Motherhood and Bujold

I mentioned in my last booklog update that I had thoughts about Ekaterin, which needed to be off in a separate post. This is that post; it contains spoilers for the Vorkosigan series, so I’m putting the actual content behind a cut.

The short form is, Bujold clearly cares about writing stories where family and children are something that happen to the characters, and where motherhood is treated as worth writing about. Except that I don’t feel like she really succeeds in that mission — a statement which I think I can only make sense of by following my thoughts through their process of formation.

It started with Drou. I really liked her as a character, and the dynamic between her and Kou — them living in a society where men are ideally warriors and women are not, but he’s physically disabled and she’s an Amazon. It made me happy when zunger reassured me there would be “plenty more” of those two later on in the series, because I wanted more exploration of the lack of choices Drou had, and maybe her daughters getting to have more choices.

. . . but sorry, zunger, I have to disagree with your assessment. There isn’t “plenty more” of them; there’s hardly any, except in A Civil Campaign, where their role is pretty much restricted to concerns about their daughters’ marriages. We’re told Drou is still athletic, and later on it’s clear she taught her daughters to defend themselves, but nobody has picked up her baton and run onward with it. Drou’s societal role basically goes from “bodyguard to the Emperor of Barrayar” to “mother,” and it disappoints me.

Then there’s Cordelia. Who is awesome, and the heroine of two novels . . . but her story ends with Miles’ birth. After that, she’s a side character in his story. She does some cool things (handling Mark; smacking Kou and Drou upside the head), but she doesn’t get point of view, and isn’t a protagonist anymore.

Which wouldn’t have bugged me, except for what happened with Ekaterin. When we first see that woman, she’s a pov character; in fact, Komarr starts with her, before we even get to Miles, and I seem to recall the book ends with her, too. The only other character to be given that kind of prominence is Mark, in Mirror Dance. She doesn’t take much of Miles’ shit, and she has a Crowning Moment of Awesome with the gravitic thingy, all of which made me quite like her as a character. And it pleased me that she went on being interesting in A Civil Campaign, with another CMoA at the end.

. . . but then there was Diplomatic Immunity. In which she doesn’t get pov, and doesn’t have much effect on the story, except for Miles to worry about her safety and getting her home in time to decant the kids.

. . . and then there was Cryoburn, in which we get one kid-laden message from home, and that’s it.

It’s hard not to walk away from that feeling like motherhood means the end of your story. (Heck, even Elena takes a step backward out of the story when she marries Baz, and a bigger one when they retire to have children.) I know this is the Miles Vorkosigan series, not Ekaterin’s or Cordelia’s or anybody else’s, but some characters have gotten co-equal protagonist status with Miles. Once I’ve invested in those people as semi-independent actors in the plot, watching them get relegated to the sidelines is disappointing. I can accept it better with Mark; after all, his mission in life is to have a life away from his brother. But Ekaterin, I feel, should be there: at Miles’ side, doing narratively interesting stuff like she did before. God knows she has the security clearance for it, and Bujold, I think, knows that there’s valuable intel to be gathered through social channels. It could have worked very well in Diplomatic Immunity, and the failure to take that opportunity really weakened that book. Cryoburn‘s more intense lack of Ekaterin makes it look even worse.

Mind you, it’s possible to make the argument that fatherhood means the end of your story nearly as much. Aral fades into the background even more than Cordelia does, and Kou ends up next to Drou on the sidelines. Baz leaves with Elena. But there are counter-arguments in all of those cases: Aral and Baz were never as prominent in the story as their eventual wives, so had less distance to fall. None of the men had protagonist status like Cordelia or Ekaterin. And of course, Miles doesn’t stop being interesting when he has kids — because it’s his series, and if Bujold stops telling stories about him, then the party’s over.

It’s just enough of a problem to annoy me. I really, really hope that whatever Vorkosigan book comes next reverses the trend, and puts Ekaterin back into the story in some interesting fashion. Otherwise this disappointment is going to stay with me, and I’d really prefer if it didn’t.

