Please welcome Ben Jeapes as the first in a series of guest blogs by science fiction and fantasy authors.
Infinite diversity in infinite combinations
By Ben Jeapes
I read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar series at various points over the 90s and 00s, out of order and out of sequence, which is easy to do as they weren’t even published in order of internal chronology to start with. Last year I read what is probably the last to be published, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, which is a nice coda to the series in general, tying up the story of the hapless, much loved spear carrier Ivan Vorpatril. Much of that story is told from the point of view of a complete stranger to Barrayar, and the narrative drops in shovelfuls of references to events throughout the earlier books. So much so that I decided there was nothing for it but to re-read the whole series, in internal order, starting with Shards of Honor and bracing myself months in advance for the final 500 words of Cryoburn, which it is scientifically impossible to read without welling up. (But that’s another matter.)
And as I read, I thought … hmm.
So, that’s where I got it from.
Barrayar was settled by human colonists who were stranded on a hostile, barely terraformed planet when the sole wormhole linking them to the rest of the galaxy closed. That’s all pre-history to the series. Bujold gives us few details but it is clear that considerable social and ethnic upheaval followed until finally the planet was united under one Emperor, which was far from perfect but it stopped people killing each other so who’s complaining? But the Barrayarans clearly kept their memories alive and always knew whence they had come; hence, following their rediscovery by galactic civilisation six centuries later, within one man’s lifetime they go quite plausibly from a semi-feudal Hapsburgesque horse-powered empire to an empire of three planets, and a significant galactic power.
Which is totally unlike the hostile, barely terraformed planet La Nueva Temporada in my novel Phoenicia’s Worlds, which is settled by human colonists who are stranded when the sole wormhole linking them to the rest of the galaxy – well, Earth, there aren’t any other colonies – closes, and considerable social and ethnic upheaval follows.
And as if that wasn’t enough, my journey through the series has just brought me to the end of Komarr. The plot of which kicks off with our hero’s arrival on the titular world to investigate a possible act of sabotage that could stymie the terraforming process and render Komarr forever uninhabitable. Quite unlike the possible act of sabotage that stymies Nueva’s terraforming process and threatens to render the planet forever uninhabitable (to the considerable inconvenience of the 60 million humans inhabiting it at the time). I know for a fact that I last read Komarr in the late 90s, around the time I first began having the thoughts that would manifest themselves one day as Phoenicia’s Worlds …
I had genuinely, honestly forgotten that. I remembered how I was influenced by thoughts of the SOE and Augusto Pinochet; I remembered the broad strokes that helped me paint the picture; but I had forgotten Barrayar.
But, hey, so what? To any eyes but mine, that is where the similarity ends. Barrayar isn’t the first reverted human colony in science fiction either, and my Nuevans have one lifeline the Barrayarans didn’t – a slower than light starship, the eponymous Phoenicia, which can carry our hero on the 40-year journey back to Earth whence the wormhole can be re-opened. All the Nuevans have to do is keep alive for 40 years. Simple, surely? And not even the most jaded eye could see the sections of the novel that are set on La Nueva Temporada as speculative fanfic set on Barrayar in the early years of the Time of Isolation.
And even if it were, again I say – cry, even – pish and tush! So what?
In a pleasantly perceptive review – by which I mean, they liked it, and they Got It, and I agree with most of their points – Locus observed that Phoenicia’s Worlds “draws on a wide range of SF conventions, tropes, inventions and machineries … There are space elevators, orbiting pseudo-suns, matter-annihilation starship drives, wormholes that depend on quantum-entangled particle pairs, and so on. But the book seems more interested in those conventions as story enables than as Nifty Ideas in their own right – they are just there, Heinlein-style, as part of the environment the way they might appear to a character”.
Got it! They are indeed just there, and they have been since I was yay high. These are the building blocks of SF that I grew up with. These are our common heritage and we can build them up in any way we like. That is how it should be. I was also amused by the reviewer’s advice to readers, in describing the Nuevan set up, to “think of John Barnes’ Thousand Cultures stories”. Of which I’ve never heard; if anything my attitude towards future human cultures is informed by Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man – a belief that we’re all heading towards some kind of homogeneity so ghastly that we will start to invent, or reinvent from the past, exciting cultural differences to break the monotony. But all that means in this case is that I repurposed someone else’s wheel.
Barrayar itself grew out of Bujold’s early Trek fanfic. And I’ll let you into a little secret. Jacey’s novel, when it comes out – and I’m hugely looking forward to it – May Contain Spaceships. She too will have taken the building blocks available to us all, and made something new and unexpected and never seen before out of them. I can’t wait.
Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, as the man said. It’s the only way to go.
About Ben Jeapes
An overdose of TV science fiction as a child doomed Ben Jeapes to life as a science fiction author. He took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be quite easy (it isn’t) and save him from having to get a real job (it didn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of several novels and short stories, he is also an experienced journal editor, book publisher and technical writer. His novels to date are His Majesty’s Starship, The Xenocide Mission, Time’s Chariot, The New World Order and Phoenicia’s Worlds. His short story collection Jeapes Japes is available form Wizard’s Tower Press.
His ambition is to live to be 101 and 7 months, so as to reach the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and the arrival – as family lore has it – of the man responsible for his surname in the British Isles. He is English, and is as quietly proud of the fact as you would expect of the descendant of a Danish mercenary who fought for a bunch of Norsemen living in northern France.
He lives in Abingdon-on-Thames and his homepage is at www.benjeapes.com.