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Friday, June 09, 2017

The Vorkosiverse and Technology

Checking my Pages app, I discovered this post I'd never got around to using. I wrote it in March this year. So here it is - enjoy! 

I'm currently rereading the Vorkosigan saga, inspired by Tsana Dolichva, who is doing it, as part of a discussion with another blogger who has never read the books. What a great idea! But right now I haven't anyone to do it with and, to be honest, I have a lot of other commitments, book review-wise and other stuff, so I'm going to take my time and just do the occasional post here. The operative word being "occasional"!

And today I'm going to give some general thoughts in why I love this author's SF so much. I've commented on her work before, eg this post about Miles Vorkosigan's encounter with a Loathly Lady and how it made me think of the traditional ballad "King Henry." That post had a disappointingly small number of hits, so if you missed it, follow this link and please do comment! It's a good post. 

Meanwhile, I'm nearly finished my reread of Barrayar, which is, chronologically, the second Vorkosigan novel(unless you count Falling Free, which is set in the same universe, but so much earlier that it doesn't have any of our favourite characters. I don't count it in the Vorkosigan chronology though it's a great book). In this one, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan are married and expecting their first child(Miles) when a terrorist attack nearly kills them and Miles has to be transferred to a uterine replicator to finish his mother's pregnancy - and a palace coup changes things dramatically...

It's chronologically the second novel, set very soon after the end of the first, but written after some others, so the author has had time to get used to her characters and they are recognisable. That's important because one of the things I love about this universe is that the author cares about her characters. She makes us care about them. 

And it's still science fiction. It really is. 

I get a lot of wannabe-SF in my slush pile. Wannabe in that it has technology. But - and this is a big but - technology alone does not a science fiction story make. If it doesn't fall apart when you remove the tech, it isn't SF. When I get those, I roll my eyes and groan, "Another bloody Western set in space!" Or whatever. Or it spends so much time on the tech, it has no time for the story.  When I report on those, I say, "Yes, very interesting, but what's it about? And why should I care about these characters?"

See, Lois McMaster Bujold's SF has technology in it, which you couldn't remove without a lot of rewriting and still have a story. But it's about the effect that technology has on people and societies, not tech for its own sake. 

In fact, I once heard her speak about what a uterine replicator could do to change things, when she was in Australia for Swancon in Perth. More of that anon.

Barrayar, the homeworld of Miles Vorkosigan and his parents Aral and Cordelia, is a feudal society with spaceships. It has a military caste, the Vor, who are the aristocrats of that society. When a character might have to be considered expendable for the good of all, someone will say, "He/she is Vor. She understands," or even, "Of course you had to consider me expendable. I'm Vor. I understand." It's almost, well, Klingon! Given that the author was a Trek fan in her youth, those warriors may be lurking somewhere in the back of her mind, even if she has denied the universe's connection with fan fiction.  

The reason Barrayar is so backward in its social attitudes(there are still peasants living in huts without electricity or communications) is that some time ago it lost access to its only wormhole connection to the other Earth colonies. It was still terraforming anyway, so a lot of the planet is still unliveable by humans even in Miles' time. But the rest of it is comfortably Earthlike and there are horses and Earth-descended plant life, making it possible to live there, if without much technology. 

Then another wormhole opened, allowing the planet to be invaded by the Cetagandan Empire - now, that is a fascinating science fictional world, whose people specialise in genetic engineering, in which even the children participate! We learn that in one of the later books, CetagandaThis invasion happened during the youth of Miles's grandfather. He was a guerrilla general who helped throw out the invaders. 

And now, there's a feudal society which has access once more to spaceships and the chance to get revenge on the planet which took bribes to betray them, Komarr. Komarr has control of lots of wormholes and apart from revenge, the Barrayarans need to be sure they have that control. 

Does the technology change them? Some - but not in the way you might expect. They now have access to weapons they would never have dreamed of back in the days of swords and horses. But they still have horses and swords, and women still have fewer rights than men. The new space fleet is commanded by Vor officers, though it is possible for a humbler man to rise through the ranks, but not a woman. They can't join at all, which is one reason why Elena Bothari, Miles's first love, never wants to return to Barrayar and joins the Dendarii mercenaries.

However, uterine replicators, when they arrive, make a difference. On Barrayar, it just means that the male-dominated society of the Vor, get to choose their children's sex and most of them want boys, so there aren't enough women in Miles's generation. (We've had similar situations in China, where there are a lot of young men born during the one-child era, who have very little chance of marrying)

More than that, elsewhere, if you don't have to spend nine months being pregnant, you can have control over your life. On Barrayar, even, women no longer die in childbirth. That makes a huge difference in lifestyles. 

It allows an entire planet, Athos, to be populated by men, as long as they have ovaries to produce the eggs they need - and they do. In Ethan Of Athos, the hero is an obstetrician on a world with no women. 

