LoneStarCon 3: The Lois McMaster Bujold Interview

The Hugo Award nominee and past winner on biology as politics

Lois McMaster Bujold
Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold has won more Hugo Awards for best novel than anyone but Robert Heinlein, and if you’re confused about why, you haven’t been paying attention. For 27 years, she’s been turning out book after book in the acclaimed Vorkosigan Saga, a “military space opera” with a heart – and brain and uterus, or at least uterine replicator.

Starring the inimitable Miles Vorkosigan, the brittle-boned, dwarfish scion of a high-ranking military family, the series is so much fun to read that you could be forgiven for letting its ideas fly right past you at the speed of light, or maybe a little faster if there’s a wormhole involved.

This year Bujold was nominated for yet another Vorkosigan book (three of her four Hugo winners have been in the series): Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, the first book in the series to focus on the character of Miles’ dashing cousin Ivan Vorpatril. In the first 15 books in the series, Bujold freely mixed farce and tragedy, drawing from adventure, detective, and romance tropes and generally romping her way through every piece of equipment in the genre playground. Number 16 is a high-society screwball comedy in which a rakish but well-meaning lout winds up married to a gorgeous political refugee – oh no! – and the couple must gradually admit to themselves that they might actually want to stay married, amid family pressures and political intrigues that seem intent on pulling them apart. Set 1,000 years in the future on the colonizer planet of Barrayar, the conceit would make as much sense in a Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch film from the 1930s.

“My argument is that people will be people, on into the future,” Bujold said by way of explanation in an interview with the Chronicle at the World Science Fiction Convention, but admitted, “Of course that’s one of the things that science fiction can question.” Indeed, her own work, with its preoccupation with biotechnology, speciation, and genetic engineering, toys with the social changes that might arise from new conceptions of reproduction and family. Yet with so many speculative authors exploring the terrain of the post-human, Bujold remains firmly in the humanist camp. In our interview, she talked about why, discussing how her interest in human psychology has led to the use of undervalorized genres and world-building techniques she describes as “backward.”

Bujold’s own career started a bit backward. The daughter of famous engineer and pioneer of non-destructive testing Robert Charles McMaster, Bujold grew up with an interest in science, technology, and military history. After an early interest in writing, she left Ohio State University in 1972, but continued her self-education in the stacks of the library while working as a pharmacy technician at the university hospital. She picked up writing again a decade later, while she was broke and raising two children, and her first three novels were rejected multiple times before selling as a bundle to Baen Books in 1985. In our interview, Bujold reminisced about attending school down the street from Kent State in the Sixties (“Ah, the smell of tear gas in the morning”) and commented, “I did not come away from college with a degree, but I did have kind of an education after all. Living through that period, and seeing how stupid history looks close-up.”

It is precisely this close-up view of history, warts and all, that Bujold is a master of portraying. Witty and elegant, Bujold writes history on the scale of human foibles, and the results are no less brilliant for being, like humans are, a little silly from time to time.

Austin Chronicle: This is your first book in the Vorkosigan Saga that’s completely from Ivan Vorpratil’s point of view. What is it about Ivan's voice and perspective that's so enticing?

Lois McMaster Bujold: Well, he's laid back. He's a guy who just wants to get along. As I get older and older, the low-energy approach to life has more appeal. He was originally written as a strong contrast to the main series’ character, Miles Vorkosigan, who is very hyperactive. You just sort of point him in the direction of the plot and undo the leash, and he's off and running. Ivan doesn't want to get involved. He’s a much more realistic character that way. He was a plot challenge to write for, because it was very hard to get him into gear. He wants to avoid politics, he wants to avoid getting shot in the street like his dad was. I lay that out, where his motivations come from: they arise out of the history of his parents, and his world. The whole world, it all connects … I do my world-building backwards. All of Barrayar started with the character of Aral Vorkosigan. I started with the character and went, okay, what's the situation that explains why this character is here in this condition? What’s his immediate situation? What's his world like? What's his world history like, to have created him, the kind of person that he is? And so Barrayar grew outward from the characters, and as it grew, it began to feed back again. World-building and character and plot are all feedback loops, and they all develop as they go. And you can't do it all on day one, because it takes a while to build that feedback loop.

AC: It's incredibly, massively intricate. As a person reading the books for the first time, at first I was overwhelmed, and then I started trusting the characters because they sort of bear the history of their world in them, they're constantly living it out. I was able to follow it by paying close attention to the characters, because they were always telling it to me. It's fantastically satisfying, as a reader, how it all comes together in the end.

LMB: It’s fantastically satisfying as a writer, to have something that all comes together. You have all these balls in the air, you have no idea if it's going to work.

AC: It’s surprising to me that you wouldn't know! As a reader, there’s an ease to i – suddenly everything seems really inevitable in a really exciting way that you didn’t see coming.

LMB: That’s because I didn't see it coming either! It makes me a little bit crazy when some reader review says, "Oh, I saw this plot train coming." I didn't see it coming! Where were you when I needed you? I could have cut months off my process, if I had but known! But no, I make them up as I go along. I cannot hold a whole book in my head on day one. It would explode, it's too big.

