Is Vorkosigan as nasty as I love Lucy?

In a fascinating thread over at Pandagon riffing off a post by Twisty, the comments thread drifted away from Lucy to other fictinal characters, and of course we eventually ended up in SF (as all righteous geeks must regularly do), where first Lois McMaster Bujold was swiped for her worlds by nolo (“why does every author of space operas assume that humans would escape the surly bonds of Earth just to found a bunch of feudal governments in space?”- a characterisation of the novels that I reject) and then Bujold cops it for anti-feminism by ledasmom:

To me, the most basically obnoxious occurance in the Bujold Vorkosigan books is the main character finally marrying, not only a woman “of his own class”, but a woman who’s practically a stereotype of the good, virtuous wife to her first husband. This is after he’s had numerous romances with women who are considerably more interesting. It’s not that the books as a whole are obnoxious … but they’ve become considerably less interesting since Bujold decided to provide conventional happiness to her protagonist and remove most of his major conflicts.

I think that’s a very unfair portrayal of the characters of both Ekaterin and Miles.

Miles longs for a strong, intelligent kick-ass woman (aka SIKAW), just like dear old mum. His problem has always been that although he has loved and been loved by several SIKAWs, the last place any of them want to raise a family is on restrictive, parochial, sexist Barrayar. He has been fed the “it’s not you, it’s Barrayar” line more than once.

The whole point of the Ekaterin-Miles pairing is that, alone of all her male acquaintance, Miles immediately recognises the residual spark of SIKAW spirit within Ekaterin, who has been so oversocialised as a Vor woman that she has dutifully throttled nearly all of her self in dependence to an immature passive-aggressive bully of a husband. The most admirable trait of Ekaterin is her core of integrity which finally leads her to refuse to take any more and decide finally to leave her husband, although she has no expectation of income or shelter even to support her decision.

She later foils a terrorist attack through pure determination and quick thinking despite knowing that she may well be sacrificing both her own life and her aunt’s. Considering that unlike Miles’ previous inamoratas she had no martial expertise to draw upon, this makes her a more impressive character than the overt warrior-maids, not less.

Bujold’s examination in Komarr of Ekaterin’s subjugation to her first husband, her repulsion by it and mourning of how she seemed to be slowly dying inside is one of the most revealing character studies of a woman trapped inside the patriarchy that I have ever read. To dismiss her merely as “the good, virtuous wife” without acknowledging how she struggled within the trap of that role and eventually rejected it triumphantly seems grossly unfair.

The later tensions between Miles’ desire for her, her wish for autonomy, the competing claims of a rigid class structure amid the machinations of politics are scarcely anti-feminist, either. Space opera’s gotta have some romance, no? Sure, she ends up marrying the rich guy with the castle, but not before both he and she know that she can make a generous living off-world.

As to the class issue, that’s been more of a problem for Miles’ previous women than it has been for him – as noted above it’s not him that’s been unwilling to bring SIKAW women of whatever class to Barrayar, it’s them that have been unwilling to come.

It has been well established in the previous books that Miles, because of the sacrifices that his parents made for him against all Vor social expectations by accepting and encouraging him as a perceived mutant to take his place in Vor society, is incapable of setting all his parents’ work for naught by abandoning Barrayar for a freer life in wider galactic society, although he has proved himself more than capable of doing so.

To do that would betray all their work for decades attempting to drag Barrayar out of feudalism, work that he passionately agrees is necessary and wants to do his Vor dynastic duty by through raising lots of little Vor to help in the great work. Miles is bound by duty and honour here, and although he has ended up making the decision independently to confine himself to those bounds, they still chafe.

This may well be where some readers start to find Miles less interesting – instead of the honour-duty-rebellion lemmas of a young man finding himself within the shadow of a “great man” father, Miles is now fully adult and dealing with larger political issues of social engineering from a position of power. Everybody can relate to the angst of adolescence and finding a fully adult role for oneself in relation to one’s parents, but most of us are less familiar with the special agonies of choice that come to those wielding real power, and perhaps less compelled by it. I find it fascinating, but tastes vary.

You may well be repulsed by Miles’ decision to stick with the dynastic shortcomings of Barrayaran society when he could be gallivanting egalitarianly around the galaxy in time-honoured space operatic fashion, but it is an honorable and admirable decision in light of his determination to reform aristocratic privilege and parochial sexist traditions. It is almost inevitable that the only woman he would eventually find willing to share and wholeheartedly contribute to that goal for social change would be a fellow Vor enlightened by suffering who shares his vision for a better Barrayar.

