Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Interview: Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most honored writers in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. She has won five Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards, as well as many other accolades. Bujold immediately attracted attention with her first novel, Shards of Honor, which began her soon-to-be-classic Vorkosigan Saga series, and quickly followed it up with The Warrior’s Apprentice, which introduced young Miles Vorkosigan, one of the most popular characters in science fiction. The novels in her recent fantasy series for Harper Collins have been top sellers, and one, Paladin of Souls, took home her latest Hugo and Nebula awards. Ms. Bujold lives in Minneapolis, MN.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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So your new book is called Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. You want to tell us about that?

This is book fourteen—depending on how you count it, or sixteen—in the Vorkosigan Series, and it concerns the adventures of Ivan Vorpatril, the titular character. He’s been a long-running character in the series. He got his start back in The Warrior’s Apprentice, which was published in 1986. The series and the characters have grown pretty much in real time. He’s now 35 in this book. I guess the mode of the book is the easiest to describe—it’s a romantic comedy and caper novel.

This book takes place a little bit before your previous novel Cryoburn. Why did you decide to jump back in time like that?

It was strictly a matter of tone. Cryoburn was a rather dark book, and is really an extended meditation on death, and I wanted to do something lighter. If the story were to fall immediately beyond Cryoburn, it would have to deal with the consequences and fallout of all the events that took place in that book, and that just didn’t belong in this story.

You mentioned that the story is told from Ivan’s point of view, who’s a very different character from Miles, the point-of-view character for most of the series. What was it like switching to Ivan’s point of view?

I’ve actually done Ivan’s POV before. A book called A Civil Campaign, which was published back in 1999, had five viewpoints and Ivan was one of those viewpoints, so I had sort of touched on him before but had not had a chance to develop him at length. A lot of people who’ve been following him through the series as a secondary character who keeps popping up were convinced that he had hidden depths, but I keep saying, “No, no, Ivan has hidden shallows, and let me show them to you.” So that’s part of what this book was about.

And then of course you have the new viewpoint character, Tej, who was a lot of fun to do. She’s from a culture outside of Barrayar, which gives her that extremely useful quality of needing things explained to her. It’s an ongoing problem how to make each of my series books stand alone, because I always thought that readers would pick them up at random, the way I picked up series books at random back in my youth when I was first getting into things like the Hornblower series. But suddenly having a new character gives me a natural way to aid the new reader and explain what’s necessary for them to know.

I heard you say that one of the challenges of writing Ivan’s POV is that he’s the kind of character who actively tries to avoid the plot.

Oh yes. [laughs] What I finally found with him is basically all the plot twists had to be brought to him by someone else and dumped on him, and then he would react and respond pretty amusingly at that point. At one point the book kind of went off in a different direction, and it just got slower and slower and harder and harder to write. I was trying to put Ivan into a Miles plot, and that just didn’t work. I backed up and found the turning point and sent him off in a more Ivan-like story, and everything just fell out swimmingly.

So this is the first book of yours to make the New York Times Best Seller list. Why do you think this book was the one to finally make the list?

I have no idea. I’ve been sort of floating around on the extended list since A Civil Campaign. That was the first time I ever knew there was such a thing as an extended New York Times list. The New York Times list has the first twelve or sixteen places, which is the one you see plastered all over newspapers and in bookstores. And then there turns out to be another list that goes from seventeen to thirty-five, which the booksellers got back in the day, that allowed you to actually call yourself a New York Times Bestseller if you got on the extended list, though I always thought that was cheating. I always wanted to be on the big list. So I think it’s probably just a matter of persistence and finally building my audience up to the point where there were enough of them that would run out and buy the book in one week to pop it up there.

There’s an awful a lot of gaming of the bestseller list that goes on in book promotion, where you try to make everybody aware of your book at the same time, try to get them to buy it, get it noticed, get it visible. Which is kind of the opposite of the way I’ve written. I’ve not written bestsellers, I’ve written evergreens. Every book I’ve ever written is still in print. So that’s twenty-six years now. There aren’t too many writers that can say that. I’ve always had this longitudinal approach, as opposed to the vertical bestseller approach. I guess persistence pays off.

To what extent do you think the future depicted in the Vorkosigan Saga might actually come true?

In bits and pieces, I think it will. The space travel part I think is entirely bogus at this time. There’s no reason to believe that we will ever have cheap, easy interstellar travel. Other parts of it—usually the parts that I concentrate my plots on—are more realistic: the biology, the biotechnology, the genetics, and the genetic engineering, they’re more grounded. And I’m also very interested in the impact of biotechnology on the way people could live. The most obvious ongoing thing being the uterine replicator, the idea of extra-uterine gestation of human beings—and anything else you wanted to do with it—which is a technology that is perfectly possible and will come.

