Volume 15, Number 03, Summer, 1997


The Lessons of Lois McMaster Bujold

By William H. Stoddard

Lois McMaster Bujold is probably not a libertarian. The evidence is equivocal: her fourth novel, Falling Free, portrayed the revolt of genetically engineered workers against their corporate masters and their demand for human rights, a theme libertarians will find sympathetic (as well as emphasizing the moral importance of acting on one's own rational judgment more strongly than anyone since Ayn Rand); others of her novels portray a planet, Jackson's Whole, which seems to embody all the worst fears expressed by critics of anarcho-capitalism. However, the political themes of her novels merit close attention from libertarians; there is much to be learned from them. In this essay, I will examine some themes I consider central to her work from this point of view.

To begin with, the future portrayed in Bujold’s novels is not a galactic empire, or a random collection of quasi-feudal planetary states. Rather, each society she portrays at any length seems to occupy a distinct region in the political spectrum, making her world an exploration of possible political ideologies—though characteristically each has a point of difference distancing it from its contemporary versions. Thus, Cetaganda is an oriental despotism with advanced genetic technology but with social structure like an exaggerated version of feudal Japan; Athos is founded on doctrines derived from Christian conservatism, but because women are held to be the source of sin its inhabitants are all men, reproducing ectogenetically, and homosexuality is commonplace; Barrayar embodies pragmatic military conservatism, and Beta Colony authoritarian psychiatric liberalism; and finally, Jackson's Whole is a quasi-feudal anarchy that, as I noted above, seems to be a nightmare version of anarchocapitalism. Bujold’s fictional worlds are virtually a structured sampling of contemporary political ideologies each set free to exist as a separate society.

Underlying this diversity it is possible to see a more basic principle, one first described in Sir Henry Maine's Ancient Law: the contrast between the legal principles of status and contract. The principle of status is that each person is assigned to one or more social roles, usually at birth, as in the Hindu caste system. The principle of contract is that people assume roles by mutual, voluntary agreement, and have only the obligations they have agreed to. John Locke devoted the first of his two treatises on government to refuting status, and the second to supporting contract; and the United States was largely based on the ideas of the second.

The two ideas are ingeniously contrasted with each other through the person of Bujold’s recurring protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan. A Barrayaran, and thus a native of a society founded on status, he grows up in a painfully anomalous position, occupying at once nearly the highest possible status (son of the Regent, friend of the Imperial heir, and himself in line for the throne) and nearly the lowest (as a brittle boned midget who is constantly taken for a mutant in a society profoundly afraid of genetic abnormality). In his first appearance, in The Warriors Apprentice, he failed the entrance examination for the Barrayaran military academy, and during his recovery, on a visit to his mother's home world Beta Colony, improvised his way into leadership of a mercenary starfleet, which he named the Dendarii Free Company. Due to Barrayaran laws making it a capital crime to raise a private army, he adopted his mother's surname, Naismith, in this role, and the subsequent novels show his struggles to cope with the tension between the two roles—heightened by Barrayaran Imperial Security adopting the Dendarii as a covert operational force.

As Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan, Miles has a family and a home, but also a vast range of duties performed with few rewards—or few that Miles can see. His military career is a long series of disasters due largely to his "problems with subordination." As Admiral Naismith, Miles has virtually unlimited freedom, paid for by constant high achievement–he can only gain permission to be Naismith at all by making Naismith's services valuable to Imperial Security. Vorkosigan is expected to marry within his caste, where he is not much of a catch due to his physical abnormality and lagging career; Naismith has a remarkable ability to attract women, especially competent and lethal women—but none who could or would accept life on Barrayar. The two personalities are sharply different, with Naismith having most of the drive, the risk-taking, and the charisma necessary for entrepreneurship, but Vorkosigan the sense of loyalty to family and country. Even their voices are different: Naismith’s voice is characterized as a "flat Betan drawl", which sounds much like the stereotypical "Yankee" style of English. In short, Vorkosigan embodies the idea of status, Naismith that of contract.