0 Responses to “Motherhood and Bujold”

  1. alecaustin

    I think you’ve hit on one of the (several) reasons that Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn disappointed me, which was that in Diplomatic Immunity Ekaterin *in theory* does a bunch of cool stuff, but it’s all handled off-stage… and then she’s barely in Cryoburn at all.

    This struck me as a pretty lousy way to treat a protagonist who was portrayed as Miles’ equal in Komarr and A Civil Campaign. (Then again, I also wanted more Cordelia books.)

    Barrayar and the later Miles books in which Barrayaran politics come to the fore are the ones that work best for me out of the series, and it’s frustrating to me that Bujold seems to not want to do more novels set ‘at home’ on Barrayar, especially as that would help deal with this problem of awesome female characters getting shuffled off to the sidelines.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes. The stuff with Alys Vorpatril shows that Bujold is aware of how that kind of thing can work. It’s easiest to do on Barrayar — then you can plausibly gather together lots of the side characters (male and female) that we’ve come to know throughout the series — but it can work off Barrayar, too; as you say, Diplomatic Immunity includes mentions of Ekaterin working the social side while Miles works the political one. But the opportunity got dropped, and then Cryoburn feels like it’s saying “well, we can’t really have her here, because somebody’s got to stay home and watch the kids.” And of course that somebody is Mom. Uterine replicators: not freeing women up for protagonist status as much as you would hope.

      I’m really hoping that whatever comes next is more Barrayaran-focused and includes those characters. The end of Cryoburn certainly raises the possibility.

      • alecaustin

        I’m really hoping that whatever comes next is more Barrayaran-focused and includes those characters. The end of Cryoburn certainly raises the possibility.

        One would hope, yes.

        The bit at the end of Cryoburn made me wonder about her apparent desire to handle lots of things off-screen in the Milesverse, though. Possibly this is just me wanting her to build things up and twist the knife more, but it seemed like that should have happened at the end of a book which was more… explicitly about family, and Aral’s importance to Miles?

        I guess what I’m trying to say here is that handling things the way she did felt like she was leaving a lot of emotional power on the table, much like she did by not showing any of the bits with Ekaterin in Diplomatic Immunity.

        • Marie Brennan

          What I think about the off-stage-y-ness of that moment will depend a lot on what comes next (and how long we have to wait for it). If the next book goes directly into the personal consequences, I’m okay with the moment itself coming out of left field — because let’s face it, that happens in real life, and it’s possible to get emotional power out of things happening abruptly and without warning. If the follow-through isn’t there, however, then yeah: I’m going to feel cheated. Especially since I’m the sort of reader who wants her to twist the knife.

          • alecaustin

            I guess I read the bits with Jin in Cryoburn as Bujold trying to handle the parenthood issues at a distance, instead of head-on? Which could work the way you’re suggesting, if Bujold does follow up on them in the next book… but based on various statements she’s made, I’m pretty sure that’s not her plan.

            I don’t have any problem at all with the moment itself coming from left field – it’s the strong suspicion that she’s not going to follow up on it that bothers me, especially in light of the relative strength of Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn compared to the books that came before them.

          • Marie Brennan

            What kind of statements — can you summarize?

          • alecaustin

            She’s apparently looking at doing an Ivan book next, which isn’t completely incompatible with a hard-hitting follow-up, but suggests… a rather different tone, shall we say.

            Also, she’s implied (via a Pre-Cryoburn “interview” with Miles that) that she’s not planning to move on to his kids having adventures. And a lot of folks are reading the ending of Cryoburn as her closing the door on an older Miles as a protagonist, in light of the amount of stage time Aral and Cordelia had once they got all responsible.

          • jennifergale

            I was there for one of the Ivan readings.

            Yup. Completely different tone…as expected of something Ivan-centric.

          • Marie Brennan

            Ah, okay — I’d heard somebody mention an “Ivan book” on an earlier post of mine, but didn’t know that was an actual thing happening.

            If Cryoburn is the closing of that door, I must say it’s a weak way for Miles to go out. I hope that isn’t the case.

          • alecaustin

            I hope it isn’t either, but prior precedent (both in terms of her diverting to the Chalion & Sharing Knife books for a decade, and sidelining her characters who’ve settled into adult responsibilities) isn’t terribly encouraging.

