Book Review: The Vorkosigan Companion

The Vorkosigan Companion: The Universe of Lois McMaster Bujold, edited by Lilian Steewart Carl and John Helfers

As a reader of many of the works of the prolific writer Lois McMaster Bujold which make up the Vorkosian Saga [1], I was curious to read this particular book, and I thought at first to see if the book was in my local library. Before I could get the book from there, I ended up seeing the book reasonably priced at a trip with a fellow fan of the series at Powell’s Book Store in downtown Portland [2] and it was the first book I decided to pick up, in the hopes that it might provide some intellectual framework for the series as a whole, a sign that the series was viewed as a serious literary creation at least approaching the level of works by Rowling, Lewis, and Tolkien.

This book largely answers those hopes with a substantial (more than 600 pages) collection of material that does indeed treat the Vorkosigan saga as a serious body of literature, even though its information is already in need of updating because of the most recent additions to the saga (namely Cryoburn and Lord Vortrapil’s Alliance). A serious work of literary analysis with five main sections and three appendices, this work chooses to focus on several interrelated concerns dealing with the Vorkosiverse (as the universe of this saga is affectionately referred to by its fans, of which I am an admittedly recent one). Given the size of this existing volume and the likelihood of there being at least some future efforts to add to it, it seems likely that at some point this book will need to expand into two volumes.

The contents of this book are varied and worthy of appreciation. The first section, about a fifth of the book, contains four essays that deal with the life and personality of Lois McMaster Bujold, creator of the Vorkosiverse. The first paper is an autobiographical essay, the second a conversation with a school friend, the third a thoughtful examination of the distinction the Bujold makes between publishing, writing, and authoring, and finally a brief conversation with Toni Weisskopf giving the perspective of Baen Books. The second section, which is relatively short, contains three essays of critical analysis that deal with romance, biology, and technology in the universe of Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels. The third section, called “Appreciations” contains an essay by the school friend of Bujold alluded to earlier, Lillian Stewart Carl, as well as the forwards to Falling Free, Shards of Honor, The Warrior’s Apprentice, and Ethan of Athos, the first of which contains some intriguing biographical information on Bujold’s father, a former professor of welding engineering at Ohio State University. The fourth part of the book is a short essay on the fans of Bujold, a good way to show appreciation to the target audience of the book. The fifth section is the most substantial, containing a helpful pronunciation guide to the Vorkosigan saga, a mock encyclopedia entry for the various planets of the universe, novel summaries for all of the novels prior to Cryoburn in the series, and the Vorkosigan Saga Concordance, a massive effort (taking up about half the book) to cross reference every narrative element, including characters and technologies and cultural artifacts within the entire series. This concordance is not perfect [3], but to even attempt such an effort suggests the way in which these novels are viewed as serious literature by its readers. The book closes with three appendices on various issues of interest, including a map of the Wormhole nexus that needs to be updated for the location of Kibou-daini (from Cryoburn), the timelines of the Vorkosigan saga, including the one that is included in all the novels of the series as well as a couple of other ones in a different format, and a brief guide to Barrayaran Genealogy that reminds me of a similar genealogical appendix at the end of Tolkien’s novel The Children of Hurun (which is at least somewhat high praise).

A reader of this particular volume, if they desire to read it all the way through, will be impressed at the ability of Bujold to organize this particular universe and preserve its coherence throughout her novels, showing development in character and technology as well as a consistency in worldview across a broad variety of genres ranging from mystery to romance to military science fiction. Although Bujold herself writes little of this particular book, it does represent a labor of love for those who do edit this particular work and who provide a sound basis for those who wish to examine the Vorkosiverse in greater scholarly depth in the future. Fans of the series as a whole ought to appreciate this work, even if it is probably best to enjoy this feast of reference material in small chunks (the concordance, in particular, is very weighty), and the existence of this work suggests that the Vorkosiverse is here to stay, and worth the time to seek to understand on its own terms. Certainly the sociocultural observations of Bujold on the world made through her novels remain intensely relevant, whether with regards to our society’s moral state or to the ethical dilemmas we face with regards to technology. If you are a fan of the Vorkosigan series, there is much to enjoy here, and much to ponder over as well [4].

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/15/book-review-the-warriors-apprentice/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/book-review-cordelias-honor/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/book-review-the-vor-game/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/book-review-cetaganda/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/book-review-borders-of-infinity/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/29/book-review-brothers-in-arms/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/book-review-mirror-dance/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/book-review-memory/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/book-review-komarr/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/book-review-a-civil-campaign/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/book-review-diplomatic-immunity/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/book-review-cryoburn/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/lead-us-not-into-temptation/

[3] Besides being somewhat obsolete and in need of updating to reflect the most recent novels within the series, already alluded to above, I did notice a few errors in the concordance, which I have noted helpfully below:

p. 353: The entry on ba needs to be updated to include information from Diplomatic Immunity.
p. 390: The entry on cryo-chamber references Brothers In Arms for the death of Miles, which actually occurred in Mirror Dance.
p. 418: The entry on Feelie-dreams does not include a reference to “Dreamweaver’s Dilemma” whose plot largely concerns them.
p. 439: The entry on haut needs to reference A Civil Campaign as well as Diplomatic Immunity, both of which deal at least slightly with them at the end of the novels.
p. 473: The entry on Lord Midnight needs to be updated to include its reference as a precedent for the appeals of Lord Dono and Lord Vorbretten in A Civil Campaign.
p. 476-477: Marilac is mentioned, albeit briefly, in Memory as having held up the medals for Miles Vorkosigan when he delivered their planet from Cetagandian oppression in “Borders Of Infinity,” an incident that is also referred to as part of the introduction of Brothers In Arms.

[4] Here is what I thought to be the most thought-provoking quote from the book, from page 89:

“It occurs to me that because books give us escape even though we may be physically trapped wherever we are, they give us a “time out” space. People who don’t have this have to stay in the pressure cooker as the pressure goes higher and higher, until they finally explode into violence expressed either externally or internally in stress illnesses. Books give readers a place to go. This is good for your health and potentially good for the health of the people around you as well. I think reading can be a form of self-medication.”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Book Review: The Vorkosigan Companion

  1. Pingback: A Form Of Self-Medication | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Falling Free | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: We Watched The Sunset Over The Castle On The Hill | Edge Induced Cohesion

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