In the view of most libertarians, status is bad and contract is good. In Bujold’s view, both are good, or can be good, but in different ways that are all but irreconcilable. (The very latest of her books, Memory, does reconcile them in a surprising way and gives Miles a new career.) More accurately, both can be either good or bad, and Bujold shows negative aspects of both. For status, we have the Cetagandans, a culture as hierarchic as ancient Egypt, and the Barrayarans, more sympathetic but capable of grotesque brutality (Barrayar’s long struggle against Cetagandan conquest suggests Russia’s against the Mongols, with a similar political aftermath). For contract, we have the highly regulated democracy of Beta Colony—democracy being founded on the myth of the social contract—and the lawless anarchy of Jackson's Whole, where, for example, rich people can pay to have themselves cloned, have the clones raised to physical maturity, and then have their brains transplanted into the clones' heads, while the clones' brains are scooped out and thrown away. Bujold tends to portray Barrayar and Beta Colony more sympathetically, but with little faith in any political system; either status or contract, in her future, can provide a rationalization for authoritarianism and abuse.

In fact, "status" is an imprecise label at best. The actual two principles on which human custom and law have been founded are kinship and contract, based on viewing human beings as links in a biological chain and as autonomous decision makers, respectively. And for each, there is a real form, and there is a fictive form that gives rise to authoritarian institutions: the fictitious fatherhood of the king or emperor, the fictitious contract establishing majoritarian democracy.

Kinship is, so to speak, a lower energy form of human society, the pattern most people naturally gravitate into; contract is freer and permits higher productivity but is riskier. What Bujold shows us with Miles is that he values both kinship—with his parents and with other Barrayarans—and contract—with the Dendarii—and this is what makes his conflicting roles so painful.

Bujold also carries the theme of kinship further through one of her other central themes: the emergence of new reproductive technologies and their social impact. Her future has a wide range of technologies, from simple ectogenesis and human cloning to entire new varieties of human beings produced through genetic engineering: the quaddies of Falling Free, the hermaphroditic minority of Beta Colony, and the lupine supersoldier Taura whom Miles rescues from Jackson's Whole. And it has societies that take advantage of them in radical ways, from the all-male society of Athos using ectogenesis and purchased ova to reproduce to the Cetagandans, where natural reproduction has been abandoned and the high aristocracy practice controlled breeding of the other classes.

In Bujold’s presentation of these innovative technologies, she typically emphasizes two themes: first that new forms of reproduction need to be used with the informed consent of those involved; second that the offspring produced are human beings with the same rights, the same personhood, as anyone else. We see Barrayaran society being sharply changed as sex selection of children produces a male-heavy upper class and as the next generation of women take advantage of their scarcity to demand that their husbands accept ectogenetic reproduction—a process Bujold shows as basically benign, though not always comfortable. On the other hand, we are shown a much more negative vision of the use of cloning on Jackson's Whole and of central governmental control of reproduction on Cetaganda. One important subplot shows a clone of Miles, raised on Jackson's Whole by political fanatics as part of a plan to assassinate Miles's father and throw Barrayar into chaos, turning against his creators and eventually accepting Miles's insistence on treating him as his brother, Mark Vorkosigan, based on the Betan assumption that cloning is just another way to have children. In other words, Bujold envisions kinship as reconstituting itself through the new forms made possible by contract and by scientific knowledge. And in portrayals of both Barrayar and Cetaganda, she shows a Darwinian vision of political agenda based on kinship and reproduction being pursued behind the scenes by the women in her societies.

Bujold writes about kinship and reproduction, about military service, and about problems of personal ethics and personal responsibility in both contexts. In all these choices, she is one of the most Heinleinian of current science fiction writers, and libertarians who enjoy Heinlein's work should be able to find material for pleasure in Bujold as well. Her skepticism about all political institutions and ideologies makes it unlikely that she will ever adopt libertarianism as a political philosophy, but at the same time it is a viewpoint that libertarians can find congenial, as is her insistence on individual moral integrity as the force that really makes societies work almost despite their institutions. (The characteristic Bujold hero is someone pursuing their own purely personal goals who is dragged into larger issues by their own sense of what is right.) And, finally, she has mastered the Renaissance narrative formula "instruct by pleasing" as thoroughly as Heinlein did at his best, indeed so thoroughly that apparently many readers of her books have hardly noticed how much intellectual substance they have. I hope that this essay has made a small step toward correcting that oversight.

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