So, I’ve just read Paladin of Souls, which is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion.
It’s at least as good as the first book.
And, similarly… if you don’t read spoilers, definitely get it before you hit the rest of this post. It’s worth a fresh read.
The Curse of Chalion, like the Sharing Knife books also by Lois Bujold, has ties to real places — though, in this case, a mirrored and warped version of medieval Spain, rather than an extremely distant post-post-apocalyptic future US Midwest. (I also note that the Chalion books were written first.)
It is also a beautiful and harrowing tale. I have my quibbles, but overall, the book was gorgeous.
As ever, spoilers below. I strongly recommend reading the book… so, if you don’t like spoilers, read the book before reading the rest of this post.
No, seriously, read the book. It’s amazing. I’ll wait.
An Annoying Pattern
In her works, Bujold has a tendency to include relationships involving a young woman and a much older man. Perhaps this is excusable, since the practice is more common in the ficticious cultures she concocts, but…
This time, I think it goes to far.
The main protagonist, Cazaril, is 35. By the end of the book, the woman he ends up engaged to, Betriz, is 19 or 20.
This fails the usual “divide by 2 plus 7” test for age-difference sketchiness (which I note both Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary have documented, though I won’t link to the latter page, since its contents are sketchy. I’m sure you can find it yourself if you want). But it gets worse.
Formally, Betriz is the lady-in-waiting of Iselle. Cazaril gains a position as Iselle’s secretary and tutor near the beginning of the story, and thus, effectively, also acts as tutor to Betriz.
Teacher-student relationship? Like any good person, Cazaril resists the idea for most of the novel. But the way it nags and him, and Betriz’s obvious attraction… by the time they’re getting married, he’s at least no longer her tutor, but… sketchy. Extremely sketchy. Sure, it’s going fine in this case, and in this case, there’s no coercion going on, but… I’m sorry, this is just so wrong. I wish this romance had been handled differently.
An Elegant System
In contrast, I loved the world-building here. The people of Chalion have a firm belief in their five gods: the Father, the Mother, the Daughter, the Son, and the Bastard. Each have their own seasonal association (except the Bastard, whose timing is all things at the wrong time or out of season), and their own province of matters they manage.
The gods, however, find it difficult to reach across and meddle — material things are hard or impossible for them to move directly. However, they can bestow gifts on willing human vessels, guide animals in one way or another, or reach through entirely upon someone’s death, to scoop up their soul or perform other actions in the physical realm.
Thus, portents in dreams can be very true indeed; live animals can be used for accurate augury; and death magic can be called down upon the unjust at the sacrifice of one’s own life.
And it is very, very real, and people live their lives in acceptance of that reality.
Much of the book covers Cazaril’s gradual theological discoveries about how the gods operate, and what it is like to be one of their vessels… and how dangerous a little prayer can be.
An Unanswered Question
Much of the latter portions of the book revolve around (as one might guess from the title) a curse that was placed the royal family, apparently in retribution for their king-equivalent sending a death curse against the Golden General, the fate-favored leader of an invading army. Apparently, this Golden General unleashed some of his fate-favored-ness on them upon his death, as a curse instead of a blessing, resulting in perpetual ill fortune — or what Cazaril describes as a curse that takes people apart using their own virtues against them.
How this happened is never precisely explained. Nor is where the Golden General got his good fortune. Nor is the Cazaril’s later realization that said good fortune was the equivalent of a drop of blood from the Father, one of the five gods.
Finally, the Bastard is supposedly the child of the Mother and a demon. Where do the demons fit into the cosmology? Can they do the same kinds of manipulations as the gods?
“How did this all get started, exactly?” is not completely answered, which I find a bit frustrating.
Will this show up in the next book? (Rumor says, yes.)
Regardless, I hear that the sequel is at least as good. Maybe I’ll have some time next weekend…
We’ve mentioned before that we’re pretty serious fans of Lois McMaster Bujold.
