Even the Best Books Aren’t Perfect

Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold is one of about half a dozen “comfort reads” that I return to repeatedly. It’s a sort of prequel to her space opera series, The Vorkosigan Saga. Really two books combined, it details how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met, married, and the events surrounding his conception and birth which heavily influenced who he was in the series. But much as I love Miles, I don’t read it for him. I read it for Cordelia, Miles’ mother. She’s an amazing woman, one of those characters who help me define who I want to be in life. She falls in love with an “enemy”, leaves her planet and family to be with him on his (to her) backward and barbaric planet, and is dropped into the highest levels of politics, civil war, intrigue and assassination. Through it all she maintains an outward calm, and dispenses wisdom, kindness, and common sense to all those around her. All while being completely bad-ass, and without being even a little bit Mary Sueish.

But as much as I love, adore, and continually re-read this book (and many other Bujold books too), there are a couple of problems with it. There are two big ones. The first is a lack of racial diversity, but that’s not really what I want to talk about today (it’s an important point, and worth noting, but not one I usually feel qualified to write about. I’m sure others have written about it somewhere on the web however).

The other problem is also an issue of representation, but it’s an issue of sexuality not race. There’s a scene where a political enemy of Cordelia’s husband Aral is trying to blow up their (very happy) marriage by telling her “scandalous” things about his sexual history. The enemy misjudges his target pretty thoroughly, as what he (and much of the Barrayaran society) considers scandalous, Cordelia considers entirely normal and perfectly logical. Particularly in the realm of sexuality and gender roles. The whole scene is a couple of pages, and it’s generally clever and wonderful and satisfying in that “ha! take THAT you unmitigated ass” sort of way. But right in the middle is this:

He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.
“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

And there’s the problem. Here, written bluntly out in black and white is an incredibly bi-phobic statement, one which is often used by narrow-minded people of all sexualities to justify to themselves why they won’t date/marry/love bisexuals, no matter how delightful the person might be otherwise. They want a monogamous commitment. Bi people aren’t capable of commitment, or we’re greedy, or we’re born cheaters, or whatever.

This is all complete tripe of course. Bisexuals are monogamous, non-monogamous, equally attracted to both sexes, or attracted to a whole range along the gender spectrum, or mostly attracted to one gender with the occasional crush on the other, or sometimes even asexual (though then they’re usually referred to as bi-romantic I believe). We can be bisexual without ever experiencing a relationship or a sexual encounter with one whole gender. There is no one way to be bisexual. But the important point here is, bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. Lemme repeat: Bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. 

Nor is bisexuality something you “used to be.” Bisexuality is not a “phase” we grow out of. This myth stems from the tendency for lesbians and gays to identify as bisexuals on their way to their true sexual identity in an effort to soften the “blow” to those around them. But they’re no more bisexuals than closeted LGBT people are straight. And their misappropriation of the label doesn’t negate the truth of it as an identity for actual bisexuals, and I sure wish people would quit trying to use them as examples to prove it’s all a phase and we’ll grow out of it, one way or another. Thank you, but no I won’t.

One of the things that makes me saddest about this little bit of ignorance (for, given her writing on other topics relating to sexuality I do believe this bi-phobia grows from ignorance on the author’s part, not malice) is what a missed opportunity it is. Here Bujold has set up a major supporting character from a very popular SF series, and he’s bisexual. But also happily married, successful, and his life is not ABOUT bisexuality. It informs his past, which has repercussions on his life during the course of this book. But with this one line, she completely negates all the good that was possible. She blatantly states that his bisexuality was a “phase” and he no longer “counts” as bisexual because he’s monogamously married to a woman. It’s such a tiny mistake to have made, and yet so very damaging to a certain portion of her readers.

This is one of the things that terrifies me so much about writing. If one of my favorite authors — a woman whose writing I admire and wish to emulate and a multi-award winning novelist — can make such an egregious mistake in representation, then what’s to keep me from making one just as bad? I want to write good representation in the characters I create, but I often feel paralyzed by doubt. I read and read and read stories and theory and advice by those whose lived realities I would like to reflect in some way in my fiction. And yet it is still possible, nay even probable, that I’ll make a misstep as grievous as this one, or perhaps even worse.

Writing is a scary business, especially when writing from a perspective not your own.

“Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance”

*There will almost certainly be spoilers ahead, for multiple books. You have been warned.*

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the latest in Lois McMaster Bujold’s SF series The Vorkosigan Saga. Set after Diplomatic Immunity but apparently before Cryoburn (Count Aral is apparently still alive, though absent), it continues Bujold’s new practice of telling the story from a view-point other than Miles Vorkosigan’s. Personally, I am a fan of this choice. Miles has already found his Happily Ever After and settled down, so as much as I adore Miles, stories centered around his point of view might become a bit stale and unbelievable. There comes a point where even the most intrepid adventurer must retire, and Miles has mostly reached his. However, having other characters, especially ones connected to Miles, tell their stories allows for us to sort of peek into the lives of Miles and Ekaterin and their family, and get just a taste of that special Milesian flair.

