Volume 17, Number 04, Fall 1999

A Civil Campaign

By Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 1999, $24.00
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
September, 1999

The Renaissance formula for a good literary work was that it should "instruct by pleasing." Lois McMaster Bujold's latest book proves her a Renaissance woman, in this sense among others: it is both a superior entertainment and a serious examination of how new technologies produce social change.

So far as entertainment is concerned, it's almost enough to say that this is a Vorkosigan novel. Authors both hope for and dread a character's coming to life on the page; Miles Vorkosigan has done this so fully that Bujold's readers constantly demand more of him, as Arthur Conan Doyle's readers did of Sherlock Holmes. In the earlier novels he was a mercenary commander and intelligence agent; more recently he has become an Imperial auditor, in effect a detective, attorney general, and judge combined into one role. A Civil Campaign shows him at work, but it also shows his personal life, for the focus of this story is Miles's romantic difficulties, counterpointed by those of his clone-brother Mark and his cousin Ivan. Bujold's treatment of this subject is somewhat in the comedic spirit of Jane Austen, though Austen would never have attempted the physical humor Bujold carries off in this book.

But the humor, even the physical humor, grows out of serious themes, which helps make it more effective. Miles's native planet, Barrayar, was out of touch with galactic civilization for a long time, and when contact was restored it faced an invasion; as a result its society was grim, often authoritarian, and shaped by rigid notions of sex roles and sexual conduct. Once again independent, Barrayar is gaining a higher standard of living and access to new technology, including new reproductive technology. For a society where family and kinship are vital, changes in human reproduction can have huge repercussions.

Mark Vorkosigan is a complete anomaly on Barrayar, which has no laws about human cloning; genetically identical to Miles but born years later, he has a name and a position because Miles's parents accept him as their son. Barrayar now has uterine replicators, which permit women to have children without the trials of pregnancy; and since Barrayar also has sex selection technology and most families have used it to have sons, young women are at a premium and able to insist on using uterine replicators. Barrayarans can go off-planet and experience exotic customs such as the sexual freedom of Beta Colony, the native planet of Miles's mother. Bujold develops the implications of these changes through a whole series of ingenious plot twists surrounding Miles's efforts to persuade the woman he loves to marry him.

Is there anything libertarian about this? In a certain sense, yes: Bujold shows the increased freedom of choice on Barrayar as essentially a good thing. Her characters are ultimately able to make use of it to pursue their own happiness. Libertarians are often more concerned with economic issues, but reproductive freedom is a crucial issue that should not be forgotten. Bujold's treatment of this theme is both hard science fiction and careful extrapolation of social implications from technological change.

For over a decade, libertarians and science fiction fans have been putting forth various authors as "the new Heinlein." But the real new Heinlein has been right in front of us: an author who shares Heinlein's concern with human reproduction as an ethical issue, his sense of historical change, his respect for the military virtues and skill in writing about military action—and above all his ability to instruct by pleasing. It's no accident that Bujold, like Heinlein, has won four Hugo awards. Read A Civil Campaign and you'll see why.

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