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Ira
Friends! One of my favourite things made of words ever is up for the Best Series Hugo this year! That is correct, The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold is a Hugo Finalist. And I am here with the lovely frequent Lady Business guest poster [personal profile] forestofglory (Anna), a fellow Vorkosigan fan, to present you with two ways to skim the highlights of this series in 5 books each.

Anna
Five books is kind of an arbitrary cutoff, but it's a lot fewer than 17!

Ira
Isn't that right!

Now, you may have seen that your Hugo packet includes Borders of Infinity as the sole representative of the Vorkosigan Saga. This is a collection of novellas/short stories with some interstitial material that constitutes its own (very) short story. If Baen, the publisher, had to pick ONE book, this is not a bad choice, as it gives several interesting adventures and tones from this series. However, Anna and I think it doesn't really cover the breadth of the series, and we're here to fix that.

This post is intended for two audiences: (1) People who have never encountered a Vorkosigan book in their life, or maybe have read one or two but don't really know the full series, so we can suggest a subset of the series that is readable by the Hugo voting deadline; and (2) Fans of the series so they can come argue with us about our picks. BOTH ARE SO WELCOME.

Before we dive into the meat of the Vorkosigan Saga, here's a quick refresher on the brand new Best Series award:
A multi-volume science fiction or fantasy story, unified by elements such as plot, characters, setting, and presentation, appearing in at least three (3) volumes consisting in total of at least 240,000 words by the close of the previous calendar year, at least one volume of which was published in the previous calendar year. If any series and a subset series thereof both receive sufficient nominations to appear on the final ballot, only the version which received more nominations shall appear.

And boy howdy does the Vorkosigan Saga qualify, at roughly 2 million words spread out over 17 novels and half a dozen shorter works. Here they all are, listed in internal chronological order. There is also publication order (further down the page at the link), but I have basically never heard anyone recommend publication order, unless you've already read the series before and want to try publication order as an exercise. Still. 17 novels. Your average reader just does not have time for this before the Hugo voting deadline (hahaha unless you are an absolutely addicted Vorkosigan rereader and are already halfway through a full-series reread AWKWARD LAUGHTER CONTINUES).

But! Anna and I can help. Before we get to the recs though, let's talk a little about the Vorkosigan universe and why we love it. My favourite thing about it — besides the actual characters — is the uterine replicator technology, but I think it's Anna's turn to talk. Take it away, Anna!

Anna
Hi! So I’ve been a Vorkosigan fan for long time, and I think it's great series that has something for (almost) everyone: Great characters, all kinds of stories from madcap military adventure to mysteries to comedy of manners, plus really awesome worldbuilding that has lots interesting future tech but also considers the social implications of that tech. As an ecologist by training I’m happy that so much of the tech innovations discussed are biological in a nature, including cloned body parts, space station ecologies, and of course the uterine replicators. So let's get back to uterine replicators! These are artificial wombs where human babies can gestate outside a human. If you’ve ever been pregnant or had a partner or friend who was, you are probably thinking: sign me up! Anyways Bujold really considers all kinds of way this might impact society, from giving women more freedom (characters go on vacation while their babies gestate!) to genetic engineering (the four-armed freefall-dwelling quaddies are gestated in uterine replicators) to social structures (there's a planet of only men that use uterine replicators!). So, yes, Bujold doesn’t imagine tech being used just one way, but many ways by many different societies. And this worldbuilding is part of what make her characters great too. They are each grounded in the society they live in while still being individuals. We see people deal with the flaws of their societies in different ways from running away to getting political. It all adds up to an amazing complex picture.

Ira
Yes! I love the biotech in the Vorkosigan Saga! I've heard this series criticized as being barely science-fictional, since the stories themselves tend to be more oriented around character growth and society than around snazzy science fictional premises. But I think this is... really missing the point? The Vorkosigan Saga is great at exploring the social implications of fictional technologies, and the uterine replicator is, like I said, my favourite of these. So many science fictional universes absolutely fail to provide a technological answer to the questions of bodily autonomy and pregnancy and biological labour cost for women. Whyyyyyy is this so? It's such an obvious problem to solve! Bujold fully explores the personal, political, and societal consequences of divorcing reproduction from pregnancy, and I love it!

