SciFi Round Five: Lois McMaster Bujold and what technologies do to society
As you can see from SciFi Rounds Two and Four, and my comment on Fantasy League Round 2, one thing that particularly annoys me about science fiction and fantasy stories is when a technology is introduced but then not consistently used, or the implications it would have for society if it were widely used are not considered. So this time I’d like to discuss a series where the effects of technology on society are carefully explored: The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold.
This is not hard sci-fi in Clement’s sense, or even Benford’s. In the Vorkosiganverse, inhabited star systems are connected to each other by a network of wormholes that can be traversed by ships with special engines. The jump-points form a Portal Network (‘The Nexus’), that is only loosely correlated to normal space. There is also artificial gravity, which allows spacecraft, including missiles, to accelerate far faster than anything made of normal materials has a right to. It also allows disturbingly effective weapons and defenses against them.
But we can excuse these impossible technologies, which Bujold included to give what first appears to be a conventional space-opera setting, because of how she shapes the society around them.
The main characters of the series are the Vorkosigan Clan, most particularly Count Aral Vorkosigan, his wife Cordelia Naismith (originally of Beta Colony), and their sons Miles and Mark (twin brothers, Miles being six years older – cloning was involved). Aral Vorkosigan is a Count of Barrayar, and sometime Regent for Emperor Gregor and Prime Minister of the Barrayarian government. Miles has a first career as an under-cover operative for Barrayarian Imperial Security, under the transparent alias ‘Miles Naismith’. Things catch up for him eventually, and he gets re-employed as an Imperial Auditor – which is much more badass than it sounds.
You may wonder why an Earth-descended colony is governed by a Russian/British-flavored monarchy. The story there is a good illustration of Bujold’s approach. The original wormhole route from Earth to Barrayar collapsed shortly after the planet was colonized, and while the air could be breathed and the water drunk, terraforming was in its infancy. Mutagenic compounds infected many children, leading to a culture of infanticide at any sign of physical abnormality. Earth-derived nutrients were scarce, most high technology was lost because the planet was not yet able to build most of it, and manure for fertilizer became an essential currency, consolidated by the first Emperor Vorbarra. The counts started as his accountants and military enforcers, and were kept in check by the greatly feared Imperial Auditors – who do whatever the Emperor needs done.
Eventually, another route to Barrayar was found, and the planet was reconnected to the wormhole network. Over the next several generations, it goes through huge social changes as galactic technologies are (re-)introduced. Of course, first they have to reassert their independence from the Cetagandans who have invaded them.
The Uterine Replicator
One of the most important technologies for the societies in the Vorkosigan-verse is the uterine replicator. That is exactly what it sounds like, and enables a lot of bizarre-by-our-standards societies. Athos is populated entirely by men, which works as long as they can occasionally import new supplies of frozen ova. Other places take the technology to the extreme – uterine replicators aren’t limited to having the placenta be compatible with a human mother.
This led to the quaddies: people who were genetically engineered to live and work in zero gravity, with four hands rather than two hands and two feet. They became economic refugees when artificial gravity was developed on Beta Colony, and staged a daring escape to an unsettled star system. Two hundred years later, they had spread through an entire asteroid belt as ‘The Union of Free Habitats’.
On Beta Colony, the surface could not be terraformed, and only a replacement-level of children could be born. So everybody was on strict birth control, but the high-tech society meant that most children were born by replicator because it was easier on their mothers. For a while there was a radical egalitarian movement and a bunch of people were engineered to be hermaphrodites. The one we encounter most is Captain Bel Thorne, who found Beta to be a nice place to live, but boring, and became a mercenary fleet captain.
On Cetaganda, all children are genetically engineered by the government, and genetic engineering has gone to the point that some Cetas are arguably no longer human.
And on Barrayar, one of the first uterine replicators to be imported from the galactics is used to save the life of Miles Vorkosigan. Cordelia was pregnant when an assassination attempt was made on her and Aral. The treatment to save her nearly killed the fetus, and the treatments to save it could not be done without killing her in turn, so there was an emergency Caesarian and a transfer to the uterine replicator. But of course, a uterine replicator can be stolen, and the batteries will only last so long… And even when she recovers the replicator and Miles is born, he is still small and with very weak bones and a twisted spine, although his genes are fine. Remember the Barrayarian prejudice against anyone who looks like they might be a mutant? Good thing Aral and Cordelia have a lot of influence, and they teach him how to be an extreme Determinator.
Miles Vorkosigan has a problem. He has endured a childhood of bone breaks and medically-necessary torture – most of his skeleton has been replaced by synthetics. He failed the entrance exams to the Imperial Service academy when he broke both of his legs on the obstacle course, but got in later by convincing the young Emperor Gregor that he was better confined there than left to his own devices. He has been assigned as a courier for Imperial Security, which is a cover for his true assignment, commanding the Dendarii Mercenaries as Admiral Miles Naismith. He breaks out ten thousand prisoners from a Cetagandan prison camp, saves Gregor when he gets kidnapped, and rescues a genetically-engineered superweapon from a corporate house on Jackson’s Whole – said superweapon is Taura, a teenager with some interesting biology (she has superhuman strength and an appetite to match).
