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Written on the Body Wednesday

What I've Finished Reading

Shards of Honor and Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Two books in a longer sci-fi/space opera series by an author I hadn't read before. I found them both very easy and quick to read, almost like watching a really high-budget sci-fi TV show, and even though they probably aren't going to be my favorite anything, they did stick in my mind a lot.

The plot is harder to explain succinctly than it was to follow. Cordelia Naismith is captain of a survey ship who keeps getting thrown together with Aral Vorkosigan, a commander of some weird space feudalists from the formerly isolationist planet Barrayar (beginning when they attack her survey team and strand Aral and Cordelia on planet). A war ensues, one thing leads to another, and Cordelia ends up helping Aral with some war-ending skullduggery. Then, when circumstances make her return home impossible, she takes Aral up on his offer to marry her and defects to Barrayar. In the next book she throws herself into the alien world of space feudalism, with some success. Cordelia is an interesting POV character, frequently opaque and often frustrating, with an uncomfortably congratulatory attitude toward other people's suffering. She's an outsider to Barrayar's quasi-medieval honor-based warrior culture, but in some ways it seems to suit her inner dogmatist better than her utilitarian homeworld did. And the climate is really pleasant! That's a good enough reason to become a space feudalist, right? (not really)

There's a lot of intrigue and some suspenseful sneaking around and a couple of really cute kids, and also a lot of sexual violence and reproductive horror, described with the same TV-like speed and clarity as everything else. Bujold's really interested in rape as an instrument of terror and in the intimately destructive afterlives of war and a bunch of other things that technically I agree are important and interesting but don't particularly want cluttering up my fantasy space politics -- which is hardly fair of me, but I kept thinking it anyway. These are books in which familiar forms of escapist fun (interplanetary culture clashes! Carefully modulated party sniping! Multilayered military space strategy!) are being constantly (deliberately) weighted down with real-world ethical implications that are not fun at all, a project I secretly resent even as I admire it in theory. This makes it sound like I disliked these books because they weren't Rogue One; I didn't! I'm not completely sure what I think. I think I'll probably end up recommending them just so that I have more people around to complain to. I've already tried to get my book club to read one, but they voted for The Dispossessed instead.

What I'm Reading Now

I saw Lila for the last time five years ago, in the winter of 2005. We were walking along the stradone, early in the morning and, as had been true for years now, were unable to feel at ease. I was the only one talking, I remember: she was humming, she greeted people who didn't respond, the rare times she interrupted me she uttered only exclamations, without any evident relation to what I was saying. Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn't have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength, didn't have the desire, didn't see the use.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. Just like The Story of a New Name, opening this book is like switching on a giant eye magnet. It's very difficult to pick my head back up and go cook dinner or whatever else I'm supposed to be doing. This effect took hold in the first paragraph (see above) and has not noticeably abated. I'll let you know what I think when I get to the end and can call my eyes my own again.

William Sansom's The Body is not quite like that, but it's pretty good. A guy is jealous of his wife, probably without much reason. He prods at the canker in his mind in as many ways as he can, and it gets worse. That's the whole story so far -- a lit-fic cliche, maybe? but I don't mind about that. It's full of great/awful/startling details and painfully sympathetic social blunders.

What I Plan to Read Next

C. P. Snow, probably. Maybe this book I picked up at the book festival ("Do you prefer funny or not funny?" the guy asked me. "Funny," I said. He stacked five books in front of me. "Give me the funniest one you have," I said, and got Saved by Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Other Stories by Allen Woodman. It's all wrapped up in plastic and I haven't unwrapped it yet). Probably I should read the rest of The Dispossessed.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 27th, 2016 02:07 pm (UTC)
I've read 'Shards of Honour' but not the sequel. I didn't like the attempted rape scene (light reading??) and when Aral was saying he could imagine Cordelia was a good leader because she did it in a womanly way irritated me, because I don't know if that was Bujold's view or Aral's. I did enjoy reading it, but alot of my f-list are big on her and I'm feeling "every woman means every woman except me" about it for not being as swept away. I did toy with reading one of the later books, but I'm reading 'Temeraire' by Naomi Novik and I'm going to get the next one in that series, so Bujold is on hold.
Apr. 27th, 2016 03:46 pm (UTC)
That attempted rape is so weird. It's super pulpy and baroque, but also uncomfortably detailed and "real," but also Cordelia's interior monologue is so relentlessly quippy, like, "oh well, I guess it won't be any worse than humoring my ex all those times" and I don't want to tell anyone how to feel, but as a writing choice it was just. . .odd all around.

