As I sit and consider my favourite book genre, I think of how I never really understood what genres meant when I first started choosing what I wanted to read, and how liberating that was.
I’ve always loved reading, and with parents who propagated reading as the ultimate learning tool, I often found myself from a very young age in a bookshop or library, given free rein to choose whatever I wanted to read. My parents did not have English as their first language, and thus did not really care what I read, as long as I read. Lacking guidance in school (growing up in Malaysia) and supervision at home, I never explored literature through its canons. Rather, it was whatever the bookshops and libraries around me stocked. And as a child, my only criteria then were that the books were of my reading ability (or a little harder), had a nice cover, interesting title, and a premise/plot that was new to me. Outside that, anything goes.
The two books that propelled me into exploring literature more rabidly as a child are Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile and Susan Hill’s I’m The King Of The Castle. Though both are mainstream children’s books, they proved to be special to me, as they introduced me to what I would realise later to be the types of books that I like – books that push my boundaries of imagination, knowledge, and understanding of humanity.
The tricksy characteristics of the Enormous Crocodile, or how the elephant, Trunksy spun Crocodile on its tail and propelled it into the sun was mind-boggling for my eight-year-old self. Though I had read fantasy stories before (Enid Blyton and fairytales), this mixture of reality and fictional imagination acted as a catalyst for my love of science fiction and fantasy later in life.
The boys’ relationships in I’m The King Of The Castle were a brilliant introduction to psychological thrillers and horror that would come to be my love during my formative years. It was here that I learnt about human behaviour, social triggers, and the many faces of humanity that are reflective of real life. My understanding of the world comes from fiction, and I am still constantly looking at fiction for new stories that would allow me to learn more about the world.
So from these two books, I journeyed into different realms; soaked up romance novels, fought through crime thrillers, was kept awake by horror, as I made my way through the genres to science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Science fiction (or hard science fiction) still remains my true love today. I don’t think I’m anywhere near a science fiction specialist, but I’m definitely a massive science fiction fan at heart, with Frank Herbert’s Dune firmly in its centre.
I’ve read it countless times, and yet it still entertains, teaches, and opens up new understandings of humanity to me. The far-fetched worlds that are grounded in our own world’s sciences are precisely what I feel is the perfect form of escapism. It is in these surreal worlds that we can scrutinise humanity and its actions without judgement, but with acceptance.
The best I’ve ever had? Well, it’s got to be science fiction as the ‘imaginative extrapolation from the possible’. After all, ‘cutting edge sci-fi is sci-fi that dares you to think differently’.
I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. At the moment, I’m a graduate student in the sciences. And yet, I never was a big reader of science fiction when I was still a speck of a grade-schooler.
I was convinced from the age of eight, when I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, that what I wanted to read when I grew up (and for the rest of my life) was fantasy fiction. Just as I knew, at age ten, that I was Going. To Be. A Veterinarian.
I always loved Star Wars, but if my passion for a Galaxy Far Far Away didn’t burn as brightly as that for Middle-Earth, then that was OK. Spaceships and lightsabers — cool! But nothing similar in book form ever caught my interest. In high school, I picked up the first (chronological) entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, which she’s been writing since the ’80s. The book was Shards of Honor, and someone recommended it on the basis that I would enjoy the planetary space opera and the amazing female protagonist, Captain Cordelia Naismith. It didn’t take. Huh. I set it aside, convinced I’d obliterated my spec fic reader’s credit like a nerve disruptor to the head.
Then one July day, years later, I sat in an air-conditioned theater watching Guardians of the Galaxy romp across the screen. I was having fun! Watching this sci-fi epic lite!
I thought, “I need this in book form.”
So I went back to Bujold. I trusted Bujold, because her fantasy novels were and are incredible little slices of magic and humanity (read The Curse of Chalion for one award-winning example). I picked up the third Vorkosigan book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, the one that starts the story of Miles Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s son, from his perspective.
And it was so much fun.
I couldn’t believe what I had been missing for twenty-two years. Could I get that time back? The universe said no, but I would make up for it. I closed The Warrior’s Apprentice on the last page and immediately went back to read the two Cordelia books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. Those two books have been in publication longer than I have been alive, and I had missed them. I devoured those books. I think I managed to read all of the published books, fifteen at the time, in less than three weeks. Someone probably should have fired me from my job (I made up for it during the other forty-nine weeks of the year, promise).
