Saturday, September 20, 2008

From Science Fiction to Fantasy: Lois McMaster Bujold

Update (July 6, 2009): I used to like Bujold's books a lot. After finally reading her clueless comments from a couple months ago, I have lost most of my respect for her. Good writing is still good writing, but the things it leaves out are important too.

Some people write science fiction, some write fantasy, some write a blend of the two. But I can think of very few writers who have gone from writing one to the other. Lois McMaster Bujold is one of them. She became known for her science fiction series about a person named Miles Vorkosigan. A few years ago she started writing fantasy novels, set in and around the country of Chalion. It might not be quite accurate to say that she writes "hard"SF, but when I discovered her fantasy novels I was very curious as to whether or not they would be any good. The short answer is "yes."

What does it mean to go from writing about spaceships and advanced technology to writing about castles and horses and magic? Do the two worlds have anything in common? Take tactics, for example. You would think they'd be very different, but Bujold handles them equally well in space and across country. That surprised me a little.

Bujold's Vorkosigan series focuses on a planet whose inhabitants live under a strict feudal system, despite their advanced technology, and are just starting to think about new ways of doing things. Feudalism is definitely a part of many fantasy novels . . . and yet Bujold doesn't overplay the feudal bit in her Chalion books.

I think the biggest difference comes with magic, which in this context also includes religion. Science fiction novels all seem to be written from an atheist point of view. I don't believe that all SF writers are in fact atheists, but either there are no gods, or what appear to be gods are simply advanced lifeforms . . . and magic can't exist because there are "rational explanations" for everything. (Put like that, it makes me wonder why I like science fiction at all.) I don't recall Bujold ever mentioning gods or theology in the Vorkosigan series. But they are omnipresent in her fantasy books, and she has some interesting things to say about them.

I have read three of her fantasy novels (which is not all of them I think) and they all have the same theme: gods, or other supernatural beings, getting involved with the human world. It really is the exact opposite of the science-fiction worldview. She starts from the premise that the gods cannot directly intervene; they have to work through human beings, and always, as far as I can recall, with human consent. Her human characters often refuse consent, which adds to the suspense.

Of the three, I think her first fantasy novel, The Curse of Chalion, is the best. The other two are still good -- I don't believe that Bujold is capable of writing a bad book -- but the language is not quite right. In the later books, she suffers from that common flaw of fantasy writers: creating awkward turns of phrase and believing that they must be right just because they are different from modern speech. It's hard to achieve the "right" fantasy voice and stick to it. She is such a good writer that it's possible to ignore these gaffes. In fact, even though I don't recall any such awkwardnesses in The Curse of Chalion, it's quite possible that there were some such and I just didn't notice them. In the later books I did notice.

I wonder how long she has been thinking about theology, and how she managed to keep it out of her SF work. Personally, I find magic and religion to be much more interesting than science. But all of Lois McMaster Bujold's books are very good. Read them!

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