So, Alliance is told from two points of view, that of Captain Ivan Vorpatril (Miles’ cousin, you’ll remember) and Lady Akuti Tejaswini Jyoti ghem Estif Arqua Vorpatril better known as Tej throughout the book. This is one of the early twists of the story. Ivan in previous books has been characterized as a bit of a womanizer but also a confirmed bachelor. Even, perhaps, an aggressively confirmed bachelor who goes out of his way to avoid matrimony, or even commitment of any sort. However, within the first third of the book, he meets Tej and promptly marries her. No, he hasn’t lost his mind, it’s all part of a ploy to get Tej and her genetically modified blue companion Rish off of Komarr and into the heart of the Empire. The two women are scions of a minor House in Jackson’s Whole, where inter-House rivalry has stripped their family of their power and in some cases their very lives. While the two women on the run, they get caught up with some schemes Byerly Vorrutyer (another cousin introduced in A Civil Campaign) is meddling with in his position as Imperial spy. Byerly enlists Ivan’s help in rescuing the young women, and during the ensuing confusion Ivan marries Tej (who he was already attracted to but hadn’t gotten anywhere with) and makes off with her to Barrayar, which is isolated enough to make pursuit difficult.

Meanwhile, from Tej’s perspective, we discover that Tej and Rish are Jacksonian enough to use Ivan for his protection, even up to and including causing him to fall in love with Tej, and then breaking his heart once they’ve gotten what they need. Except Barrayar is so far out of their realm of experience that they find themselves in many unexpected situations. Tej, particularly, was never entirely happy with the Jacksonian way of life, and finds Ivan’s life on Barrayar compellingly attractive (and Ivan too). However, the second twist is when House Arqua (Tej and Rish’s family) turn up whole and unscathed minus a few deaths which are presumed to be reversible in the future, after the ladies had given them up entirely for dead. The Arquas are intent on using Barrayar to rebuild their fortunes, and then traveling straight back to Jackson’s Whole to retake their property, with Tej and Rish in tow. Rish is more than happy to be reunited with her House, but Tej is less certain. She helps her family on Barrayar, but finds herself conflicted between the pull of House Arqua and House Vorpatril.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance seems, at first glance, to be a love story centered around Ivan, that most unlikely of serious lovers. But it’s really the story of Tej, and her struggle to break away from her family so she can find her own life and happiness, while simultaneously not burning her bridges with them. Despite the callous and cavalier reputation of Jacksonians, the Arqua family actually do love each-other, albeit occasionally dysfunctionally. In a way, it’s harder to break away from a loving but overbearing family than from a family which one is an outcast of. Love is the tie that binds, after all.

I greatly enjoyed the principle characters as well. There’s Ivan of course. A Civil Campaign gives us a taste of his wit and ability which is often overshadowed by his cousin Miles’ brilliance. This book gives us another, deeper taste of the same. Ivan is no Miles, but they certainly bear a familial resemblance intellectually. Ivan is just better at hiding his away out of laziness and apathy.

Tej is one of my favorite characters. She’s clever, capable, and interesting in her own right, and through her eyes we get another perspective on Barrayar, similar to the one we get from Cordelia’s Honor, and yet entirely distinct from Cordelia’s perspective. Her internal struggles with the competing demands of family and husband resonated with me quite strongly. I also enjoyed her close, companionate relationship with her sister/servant Rish. They complement each-other with strengths and weaknesses, proving to be a good team.

This brings us to Rish, who is quite a unique character. More properly named Lapis Lazuli, she is one of six genetically modified sort-of-children of Baronne Arqua, known as her Jewels. The Jewels are so-called because they are each modified to embody a particular hue. In Rish’s case, her skin is bright blue (hence Lapis Lazuli) and her hair is white. Beyond the coloration changes, she also possesses extremely heightened senses and encoded abilities with dance and athletics and such. The Jewels are often used as a dance-troup by the Baronne, at least in public, but they are also fully members of the House and thus quite involved in all the House chicanery up to their exquisitely-colored necks.

Overall, I enjoyed the whole book. I would not classify it as one of Bujold’s best books, but neither was it her worst. It was light-heartedly entertaining, and the end was very satisfying. I would definitely heartily recommend this one to any of Bujold’s fans, especially those who love her Vorkosigan Saga books. Most tellingly, it left me hungry for more Vorkosiverse books, and sent me back to my bookshelves to re-read a few of my old favorites.