If you’re already a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s award-winning Vorkosigan Saga novels, this month’s issue of Lord Jole and the Red Queen will bring much joy. If you’re new to the series, this novel is an excellent excuse to start reading. It is one of the most realistic and funny novels you will ever read about space colonization. Somehow it manages to be gripping despite its focus on balancing military budgets, dealing with defense contractors and the weirdness of a long-term marriage.
Mild spoilers for the Vorkosigan Saga follow.
Meet the Vorkosigans
Bujold began her galaxy-spanning series in the 1980s with a few novels, Shards of honor and Barrayar, about a young starship captain named Cordelia Naismith from the planet Beta. A peaceful, politically-advanced planet—Copenhagen in space, in fact—Beta sends out scientist-explorers like Cordelia to collect data for its exoplanetary “geological survey.” While studying a supposedly uninhabited planet, Cordelia encounters military officer Aral Vorkosigan, from the patriarchal, conservative planet of Barrayar, where women are often housewives and men destroy themselves on the battlefield. Against all odds, and in the middle of a deadly war, the two fall in love.
As a result, Cordelia brings her planet’s best technology to Barrayar, an artificial womb dubbed a “uterine replicator.” She also brings her Betan values, which delights the forward-thinking Aral and angers many of the other ruling men on the planet. Of course, Cordelia manages to save the day at the end of the day Barrayar– as well as saving her unborn son Miles, though her enemies have managed to tamper with his replicator, leaving him with congenital disabilities.
Barrayar won the Hugo Award in 1991, but Bujold made the unusual choice to continue the series by skipping forward about two decades and focusing on Miles Vorkosigan, Aral and Cordelia’s only child. Most of the novels in the series, with a few exceptions, such as the fantastic stand-alone Ethan of Athos, are about Miles’ career as a galactic fixer. An incredible genius whose disability keeps him from active military service, he becomes something of a military Sherlock, solving strange problems and saving more than one world from destruction. However, he never strays far from family entanglements. Aral and Cordelia make occasional appearances in the novels, as do a growing number of other family members, from clones and children to Cordelia’s godson – who happens to rule Barrayar.
Always witty and masterfully plotted, the Vorkosigan Saga novels chart the rise of a powerful family whose members are enlightened and human – though not above breaking the law or negotiating with shady characters when necessary. Through more than a dozen books and many more short stories, the series has had lasting appeal because it doesn’t shy away from the complexities of political engagement, whether that be in wars over wormholes or in the corridors of a nebulous cryogenic storage clinic. Bujold also never forgets the personal realm, giving us characters whose lives definitely remind us that soap opera and space opera have more in common than the word “opera.”
Cordelia’s back, baby (and baby and baby and baby and baby…)
Now with Lord Jole and the Red QueenBujold returns to Cordelia’s story – more than forty years after the events of Barrayar. Aral died unexpectedly three years earlier and Cordelia returned to the planet where they met, now called Sergyar. As the high-ranking Viceroy, she oversees the colonization of Sergyar, dealing with a parade of obnoxious contractors, workers and would-be politicians building the planet’s first major city. Still coping with the loss of her husband, Cordelia nevertheless whipped the colonists into shape, forcing them to move their glorified encampment at the foot of a simmering desert volcano to a more congenial location on the coast.
Cordelia has also decided it’s time to raise the daughters she’s always wanted. She and Aral have stashed away enough genetic material in cold storage that this is a realistic possibility, especially when you consider the widespread availability of replicators. Although she is already in her eighties, Cordelia expects to live another fifty years. So she begins the process of preparing six embryos for maturation in replicators.
But she also has another unfinished family business. Admiral Oliver Jole, who commands Sergyar’s fleet from orbit, is still on her mind. Just a few pages into the novel, we discover that Cordelia and Aral were up to much more than running Barrayar while Miles roamed the galaxy. Twenty years ago, Aral and Oliver fell in love. We knew Aral was bisexual throughout the series, but it was always something from his pretty distant past. It turns out that Aral, Oliver and Cordelia have been in an unconventional marriage for two decades, an open secret among their closest colleagues, but still forbidden by Barrayar social norms. So yes, that happened.
This is exactly the kind of strange scenario that Bujold likes to sink her teeth into. How do two spouses mourn the loss of their shared spouse? And what should they do with his leftover genetic material, in a future where the technology exists to create a child from the genetic material of two men?
Equally important are Oliver and Cordelia’s professional problems. They have an entire planet to run and a city to build. First, they must figure out what the hell to do with a shipment of tainted plascrete, sold to them by a defense contractor who doesn’t mind swindling the military. And then there are the planet’s bizarre animals, many of whom suck blood or explode or both. In addition, everyone needs money or supplies or labor. Somehow Cordelia and Oliver have to help their reports and voters do more with less.
A truly futuristic marriage
The centerpiece of the novel is Cordelia and Oliver’s growing affection for each other, without the strong attraction Aral exerts. It’s a testament to Bujold’s strength as a sci-fi writer that she doesn’t just allude to the futuristic trio and then jump right into a more conventional romance between Cordelia and Oliver. She shows us in flashbacks how a three-person marriage would work, complete with mundane planning, trust issues, and (of course) the occasional crazy night of group sex.
Complicating matters is the fact that both homosexuality and open relationships are frowned upon among Barrayarans. Although Betans have special earrings to indicate multiple commitments, not so much on Barrayar. Aral risks everything to involve Oliver in his marriage. With him gone, Cordelia and Oliver must overcome their trio’s secrecy habits while still protecting their privacy as powerful public figures on Sergyar.
Bujold manages to turn Cordelia and Oliver’s complicated relationship into its own form of futuristic exploration. This becomes even more apparent as the two contemplate whether they should actually have children with Aral. Their babies will be among the first humans to be raised on Sergyar; we may be about to witness a new planetary culture born of a marriage of three.
That said, there are many elements to Oliver and Cordelia’s relationship that will be relatable to anyone dealing with second marriages and middle age. Every decision the two make is tinged with the melancholy realization that it’s time to live now, because no one gets any younger. Plus, there are the pre-existing kids to think about. What will Miles say when he finds out?
Bujold’s light-hearted yet wise narration makes this strange tale of bureaucratic shenanigans and fall romance a coming-of-age tale for those who grew up long ago.
For people who haven’t read the series, it’s an excellent way to get into it – it can certainly be read on its own, but I’d recommend devouring the two (short) Cordelia novels first. They are sold together as a paperback Cordelia’s honor, or you can pick them up as e-books. Of course, you might find yourself needing to read (or re-read) the Miles novels as well.
In some respects, Lord Jole and the Red Queen reads as if Bujold brings the series to an end. But it’s also a gear, a fresh take on an epic saga whose author clearly has many more stories to tell. Therefore, it is a great place to enter the Vorkosigan Saga, but also an unexpected delight for people who have been there forever.