          • Marie Brennan

            To be clear: if Bujold is tired of the series, that’s her business, and better she should stop than produce books she isn’t excited about.

          • cofax7

            My understanding is also that the Ivan book is set before Cryoburn; at least I seem to recall hearing that…

      • ide_cyan

        Uterine replicators: not freeing women up for protagonist status as much as you would hope.

        Alas, so true. Division of labour continues after labour (or decanting).

    • zunger

      +1. I read Diplomatic Immunity before reading the romances, so (not yet realizing how awesome Ekaterin was) it didn’t bug me as much; but it, and even more so Cryoburn, feels like a giant missed opportunity. I actually thought that the lack of exploration of the real consequences of Miles’ and Ekaterin’s parenthood made the book feel like a real waste of time. The last three pages were the only part which felt like a real Miles book at all.

      • Marie Brennan

        Partly it’s a function of where they stand in the series, in terms of both chronology and composition. If those had been written pre-Barrayar, and took place in the first half of the series, they might well seem fine to me. But post-Barrayar and post-Memory, they really look like Bujold bailing on the hard stuff, in a way she wouldn’t have done before.

    • zeborahnz

      (Then again, I also wanted more Cordelia books.)

      The book I want would be called Sergyar and would be all about Cordelia being awesome.

  2. coraa

    because it’s his series, and if Bujold stops telling stories about him, then the party’s over.

    Actually, given that I found Diplomatic Immunity and Cryoburn much… thinner? less weighty? entries in the story than most of the preceding books, I wonder sometimes if Bujold wouldn’t have been happier putting Miles out to pasture with his offspring, too.

    Which doesn’t diminish your point at all, but I do wonder.

    • marycatelli

      Both of them struck me more as romps than the other books.

    • Marie Brennan

      There is a point at which that seems like the better course of action, yeah. It’s odd, though — usually that happens because it feels like the author has run out of interesting things to do with the character. Here, it feels like Bujold has interesting things to do . . . but is avoiding them for some reason.

  3. marydell

    Nothing to add, but nodding and thinking.

  4. sarafunky

    hi dear i like you post …

  5. mastadge

    I agree with you, except for this: I know this is the Miles Vorkosigan series. . .

    I think Miles became the central character of the series because he was popular and fun, but he was introduced in Book 2 and didn’t even come back until Book 5, in terms of publication order. And then he stuck around, it’s true. But because I’ve been reading them in that order, it feels like a much more open series that Miles managed to take over when he found his way into it, as he does, but that sooner or later he’ll start to work his way out of again. I’m sure there are plenty more Miles stories to tell. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some Vorkosigan/Barrayar books in which Miles isn’t the central character. (Also Miles has gone from 17 (IIRC) to nearly 40 between The Warrior’s Apprentice and Cryoburn, which means he’s made it through well over half of his active career, unless Bujold changes her mind. . . Though she could always go back and fill in gaps rather than continuing to work forward. . .)

    I haven’t read Cryoburn yet — I just finished A Civil Campaign this morning so have the final two novels (so far) to go — so I can’t speak to its strengths or weaknesses, but I suspect that after two heavy fantasy trilogies, Bujold just had an off writing year (in an interview or essay in Dreamweaver’s Dilemma she acknowledges that some years she has a weighty theme she wants to play with, and some years she just doesn’t have as much to say, and that she’s fully aware that a prolific career will have its ups and downs), and that she’ll be back on form with whatever she does next.

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s a good point about Miles, and one I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t brought it up. I always knew of these books as “the Miles Vorkosigan series,” and having only just picked them up now, the preponderance of Miles-centric books makes it seem obvious that of course it’s his show. But yeah, I wonder now how many people would be on board for an Admiral Quinn book, or an Ivan Vorpatril book, or a Mark Vorkosigan and Kareen Koudelka book. There’s certainly setting and material enough there to support such a thing; the question is whether Bujold would want to do it, and whether her readers would accept it.

