Danger Gal Friday: Captain Cordelia Naismith

This week’s Danger Gal Friday profiles Captain Cordelia Naismith from Lois McMaster Bujold’s dualogy CORDELIA’S HONOR.

First, I must apologize. After reading Stargate producer Joseph Mallozzi’s review of CORDELIA’S HONOR and subsequent guest blogging with Bujold, I realized that I hadn’t yet profiled Cordelia Naismith. (Bad Science Fiction writer!) Cordelia is one of my all-time favorite Science Fiction heroines, right up there with Asaro’s Soz Valdoria. I thought I’d already written an article on Cordelia, but no, I haven’t. I aim to fix that (and then probably misbehave…).

In addition to summarizing CORDELIA’S HONOR, Mallozzi also highlights how Bujold’s books have been fundamental in changing the Science Fiction genre. These aspects are the very same character-driven themes that have made the novel a staple in the Science Fiction Romance subgenre. Mallozzi specifically recalls searching out:

…science fiction that focused on real people dealing with real problems against the backdrop of a potentially surreal environment. Presumably, in the far distant future, amidst the space battles, alien invasions, and recreational virtual reality generators run amok, such quaint concepts as love, marriage, and relationships would still prove of some significance…

The two books that make up Cordelia’s Honor, however, turned out to be a much more satisfying representation of what I’d imagined Space Opera could be. Grand, yes. Futuristic, of course. But at its heart, it’s the personal interrelations of the various characters that drive the narrative. The SF is there (wormhole nexus, neural disruptors, uterine replicators) to serve the plot but doesn’t overwhelm. Bujold elects to focus on social and political aspects instead of excruciatingly detailed accounts of technological marvels, appealing to a reader’s sense of the familiar over fathomless narrative minutiae. In so doing, she fashions a future world that is as engaging and believable as the characters who people it.

Danger Gal Friday profiles highlight strong female characters, usually in Science Fiction, whose stories challenge long-held assumptions about what women are and should be. Science Fiction is an ideal genre to find interesting and unique characters of both genders because it presents a “coded commentary on the present,” * which can then influence the future. It shows us what a potential future can look like, enabling us to try on different futures. As it relates to Danger Gal profiles, Science Fiction often presents women holding down typically male jobs and turning over gender roles. Way before we saw Catherine Janeway captaining Voyager, we saw Cordelia Naismith captaining her own ship. Books like CORDELIA’S HONOR also let us see a future not over-run with technology, but served by it. This future has its problems, but it’s not a dystopia.

Cordelia’s love interest, Aral Vorkosigan, has quite a bit in common with many Romance “alpha heroes”: He’s a physically imposing military lifer who lost most of what his pedigree provided him due to actually having scruples. Vorkosigan’s “Butcher of Barrayar” epithet is mostly a misnomer he uses to his advantage. Aral is a cunning strategist who’s down on his luck until he meets the one woman in the universe who could see through it all and fall for him — not to mention the one woman who could stand up to his relatives. Bujold drew on the alpha hero as “other” by describing Aral and Barrayan society as something akin to Russia before Communism (but with rockets and ray guns), a risky move for a book that came out at the end of the Cold War.

CORDELIA’S HONOR is actually a combination of two previously published stories by Bujold — SHARDS OF HONOR (1986) and BARRAYAR (1991) — and portrays Cordelia as a woman in a technologically advanced age that many of us can still relate to. She’s not superhuman or posthuman, meaning Cordelia has no special physical abilities, but she does possess above average intelligence and as commenter Thornyrose points out, “her greatest strengths are that of character,” namely her loyalty and apt judge of character. These two qualities serve Cordelia well in the complicated Barrayan court life she finds herself immersed in. Also, Bujold chose to write about two characters falling in love who aren’t young Romeo and Juliet types either. Cordelia is about 35 and Aral is around 40. Written solely from Codelia’s POV, the reader is meant to identify with her.

While not published as a Romance, CORDELIA’S HONOR does follow the classic Romance novel convention of throwing two very different people together in a difficult situation and watching the sparks fly. The primary difference between many Romances and a book like Bujold’s is the subtle way the love story unfolds as it is interwoven with the main focus of the story’s conflict. Because this is character-driven Science Fiction with a love story in it and not a Romance per se, the love story is not the novel’s raison d’etre. However, while the love story isn’t front and center, it is integral to the plot and the development of the characters. This is no easy feat. Bujold set the standard on how to balance the Romance and Science Fiction elements, and proved that (1) many women enjoy reading Science Fiction and (2) many men in the stereotypical male Science Fiction demographic aren’t afraid to read a love story.

For more discussion on CORDELIA’S HONOR, check out Shelfari’s Science Fiction Romance Group.

Click here to read other Danger Gal Friday profiles.

* Quoting Jose, from the now defunct Meme Therapy blog