Komarr, Lois McMaster Bujold, 1998, Baen Books, ISBN 0-671-87877-8
Komarr is the latest volume in the ongoing saga of Barrayar and the Vorkosigan family. Bujold collects Hugos with regularity and with some justice – she is The Mistress of Space Opera and a fine writer.
In the nature of things space opera is a less durable form of adventure writing than similar works set in the past. Our perception of the possibilities of future technology changes rapidly. Many of the space operas of thirty years ago and more positively creak. In part this is because our knowledge of science and technology has evolved rapidly in the past fifty years. In part it is because our societal perceptions have evolved drastically. In part is is because media space opera, Star Wars, Star Trek, and the like have become a staple of the culture; the conventions of their technobabble are familiar everywhere. And in part it is because Bujold is a much better writer than the antediluvian grand masters.
In adventure fiction we have a handful of characters doing dashing and daring deeds which are important and consequential. In your Napoleonic Wars Naval Captain novels and your Cold War Spies novels the background supplies the occasion for consequential derring-do. The background pre-exists; the temptation of making the hero and his coterie the entirety of the significant universe is preempted. In space opera, however, there is the awful temptation to let the hero be the pivot of the universe, a universe present only as washed out, faded watercolors.
As an example, far from the worst, consider the good doctor’s Foundation series. The hands wave and the impression of size is created – there are quadrillions of people, millions of planets, an imperial planet with forty billion residents. The painted scenery is on a smaller scale – Emperor’s vacation on Summer planets (instead of going to the Adirondacks) and cigars are imported from half way across the Galaxy (instead of from Cuba). The military and political structures are copies of Imperial Rome and are on the same scale. More than that, there is a curious emptiness of detail and substance.
Bujold’s Barrayar and its universe has substance, from personalities to psychological dilemmas, to social institutions, to folkways, to material goods, to political structures, and technologies. If there is technobabble, it is up to date technobabble that sounds right. I will say, though, that her earlier works and the exploits of young Miles Vorkosigan are a little hard to swallow.
Komarr is, chronologically, a sequel to Memory. In Memory she terminated the James Bondish phase of Miles’ life – a very good decision IMHO – and gave him a new career path as the ultimate Imperial investigator. Memory told the story of one career and identity being wrecked and a new one being found, with lots of excitement and mystery along the way. Komarr is his first official case.
It is a good read; it may be that Bujold cannot write a book that is not a good read. However I didn’t find it to be as strong a book as Barrayar or Memory. I suspect the reason is that it is written using two points of view. This is a natural thing to do in this novel; in this one Miles gets the woman and the story is told both from her side and his. (He doesn’t actually; the story ends with both sides knowing a courtship is coming and is wanted. I shall be VERY disappointed if Miles and Ekatarin are not married in the next novel although the concept of Miles as a married man boggles the mind.) There are authors for whom the split viewpoint is second nature – Barbara Hambly does it as a matter of course. The effect is one of intertwined novelettes. (Unless one is writing one of those massive tomes with several novels munged together.) It is a common technique but I suspect that the single viewpoint makes for a stronger work (and is harder to write.)
If you are a fan of Bujold you will read this as a matter of course. If you have never read her work this may not be a good starting point; there is too much taken for granted that the reader knows about the past career and life of Miles Vorkosigan and the politics and history of Barrayar.
All of that said, it’s good.
This page was last updated May 24, 1998.