The Emergence of Bujold Studies, or, Gods and Uterine Replicators in a Time of Coronavirus

Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold builds upon the establishment of Lois McMaster Bujold as an important author of contemporary science fiction and fantasy. In this blog post, co-editor Regina Yung Lee reflects on the origins of the essay collection and how Bujold’s writings remain relevant in times of crisis.

Lois McMaster Bujold is a celebrated US American science fiction and fantasy writer whose hallmarks include intriguing personalities and intricate plots within carefully crafted speculative cultures. Bujold’s writing both follows and anticipates several major flashpoints of gender and genre; her sequential Hugo wins for best series –  for the Vorkosigan Saga in 2018, then the World of the Five Gods in 2019 – are only part of the picture. A genuine genre ambidexter, Bujold’s corpus comprises three major series: the Vorkosigan saga, a military space opera set on and around the recently-rediscovered planet Barrayar, now emerging from a feudal past into a faster-than-light future; the World of the Five Gods, a theological fantasy incorporating spiritual and historical elements from Medieval and Early Renaissance Europe; and the Sharing Knife quartet, a long strange journey set in, perhaps, a post-apocalyptic agrarian North America. Comprising over two dozen novels and almost as many novellas and short stories, Bujold’s writing has attracted academic attention for decades; however, significant analysis has only begun to coalesce. In our anthology, Biology and Manners, my co-editor Una McCormack and I give space to the fantastic and the science fictional branches of her work, including the self-published Penric and Desdemona novels, and open room for discussion of the wealth of secondary texts which have sprung up around her work, including fanfiction and role-playing games.

My scholarly engagement with Bujold’s writing coalesced around my realization that the Vorkosigan series’ major event was not the military maneuvering of its protagonist, but the technological transformation effectuated by his mother, through deployment of the ‘uterine replicator’, the machine womb which is Bujold’s primary world-shaping technology. For Darko Suvin, a foundational scholar in science fiction studies, that revolutionary development had a name: the novum, the locus of possibility that bends society in new directions. Understanding the uterine replicator as a novum clarified that its underlying shifts were tectonic – not least because of their timescale. The deliberate tracking of the uterine replicator’s gradual, ineluctable instantiation into Barrayar’s most intimate realities constituted much of the sprawling Vorkosigan series’ overall dramatic arc. Similarly, the World of the Five Gods depends on the presence of the divine in the mundane materials of daily life – a pebble, a chance meeting, a few words between strangers. In this case, and bending Suvin’s definition very much against its wont, the inability of the divine to move in the material world without willing material avatars could be called a force driving society toward new ways of existing. (I argue this more fully in my chapter, but briefly, socially mandated concepts of full personal agency and binary gender expression invert and transform themselves when they come into contact with the gods.)

This anthology has been a long time coming. The project began as a way to gather some of the flowering of recent scholarship on Bujold’s work into one place. Una McCormack and I met at the one-day conference on Bujold she organized at Anglia Ruskin in 2014. (I’d never been to the UK, but Cambridge in August made for a lush green introduction.) This was a momentous occasion, not least because many of us had worked on our Bujold scholarship in splendid solitude until then. While never exactly thin, academic works on Bujold had been only sporadically emergent until the very recent past: Janet Brennan Croft’s 2013 anthology was the first to crystallise the nascent field, while Edward James’ monograph in 2015 had yet to appear. But on this day, scholars from three continents under Una’s genial guidance gathered to speak about Bujold’s work, spanning all three series and multiple disciplines. By the end of the day, it was clear that not only did we want to continue this conversation together, but that enough new scholarship had appeared to warrant a second anthology. And thus the long work of publication began.

I’ll spare you the tedium of a full recounting. Suffice to say that, after some punishing editing marathons and a wealth of transatlantic emails, the anthology finally arrived — into a peculiarly speculative time. Neither Una nor I could have predicted the pandemonium unleashed by the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe as we went to final edits in March. But the strangely altered, sheltering-in-place days that followed have given me a whole new appreciation for Bujold’s work. The coronavirus has made our lives rather more science fictional than they were. Forced insularity has substantiated online interaction as a primary method of contact, enabling deep connections while requiring conversations about physical presence and touch as ways to communicate. Bujold’s work is deeply concerned with the intimate outworkings of vast social transformations, both biological and theological. In the midst of a global pandemic, Bujold’s presentations of normal life irradiated by the extraordinary remain compelling.

For more information on Biology and Manners, visit our website.

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