even her minor characters grow as the stories progress, and we can feel the emotions and motivations of all of them, even walk-on "prop-box" characters like spaceport officials and hero-worshipping starship pilots. (I loved the response of Cordelia's CO to the psychiatrist's comment that "A middle-aged career officer is hardly the stuff of romance." [Shards of Honor Chapter 13.]) Her major characters, heroes and villains, are three-dimensional - none is all good or all bad, - and here again we need to be careful of our assumptions.

Throughout her SF Lois uses the "tight third person" point of view (POV) where, although the text is written in the third person, the reader sees and knows what the POV character sees and knows - almost like a first-person account - which does not necessarily correspond to objective reality. In "Shards of Honor" we are confined to Cordelia's POV, but in later works she uses more - there are five in "A Civil Campaign" and it is further evidence of her skill that the personality of each POV character illuminates the narrative.

But one of her greatest attributes is her empathy. She makes us feel for all her characters, even the villains. In fact it is this empathy, manifest in Cordelia, the heroine and POV character, which gives us the title of the book. She and Aral Vorkosigan both seek to do what is right rather than simply follow rules; she calls the quality "Grace of God", he calls it "Honor", and it drives them both to very hard choices. It is Cordelia's honor, manifested in burying the dead and helping the injured despite practical imperatives to do otherwise, which first attracts Aral in the first few pages of the book and the first few minutes of their acquaintance. "Cordelia's Honor" is actually the title of an omnibus volume containing "Shards of Honor" and "Barrayar".

Lois's practical policy, that the best way to advance a plot is to work out the worst possible thing that can happen to her characters - and do it to them, gives ample scope for the exercise of empathy!

This particular combination of qualities attracts SF readers who are practical, widely read idealists. The Internet mailing list devoted to her works is erudite, compassionate, courteous, and wide-ranging in the topics discussed and (non-Bujold) books recommended - and contains members of all ages and many nationalities. (Lois's works have been translated into at least 13 languages.) If you have access to the Internet you can find more about Lois herself and this mailing list at The Bujold Nexus.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have both said that they wrote children's stories because that was the proper medium for a particular thing that they had to write. Lewis further pointed out that only bad children's stories were read by children exclusively. Nevertheless many adult readers eschew all such works. Lois writes Science Fiction, and so her talents are concealed from the many readers who similarly "don't read Science Fiction". We cannot avoid classifying literature into genres, but we should recognise that a single work can be classified in a number of different ways. "Shards of Honor" is Science Fiction. It is also a romance, a military adventure, a political novel, and a study of the morality of war. All her works cross genres in this way - all her novels are SF and Fantasy but she has written romances, military adventures, espionage thrillers, mysteries and a comedy of biology and manners. I should love to see her write a Western set on Barrayar - or Sergyar.

If I had to sum up "Shards of Honor" in a sentence I would recall a conversation between two minor characters at the very end of the book. In the aftermath of battle they are recovering frozen corpses, of both sides, from space, for burial. "Is it true," asks the pilot, "that you guys call them corpse-sicles?" "Some do," the medtech replies, "I don't. I call them people." This is a book for people.

© 1999 by James M Bryant
Added to The Bujold Nexus: September 6th 1999

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