I think I should also say a few more things about the Vorkosigan Saga universe, half as a crash course and half a discussion of other aspects I love. Here goes!

The series has two main protagonists, female and male, and a handful of other characters who get POVs/protagonist roles depending on the book. The most frequent protagonist is Miles, a man born with visible and invisible disabilities in a deeply mutation-phobic society. Much of the middle part of the series deals with his adventures with the Dendarii Mercenaries, a mercenary fleet Miles accidentally created at age 17. The books follow him from before birth to, so far, middle age. Cordelia, Miles's mother, stars in Shards of Honor, Barrayar, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, but her presence is felt throughout the series. She first comes to us in her mid-30s, on the older side for a SF protagonist (especially a female one), but the series continues to find her interesting into her 70s (at which age she strikes up a new sexual romance!). Cordelia is one of my favourite female characters ever, and overall I love the choice of protagonists in this series, as they are all either women (yay!) or men of mostly unusual backgrounds (disabilities, people of colour, middle-aged bisexual men). Speaking of middle-aged bisexual men! This series has two of them, one I won't reveal and another who is actually my favourite character in the entire series: Aral Vorkosigan, Cordelia's husband and Miles's father. A bisexual man is a rare enough beast in genre fiction, but a middle-aged bisexual man? Two of them, even? I love it!

On the subject of gender and sexuality, the series also features some side characters with nonbinary genders. However, the treatment of these issues is... a little hit or miss? I'm happy to see the representation, but there's a few caveats. Anna, do you want to talk about the nonbinary gender issues a bit?

Anna
Sure. So on Beta Colony where Cordelia’s from they have a third sex, hermaphrodites, or herms as they are generally referred to. This is pretty nifty, but there is one problem, which is that herms use “it” as their pronoun of choice, which most people find dehumanising. Anyways the main herm that shows up is a mercenary called Bel who’s great. Being from socially liberal Beta, Bel is always pushing Miles out of his comfort zone. I love their byplay.

There’s also a character later in the series who physically transitions from female to male. One could read this character as a trans man, but ... well he’s not trans the way people in our society are trans. Some people find this pretty uncomfortable reading. Anyways back to you, Ira.

Ira
Yeah, Bujold has said that at the time she introduced Bel, she was not aware of the commonly-accepted nonbinary gender pronouns of the time, and regrets the decision to pick "it" for the hermaphrodites, and now the series is stuck with that pronoun. As a note, though, these nonbinary individuals are intended to be truly hermaphroditic, with fully-developed and functional male and female sexual organs and reproductive abilties, not really the same thing as the intersex people we have in our society.

The character who switches genders is... interestingly handled. I'd love to discuss him in the comments! As Anna said, he's not trans in quite the same way we recognize in our society, so his transition can come off as a bit weird to us.

A little more about the setting in more general terms: The Vorkosigan Saga is set in the Wormhole Nexus, a scattered collection of planetary systems and space stations connected by wormholes. The planet of primary interest, Barrayar, was settled by colonists from four ethnic groups (predominantly Russian, but also English, French, and Greek), then was cut off from the rest of the Nexus for six hundred years when the wormhole leading to that system spontaneously collapsed. Barrayar then reverted to a pre-industrial society scarred by mutations and ruled over by the aristocratic military caste called the Vor. This period is known as the Time of Isolation. When a new route to Barrayar was found and the planet was once again connected to galactic society, the nearby Cetagandan Empire saw an opportunity to invade the technologically backward and socioculturally disoriented planet. This was the time of Miles's grandfather's generation. That generation managed to throw the Cetagandans out, at great cost. From this point the sociological and geopolitical consequences play out, and I recommend reading the books themselves to see what happens after this setup, as the geopolitics of the Wormhole Nexus setup and Barrayar's history are some of the most interesting stuff about the books, and Bujold really follows through on it.