This was amazing space opera. It was more than fun. It was about politics and military antics, of course, but also about biology. Genetic engineering. Reproduction. Living with our disadvantages—physical, biological, social. Feminism, sexuality and gender, polyamory, what constitutes a family unit. It’s about Barrayar, this weird “sword and spaceship” planet that looks like what eighteenth-century Russia might have if it met wormhole travel and Cordelia Vorkosigan néeNaismith.
It’s about Barrayar, the book. I can understand now that I would never have gotten this book as a teenager, because now I can see that Bujold is writing just this most loving portrayal of motherhood, albeit wrapped in awesome space opera trappings. The Vorkosigan books came to me at the perfect time in my life. Like Cordelia in Barrayar, I was alone in a strange new place. I hadn’t really started to speak the language yet— the real language or the social, cultural one. College and the familiar trappings of home and the people I’d known there were behind me. I was re-evaluating everything I knew about the world so far. What adult friendship looks like. What an adult’s long view looks like. What love looks like.
The universe that Bujold creates is very much what I will now dub “biological sf.” Cordelia herself is a scientist—which might be part of the reason why I empathize with her so strongly. She introduces the uterine replicator, a sort-of artificial womb, to her adopted planet of Barrayar. That critical human need to reproduce underlies the whole series: it’s there in the Barrayarans’ somewhat-antiquated obsession with patrilineage and in Cordelia’s own maternal urges. The uterine replicator is poised to change Barrayaran society, but it has no effect on what’s embedded in Cordelia’s own DNA: her desire to protect her unborn son, a conflict that drives the major action in Barrayar.
Looking back at my own younger forays into the sci-fi genre, I see that the elements that piqued my interest were not the physical mechanics of a fictional world. Not faster-than-light travel; not all the warping of relativity required to make such a thing possible, despite the fact that my own interests as a scientist have always been much closer to physics than to biology. At the end of the day, I want to read a tale where astrodynamics and quantum mechanics are cool aspects of worldbuilding, but still just the window dressing. As one of Bujold’s characters says (in one of my favorite Vorkosigan saga quotes of all time), “All true wealth is biological,” and so are all great stories.
For me, space opera is all about people pushed to the frontiers of their experience by technology, space, and circumstance.
Bujold’s latest book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (which came out earlier this year), brings Cordelia’s story more-or-less full circle. Cordelia has lived on Barrayar for over thirty years at this point in the series’ chronology. She has watched her son grow, has seen Barrayar change due to her actions in championing the uterine replicator (which has imploded the Barrayaran woman’s traditional role as baby-maker), and has gained power in her own right as the appointed ruler of one of Barrayar’s colonies. But Cordelia’s home planet is and always will be Beta Colony, a sexually liberal and technologically advanced society. Straddling two worlds, Cordelia lets us explore not just reproduction through her story, but also sex, sexuality (a fluid concept on Beta), and how both are linked to or divorced from reproduction because of technological progress.
Things that were only hinted at or lightly touched in Bujold’s earliest books— the bisexuality and polyamorous relationships of a major character included— are truths baldly discussed by Cordelia and her fellow characters in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. It’s tricky to say if this is because the earlier novels were more action-packed space opera adventures, while this is an introspective look at middle adult life in a sci-fi future. I think the goalposts certainly have moved since Bujold started writing these books thirty years ago. I also think it’s because of authors like her, even coming sideways at these issues in the 1980s, that a new generation of writers can discuss sex, sexuality, gender, and feminism with heightened levels of rawness and complexity.
And I’m happy to be one of those young writers ready to pick up the torch (albeit with unworthy hands). I came to it late, but I’m so glad I did, and at the time that I did. And I’m excited to watch the world grow, too—is the uterine replicator really that much of an outlandish notion for our own (near) future?
These books opened a whole new window into writing and reading science fiction for me. Bujold still does it best, in my opinion (and she has the Hugos to prove it). In speculative fiction, in sci-fi fiction, we can press the limits of biology and evolution. And that’s where we can get those little pearls of wisdom, at those extreme ends of our conceptions, about what the human condition looks like.