There's an image of me that clings like Saran Wrap: Joy doesn't like stories (whether in book or in film format) that prominently feature explosions. There's an element of truth to this, but it's not an absolute correlation. I tend not to prefer stories that have a high explosion-to-dialogue (ETD) ratio, but it's not that I don't like explosions. What I look for in a great story is more often than not absent in films and books with a high ETD ratio, though there are several notable exceptions (see Band of Brothers and any number of war-themed films). To me, a great story comes from great characters thrown into difficult situations. A great story questions the meaning of my existence, and gets me thinking about my own life, my own choices, and whether I'm living the way I want to live. The stories that make me think stay with me long after I'm done watching or reading, and more and more, I'm prioritizing stories that make me think over stories that merely entertain.
I've been reading the Miles Vorkosigan books because they are important to someone I care about. I read Cordelia's Honor and The Warrior's Apprentice a long time ago, in high school, but I stopped seriously reading science fiction in my early twenties. I was going to college at the time, and my reading tastes changed as my mind matured. Back in high school, I wanted to be entertained; I didn't want to think about much. I disliked the required reading: Hawthorne, Melville, and Fenimore Cooper; it was too much work for too little pay off, where pay off was entertainment. George Orwell was not enough of a bridge between science fiction and "the classics." By the time I got to college and started studying Latin and Greek (and works of great literature such as The Odyssey, The Illiad, and The Aeneid), I was ready to think, I think. I'd gone through many phases of pleasure reading: science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, mystery, true crime, techno-thrillers, and I discovered that what I liked reading best (and still like) was a certain kind of fiction that was most often shelved in with the "general fiction," but that had a certain weird resonance of the fabulous: Murakami, Oates, Proulx, Roth, Updike, Irving, Fowles, Alex Garland, and so forth. I liked thinking about big things, and these authors made me think. Sometimes they made me think really hard. Sometimes, reading changed my life.
By the time I circled back to Lois McMaster Bujold at almost 40 years old, I didn't want to go back to mainstream science fiction shelved in the ghetto in the back of the bookstore behind the romance novels. I was accustomed to thinking and accustomed to improving myself, and I had prioritized what books I thought would help me do that best. I felt that reading SF was not a good use of my time, because it was too hard to search the chaff for the wheat. This time around, I said to myself, I would read the Vorkosigan books as a favor, and nothing more. I had them on e-reader, and I had tidied up my office and put away the to-be-read pile in favor of making a clean slate for myself and starting a novel writing project, and knew I could procrastinate my way through the series if nothing else. Unexpectedly, these books are giving me a lot to think about.
So far, I've read the following Miles Vorkosigan books and short stories, using the omnibus method:
Shards of Honor
The Warrior's Apprentice
"The Mountains of Mourning"
The Vor Game
Ethan of Athos
"Borders of Infinity"
I'm in the midst of the beginning of Brothers in Arms right now, which I've been told is "where it starts to get good." Apparently, I'm paying my dues so I can enjoy the payoff later. The novels and short stories have been firmly rooted in the space opera tradition so far, with lots of combat scenes and exploding space ships. Nonetheless, I have developed especial affection for Miles Vorkosigan's parents, Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith. Aral and Cordelia aren't perfect; they are fully fleshed characters that I care about. They do things that they regret. They get enmeshed in things they'd prefer to leave alone. They're heroic indeed, but they're scarred by their heroism. They have a particular pathos that I recognize from my own life. At one point, Cordelia scolds herself for a momentary lack of acceptance in her relationship with Aral. She tells herself that if she wanted to be the wife of a happy man, then she ought to have married a happy man to begin with. Instead, Cordelia fell in love with the unbearable beauty of pain, and she only has herself to blame. Aral is Aral, and loving him is hard for a multitude of reasons, and loving him is worth the pain.
There are, perhaps, too many exploding space ships so far for my taste, but there is meaning in these books so far, if I have the energy to dig for it. There is a reason to believe that these characters have something interesting to say about the problem of pain. They have plenty to say about dignity, honor, compassion, integrity, and love. So much that I need to work hard while I'm reading to remember that the people in these books are not people, but the idealized workings of a liberal female mind. It's easy to fall in love with the romance in these books, to wish to be a little more heroic, a little stronger, wiser, and more compassionate. It easy to overlook the opportunities for heroism in a quiet life, where there are no spaceships, lower risk of death by squashing or plasma arc or starvation. Where people do not carry swords or walk around with devastating scars from life-changing trauma. It's easy to be seduced by the opera, and forget that real life is full of heroes, and opportunity for heroism. It's full of opportunity to love where there is no love, to accept where there is no acceptance, to fight the terrible gravity of anxiety, boredom, and mundane frustration.
I can see through the spaceships, and will do so if the reward is worth the cost. In this case, it's worth it.