On Cetaganda, there are parents who have never even met. Their suitable genes are simply mixed up in a uterine replicator. The very idea of a child being born from its mother's body is almost as disgusting as it was in Huxley's Brave New World, though genetic engineering is an art as well as a science, so no mass production here. There are women of the highest caste, the haut, who are in charge of the Empire's gene banks. These women are stunningly beautiful, but prefer not to show themselves outside their homes. They could, I suppose, simply veil themselves, but in this universe they float around on float chairs with forcefield bubbles they can colour or thin as they please. At one point, Miles wonders if they use this opportunity to wear sloppy clothes and bedroom slippers. The murder that happens in this novel, which Miles investigates, is able to work because of these forcefield-protected chairs. 

Jackson's Whole is a frighteningly-capitalist world where pretty much anything goes, as long as you're willing to pay for it, including genetically-engineered sexual slaves and clones whose bodies are developed to order and taken by elderly rich people when they're ready to transfer. It produces Sergeant Taura, whom Miles first meets and rescues in the collection Borders Of Infinity.   It also produces Miles's clone brother, Mark, who desperately wants to bring down the clone trade. We don't learn too much about Mark in his first novel, Brothers In Arms, in which he has been brought in to replace Miles to support a Komarran terrorist plot. Later, in Mirror Dance, we learn the whole tragic story. And it costs Miles dearly.

But in this universe, death isn't necessarily the end. You can sometimes be frozen and brought back by cryonics experts. That affects Miles's later life and career quite dramatically. He becomes what he has always been, deep down - a detective of sorts. 

His parents suddenly have two sons - how would that work? Is he a delayed twin? The same person? 

Cordelia is from Beta Colony. As far as she's concerned, he is Miles's little brother. Her homeworld is a lot more laid-back and advanced technologically than Barrayar. Because it's nowhere near as terraformed as yet, everyone lives underground. That affects Betan society dramatically. Cordelia is amazed at the waste of wood on her adopted planet - it's terribly expensive back home and the Barrayarans walk on it! Burn it, for goodness' sake! They actually eat dead animals when you can get perfectly good protein produced in vats, which tastes fine and doesn't require anything to be killed. 

The number of children has to be carefully limited. But it's not like China. These people have uterine replicators. That allows control and it allows any genetic diseases to be picked up and removed before birth. So everyone is healthy and lives a lot longer than on Barrayar. You aren't allowed to be a parent until you've had training and a licence. Girls get a contraceptive implant at fourteen and have a coming-out party. Their hymens are cut to spare them the pain when they do start sexual relations. There are three sexes - male, female and hermaphrodite(that was an experiment that fizzled out some years ago). Hermaphrodites make popular sex therapists, as they can look after men and women alike, in a non-threatening environment. 

When Cordelia is asked, in the second novel, whether they have whores on her planet, she explains about sexual therapists, who have training and a status around the same as hairdressers on Barrayar. Bothari, the bodyguard, growls that only Betans would think you need a bloody university degree for the job. At the same time, the Betans can analyse you to death. It's one reason why Cordelia has to leave. They send a psychologist after her when she insists she was not mistreated as a POW. 

The thing is, Beta Colony's culture is the way it is because of the limited living space. Would they have been different if they had had a place like Barrayar to live in? 

The characters are the way they are because of their ways of life and those in turn are affected by the worlds where they live and their technology. By the time Miles becomes a father, uterine replicators are normal on his homeworld. He and his wife are off-world solving a mystery while their children are being cooked up in their replicator. 

My favourite book in the series is A Civil Campaign, a sort of Regency Romance comedy set on Barrayar, but with genetically-engineered bugs which produce wonderful and nutritious food from their vomit. Mark shows that his genius is for business, as Miles's is for things military. There is a Vor woman who has gone to Beta for a sex change operation that makes her into a functional male because in that backward world it's the only way she can possibly inherit the position of Count. In our world you can have a sex change, but you can't father children(though there was the amazing case, some years ago, in which a woman who had had a sex change and married was able to give birth to his wife's child when she couldn't because he hadn't got rid of his female organs). But it's not about, wow, this is a great bit of SF but of, what if a woman needed to become a man because her society is so dumb - and she could actually do it? And father children? What implication would there be for that society once it was accepted? In the same book, a Count who wants extra population in his area, now that the peasants are allowed to move out of it, uses modern technology to produce his own. 

In this universe, it's the people who matter. You follow the series not only to find out what fascinating science fictional elements she will explore next - ooh, I love the butter bugs in A Civil Campaign! - but to see how it affects the characters you have come to know and love. I don't think it's for nothing that there are no aliens in this universe, apart from the scary fauna on the planet where Aral and Cordelia meet. If there were, it would be a whole new ball game, with new implications. 

This ball game works just fine.


Tamara Narayan said...

It's interesting how you can take a hot-button topic like China's one-child policy and look at it through the lens of a sci-fi story. I've also seen stories that mimic the holocaust such as Justin's Cronin's The Twelve where the "Nazis" were semi-vampires.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I think it's just the logical conclusion to draw. It does help that we have seen what it can do! :)