I guess Barrayar is supposed to be the galactic capital of deliberately retrograde gender essentialism, but I'm never totally thrilled with the decision to invent a gender-essentialist planet in an (apparently) otherwise more or less egalitarian far future just so we can do the gender essentialism dance all over again in SPACE.

There were a lot of things I enjoyed and a lot of things that were just Not For Me.
Apr. 28th, 2016 02:47 pm (UTC)
I didn't like that part because of the 'boudoir of pain' element made me think it was a rape fantasy (I didn't know it would be a failed rape when I was reading) and I thought Bujold wanted me to be going "oh no" but secretly enjoying it at the same time and I was totally "nope".

Apr. 27th, 2016 02:41 pm (UTC)
I have difficulty evaluating Bujold's works because the first four books came out and came my way while I was in college and I imprinted pretty strongly because she was doing things that nobody else was right then. I think that the things that attracted me to her work are more commonplace now, thirty years later, but I find her prose a comfortable place for me because it's familiar.

It may simply be that her work is aging out of relevance.

Bujold has a thing about reproduction in terms of it being central in a lot of her work. As far as I recall, she's the first SF author I ran into who looked at pregnancy and noted that it's kind of dangerous and that, even when it goes well, women end up with physical changes that aren't pluses. My OB, for example, considered the fact that I couldn't walk without extreme pain for the last few months of my pregnancy to be within normal parameters and not something to worry about.
Apr. 27th, 2016 04:13 pm (UTC)
As far as I recall, she's the first SF author I ran into who looked at pregnancy and noted that it's kind of dangerous and that, even when it goes well, women end up with physical changes that aren't pluses.

I found that focus really interesting and admirable, as someone who has not read much recent sci-fi (or very much sci-fi at all). I like that it's at least partly a philosophical novel that treats women's bodies as the default human body, if that makes sense? but then I go back to resenting that "female body as default" cashes out as "lots and lots of rape and pregnancy!" I don't know, I have mixed feelings.

And Cordelia's speeches about Life At Any Cost and On Any Terms (on behalf of people who were unable to make the decision for themselves, like the brain-damaged guy and baby Miles) were really off-putting to me. Thought-provoking, because I kept being forced to argue with myself about them. But as character moments, very alienating.

I don't know if I'd say it's aging out of relevance - as a sci-fi outsider, I can't really tell. I did find it a really strange and compelling mix of things, some of which I admired without liking, some I enjoyed straightforwardly, and a few I absolutely hated. I can definitely see why Bujold fans are so invested!

My OB, for example, considered the fact that I couldn't walk without extreme pain for the last few months of my pregnancy to be within normal parameters and not something to worry about.


I hope he was sufficiently worried to prescribe you some pain meds, at least. That sounds awful!

Edited at 2016-04-27 04:17 pm (UTC)
Apr. 27th, 2016 04:30 pm (UTC)
They sent me to physical therapy for the walking thing. PT gave me a walker. Most pain killers really aren't good during pregnancy. I think Tylenol is pretty much it. All the NSAIs carry the risk of miscarriage.

There is a point in one of the much later books in the Vorkosigan series where Cordelia kind of wonders if maybe she was wrong in her her decision about DuBaer. It's just a single sentence where she mentally apologizes to him.

I suspect that Cordelia is very much an authorial mouthpiece. In later books, it's harder to grasp her because they're all from the point of view of her son who doesn't really pay attention to her until he's much older. When he does see her, he doesn't recognize that she's human.

Shards of Honor and Barrayar were not written sequentially. Bujold skips around in her timeline a lot, and there were a few books between the two. Shards of Honor, The Warrior's Apprentice (the first Miles book), Falling Free, and Ethan of Athos all came out in a very short time, and I think, when reading any of them, it's important to realize that those are early books. I'm of the opinion that the books in the middle of this series, in terms of when they were written, are the strongest. I really like the most recent book in the series, but that has more to do with it being the right book for me at just this moment than with it being a spectacular book.
Apr. 27th, 2016 05:15 pm (UTC)
Oh, I didn't even think of that re: painkillers! That just goes to prove your point again, I guess. I'm familiar with some of the risks and dangers of pregnancy because I know people who've gone through them, but there are so many.

I have read, or started to read and got a little bogged down in, one of the books about Cordelia's son. I was expecting it to appeal to me a little more, but wound up enjoying it less. I'm on the fence right now about whether I'm going to try again in the future. Since I am still on the fence, it probably means the answer is yes, but I don't think it'll be a high priority for a while.