Categories: arts & entertainment, ethics & philosophy, relationships, Sociology

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8 replies

  1. Thank you. I love the Vorkosigan books, and especially the more recent ones with Ekaterin. She may lack the societal support and training to be a dragon-slayer, but she has done something that is in my mind equally (if not more difficult), she has managed to retain a core of integrity in a situation that has done nothing but try to extinguish her altogether. That she remains to outward appearence a proper Vor lady does not diminish the strength of character that takes.I have been a little dissappointed that once Miles arrived on the scene at all, Cordelia essentially vanished as anything but an adjunct character, who arrives on the scene dispenses analysis and Betan wisdom, and vanishes again. She was and remains my favorite character of all time.

  2. I have been a little dissappointed that once Miles arrived on the scene at all, Cordelia essentially vanished as anything but an adjunct characterThankyou! I wanted to add that above, but the post was already too long. I loved that Miles even recognised eventually that while he was trying so hard to equal/eclipse his father that he was also emulating his mother, who in many ways was the tougher of the two parents.I can totally understand that responding to the readers who lovedlovedloved Miles was a sensible commercial choice at the time. I’m hoping that now that Miles has grown up etc that Bujold might go back and give us more Cordelia stories – I mean she had to be kicking butt somewhere on Barrayar whilst Miles was off gallivanting, surely?

  3. It’s funny—my interest in the Vorkosigan series has increased as Miles has proceeded through his fractured life, not the opposite as apparently is the case with so many. I wonder how much of it has to do with age?At forty-six, I am well into middle age; adolescent angst and pressures are many years gone. Instead, now I grapple with adult financial, filial, and social duties and responsibilities more similar to those Miles faces in hs renewed role as Vor lord, Count’s heir, Imperial Auditor, and (initially) single man. The potential for more nuanced, subtle, and richly detailed drama—and comedy—draws me: His destruction and reconstruction in Memory resonates painfully; his epiphany at the end of Diplomatic Immunity when he transforms from son to father is easily understandable.I too am fascinated by strong women, and I never for a moment doubted Ekaterin was, in her own quiet way, downright powerful. Perhaps that’s the rub—her strength is not overt; she is not flashy. Unlike many other strong female characters in space opera or indeed in fiction generally, Ekaterin is the immovable object rather than the irresistable force.

  4. Oh, rats—I forgot to add: Apparently Miles was the goal all along; his parents were prologue, as I understand it from authorial commentary. It’s true, though, that they’re worthy characters of exploration in their own right.

  5. It’s important to me that Miles fell in love with Ekaterin (SPOileR for KOMARR FOLLOWS. . .) when he saw the violence she had wreaked on the Komarr rebel’s secret device. Working by adrenaline and blind fury, she thwarted a cruel and bizarre plot against Barrayar and literally smashes their secret plans. When Miles says that her life was at stake for this she responds that she was true Vor and couldn’t let them get away with their plot. It’s that combination which finally captures him, I believe. We may sneer at concepts like honor, courage, and duty, but I believe that Miles has always brought out the best in his people, and no less so in his choice of a strong and complex character for his wife.

  6. We may sneer at concepts like honor, courage, and dutyMay we? I don’t sneer at the concept, nor at actual instances. I’m suspicious of rhetoric that uses those words with profligacy.But yes, I agree that the way that particular incident showed him a fierceness to Ekaterin that he had thought her marriage could have extinguished was extremely well done.

  7. What is curious about so many comments on the Vorkosigan series is the lack of interest in the SCIENCE and Technology. It is all about the characters which Bujold does amazingly well.But Komarr is about NEW PHYSICS which the FEMALE 5-space physicist points out. Another point is that the inventor is killed by his own invention because he made a mistake. This raises an issue similar to The Cold Equations. The Laws of Physics DO NOT CARE. Get them wrong and they can kill you.Most of the people that talk about SCIENCE Fiction don’t care about the SCIENCE. But most of the stuff called science fiction these days hardly makes the science or the people that do it interesting. It is just Harry Potter with space ships.

  8. I admit I had to warm up to Ekaterin, and what it took was my own realization that she’s not a flawless woman–she’s just been trained by life to restrain herself to the point of seeming so.-Amy

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