But how do you keep your secret identity secret when you have an increasingly-visible public persona, and your father is famous as an admiral, a count, and the former Regent of three planets? Simple, you claim that Miles Naismith is a dangerous renegade, cloned as part of a long-term plot to assassinate your father. But then Miles encounters an actual clone of himself, created just for that purpose. The clone has been forced to endure surgery after surgery, as Miles accumulated injuries himself, and is very very angry with his handlers about this. Under the Betan ethics that Miles learned from his mother, the clone is his brother, and so Miles helps him escape his handlers, and gives him his name – Mark. Mark helps by letting Miles maintain his cover, for a while longer.
But cloning technology has other applications. There is the Durona group, fifty-something clones of the same doctor, all equally adept at surgery. And there is the black market in cloning on Jackson’s Whole – for a price, you can be cloned and fifteen or so years later the clone is sacrificed to give you a compatible young body. Rather evil, isn’t it? Mark was cloned by those people, and tries to break out a large number of clones before they can be killed. But that operation leaves Miles shot in the chest with a needle grenade. Emergency cryonic freezing means he can be brought back, thanks to a half-dozen Duronas – but this time, his alias is forever blown.
Cryonic freezing is used in emergency situations to save soldiers on the battlefield – as long as the medic can get their head cold enough fast enough to prevent brain damage. Miles regains all of his memory, but has to deal with a lingering seizure disorder. Other emergency freezes aren’t so lucky. The Dendarii Mercenary health plan includes provision for long-term care in the event of permanent disability from freeze and revival.
In non-emergency situations, freezing can be done more carefully. This leads to the economy of an entire world, Kiburu-dani, being centered around cryogenic freezing. At first it was just people with illnesses who were frozen, but then the cryocorps started doing shifts of their upper management, spending most of their time on ice while giving their voting rights and legal proxies to the corporation. This reached the limiting case when so many resources were being diverted to the cryobanks that the rest of the economy suffered – most importantly the terraforming efforts that would allow a larger economy. And anyone who didn’t have good representation while they were cold can awaken with very little money and skills that are fifty years out of date – making it hard to get a job.
The cryocorps get into a crisis inspired by the real-life subprime mortgage crisis, and try to buy their way out by defrauding some Barrayaran investors. Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan shows up and turns their entire world upside down.
The Limits of Bujold’s Sociology
As good as Bujold is at incorporating a lot of different technologies into her societies (I haven’t touched on the effects sex-selection has on Barrayar society in Miles’ generation, or how memory-enhancing computer implants can malfunction, or what happens when genetic engineering is applied to make Barrayaran plants into useful chemicals), there are some limits.
The jump-ships require special engines, which makes sense given that they’re breaking the rules of normal physics. But they also require a special control system, which is integrated by complex microcircuits into the brains of the jump-ship pilots. Why this interface is necessary, and why a robotic jump-ship or even some creepy cultured-human-nerves-in-a-jar can’t do the same task, is never adequately explained.
The Cetagandans have a centrally-controlled gene bank, used to assemble the gene sequences of the next generation. But for some reason there is only one copy of this bank, and it can be accessed using only one single physical key. Bujold confesses the absurdity of this system – that story needed a MacGuffin in the form of a secret decoder ring.
And there is also a time-bomb in the setting.
In Ethan of Athos, Ethan is assigned the high-risk job of going from Athos to Kline Station – the only connection from Athos to the rest of The Nexus – to get more ova to ensure that there will be more generations of men on Athos. The assignment is supposedly high-risk because he will encounter women, but Ellie Quinn of the Dendarii Mercenaries is the least of Ethan’s problems. He ends up helping Terrance Cee, an escapee from a Cetagandian genetic experiment to produce human telepathy. The telepathy is reasonably limited. Cee has a biological radio receiver in his brain, which can be triggered by his consuming a particular drug. It took many years for him to learn how to use the talent, he can’t read at any large distance or through metal, and crowds can be confusing. The Cetas planned to use him as a spy and assassin. He and the other subjects read this plan, objected, and escaped.
Cee traded genetic samples from himself with House Bharaputra of Jackson’s Whole for assistance. They found this payment interesting enough to want more exclusive access to Cee’s genome, and both their enforcers and Ceta forces trace him to Kline Station. Cee begs asylum from Ethan (who had been made Athos’ ambassador for convenience) and with Quinn’s assistance, the two men make it back to Athos. Quinn’s assistance came at the price of samples from Cee, to be given to Admiral Naismith for ‘their employer’. End result: Cetaganda, Athos, Barrayar, and an unknown number of people on Jackson’s Whole now have both the knowledge that human telepathy is possible and the samples from which to produce people who will grow up to be telepaths.
The chronologically latest book in the series, Cryoburn (set on Kiburu-dani), is a few years before the point in the setting where these new telepaths would be old enough to know how to use their talents. I wonder how Bujold will have the various societies in the Vorkosigan-verse react to that.