It’s an interesting technology because it totally changes women’s lives, and yet doesn’t make that much difference to guys, which is why I think it doesn’t turn up in science fiction written by men very much. Although the first place I ran across it was in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which was written and published in the early 1930s. Huxley used the idea as a metaphor for the British class system, as near as I remember. It’s been a long time since I reread that book. But my exploration of technologies has always been how many things can I do with it, not what is the most dire thing I can do with it.

I heard you talking about the uterine replicators and saying that a lot of the egalitarian qualities of our society depend on technology.

Yeah, I think so. I think 99% of women’s lib comes from technology making different kinds of lives possible, and then the social adjustment follows the technology, it doesn’t precede it. The complaints may precede it, but the change follows. So I think that women who are anti-technology are not as in touch with reality as they ought to be, because technology makes our lives possible. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in any earlier time, speaking as a woman. I would be dead several times over by now.

You’ve also said you did a lot of research into cryonics for your previous novel Cryoburn. What did you learn about cryonics and what’s your impression of that whole endeavor?

Well, I don’t think they’ve got it yet. They can freeze people but they can’t thaw them, and until they figure out how to thaw them it’s kind of fictional. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they shouldn’t be trying. Thinking back on the history of medicine, there were a lot of things that were tried and which failed many times before people figured out how to do it.

The other aspect of it, of course, is what happens three generations down the line when the company disbands, when people aren’t interested anymore in all these frozen people? Many science fiction stories that involve cryonics involve freezing somebody and sending them to the future and letting them be our view of this future world. But what if it were not one or a few, but an entire population? Where would they find room? Who would want them? Who would want to make all this competition? Who wants to father grandparents when they could be having grandchildren? Cryoburn played a lot with those ideas, kind of questioning the whole idea of cryonics from the other end. We want to live forever, but does anyone want us?

The series is published by Baen Books, and I know you worked with Jim Baen on many of them. He’s someone in the field that I never got a chance to meet, and I was just wondering what he was like and if you had any funny stories about him?

Jim was an interesting person. When I was first picked up by Baen Books, I was a young writer in the boonies of Ohio. I had very vague ideas about New York publishing when I was first called by Jim Baen to buy my three books that I had submitted. I had pretty grandiose visions of what a publisher was like—sort of like the Eye of Sauron up in his tower, with minions down below and the engines of destruction churning out books at the bottom level. I eventually found out that actually a publishing company could be six people and a large bottle of Maalox and a telephone line. Publishing wasn’t actually like that. It’s a series of little disillusionments I think that all writers experience as they learn more about their trade.

And then I actually got to meet Jim. The first time I met him was at an elevator crush in the 1986 Worldcon in Atlanta, GA, which was the first Worldcon I had attended as a published newbie pro. He scared the heck out of me by saying, as we were separated by the crowd heading into the elevators, that if I could write three books a year for seven years he would put me on the map, which horrified me because I’m not a fast writer. It pretty much traumatized me. “Can’t I write one book a year for twenty years instead?” That was my response. I can’t remember if I said that out loud or not. Which in fact is what I eventually ended up doing, pretty much.

He was an interesting character. He supported my books. He kept my books in print. And I think a lot of more corporate publishers would have looked at some of my early returns, my early sales figures, and abandoned the series. They don’t give series nearly as long today as they used to. Jim really developed his writers. He was willing to give them a chance. And when I turned in a book that was 167,000 words long, he said, “We’ll find the paper somewhere,” which sort of warmed my heart.

One interesting thing about Baen as a publisher is that they release a lot of their titles for free in the Baen Free Library. What’s been your experience with that?

It’s almost impossible to tell. People have tapped into it and read books and sometimes gone on to buy others. I can’t tell how many. It can’t hurt. My books are up for free on all kinds of pirate sites all over the place. Whenever I go online and do an ego sweep, it sometimes seems like nine out of ten of the hits are somebody’s pirate site. So if giving the books away for free helps sell books, there are plenty of other people out there who are doing it.

Speaking of libraries, I’ve heard you say that crimes don’t tend to happen in houses with lots of books?

That was an interesting thing I read that struck me very hard. It was a newspaper article that I read from the Columbus Dispatch way back in the early ’90s. I can remember everything about it except the title and author, so I can’t find it again. But it was an interview with a forensic pathologist in Columbus, Ohio, and he made the remark, sort of in passing, that he had never gone into a bad crime scene in anyplace or house where there were a lot of books. These were all book-free zones that he was in.

