A Study in Subtexts: Freedom, slavery and control in Prometheus winner Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series

“What Bujold has done is to come up with a concept of an aristocratic society that isn’t based on coercion — and from a libertarian perspective, that’s an interesting and novel theme.”

By William H. Stoddard

After bringing the Vorkosigan series (including Prometheus Hall of Fame winner Falling Free) to an apparent conclusion, Lois McMaster Bujold turned to fantasy in two series: the loosely connected World of the Five Gods novels, and the Sharing Knife series, an actual tetralogy.

Lois McMaster Bujold (Photo by Kyle Cassidy; Creative Commons license)

Both are set in invented worlds, where real-world political issues don’t arise, sparing the reader the sort of heavy-handed allegory that J.R.R. Tolkien famously objected to.

No book in either series was ever considered for a Prometheus Award. Indeed, the Sharing Knife series started out as a love story, seemingly reflected Bujold’s acknowledged fondness for authors such as Georgette Heyer. But having read it several times since its publication, I’ve come to feel that it has less obvious depths, some of which are potentially of interest to members of the Libertarian Futurist Society.

The setting of The Sharing Knife is an unnamed continent in an invented world — one thinly settled, largely by farmers, though it has towns with inns and craftsmen. A look at the maps that Bujold provides, especially in the later volumes, shows its resemblance to North America, and especially to the Midwest, with a system of rivers converging on a great river that runs from north to south, and with several large lakes to the north of the densely settled area. With its low population, agrarian economy, private ownership of land, and tradition of self-government, it has the feel specifically of the American frontier in the first half of the nineteenth century, though without an urbanized East or central government. It also lacks another feature of the American frontier, a lack that makes it something of an idealization: there are no black people and no slaves.

The reason for the relatively sparse population comes on stage early in the first volume, Beguilement: the population was massively reduced, centuries ago, by a continent-wide disaster.

The land is filled with hidden seeds that can give rise to unnatural creatures called “malices.” These are entities that feed on the vitality of living organisms, and especially on their capacity for what Ayn Rand calls “self-generated and self-sustained action.”

In the first novel, we learn that they are especially drawn to the morphogenetic process in unborn children. They use this energy to enslave animals, reshaping them into more useful forms, and to create bodies for themselves, in a series of transformations. Eventually they encounter human beings and take on humanoid forms, and at that point they become especially dangerous. Their growth drains the land not only of life but even of the capacity to support life; what they leave behind is not soil but regolith, which Bujold describes in terms similar to Heinlein’s description of the sterile rock that Ganymede’s settlers, in Farmer in the Sky, have to turn into soil.

And in the same way, they drain the life out of human societies, turning them  from building and creating into a single-minded struggle to control more land. What Bujold is showing us is a post-apocalyptic world, like the post-nuclear-war societies of science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s (such as Edgar Pangborn’s Davy), but also like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth at the end of the Third Age, after most of its kingdoms have been destroyed by servants of Sauron.

What preserves human life, and indeed the very possibility of life, is a different human population: the Lakewalkers. They’re physically different from the farmers, and have different customs, a separate history, and a longer historical memory.

Within the literature of fantasy, the relationship of the two groups seems parallel in many ways to that between hobbits and Rangers in Middle-Earth: like Rangers, the Lakewalkers are mysterious wanderers, mistrusted by the people they protect from “threats that would freeze [their] heart[s], or lay [their] little town[s] in ruin, if [they] were not guarded ceaselessly” (as Aragorn says at the Council of Elrond). Lakewalkers are even taller than farmers, and longer-lived!

But where Tolkien shows us only adult male Rangers, and only in military action and other adventures, Bujold gives us much more anthropological detail, including how Lakewalkers gather food and raise horses, what their houses and communities are like, their families and kinship system and governance, and their daily lives and celebrations — including sexual customs that might well have horrified Tolkien. It’s notable that Lakewalkers seem to have matrilineal kinship, comparable to that attributed to the Iroquois, and that this is part of a different analogy, of farmers and Lakewalkers to European settlers and indigenous Americans, that informs Bujold’s world-building.

