As I mentioned last week, I recently picked up a copy of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines, her collection of speeches, essays, travel notes, and other bits and pieces she’s collected over the past 30 years or so. While I pretty much mined the genre stuff out of the book for the post linked to above, there’s still plenty of interesting stuff in there, and while I think this book will appeal primarily to the Bujold Compleatist, anyone interested in writing or in a peek inside how a writer works will likely enjoy this as well, with one caveat: if you’re not familiar with Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan Saga, you’ll miss a lot of the nuance in what she’s saying.
The book is divided into easy, obvious sections: there are convention and other speeches where Bujold was the Guest of Honor or an award winner, and there are essays written for a variety of purposes—Hugo nominations, blog posts for Tor or Eos or the Baen Bar, local papers, etc., afterwards and forwards to omnibus editions of the books, travel notes covering three overseas trips (to Russia, Croatia, and Finland), and a few other things, such as the suggested reading order for the Vorkosigan books. Everything is clearly labeled, and every piece comes with a paragraph or more of commentary to put that particular speech or essay into some context for the reader. If you own the omnibus editions to the Vorkosigan books, you likely have a whole section of this book; likewise, Bujold, like any wily writer, reuses parts of previous writings in newer ones, both to save herself some time and because, hey, if she said it well once, it likely bears repeating. So there is some overlap among the selections, a fact she herself notes from time to time.
As a Vorkosigan nut, I was mostly interested in those pieces that talked about Miles and the Miles books, and there are a lot of them. Bujold ranges freely over her early years when she first began writing that series, how she overshot the ending of Shards of Honor and had to go back and find its ending, how she knew Aral and Cordelia would have a crippled child, and how her basic premise for dealing with the series has always been to make sure each book could stand independently to a great extent, and how her plans for each book basically involved her asking herself “what’s the worst thing I could do to this character?” and then doing it to him. It’s an interesting glimpse into how she works.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, she also spends a great deal of time talking about Falling Free, which is set in the same world as the Vorkosigan books but takes place much earlier. Bujold seems very fond of the quaddies, of Leo Graf, and of this particular book, which was her effort to make science the hero of the story instead of the villain and to explore the consequences of what happens to obsolete technology when that technology is bioengineered humans. There is an entire essay devoted to Falling Free, a book I have not read for some years. I’ll be rectifying that soon now that I have a new way to think about it.
Fans of her Sharing Knife and Chalion books will also find much to enjoy here, particularly her musings on how she set out to tackle the romance genre in the Sharing Knife books—there is, in fact, a set of six short essays she wrote for Eos on these books that explore the various themes in them and what she was hoping to achieve when she wrote them that I found both informative and interesting, and I should note that I have not read that series.
Of somewhat less interest were the travel notes—Bujold herself likens their inclusion to “looking at someone’s travel slides” and to some extent, that’s pretty accurate, although she clearly enjoyed her travels and glimpses into other cultures. But they tend to be a matter of “They took me here, I did a signing, there were translation issues, I ate a meal, I did a signing, I gave a talk, I was carried off by fans, I fell into bed and got up and did it all again the next day” which, you know, if you’ve never been there, yeah. Someone else’s vacation pictures.
Mostly, though, what I really enjoyed were her thoughts on writing, on genre issues, and what books are: “The book is not an object on the table; it is an event in the reader’s mind.” True, and it leads to this thought she has later in the same essay:
“As a writer, I am keenly aware that I am not in control of half my art. The exact same text one reader finds exciting, subtle, nuanced, funny and moving, the next reader may find boring, dull, or unmemorable.”
That particular quote made me think very hard about what it means to be a reviewer, actually—not to get all sidetracked from what I’m supposed to be doing here, which is telling you if checking out Sidelines is worth your time, but my dilemma has always been just how much of my own prejudices and preferences should go into a review. One of the things I like about writing here is that I can interject my own likes and dislikes and warn the reader of my own biases (note: I hate elves in books). I try to be objective, I try to address expectations. But unless you know me and what I like and don’t like, what I find interesting (like a 350 page book on how one writer I happen to admire a lot approaches her craft) you may in fact find mind-numbing. And it really can’t be helped.
That said, I really did enjoy reading this—I found it enlightening in a lot of ways, and on a lot of different levels, and her comments about genre, about valuing any book based solely on its “social utility” (her words), and about how genres can be made to work together were especially thought-provoking. But I’m a rhetorician by training, and this kind of rhetorical and narrative examination fascinates me. If you’re not interested in that kind of thing, or in Miles Vorkosigan, then you might find this far less interesting than I did.