      • strangerian

        This echoes what I feel, in some ways. I started reading with Shards of Honor and (not second but soon) Barrayar. It was clear that Miles took over the series, yes, but it always seemed like Cordelia’s series at heart. Her presence on the page is limited, but her effect on Barrayar, from legitimating the uterine replicator, to raising the Emperor to appreciate Betan standards, to inspiring respect in (that is, scaring the shit out of) a lot of that generation’s inner-circle governing male elite and the effect on that same generation’s Vor wives, to sponsoring medical/whatever education for students who’d give back to the community; all that runs through the background of every storyline that touches down on Barrayar more than momentarily. And, aside from the early novels, much of it is off-stage, even if we see the effects. You could even say it was a large-scale working of her vow that Barrayar wasn’t going to kill her son, at least not before his time. She *made* Barrayar a safer place for Miles, and (probably not coincidentally) for a lot of Barrayans, and for the galaxy at large. Bujold can’t not know this, but social change at a generations-long level makes lousy action fiction, and she knows that too.

        I wish there were more Cordelia-centric novels along the way, maybe with social change plots integrated with, say, the Yarrow incident, or similar high-explosions hijinks plots. Cordelia effectively re-entered the series narrative when Mark came to Barrayar, and we got some good indications of how sweeping the changes were, especially in non-Vor classes, while the older Vor tried to pretend it wasn’t changing. But… it’s mostly invisible, remarkable background but always background. Also, if we frame it as Cordelia’s reaction to motherhood, which I think focused her intentions but didn’t create them, this all goes back to Motherhood as the quintessential female career, and also being about Miles. Something of a counterweight, also visible only in the later novels, is Alys adding a very Vorish spin on female power, although she certainly wouldn’t have been there doing it without Cordelia’s initial support.

        Ekaterin as a world-builder in the literal sense of reshaping ecologies could have huge consequences. I’d like to think that in Cryoburn (having done motherhood already, and having access now to the kind of help that makes it less a 36-hour-a-day job) she’s not so much at home minding the kids, as minding a pilot project for reseeding South Continent as a farming garden, or something equally impressive. And, this leads to: Where does Komarr get its food? I’m guessing it’s mostly farmed in hothouses, hydroponics, whatever, and lots imported. What if Barrayar could ship more basic foodstuffs to Komarr, freeing up a large percentage of local farming resources for terraforming? Economically a headache, but (1) fewer centuries to breathable air on Komarr and (2) no chance of support for any future plots to destabilize the Barrayar wormhole.

        That’s what Ekaterin could be doing. But I have no idea if Bujold will show her in those terms, or where an action plot could be part of it.

        • Marie Brennan

          I honestly would like more of the stories to be set on Barrayar, especially once we get into the political half of the series. Cetaganda and Komarr were good compromises, taking place on other planets but still involving enough Barrayarans and Barrayaran interests that I felt like the homeworld was being enriched by that story; but for whatever reason, DI and Cryoburn didn’t do the same. Setting things at home, though, would allow us to see all that other stuff happening inside the frame, even while the focus is on something more immediately lively.

  6. shakatany

    For me both “Diplomatic Immunity” and “Cryoburn” were rather thin books especially after the wonder that was “A Civil Campaign”. DI would’ve been so much better if there had been alternating POVs with Miles and Ekaterin like in “Komarr”. Also IMO “Cryoburn” too would’ve been better if there were alternating POVS with Miles investigating and Ekaterin holding the fort on Barrayar and being there when Aral died

    I’m hoping the Ivan book will center on him but with the others having prominent storylines a la ACC. Dangling somewhere in the future of Miles is the unfinished business with the Cetagandan emperor – what could it portend?


    • Marie Brennan

      Or heck, the Ivan book could take place somewhere else in the timeline — I’d be okay with that, though not thrilled, since it would be a repeat of Cetaganda being fun but not the follow-on people wanted after Mirror Dance. Either way, yes, the business with Fletchir Giaja definitely seems unresolved.

  7. wyld_dandelyon

    I wonder whether some of putting Ekaterin on the back burner is a response to readers’ comments about, and wanting to satisfy the subset of her readers who find focusing on relationships to be an interruption of the action.

