One of my favorite SF writers is Lois McMaster Bujold. She has written dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction since her first three novels, Shards of Honour, The Warrior’s Apprentice and Ethan of Athos were all published in 1986. Lois has remarked that her plots are often predicated on "the worst possible thing you could do" to a character.
Lois won the Nebula Award for Falling Free and The Mountains of Mourning and the Hugo Award for The Vor Game, Barrayar, Mirror Dance and The Mountains of Mourning. She was nominated for the John W Campbell Award in 1987.
I had an opportunity for a brief interview regarding the latest book from the Vorkosigan universe, CryoBurn.
MJ: It’s been quite a while since you wrote a Vorkosigan book. Is it hard for you to return to a character or series after a period of time? What preparation do you have to do?
LMB: I can’t say that it was any harder than starting any other book, no. I didn’t do a lot of prep — it was the new, older Miles, not his former, younger versions, who I had to get my head around, after all. His voice came back to me readily. I do a certain amount of setting-and-plot development in advance, in notes, but the bulk of it is assembled on the fly once the characters are set in motion. It’s like laying tracks in front of a moving train, which are built of materials the train is carrying.
MJ: I love how many of the Vorkosigan books seem to feature different medical technologies. Uterine replicators, the various treatments Miles has gone through, the technology in Beta Colony and Jackson Whole. In a parallel universe would you have pursued an advanced research or medical degree?
LMB: Possibly. I was a biology major in college and worked in medical technology in my youth — as a pharmacy company lab tech, a drug information office clerk, and most importantly for my store of human observation, as a drug administration technician on nursing units (a sort of nurses’ aide who gave all medication except IVs) for upwards of a decade. I have also been a science fan all my life, enjoying pop-sci non-fiction reading. And I was interested in nature photography, at one point.
All signs point to my psyche being built to be a writer, though. I’m still not entirely sure if the enjoyment of fiction isn’t really just a clever dissociative disorder, and once we all have the right meds, we’ll have no need for art to make our brains feel better. Now, there’s a SF plot…
MJ: CryoBurn brings us an interesting look at the moral and political aspects of life and death when cryonics is a reality. Where did this come from?
LMB: Well, of course cryonics has been an SF staple for decades, worked over by various writers in various ways. It has appeared as background, and sometimes foreground, technology in the Vorkosigan series right along. But my particular interest in the subject stemmed from some conversations with a reader of mine, well over 15 years back, who was involved in one of the real-world companies who are attempting to start freezing people today, in the here-and-now, in the hope of future revivals. He was very sincere, and pitched me his materials. When not hand-waved in an SF story, this stuff is really medically, ethically, emotionally and financially complicated.
In many tales, of course, cryonics is simply used as a method to get characters into a future that we-the-readers can then experience over their shoulders. (See: Futurama for the ultimate devolution of this lone-hero trope.) But I got to thinking — what if everybody wanted to get in on the game? What would a society look like if everyone was trying to emigrate into their own future that way — and how would the residents of that future feel about this wave of interlopers, double-dipping on life when the current people hadn’t even had one turn yet? What, in short, would the demographic conflicts be like if a whole society dedicated itself to this?
These SFnal issues, plus the thematic issues of Miles’s next life-stage, dovetailed neatly.
Also, any number of readers had bitched and moaned mightily about the presence of romance in some of my recent work, so I threw them a book with all politics (and techno-politics) and no romance. We’ll see if they like that any better.
MJ: Many of the worlds in your Vorkosigan universe are based in various cultures on Earth. The Vorkosigan Empire is born out of Russian stock, it appears. Do the books (and Miles) have a large international following as well?
LMB: The Barrayaran Firsters were mainly Russian, British, French, and Greek, all thrown into a very lumpy melting pot. My books have been translated into about twenty languages, so far. Some of these SF markets are really tiny, but it’s always cool to see the translations (Shards of Honor in Hebrew, good grief!), and wonder what I wrote. My most successful translations seem to be in Russian — there’s an active Russian fan base which has hit the internet, now — French, and Japanese.
MJ: Your books cross genres regularly. Many mix elements of fantasy, mystery, humor and romance into the central storylines. Are they planned or do they develop organically as you write?
LMB: They develop organically. (With lots of planning tucked in where needed.) Characters generate plots.
MJ: One cross-genre aspect of your books that I like is that the relationships you develop between characters are complex and well done. Is it a strength of yours to write romance well?
LMB: I don’t think that’s a judgment for me to make. You’ll have to ask the readers (who, if they run true to form, will disagree vociferously and bafflingly with one another.)
MJ: Miles is one of the most memorable characters I have read. You write the male "it seemed like a good idea at the time" thought processes scarily well. Does he have any real-life influences on his character creation? How did you come up with the character?
LMB: Every once in a while — a couple of times a year — I still get nonplussed notes from male readers, sometimes quite long-time ones, who’ve just found out I’m a woman. I have not, to my knowledge, ever had a female reader make that mistake. Make of that what you can.
Like most characters, Miles is an amalgam who is forged by the events of his books into an alloy, and becomes himself through his actions (and he’s exceptionally active.)
He actually began as a thing to do to Aral and Cordelia — I first envisioned him back when I was still writing Shards of Honor. I knew their first son and heir would be born damaged, and be smart, short, and difficult. I knew that before I knew his name or that he would be an only child. With that for a magnetic core, he began to attract other elements. Direct inspirations include T.E. Lawrence, another ambitious soldier who was brilliant, squirrelly, and short, and a physical template from a hospital pharmacist I used to work with back in my 20s, from whom I stole the height, physique, chin tic and leg braces. Miles’s “Great Man’s Son” syndrome comes from my relationship with my own father, who was a professor of engineering of international repute.
MJ: What’s next? Do you have anything underway?
LMB: I’m working on a series prequel, a sort of bon-bon for series fans (and me) starring Miles’s feckless cousin Ivan. The mode so far is comedy/romantic-suspense or something like that. It ran well last winter, stalled in the summer, was totally derailed by the extended CryoBurn promotional push, and has just undergone corrective surgery in an effort to get it to walk upright once more. We’ll see. No contract or deadline at present, to my immense relief. Some fans recorded the readings I did from Chapter One on the recent book tour, which are up on-line somewhere. No title or pub date yet, either.