So! What about the promised lists of 5 books? Here we go!

Ira's List: Story Highlights (Why do we love these people?)


This is the list for you if you want the highlights of the actual story/plot of the series as it follows its main characters. Unfortunately, there's no real way to cram everything into just five books without needing plot summaries for some of the books that were skipped. Plot summaries can be found on Wikipedia or on the Vorkosigan Saga wiki. Do not read the plot summaries until you reach the appropriate point in the series! The idea behind this list is to experience the story as it's intended to be, chronologically and with all surprises intact. Let's dig in!

  1. The Backstory: Cordelia's Honor
    The first entry on this list is a bit of a cheat as it's actually an omnibus containing Shards of Honor, "Aftermaths", and Barrayar. However, Shards is quite short, and Barrayar picks up literal hours after Shards ends; they really do read as two parts of one book. A word of caution: Shards was Bujold's first ever published book, and it shows; it also has an attempted rape in it. However, Barrayar, which immediately follows it in internal chronological order, was written many years later and is much better; it won the Hugo and Locus awards for that year and was nominated for a Nebula. I enjoy Shards in and of itself, as it is where we meet Cordelia and Aral, but some people find it to be a rough start to the series. Persevere until you get into Barrayar, and you will be richly rewarded.

  2. The Beginning: Do you want the more plot-dense book or the better-written book?
    1. Warrior's Apprentice: Denser plot but weaker writing

      OR

    2. Vor Game: Less essential to the plot but much better writing
    These are the first two books that star Miles. Warrior's Apprentice was Bujold's second book, and is a bit rough around the edges. Vor Game, like Barrayar, was written much later and is much smoother; it also won a Hugo and was nominated for the Locus. Apprentice covers the conception of the Dendarii Mercenaries, who continue to play a central role for many books thereafter, and so is the more plot-significant book. Vor Game is the very next Dendarii adventure and does have more important plot stuff about how the Dendarii come into their role in the series, about the character of Gregor Vorbarra (the Emperor of Barrayar, and Miles's foster-brother), and about the geopolitics of the Wormhole Nexus. To keep to the 5 book limit, you'll have to pick one to skip, so it's time to hit those plot summaries!

  3. The Middle: How much torture can you handle reading?
    1. Brothers in Arms: Mild torture in one chapter (constant light exposure, hostile interrogation)

      OR

    2. Mirror Dance: Two chapters with pretty horrific torture
    Before I scare you off with the torture talk, the series is not particularly dark and is actually full of humour. It's just that this part of the series deals with a particular character with a very rough past. These two books both contain important plot stuff that I'm not even going to summarize here, as the developments work so well as a surprise (don't read the jacket copy!). However, the characters do undergo some torture in each of them. It's really hard to choose between these books based on which is more essential to the plot, so I'm providing a choice here based on how much torture you can handle. If I had to pick, Mirror Dance probably has the more dense plot and character development (and the better writing — it won the Hugo and Locus awards for that year), so if you can deal with the torture, read the plot summary for Brothers in Arms then proceed to Mirror Dance.

  4. The Pivot Point: Memory
    No debate here: This is when the series takes a hard left, and this book is absolutely essential to understanding the latter half of the saga. This book was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards and is really, really good.

  5. The Aftermath: A Civil Campaign
    Between Memory and A Civil Campaign is Komarr, which is another one you need plot summary for. Among other things, Komarr introduces a love interest for Miles, and does a bunch more worldbuilding (yes there is still worldbuilding this late in the series, as there continues to be through to the latest books). I love Komarr (it's one of my favourites), but as far as character growth and plot development goes, A Civil Campaign wins out.


So that's the plot and characters of the Vorkosigan Saga in 5(ish) books! Now I'm gonna turn it over to Anna for the theme/genre list. Take it away, Anna!


Anna's List: Thematic Highlights (What can this setting do?)