    • Marie Brennan

      It isn’t even that I want a focus on the relationship; I just want it to be there, in the way that Miles’ non-romantic relationships are there, rather than brushed off to the side. But was there really a big camp of readers complaining that Komarr and A Civil Campaign were bad books?

      • wyld_dandelyon

        I have trouble believing that there were a lot of complaints about those books, but I don’t actually know. What I do remember was reading her comments, at some point, about the reader comments to the sharing knife series, which mostly consisted of action fans complaining that the romance was interrupting the plot, and romance fans complaining that the action was interrupting the plot.

        Which comments I found very interesting, though I don’t know that there’s anything I can do with that information about the two different audiences. It just made me think.

        • Marie Brennan

          I know with that series she was actively trying to weld the two genres together into a whole, rather than writing a fantasy novel with a romantic subplot, or a romance novel with a fantasy subplot. What I don’t know is whether she simply failed, or whether it turns out that the audience’s reading protocols are not so easily re-tuned.

  8. diatryma

    You’ve nailed why Diplomatic Immunity didn’t quite work for me. I haven’t read Cryoburn yet, but now I won’t expect Ekaterin.

    I am really hoping I don’t get a third Sharing Knife book moment. That happened when I picked up a certain this-would-be-cool scene, ran with it, adored it, and then it showed up in the book… only in my version, the woman taken hostage turned awesome. I have a similar running-scene for the Vorkosigan books, and the woman taken hostage turns awesome partly because she is awesome and partly because she has been underestimated because she’s wearing a skirt.

    • Marie Brennan

      That reminds me (in reverse) of an episode of Fringe, which ended on a cliffhanger of Dunham being captured by the bad guys. I resignedly expected the next ep to be about the guys saving her — but no thank you; Dunham saved her own damn self, and in an intelligent, proactive, and moderately realistic fashion. I honestly cheered.

    • thomasyan

      There is an awesome incident in the TV series Life about quirky police detective Crews and his female partner. At one point, she gets held hostage, and acquits herself very well.

      So it was disappointing to me that her part in the final season was so diminished. It turned out that was because the actor was pregnant and thus had limited availability and limited capacity for certain kinds of action scenes. But I didn’t know that, and grumbled about the sidelining of a great female character. I’m leery of checking out her new show because I loved her Life character so much.

  9. cofax7

    And of course, Miles doesn’t stop being interesting when he has kids

    Actually, I’d say there’s an argument he does. Neither Diplomatic Immunity nor Cryoburn are anywhere near as interesting as any of the other Miles novels. I think that, for whatever reason, once the character is settled into that societally-approved role of parent, Bujold has a hard time finding something really interesting for them to do. Might have something to do with a discomfort of putting parents with children at risk.

    • Marie Brennan

      Could be. I did mean “interesting” in the broader sense, though, of still being worth telling stories about. Bujold may not have succeeded at making those stories as engaging, but she hasn’t given up on Miles yet.

      I can see not wanting to write about parents with children risking themselves, but a) there are ways to tell entirely gripping stories with very little in the way of physical violence, and b) she could certainly engineer scenarios where Miles and/or Ekaterin don’t plan to endanger themselves, but it happens anyway. Especially if the plots took place on Barrayar, or during supposedly safe events elsewhere.

  10. thomasyan

    (Here via .)

    Isn’t ironic that Kareen, I think it is, mentions that marriage/motherhood seems like the end of things, such as how fairytales end with “they married and lived happily ever after”, as if there were no more adventures or challenges, and see what you’ve pointed out has happened to Bujold’s female characters?

    One problem besides Cordelia getting sidelined, is she also become too powerful/idealized. I forget who (Mark) wonders “who shaves the barber”, but in the last couple of books, she’s been too insightful, too perfect. I want her to be awesome, but to remain human, realistic.

    As I think you said in one of your comments, if Bujold is running out of ideas or enthusiasm, maybe she should quit this universe — at least until she gets recharged.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s possible to chalk Cordelia’s perfection up to pov bias: we mostly see her through Miles’ eyes, occasionally someone else’s, but always somebody who has bought pretty thoroughly into the cult. If we had her pov, she might look a good deal more realistic.

