Book review: Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga has been described as a feminist take on military science fiction – a fast-paced adventure that remains ever-mindful of its human cost.

The saga revolves around the life of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan – a mercenary, spy and aristocrat born into the militaristic society of Barrayar with a number of physical disabilities following an assassination attempt on his father and pregnant mother.

Published as a combined edition in 1996, the two books that make up Cordelia’s Honor serve as a prequel to the rest of the saga. They follow the story of Miles’ parents – Cordelia Naismith, the captain of an astronomical survey ship from Beta Colony, and Aral Vorkosigan, a military commander from the planet Barrayar.

The first book, Shards of Honor, begins on the planet Escobar, where Cordelia’s survey mission is violently interrupted by a mutiny aboard Aral’s shuttle. Cordelia is taken prisoner by Aral, who must regain command of the shuttle after being left for dead by his men. Very soon, however, the prisoner-captor relationship between the two becomes complicated – first by their growing attraction to one another, and then by the escalating tensions between their home planets.

Forced to choose between betraying (or forgetting) Aral and abandoning her career, family and home on Beta Colony, Cordelia opts for the latter. The second book, Barrayar, follows her after she rejoins Aral at his ancestral home in the Vorkosigan District. There, she does her best to start a new life – and a family – on a planet where women occupy second place, and the disabled have no place at all – a planet that “eats its children”.

For while both Beta Colony and Barrayar began as colonies of Earth, their societies have developed along vastly different trajectories.

Beta Colony was established on a desert planet where human habitation is only made possible in underground cities fed by an artificial atmosphere. Its survival, then, is dependent on two things. The first is tight state control over the distribution of the planet’s limited resources, including air and water. The other is rapid advances in technology. These two sites of progress have together resulted in a remarkably egalitarian society in which poverty – and also gender roles – have largely been eliminated.

From the outset of Cordelia’s Honor, an emphasis is placed upon Betan women’s freedom to take on any variety of occupations and social roles. Their presence in the upper ranks of the Betan Astronomical Survey – both a scientific institution and a reserve military force – is so unremarkable that when the senior members of Cordelia’s research team are introduced to us, their genders are left indeterminate, only later to be revealed as female. Betan society is liberal in its attitudes to sexuality and recreational drug use, and progressive in its approach to the management of both physical and mental health.

Barrayar – a far newer colony with a hospitable climate and an abundance of water – is ostensibly easier for humans to inhabit. Ironically, however, it is on this fertile, long-isolated planet that poverty abounds, while men who live past the age of forty are considered unusual after centuries of virtually ceaseless warfare. The society of Barrayar is highly militarised, with a feudal form of government. It is also a patriarchal society in which women are only beginning to emerge from roles that centre on their reproductive functions – first as prized (and compulsorily virginal) marriage material, and then as wives and, most importantly, mothers.

Barrayar: ‘natural’ reproduction as occupation

As soon as Cordelia arrives on Barrayar, her gender is used to contain and delimit her identity. She goes from captaining her own spaceship to her “new job” of “gestating” and appearing at social events where all she has to do is “show up appropriately dressed…smile a lot, and keep her mouth shut.”

For Cordelia, this is doubly shocking. Not only must she adjust to being defined exclusively as a potential producer of sons to feed the armies of Barrayar, but she must also do so on a planet where medical technology has not advanced sufficiently to free women from the physical inconveniences that accompany their reproductive functions.

She is aghast when she learns that Barrayaran women continue to experience menstruation, “unanesthesised defloration”, pregnancy and the pain and risks of childbirth as a matter of course. On Beta Colony, women are fitted with contraceptive implants at the age of fourteen, periods can be “turn[ed] off till they’re needed” and most babies are gestated in uterine replicators or artificial wombs.

Cordelia, too, once expected to have a baby “cooked up” for her in a uterine replicator, and ready by the time she returned from a survey mission. After her marriage to Aral, however, she must come to terms with the prospect of experiencing physically things that, on her home planet, have long been outsourced to technology – and are thus anything but ‘natural’ or ‘matter of course’.

Making strange: critical distance in science fiction

It could be said that Cordelia experiences life on Barrayar as a kind of alien – a “lady soldier” from a planet scornfully regarded as the seat of both sexual “depravity” and “cold-blooded” rationality. As the repeatedly shocked – yet very much engaged – outsider, she embodies the critically distancing function of science fiction at its best.

For as it immerses us in life on other planets and distant stars, science fiction alienates us from the culture in which we are ourselves embedded. This distancing function is, however, more than just escapism. For those planets and stars, for all their strangeness, are replete with cultural motifs that mirror elements of our own world back to us.

By subjecting these motifs to the critical observation of its characters, science fiction thus makes our everyday both strange and contingent once more. Aspects of life that we might take for granted are thus re-imbued with their own political and historical specificity.

All hierarchies – including the hierarchy between the genders – can be questioned through this kind of critical distancing. Cordelia’s responses to the sexism and ableism permeating Barrayaran culture highlight their contingency to the reader, but also hold out the possibility – however imperfect it might be in the example of Beta Colony – of an alternative. This is both promising and relevant – because while much of what shocks Cordelia as a Betan shocks us too, in many ways we are also still living on Barrayar.