One of the reasons it difficult to sum up this series is that it there are lot different tones and genres included. Of course all of them are science fiction, but there are many many sub-genres and overlapping genres. I’ve highlighted one work in each of five genres which I think are core to the series. I’ve also included one or two other works as "see also" for examples of more things I think fit in that category. It turns out that this list also highlights many of my favorite bits of biotech and worldbuilding too.

  1. Madcap Adventure: Ethan of Athos
    The Vorkosigan Saga is full of fast-paced adventure books which made it hard to chose just one book in this category. I picked this one partly because it stands alone very well, and partly because it includes some of my favorite bits of tech (like the space station ecology featuring genetically engineered newts), which makes it great for learning about the world if you don’t want to get too involved with the characters. So the eponymous Ethan is an obstetrician on a planet of men where he oversees the creation of new babies at a reproduction center full of uterine replicators. (This planet also has culture that pays people stay home and look after babies — because of course childcare is valuable if men do it.) He goes off planet, meets a woman for the first time, and gets caught up in adventure.
    (See also: Falling Free, Brothers in Arms, Komarr, and bunch of books I’ve put into other categories)

  2. Political Thriller: Cetaganda
    Bujold’s political books are never just about who wins some political contest but always focus on real harm that will result if the protagonist loses. Cetaganda is especially well plotted with key information being revealed at key times. Before this book the Cetagandans were the generic baddies of the series, they had an expansionist empire, and lots of military — in this book their culture is explored and we see them as something more. In turns out that they have a complex culture with a multi-tiered nobility and strict gender roles. They are also experts at genetic engineering and we see many beautiful, strange, and/or creepy products of that skill.
    (See also: Diplomatic Immunity)

  3. Military Fiction: Vor Game
    Many of books in the series have military elements but to me this the most quintessential military fiction. There’s day to day military life on a remote arctic base, ship-to-ship combat, and tons of tactical plotting. This novel also shows off the complexity of the setting of the wormhole system, which underlies the military maneuvering.
    (See also: Warrior's Apprentice, “Borders of Infinity”)

  4. Comedy of Manners: A Civil Campaign
    This book is dedicated to Jane [Austen], Charlotte [Bronte], Georgette [Heyer], and Dorothy [Sayers] and it's not hard to see why if you are familiar with the work of these women authors, all of whom wrote about navigating complex social and emotionally charged situations. This book should work on its own, but it deals with characters that have a lot of backstory so it won’t have the same emotional depth for new readers, plus it really spoils much of the plot developments that came before. (You could read plot summaries, but that still won’t have quite the emotional impact.) Bujold’s major comedies of manners all come late in the series, so anything I picked for this category was going to have that issue. However, this type of work is still underrepresented in SFF and reading something like this still is important to understanding the full range of the series. Also this book features another favorite bit of bio-tech: the butter bugs, but I’ll let you learn about them form the text.
    (See also: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen)

  5. Mystery: “The Mountains of Mourning”
    This only a novella so if you are feeling a that even five books is bit much (and I don’t blame you) you get a tiny break here. Bujold uses mysteries for some of her most personal and political stories that really dig into both characters and societies. In this novella, Miles, disabled and physically different himself, must judge the murder of a baby born with a mutation. To do this he travels into the backcountry of Barrayar. As well as showing the cost of one small death this book shows how many ordinary people don’t have access to tech and are struggling to cope.
    (See Also: Memory)


That's it for our two lists! Do you agree with our choices? Disagree? Disagree vehemently? Come talk to us in the comments! =D

Date: 2017-05-20 06:58 am (UTC)
frayadjacent: Connie Maheswaran on a beach reading excitedly (!reading)
From: [personal profile] frayadjacent
Thank you for this! I'm not voting on the Hugos this year but I do want to read some of this series eventually! This list is so so helpful. Adding to memories!

Date: 2017-05-20 11:42 pm (UTC)
justira: A purple, gender-ambiguous unicorn pony in the style of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (lady business)
From: [personal profile] justira
Thanks so much for commenting! I hope the list helps you when you get to reading the series! =)

(Nice Connie icon!)

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