I really like the most recent book in the series, but that has more to do with it being the right book for me at just this moment than with it being a spectacular book.

I know that feeling very, very well. Sometimes a book is just the right book for the moment.
Apr. 27th, 2016 03:00 pm (UTC)
I always feel relieved when someone else reads the Vorkosigan books and doesn't fall in love, because so many people I know love them with a nearly Gaimanesque fanaticism and I just don't get it. I tried to read Shards of Honor ages ago but I only got as far as the part where Cordelia runs off to the space feudalists because she's in love with Aral who she barely knows, and then I was just like NOPE.

I also found the balance between "light space romp" and "serious examination of the horrors of war" completely off - not just the sexual violence, but also the part at the beginning where Aral hits one of Cordelia's soldiers with a brain scrambler that reduces him to the mental capacity of a two-year-old. And she falls for Aral? After seeing him do that? It destroyed any respect I had for her as a commander and an ethical human being.
Apr. 27th, 2016 04:37 pm (UTC)
Not trying to say that your opinions on Cordelia as a character are wrong, but one note-- Aral did not shoot DuBaer. Bothari did. That's not to say that Aral necessarily wouldn't have, but that's one particular thing that he didn't do. He does, however, repeatedly suggest that killing DuBaer is the only merciful course, and I see that as a pretty major and fundamental conflict in world views that ought to get more attention than it does.

I find it easier to see Aral falling for Cordelia than Cordelia falling for Aral.
Apr. 27th, 2016 05:02 pm (UTC)
Poor brain-damage guy. :( That whole subplot is pretty horrifying. We get an update on his condition in Barrayar (it's the same!) just in case you were hoping to forget about it. NOPE. And that's understandable - I mean, part of the point I think she's trying to make about war is that the damage is real and persists, even after the "plot" has moved on.

One of the things that kept me reading and that I'm still thinking about was - I guess just my total uncertainty about what Bujold was trying to do by running all of these sharp long wires of real horror under the skin of her space romp, and if my inability to stop worrying about it means it's "working" or not. It's a weird balance for sure.

Aral/Cordelia gave me a chronic case of ship whiplash. The appeal of Aral and his planet was pretty much completely lost on me, and Cordelia's attachment to him seemed to come out of nowhere, but Bujold is also really good at writing a kind of understated intimacy metonomy that I like. So every now and then Cordelia would touch Aral's chest or something and I'd go, "Awww, you guys, I wish I liked you better and were more convinced by your allegedly deathless love!" and then flip back through the book to see if there was an establishing scene that I'd missed. I never found it, so I spent a lot of time going, "Awww, you guys <3. BUT WHY, though? Idk, maybe it's one of those things where the heart wants what it wants? BUT THAT'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR FICTION >:("

I didn't mind that Cordelia was a highly flawed character whose motives I didn't always understand, but I did mind that I had barely any sense of Aral at all, and honestly very little of her feelings for him. We do get a compelling reason for Cordelia to defect to Barrayar, even if it feels a little like she's being cattle-chuted into it by the author, and marrying Aral seems like the safest way to do that (because Barrayar is horrible) but. . . I think I would have preferred to see Aral try to get a job as a judo instructor on Beta Colony.

Edited at 2016-04-27 07:17 pm (UTC)
Apr. 28th, 2016 12:56 am (UTC)
Yeah, I think Cordelia and Aral are a couple who require an initial willingness to invest that I just did not have. I can see how it would be compelling if I bought it! Two people, originally enemies, coming from planets with wildly differing values, overcoming their differences through the power of love and occasional chest-touching...

But I wanted a firmer foundation for it. As it was I felt sort of like she fell for him because they'd been in super stressful situations together and that tends to magnify feelings, and that just didn't seem like a good basis to start a new life on his feudalist gender essentialist planet.
Apr. 27th, 2016 06:46 pm (UTC)
I quite like Bujold's books, though not to the fannish degree of some people, and the more time that goes by the more I find them slipping seamlessly from my mind. (And it's only been... a year? two? since I read them, so it's less that a great deal of time has passed and more that they didn't make a huge impression on me.) I liked the mix of entertainment with a bit of serious issues, but I suspect that balance is something hugely personal, and if it doesn't work for you, it just doesn't.