  11. elaine_thom

    Ekaterin isn’t just being “mom”, she’s being the Vorkosigan for the District. Miles remembers someone saying to him “you belong to the Empire. She’s OURS.” I read it with a subtext of ‘we’d rather have her than you.” I hope someday to see it, but as referred to in Cryoburn I think she might easily fall into the Cordelia problem of being too perfect. I’m glad we didn’t get Cordelia POV in most of the books, because when we do see her she’s being right All The Time. That gets tiresome.

    Except when she predicts that Miles will choose Naismith, which is a big misreading. (wishful thinking?)

    I thought Cryoburn was about death, survivors of death, trying to cheat death, etc. It was all to lead up to the end. Having the kids around but off screen made it more about death and Miles as son, rather than father. Yet also showed that death isn’t the end, even if you don’t get cryo-stored. But the focus needed to be on Miles as adult who loves his father. It was my second skim when I noticed how much Aral was mentioned.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m glad we didn’t get Cordelia POV in most of the books, because when we do see her she’s being right All The Time. That gets tiresome.

      I think she’d be less right All The Time if we were in her pov. But all the perspectives we get on her are from characters who grow to admire her, so it’s at least possible to explain her perfection away by in-story observer bias. (Whether or not that is the actual genesis of the problem, I don’t know. Maybe Bujold has bought into Cordelia’s perfection a bit too much, herself.)

      You’re right that Ekaterin isn’t just being a mom, but the problem is, everything else she’s doing gets disposed of in about a paragraph. The major focus of her message is “lookit the kids! One of them is walking now!” So that’s what the audience remembers. I don’t think Ekaterin’s life is boring; I think Bujold doesn’t feel Ekaterin’s life is worth writing about anymore, and that is what I object to.

      • elaine_thom

        Ah. got it. Could be. I can’t tell. Kat seems to be doing stuff, that could be interesting, certainly. If she gets shortchanged in subsequent series entries I’ll join the bashing.

        In book, it’s Miles who is interested in the family stuff, and he’s the focus, even when we’re in the kids’ POV Miles is the popular character, although I’ve also been wondering if the author has been losing interest. But it seems to me it needn’t be that the author doesn’t think Ekaterin’s life is worth writing about, so much as it wasn’t the story this time. It is very much a story about death, and sons, and brothers and impacts of death – permanent and otherwise – and family, seeking, losing, possibly finding. Miles is very family oriented, always has been, IMO. And he can get the other stuff any time. The kid updates, only Ekaterin can provide.

        The kids in the story are focused on their family-ness, and missing their mother, wanting to be a true family again.

        So in context of the book, the lack of focus on anything else that Kat might be doing doesn’t strike me as out of place.

        (I wish I could find again the discussion where someone talked about what LMB had said about why she didn’t have Ekaterin’s POV in Diplomatic Immunity. Also I vaguely remember that this book was the Jim Baen memorial book, featuring the character he helped bring to life. Or something like that. Anyway that may also have factored in to the strong Miles centric writing. After DI I hadn’t expected another Miles book at all. It felt like good-bye, Miles.)

        My 2cents FWIW.

        • Marie Brennan

          I’d be curious to know what Bujold said about DI, because that definitely colors my annoyance here: we got two books of Ekaterin being an interesting protagonist, and then she got shoved off to the side. And the fact that Cryoburn is a book focused on things that don’t have to do with Ekaterin doesn’t get it very far, in my estimation; it’s still Bujold’s decision that she wanted to write a book where the story didn’t have much to do with Ekaterin, and my decision to say, “I don’t like that.” (Especially since I think you could still address the relevant themes with Ekaterin there.)

          • elaine_thom

            Found it! Better than I remembered even, this is Bujold discussing her choices of POV for DI.


            Scroll to comment #17. The post itself complains about Ekaterin shaped holes in the book. LBM replies.

          • Marie Brennan

            Very enlightening, thanks. Seems like she agrees in retrospect that it was an error — though I confess to raising an eyebrow at “initially there wasn’t enough interesting for Ekaterin to do,” because to me there were several obvious angles to take that would have been very interesting indeed. But it’s past changing now, obviously (except in fanfiction).

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