BFTP: Is Vorkosigan as nasty as I love Lucy?

a thumbnail image of the cover of Lois McMaster Bujold's novel "Komarr"This is a repost: originally published in December 2005 at my original tigtogblog (later imported here to HaT) – where you can view the original comments. I’d only been blogging for a few months.

*SPOILERS for the latter Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold – this post discusses events from the book Komarr (Vorkosigan Saga #11) *

In a fascinating thread over at Pandagon riffing off a post by Twisty, the comments thread drifted away from Lucy to other fictional 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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7 replies

  1. I’m mid-way through Diplomatic Immunity at the moment (as part of my annual re-read of the series) and yes, yes, yes, couldn’t agree with you more! I love Ekaterin and was sorry she was off-stage for the latest Miles book. (Have people read Cryoburn? I’ve been holding back spoilers for months since I read the eARC.)
    I identify quite strongly with Cordelia and so have a sort of maternal affection for Miles, I have loved watching him grow up and into himself.

    • Ooh! New Barrayar! I am downloading the e-book as I type! (!!!!!!!)

      I really must get around to sorting out software that converts other e-books to Kindle format.

  2. Thanks for this Tigtog. That’s my reading of Komarr as well. It was particularly interesting in that it wasn’t “New man sweeps in to rescue abused woman” but rather “abused woman rescues self and notices new man.”
    Though Bujold can be a bit fetishing of difference and tends to serve up a lot of white hetero romance, I like her writing of Mils as disabled and the most competent person in the room in most scenarios, which is not “disabled, but super crip.” His disability feels real, with pain and frustrations, but his full humanity is more important to Bujold. I also love that she writes people with disabilites, people who are not cis and older women as sexual actors.
    Pity about the whole Racefail thing, though.

    • It was particularly interesting in that it wasn’t “New man sweeps in to rescue abused woman” but rather “abused woman rescues self and notices new man.”

      That’s an excellent summary of what I especially liked about it. Ekaterin hadn’t been so traumatised by her abusive marriage that she recoiled from another relationship, understandable though that would have been. I liked her emotional resilience.

      Pity about the whole Racefail thing, though.

      Yes. I’m becoming more and more on board with the adage that one should never meet one’s heroes/favourite authors etc, because they’ll always have feet of clay. Sadly, the internet makes “meeting” these fantasmagorical beings rather too easy for either their comfort or ours.
      Of course, I don’t think that they’ve got bigger feet of more clay than the rest of us – (FSM knows that my own clay feet have occasionally gone stomping off where they haven’t been either welcome or helpful) – it’s just that we tend to have unrealistic expectations of people based on words they’ve agonised over for a novel versus the reality of what they/anybody is likely to dash off when feeling defensive/aggravated.

  3. I’m finding the “pregnancy and birth are incredibly dangerous” theme much more grating now than I did in the past – I blame it on having read so many homebirth activists’ writings since I last read the series 🙂

  4. Well it’s not perfect, and I for one am not super into the Civil Campaign ‘let’s pair everyone off neatly so there are no romantic loose ends, jealousies or unattached ladies’ plotline, but the series is such a massive improvement on so much of the genre that I’m reluctant to grumble too loudly 😛
    You’re totally right about Ekaterin, of course.

  5. I agree with your take on the relationship. It’s been very clear that the other women who love Miles have not been prepared to accept the planet he feels so attached to, and that for him choosing a fully galactic life would be a cop-out. Like his mother before him (whose efforts are clearly evident), he wants to make Barrayar a better place, which means staying put.
    I really appreciated that Ekaterin and Miles didn’t get together immediately at the end of that book as soon as she was free of her marriage, and that Miles had to hold back his heroic tendencies for fear of making her feel too obligated to him. I was also disappointed not to see Ekaterin in the last book, though I did enjoy it – is anyone else a little dizzy to realise that Miles isn’t even 40 yet?

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