AC: I notice that you were on the reproductive tech panel at the con. And before you became a writer, you worked –

LMB: I was a drug administration technician at Ohio State University Hospitals for a little less than a decade, which meant I was a nurse's aide who gave pills and shots on a nursing unit. I worked on all different kinds of nursing units, and saw lots of different patients. I didn't know at the time I was going to be a writer, so I didn't know I was doing all this observation. But it went into the bag. A lot of my science fiction ideas are medical or biological, genetic, because reproduction is sort of the core of what human beings do to be human. And a lot of science fiction tends to avoid that part. They avoid the women’s role –like, all their characters are born at age 22 out of their own foreheads without anyone ever having to put work into them. It's a very libertarian view. And I think that's false. Don't forget where people come from. Even if you had a uterine replicator, what you get at the end is a baby, who you still have to take care of.

AC: That’s fascinating.

LMB: All the different things that you can do by changing the fundamental parameters of reproduction and its effect on society, is something that I explore, almost behind the scenes, as the series go forward. My third novel, Ethan of Athos, takes the idea of the uterine replicator, extra-uterine gestation – which is not a new idea, Aldous Huxley had it back in Brave New World. But he used it as a metaphor for the British class system, because he was British. And male. My idea was, how many different things could you do with this technology? You could cut women out of the reproductive loop. We've had the Amazon Planet stories, back in the Fifties and Sixties and Seventies. So okay, what if we flipped this around? What if it was a planet with no women and just guys? And they had to do all the housework themselves. The story developed from there. That’s one where the story started with the technology, and then I explored the setting made possible by this technology, and then the character came out of the setting. Finding the the most quintessential person for that world, somebody who would be technologically pregnant for his planet. He would be a squeaky clean guy who was really earnest, because that's the kind of person you'd put in charge of something so important. So we ended up with the plot of Ethan of Athos being sort of like The Man with One Red Shoe in space. He's the man who wanders into the situation with all these spies and is totally out of his depth, but he's got this personal integrity that carries him through.

AC: I’m really interested in this idea of building a world and history around that kind of intimate technology.

LMB: Well reproductive issues, that's what the future is. If we don't reproduce ourselves one way or another, there is no future. A lot of science fiction skips over that. Fiction does different psychological work for readers depending on what age they are, and what they need. There’s a lot of science fiction that comes out of the coming-of-age story, the story of the separation from the family and making yourself as a human being, as an independent, functional person with agency. And that's an important step, but it's not the only part of human behavior. We've also got romance, which is about putting the family back together – well, it's actually about negotiating the terms of a relationship, is what romance is really about. And there’s family dramas, and older characters dealing with other phases of their life. But the genre has gotten kind of stuck on the coming-of-age trope. It sells. It really sells well. And it sells to all ages.

AC: I recently interviewed Jo Walton, who’s written about you, and she brought up your name when talking about how there are some authors who have tons of success within the community and for whatever reason in the wider critical community they don’t cross over. And she said, for some reason they happen to be women. And I asked, why do you think that is? And she said, “Girl cooties? I don’t know!” Is that something you have a sense of?

LMB: I feel that I'm a very in-genre writer. I don't aspire to that wider political discourse that seems so important, and goes by so fast. I'm writing books that I want to still be interesting 20 years from now, because I want to be retiring off them, when I’m clipping coupons. I go for character, that's what interests me. The psychology interests me, rather than the politics. Politics are a rack to display characters on, they're not there for their own sake for me. A lot of the science fiction that gets valorized outside the field tends to be very political, because it’s either for or against whatever the essayist is writing about, and they become engaged with it because they're engaged with the argument. Which is, you know, that's a valid thing for fiction to do. But it's not what I do.

AC: But politics is a huge part the world. I’ve never been so interested in the minute movements of some political infighting – LMB: Which is made up!

AC: Yeah, but when you say it's not political …

LMB: In a sense, Barrayar is a metaphor for the 20th century. They started off in a wormhole, and now the future is coming at them in ways that they can barely cope with. A lot of what is going on psychologically for them, and which appears for them as their political responses, is this future shock. Barrayar is a planet having future shock. And that's why it works to engage us, because we too are involved in future shock in our own way. Besides, who doesn't like a costume drama? I try to have my cake and eat it too. There's a certain amount of apolitical argument, I guess – people will be people, and whatever the thing, they will be doing the same kind of head-butting for status and for position, and for themselves, and they may not even be conscious of their own drives. I'm very interested in the primatology that has been going on in the last half century. Studying the control data, studying the chimpanzees, the monkeys. You’ve heard about the experiment with the grapes and the cucumber slices. These guys at Yerkes [National Primate Research Center] did experiments with Capucin monkeys. And they were getting monkeys trained to do a task in reward for a cucumber slice. And then they started giving some monkeys grapes, which are better than cucumber slices. And the monkeys that weren't getting the grapes got so mad they were throwing the cucumber slices back at the researchers! There was this inherent sense of fairness that is actually built into us at the primate level. How much of human behavior is actually coming out of our chimpanzee brain, that we aren't even conscious of? Every culture deals with this. Culture is to biology as cuisine is to hunger. We all have the same basic drives, and it's all coming out of this innate biology. We can do a billion things with it, but it all has to satisfy these drives and needs that are built into us biologically. I guess I'm going for a biological viewpoint of humanity rather than a political one. All politics is biology trying to get out.

The 2013 Hugo Awards ceremony takes place Sunday, Sept. 1, 8pm, at the 71st World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio. For more information, visit www.lonestarcon3.org.

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