A Civil Campaign, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 1999, 405 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-57827-8

Many nasty things can be said about series of science-fiction books set in the same shared universe. They’re exercise in marketing over art; they repudiate the spirit of unbounded imagination that is at the core of SF; they allow authors to be lazy; they require less mental effort from their readers; they often repeat the same themes over and over…

Which is why it’s so rewarding to find a series of novels that’s genuinely good. Nearly all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s fiction output so far (minus a couple of short stories and one fantasy novel, The Spirit Ring) has been linked to the “Vorkosigan Universe”, named from the family around which most adventures of the series seem to take place.

It’s not easy to isolate the secret of Bujold’s success with critics and readers (She has brought home an unprecedented 4 Best Novel Hugos for the series so far) because it appears so transparent; great characters, memorable plotlines, superb dialogue all moved along with crystal-clear writing. But the simplicity of Bujold’s work is deceptive, because it hides in plain view an astonishing mastery of her art.

The depths upon which the Vorkosigan series are constructed becomes more apparent when considering A Civil Campaign and its two immediate predecessors, Memory and Komarr. Memory was, in many respect, a big important book, both for Bujold and her protagonist Miles Vorkosigan, as he saw himself forced to abandon covert military service and learn to cope with his family obligations in a more direct fashion than previously. At the same time, Bujold was cutting away the important military/action roots of her series. Few authors have the guts to try something as definitive.

Komarr is often seen as something of a “simple adventure” in the Vorkosigan Universe, a simple matter of Miles investigating a crime in his new job as Imperial Auditor. But A Civil Campaign highlights the importance of the novel in introducing Ekaterin Vorsoisson, who quickly becomes the object of Miles’ affection.

In war as in love, there are no certitudes, and if Miles Vorkosigan’s first adventures were military in nature, A Civil Campaign is a love saga, blending seamlessly the conventions of regency romance with the Barrayaran aristocracy, a compatible match if ever there was one. (Along with the usual everything-goes-wrong tendency of the Vorkosigan adventures.)

Everyone who’s read as much as one Bujold novel already know how funny she can be. A Civil Campaign allows her to run wild with comedic scenes. Readers with some attachment to the characters will find themselves swept along, slapping their forehead in embarrassment, grinning ferociously at the witty developments and even shouting out loud whoops of satisfaction at what are known in the trade as “the cool scenes” (of which there are, as usual, many) Few novels, few authors are able to pull in readers as efficiently as Bujold, and for that alone, she deserves special attention.

In short, it’s really hard to be anything but enthusiastic about the latest Bujold novel, especially when it’s one of her better ones such as A Civil Campaign. On the other hand, like most of Bujold’s novels (Barrayar comes to mind) it’s not a novel that depends as much on its science-fiction elements as other works. Some readers will call it “slight SF”, and in a sense they are right. Even though Bujold’s output is excellent fiction, it’s definitely not strong SF, which explains some of the mixed sentiments about Bujold’s regular Hugo nominations.

And yet, under the surface, look closer and you’ll find serious SF material nearly everywhere in A Civil Campaign. From the biotechnology of the “butter bugs” (and impact thereof on Barrayaran ecology) to the biotechnology of Lord Dono’s solution (and impact thereof on Barrayaran aristocracy) to the biotechnology of Lord Vormuir’s semi-cloned daughters (and impact thereof on Barrayaran society)… there is no doubt that A Civil Campaign is definitely SF.

In the meantime, put these esoteric considerations out of your mind and get the latest Bujold. If you haven’t yet started the series, well, it’s not too late to begin…

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