Part of the mystery of Lakewalkers is that they have esoteric powers, akin (in fantasy terms) to magic or (in science fictional terms) to psionics, but in this book called “groundsense,” a name that neatly walks the line between the two fantastic genres.

“Ground,” in Bujold’s world, is the special quality that distinguishes soil from regolith, that of being permeated with life, or in other words with matter that is not only organized but self-organizing. Lakewalkers have an inherent sensitivity to it, and varying degrees of ability to manipulate it, in such ways as treating injuries and illnesses and influencing animal behavior. But these powers have a darker side, which is fully manifest in malices, which can kill or enslave; Bujold’s Lakewalker protagonist, Dag Redwing, discovers that he’s also able to kill or to beguile, which gives him fears of how he might abuse his powers.

Partly out of fear of such abuse, and partly because farmers occasionally notice the effects of Lakewalker groundsense and find them alarming, the two populations live side by side without much intermingling; in particular, sexual relationships between them are discouraged by both groups.

This sets up the romantic plot of the series, which focuses on a relationship between Dag and a young farmer woman, Fawn Bluefield; their marriage, near the end of the first volume, is anomalous in farmer eyes and profoundly unacceptable to many Lakewalkers, including Dag’s own family.

This separation into two distinct breeding populations says something about the social structure of the Sharing Knife series. We have a small group of people whose business is to make war against a dangerous enemy, who have special abilities and training, and who keep themselves reproductively isolated from a larger population that works the land. This is precisely the way aristocratic societies are organized. Indeed, at one point, Dag says to other Lakewalkers that what they have been doing is planting farmers!

But unlike traditional aristocracies in our world, Lakewalkers don’t rule farmers by force, or collect taxes or rents from them; rather, they accept donations from communities they have saved from malices, and benefit from the economic productivity of farmer communities. What Bujold has done is to come up with a concept of an aristocratic society that isn’t based on coercion — and from a libertarian perspective, that’s an interesting and novel theme.

The Sharing Knife is thus a more complex body of fiction than it seems from a brief description or a quick glance. The romance story is well told, but there’s more to it than romance. And in particular, it explores one of Bujold’s other recurrent themes, political organization, not through the conflicts of elites but in terms of everyday life and anthropological details.

* Read Stoddard’s appreciation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the 2009 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner.

* Read Michael Grossberg’s Prometheus-Blog appreciation of Bujold’s Falling Free, the 2014 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

Biographical note: Lois McMaster Bujold (1949 –   ), the 36th author named a Grand Master (in 2019) by the Science Fiction Writers of America, has won four Hugo Awards for Best Novel, matching Robert Heinlein’s record.

Bujold’s Sharing Knife series includes four novels: Beguilement (2006), Legacy (2007), Passage (2008) and Horizon (2009) plus a long novella, Knife Children (2019.)

Falling Free, inducted in 2014 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame, was the first of her books to win a major sf award – the 1988 Nebula Award for best novel. Her overall Vorkosigan Saga won a Hugo Award for Best series in 2017.

The saga includes 16 novels, listed here in order of publication from 1986 to 2012: Shards of Honor, The Warrior’s Apprentice, Ethan of Athos, Falling Free, Brothers in Arms, The Vor Game, Barrayar, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr, A Civil Campaign, Diplomatic Immunity, Cryoburn, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

Bujold has won the Forry Award for Lifetime Achievement in the field of Science Fiction (in 2013) and the SFWA Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award (in 2020).

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, slavery and war and achieve universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

2 thoughts on “A Study in Subtexts: Freedom, slavery and control in Prometheus winner Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series”

  1. I love the Sharing Knife books for their love story, but it’s also an interesting demonstration of what anarcho-capitalist (farmer) and anarcho-communist (Lakewalker) societies would look like in practice, and the conflicts they’d have trying to keep their own customers while interacting with the other.

    1. That’s an interpretation I hadn’t thought of, and an interesting one—a fine example of how criticism, as well as fiction or poetry, can be a creative art. Well put!

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