People who read tend to commit fewer violent crimes, I guess. I think that one of the reasons for that isn’t just that they’re brighter, but I think books give you a place to go. They give you a time-out. They give you a different headspace to be in, rather than getting more and more frustrated or angry or upset or whatever it is that leads people to these outbursts. So I think that books provide a social service that way, for their readers, that isn’t recognized in your basic literature course. Escapist literature gets a bad rap, but I think escape is pretty important for a lot of people in a lot of places.

There have been some news stories I’ve seen recently about studies they’ve done where reading fiction actually increases empathy in a way that nothing else does. I was just wondering if you’ve been following that at all?

I haven’t been following it, but it makes perfect sense. Reading a book is as close as we can get to telepathy, the closest we can get to actually being inside someone else’s head for a little while, which is not something we can get out of movies or television drama or even real life encounters. It just makes all kinds of sense to me. You get the practice of seeing somebody else’s POV, so that when you come back to real life, it becomes an idea that’s apprehensible to you.

Ever since Game of Thrones got really popular, I’ve heard people say that if you like Tyrion Lannister as a character you’ll also like Miles Vorkosigan. And I know a bunch of people that started reading the Vorkosigan Saga for exactly that reason. Do you see similarities between the two characters?

I have not read Game of Thrones yet, so I don’t know. I must point out that Miles came first. I wrote The Warrior’s Apprentice in 1984, so do your math, folks. I think that probably Martin and I were stealing from the same source. I believe that Game of Thrones is explicitly somewhat inspired by Plantagenet history and Miles is sort of ironically inspired by it. So I think it’s a case of similar sources, in this case. Great minds think alike, I don’t know.

I understand that you’ve been involved with a Vorkosigan fan group in Russia?

I’m aware that there is a large Vorkosigan fandom in Russia. They had sent me some pictures, actually, a couple of years ago, of a LARP game—live action role-playing—that they had done over the weekend outside of Moscow, where they had done the Vorkosiverse. All these Russian fans dressed up in costumes playing the various characters and acting out some kind of story. Apparently they’re having a lot of fun with it.

I think Russian fandom has found my books approachable simply because of the Russian ancestry that I gave Barrayar. They were not used to seeing any kind of positive picture of Russia or Russians coming out of Cold War American science fiction, so I think it struck a chord for them. And thank heavens I did not fall into the trap of assuming that the Soviet Union would last forever and ever. I did not get joshed, as they say, by the events of the fall of the Soviet Union.

According to our Facebook page, our podcast actually has more listeners in Zagreb, Croatia than anywhere else on Earth. And I understand that you’ve actually been to Croatia. Could you tell us what the science fiction scene is like there?

Yeah, it was very interesting. Croatia is a very small country, about four million people. Not a large market by any means. They have a couple of publishing companies there that are very active in translating science fiction, and Algoritam, which has been translating mine, helped get me over there for the Croatian National Science Fiction Convention, gosh, almost a decade ago now. It was very fascinating. Of course, as a writer guest of honor you get treated like royalty, get hauled around to all the good stuff. I had a great time there. The fans took excellent care of me.

The fandom, since it has a rather narrow pipeline for translated works, which is also the case in other countries with small populations, does a lot of its reading in English. The Dutch read a lot of English. The Fins, I discovered this year, read most of their science fiction in English, and so do the Croatians. So when I came to do my programs, they didn’t even bother with the simultaneous translation or trying to translate them. They just set me up in front of the room and let people get out of it whatever they could. I hope they were able to get most of it. I was extremely impressed with the level of English literacy among the Croatian fans.

I got to see a lot of touristy things that were just wonderful. Besides Zagreb itself—which I later stole as a town plan for a town in The Hallowed Hunt—they took me down to the shore. We saw the ruins of the Roman coliseum by moonlight and got fed truffles. It was a pretty amazing trip.

Are there any other new or upcoming projects you want to mention?

Not at this time. I’m kind of between projects, or I’ve got things that are not going well enough to make any promises. I’m working on a novella, which I was actually reading from on the book tour, so I guess now I have to finish the darn thing because I’ve given so many people the beginning of it. I have to think of a middle and an end for this. And I have some other things I was working on this spring that died. I’m not sure whether it needs a different approach or what.

I have no contracts at the moment. I’m in an interestingly comfortable place financially. I’ve finally got the retirement savings up to the point to where I don’t actually need another advance to live until I can finish the next book, though it gives me possibly more artistic freedom than I quite know what to do with. I’m having to figure out where I’m at now if I’m not rushing to get paid before the lights get turned off. That will be the next challenge, I guess. What is my next phase as a writer?

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.