You might enjoy Bujold's fantasy series, though! The Chalion books, I mean, not the Sharing Knife – which is apparently terrible? I haven't read it myself, but so multiple friends have told me. The first one is The Curse of Chalion, and it does interesting things with faith and religion and martyrdom.
Apr. 27th, 2016 07:36 pm (UTC)
I can definitely understand why they have such a devoted fanbase! For most of the time I was reading them, I was pretty invested even as I kept running into things that I didn't love. Even now that I'm a little more at arm's length, I feel a kind of fascinated antagonism toward them that is closely related to fannishness. They may even be the same thing in different moods, I don't know. It's personal, like you said. I'll give The Curse of Chalion a try sometime.
Apr. 28th, 2016 11:16 am (UTC)
I love most of Bujold's work, but Shards of Honor is certainly not the best. It is very obvously a first book IMO. I read recently that the beginning was actually a Star Trek fanfic with the Barrayans as Klingon and Beta Colony the Federation, and I can see that.

I feel that even is sexual violence do crop up in some later books, though much less explicit (and not frequent), here it is very much here only for the reason to establish Vorrutyer as EVIL. As an authorical shortcut, if you will, which I don't feel it is in later books.

My favourite parts of the series are just the novels set on Barryar as it's culture evolve and grow. Also, I'm not really a S.F fan and spaceships tend to bore me. The best Vorkosigan books are, IMO, the ones that are best are the who-dunnits. Like the novella Mountain's of Mourning which is really a crime stor about the murder of a small baby. And Memory, which is one of my favourites. She's also good at romantical comedy and I adore A Civil Campaign just because it makes me feel good. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance are also enjoyable in that vein.

I really like the Chalion books, but The Sharing knife series I can do without.
Apr. 28th, 2016 12:09 pm (UTC)
I'm interested enough and Bujold is easy enough to read quickly that I'll probably read one of these at some point in the future. I get the impression that Bujold would be pretty good at romantic comedy, if she could keep the rape references to a respectable minimum. I thought Cordelia's indestructable matchmaking instincts in Barrayar were funny, even as they made me a little anxious for the matchmade (because Barrayar is horrible).

I read recently that the beginning was actually a Star Trek fanfic with the Barrayans as Klingon and Beta Colony the Federation, and I can see that.

I can see it, too!
Apr. 28th, 2016 01:18 pm (UTC)
Oh, she does keep it down. I get a feeling that as she grows as an author, she sheds the need to use it as suspension maintainer. (Unlike the Outlander-series, for example). It seems to be something mainly used in her earlier books. You may want to avoid the novella The Vor Game which contains a rape off-screen and not one of the main cast. There is also a future major character who has been raped and though it isn't dwelled on constantly, it does get mentioned now and then. And not only mentioned, but rather dealt with in Mirror Dance which also contains sexual abuse of minor. (I actually rarely re-read that book apart from the delightful part were Kou and Drou's daughters are introduced.)

There is a novella called Labyrinth that may or may not be triggering as it contains a bit of "fuck or die", but none of the participants seems to regard it as rape.

Apart from that I can't recall any blatant rape refrences.
Apr. 28th, 2016 11:53 am (UTC)
I liked Shards of Honour well enough but I think the series really gets started with the Miles books (The Warriors Apprentice onwards). Some of the mystery- and thriller-structured ones are really good, like Brothers in Arms and Memory. But you do have to get through the earlier books for those ones to make any sense so I understand if it doesn't seem worth the journey!
Apr. 28th, 2016 12:36 pm (UTC)
We'll see! I did go on to read The Warrior's Apprentice but it didn't really take. I read to the end but I sort of lost my bearings at a certain point and wasn't really as invested as I expected to be (except in one supporting character who got a bad deal). But I liked both Shards and Barrayar better. I might try one of the mystery ones a little later.
Apr. 29th, 2016 11:59 am (UTC)
I started with a copy of Brothers In Arms that I found on a remainders table and loved, but then I love space opera. I just adore Miles Vorkosigan - I had a great time with The Warrior's Apprentice, in which he cons a bunch of mercenaries into believing he's the head of another bunch of mercenaries and takes them over - and he's seventeen! The Vor Game included a character inspired by the villainous Servalan from Blake's Seven. By the way, the author has denied the Star Trek connection.

"Labyrinth" is effectively "Miles Vorkosigan and the Loathly Lady", definitely resembling the folk song "King Henry". Read the ballad and then the story.

In the end, I love the fact that she makes me care about her characters.

I'm not that much into her fantasy - I read The Spirit Ring, which was good, but never read it again, and Curse Of Chalion I found "meh!"
Apr. 29th, 2016 02:27 pm (UTC)
I expected to have a great time with The Warrior's Apprentice, but had a less great time than I expected for various reasons (at least some of which had nothing to do with the book). I'll probably try one of the other books a little further in the future.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )


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