However, neither of us had previously delved into her fantasy novels. (Too distracted by Vorkosigan.)
Regardless, we’ve found them now. And they’re pretty good. Let’s have a look at one series in particular, The Sharing Knife, which is composed of four separate novels. (I’m a little disappointed that no new books are planned in that universe.)
Of course, there will be some spoilers.
I’m a bit uncertain about writing this post, in part because I am not particularly qualified to discuss the material and in part because there is already a considerable literature on it. Much of what I’ll talk about here has been described already elsewhere, and I’m only giving a few examples of a very complicated problem that connects to a lot of overt and subtle social phenomena. But here we go: some thoughts on gender roles in scifi and fantasy works.
A brief review of terminology: humans are a species with significant sexual dimorphism, but neither biological sex nor gender identity are binary qualities. That is, most but not all humans can be conveniently called women or men. But most human societies also have non-equal gender roles: people are assigned to a gender and stereotyped into a particular set of behaviors on that basis. A lot of merchandise and even words are gender-coded as well. The details of how gender roles are assigned differ greatly from one culture to another.
The problem I’m considering here is how such stereotypes and gender-coding are reflected in sci-fi and fantasy works. This matters because gender roles as portrayed in media affect how we understand gender roles in real life. And gender stereotyping is a serious social problem. We’ve touched on this before, but the basic point is that restrictions on people’s perceived abilities solely based on gender are wrong and put artificial limits on what we can do.
Right now, a lot of gender role codification centers on artificially limiting what women are allowed to do – sometimes in the form of obvious sexism and sometimes more subtly. This set of patriarchal patterns causes a lot of problems for women in everyday life, and also for men and for people of all other genders or no gender at all. And while there have been some efforts to counter this in various media, patriarchal patterns are far too common in fiction.
Examples of the Problem
Consider Star Wars. George Lucas wrote the plot deliberately based on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” – which outlines a very old and wide-spread plot, a coming-of-age story almost always featuring a man as the hero. And that’s reflected in the Star Wars setting and story: Leia has to be rescued (twice, but the second was part of a rather silly plan); most of the Jedi and all of those who are major characters are men; the Imperial military is all men; and so on. While this is pretty bad, there is something to note: works often reflect the gender roles of the real-life society in which they were written, sometimes deliberately but also out of inertia or simply unthinking assumption. Lucas wrote the plot of Star Wars in the mid-1970’s USA, when women weren’t allowed in many regular military units (although integration was starting to happen). In some sense, Star Wars is a product of its time. And generally speaking, the further back we go the worse the mismatch between a positive egalitarian ideal and what is portrayed in works from the time will be. But there are some exceptions to that pattern.
Gene Roddenberry wanted the society of the Federation in Star Trek to reflect a future nearly-utopian ideal, and made the crew of the Enterprise multicultural and also included women as characters in serious heroic roles. The original second-in-command of the Enterprise was a woman, “Number One”, an intelligent and capable commander who takes charge of the ship while Captain Christopher Pike is not on board. But the character was rejected by NBC executives, who felt that a show with a woman as a senior officer would be rejected by 1960s American TV audiences (Edit: That Majel Barrett was Roddenberry’s girlfriend when she was cast as Number One is a problem, but not the one we’re considering here). Roddenberry did still include Uhura on the main cast, so the egalitarian message was not entirely killed, but there are still many gender-role problems with Star Trek. The uniform uniforms from the pilot were changed to be impractically gender-coded; James Kirk goes around seducing/being seduced by anyone of any species as long as they are attractive and identify as a woman; and many episodes are loaded with Unfortunate Implications. The later series are somewhat better, but even during Voyager the Federation’s society is not actually entirely egalitarian. So while Star Trek included attempts at defying gender stereotyping, that was limited and significantly stymied.