The most obvious similarity between our own world and that of the Vorkosigans is, of course, the “double standard of sexual behaviour” for men and women. To Cordelia, this double standard at first appears to be a “logical impossibility”. On Beta Colony, sexual health and safety are promoted through the distribution of information -and a far broader range of relationship configurations (rather than just ‘the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others’) are given equal recognition. New to the unspoken codes and heavily gendered taboos that govern Barrayaran high society, Cordelia struggles to understand “how it could be done”. For us, however, these taboos appear all too familiar – for even well into the 21st century, discourses around sexuality continue to follow misogynistic, heteronormative lines.

We are still very far from arriving at a point where individual women’s sexualities are not, in some way, being policed by others. Having sex (too young, too soon, with too many partners or a partner of the ‘wrong’ gender), not having sex or just expressing oneself in ways that others insist on sexualising… All of these things remain capable of depriving women of recognition, respect and even safety.

Our culture continues to reward young men (well, as long as they’re heterosexual) for being sexually active, while adopting the language of caution and personal responsibility when it comes to discussing the sexual behaviour of young women. That same language is used to ensure that abortion – and even access to emergency contraception – is not made ‘too easy’ for women who should have been ‘more careful’ – whether that’s more careful in consenting to sex, or, where there was no consent, in venturing out of the house altogether.

Throughout history, this “double standard” has had an impact on women’s reproductive choices. It’s easy to think that we can now consign to the past the centuries when the threat of becoming pregnant out of wedlock (not to mention the many burdens of childrearing) were an effective constraint on women’s behaviour. After all, at least in Australia, we now have access to a variety of options in terms of contraception and, most recently, the abortion pill.

Yet these advances can never be taken for granted as long as politicians are able to insist on viewing women’s bodily autonomy as a legitimate subject of debate and political game-playing. It is no wonder, then, that Barrayar’s hypocritical attitudes to sexuality seem closer to home than Beta Colony’s practical policy of actively limiting reproduction – but facilitating true sexual freedom for all its citizens.

Beta Colony: eliminating the biological division of labour

In 1970, Shulamith Firestone wrote in The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution that gender inequality originated in the biological division of labour in reproduction, whereby pregnancy and childbirth facilitated the imposition of patriarchal social structures upon women. Artificial reproduction through the use of cybernetics, together with the replacement of the nuclear family with community-supported child rearing, could shift these structures and thus ensure that biology, for women, was no longer destiny:

“The ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value. Humanity has begun to transcend nature: we can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on grounds of its origins in nature. Indeed, for pragmatic reasons alone it is beginning to look as if we must get rid of it.”

At least in relation to reproduction, the biological division of labour is exactly what has been eliminated on Beta Colony. Choosing to have a child no longer requires women to undertake the physical work of childbearing – and even the structure of the family has taken on a more egalitarian form. Unlike on Barrayar, where daughters are seen as fodder for politically expedient match-making, while sons are prized as the continuations of paternal family lines, Betans raise children as equal “co-parents” whose relationships are formed entirely by choice.

But though it may resemble, at first glance, the fulfilment of Firestone’s radical vision of equality, Beta Colony is no paradise. For the harshness of its climate, and the limited nature of its resources, has forced Betans to do away with the concept of reproductive rights altogether.

On Beta Colony, reproduction is not a right, but a privilege – one afforded only to those who can demonstrate the right kind of family. In order to get their contraceptive implants removed, women must qualify for a “parent’s licence” with a prospective co-parent, as well as satisfy a number of “physical, psychological and economic tests”. This kind of gate-keeping – together with legal restrictions on family sizes – means that while sexual behaviour is a province of individual freedom, reproduction is not.

Critical distance/critical embeddedness

The 1996 edition of Cordelia’s Honor contains a telling afterword by Bujold. From the beginning, she writes, she had known that Aral and Cordelia would have a physically disabled son in the militaristic society of Barrayar, because:

“The birth of a child is the proper climax, after all, of any romance that starts out “boy meets girl”, if the romance is not falsely truncated.”

Some aspects of the books, in retrospect, seem to resonate with this somewhat quaint authorial bias. Having children, for Cordelia, is a secret desire that eventually trumps all other aspirations. The speed and completeness with which she sacrifices a career that previously defined her suggests that her former role as scientist and “Mama Captain” was merely a training ground for her later adopted identity of Mother and Wife. For all the freedoms she enjoyed on Beta Colony, Cordelia has never quite escaped the idea that a woman’s life is not complete unless it includes children.

But for me, Cordelia’s Honor is such a good read precisely because it lends itself to more than one interpretation. .

In Barrayar, Cordelia repeatedly sheds light upon mothers who take great risks in ways that their militarised, male-centric society is not capable of recognising, let alone rewarding. The Emperor’s mother, Kareen, endures a violent marriage and makes dubious alliances to keep her son alive amidst the plots and conspiracies that threaten him. Lady Vorpatril, while firmly embedded in her role of society wife, demonstrates bravery and resilience far outside the contexts within which Cordelia has been taught to expect such things.

Like Barrayar, our own society presents women with some seriously mixed messages about motherhood. Becoming a mother is simultaneously exalted and devalued; it is both the ‘greatest achievement of which a woman is capable’, and a ‘natural order of things’ that deserves no social, let alone economic, recognition.

Cordelia’s Honor distances us from this ‘natural order’, and in the process, repositions motherhood as something that women can – if they so choose – legitimately seek out and fight for. It is a promising beginning to a series that raises some interesting questions – about gender politics, medical ethics and ableism, among other things. I look forward to reading the rest of it.


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