Let me make the causality clear here. It’s not that writers of fiction or their editors, agents, and employers seek to advocate gender stereotyping of people and gender coding of behavior, at least not much of the time. Sometimes, a writer may want to illustrate the importance an egalitarian society – by either positive egalitarian examples or negative gender-stereotyped ones – and is forced to edit their work for better marketing (see the Star Trek examples). And often the writers are simply writing something without thinking about the assumptions they are putting into their character design and world-building. But not intending to enforce harmful stereotypes doesn’t magically erase the problem of their existence. We need to be aware of the problem and correct for the resulting biases.
Works That Do Address Gender Roles
Some works do tackle the problem of gender stereotyping, and try to set positive egalitarian examples.
When Ridley Scott wrote Alien in the late 1970s, he specifically scripted it such that every character’s part could be done by any actor, regardless of gender. In doing so, and in direct contrast to the then-recent Star Wars: A New Hope, there was at least the implication of an egalitarian society – although the cast was still dominated by men, the character of Ripley was a very effective disproof of the idea that a movie hero had to be a man. Somewhat later on, Sarah Connor took many levels in badass during the Terminator movies. And Joss Whedon deliberately wrote Buffy The Vampire Slayer to have the stereotypical horror-movie victim character be the hero. But there is a danger with all of these cases, although they may have been well-intentioned: the characters end up being stereotyped as Action Girls rather than simply being compelling heroic characters who happen to be women. Rachel’s talked about one of the unfortunate consequences of that stereotype. There are works that avert that as well: consider Chell, from Portal. That she is a woman is incidental to the plot, and she wears a practical jumpsuit and boots at all times.
Those are examples at the level of individual characters. At the level of fictional societies, there are also some encouraging examples: the new Battlestar Galactica had an egalitarian military. For children’s shows and cartoons, there has also been an effort to portray more egalitarian societies. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, half of the incarnations of the Avatar are women and half are men, and many of the more powerful benders are women – although not 50%, which suggests that there may still be some tokenism.
All of those examples are from film and television. Let’s talk about one good book example: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Bujold likes to play with gender roles in her different fictional societies: Athos has demonized women to the point that none exist on the planet; Cetaganda has rigidly-codified gender roles for much of the population; Beta Colony is egalitarian and very strict about being so; and the main setting of Barrayar goes through a transition from strict patriarchy to a significantly more egalitarian model over the course of the series. On the more cynical side, Jackson’s Whole is patriarchal because that apparently is good for business. One other bit about the Vorkosigan Saga: Bujold includes, in a by-the-way fashion, a breakdown of the stereotype of the gender binary – the character of Bel Thorne presents as a woman, a man, or neither or both depending on the situation. That’s relatively rare in main-stream fiction – although we perhaps should not excuse Bujold for having her non-gender-binary character be a genetically-engineered hermaphrodite.
A Partial Excuse: Bizarre Alien Biology
There is a partial excuse for some works not discussing gender roles: an alien species that doesn’t have gender or has gender in a way that is very different from how it is viewed in most current human societies. For the Moties in The Mote In God’s Eye, it is more important that they die if they do not get pregnant at regular intervals than that individual moties oscillate in gender identity and biological sex. In Babylon 5, the pak’ma’ra reproduce by parthenogenesis and so have neither gender nor sex.
But this excuse is only partial, and doesn’t work all the time. J.R.R. Tolkien only wrote dwarf characters who were men (with one exception), and had dwarf women be only one-third of the population and be indistinguishable from dwarf men in their actions, speech, and appearance. This doesn’t make that much sense. It allows for an egalitarian society, but only by suppressing any expression of gender identity. Terry Pratchett addressed that in Discworld, where much of dwarf courtship consists of delicately inquiring as to your romantic interest’s gender and a sexual revolution is triggered by increased contact with Discworld human society – which is still patriarchal, but does allow expression of gender identity.
And A Meta-Example
You will have noticed that most of the writers I’ve mentioned here are men. That writers often deliberately or unthinkingly perpetuate harmful stereotypes of male-dominated cultures when most writers are men is perhaps unsurprising. But that does not excuse the writers who do so.
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.