The Mountains of Mourning, Lois McMaster Bujold

Following a conversation on rec.arts.sf.written regarding “literature” and “science fiction,” I was drawn into a conversation about “good” and “literary” writing. One person claimed that Lois McMaster Bujold was a good writer, which I disagreed with, based on having read her novel, The Warrior’s Apprentice. Because that was an earlier work, I went to Tor’s web site and found an excerpt from a more recent book, Memory, which I proceeded to annotate what I believed were some major failings with her prose. This sparked a storm of controversy in the newsgroup–Bujold’s fans are legion, and many people had not been following the previous thread that had spurred on my criticism, which left them thinking that I was grinding a personal axe. After a week in which people pulled apart my criticism, including Bujold herself, I was left with some basic impressions. One of my problems with her writing is the particular “voice” used in her stories. She writes in “third person personal,” in which thoughts of her main viewpoint character are expressed through description. I dislike this immensely (and I’ll explain why in more detail below). Also, she often uses words other than said to indicate spoken dialogue. This is a minor nitpick, but Rich Horton was kind enough to point out that my favorite writer, Jonathan Carroll, is almost the exact opposite in this respect, even going so far as to leave out the word “said” itself 99% of the time. Another point was that I was missing things because I had not read what had gone before, and then was complaining because of Bujold’s attempt to give me the backstory (anticipating those readers for whom this was an introduction to the character and world). My fear is that you can’t have it both ways–by attempting to please both Peter and Paul, Bujold instead irritates me in this respect. There are two things that are deathly in my eyes as a reader: boring me and irritating me.

Bujold, at one point in the newsgroup discussion, asked me to try “The Mountains of Mourning,” her Hugo-award winning short story. She said, to paraphrase, that if I didn’t care for that, I might as well just write her off as not my thing. I found a copy of the story in a collection of Hugo winners, and determined to let her make her case. The story centers around the main character in her on-going series, Miles Vorkosigan, and follows shortly on the heels of the events of The Warrior’s Apprentice. Miles accompanies a supplicant for justice back to her small village to determine the true events of her child’s death.

I liked this a lot better than The Warrior’s Apprentice. Although the backwoods peasants who are resisting the change of the brave new world is nothing new between covers, Bujold manages the story with fair restraint. The mystery of who killed the child is sufficiently complex, and if you were like me and able to solve it early, that is not a detriment, because Bujold’s intention is not to center on the mystery, but what the mystery means. This is a story that wears its moral on its sleeve.

This lack of subtlety is my major bone of contention. Note that Bujold is not lacking in complexity–Miles is not as cardboardish as I took him to be early on in The Warrior’s Apprentice, and his life is not as charmed as it seemed. Her world, although here it suffers from a Marion Zimmer Bradley or Anne McCaffrey-like problem of resembling Connecticut Yankees in King Arthur’s Court, is consistent within itself, and highly detailed. When it comes down to describing the plot or the characters of this story, though, it resolves itself very simply.

I said earlier that the method of third person storytelling annoys me, and this relates to why I feel that Bujold lacks subtlety. Because every sentence is filtered through Miles’ viewpoint, the reader is intimately familiar with his thoughts and actions. Although it is impossible to detail everything in a character’s mind (James Joyce notwithstanding), the attempt to do so is enough to stifle the deduction process used in reading where the reader evaluates the characters’ actions, words, and italicized thoughts against their own. We don’t have to wonder what Miles is thinking at any time, because it is clear in the text.

Even this might have been overcome if the ancillary characters were strong and complex, but I have not found that to be the case. Perhaps it is because we view these characters through Miles’ eyes that they seem so simple, so wrapped up in perceiving Miles in one way.

Finally, there is something about the individual sentences that just throw me off the story. Bujold likened her writing as building a mosaic–an individual tile might be discolored or cracked, but when viewed as a whole, it achieves a greater sense, and the individual tile is lost as a separate entity. My view of writing is like a highway–you must ride over every inch of road and if there are too many potholes, you will likely look for another route to get you there, no matter if the bumpy ride is shorter or has better scenery. Take, for example, this sentence: “Echoes of the late celebration still boiled up silently in his head, crooking his mouth into a grin.” Nothing about this works for me: echoes don’t boil, boiling isn’t silent, and echoes don’t crook mouths. Even in poetry, where metaphor and simile are regularly strained, this would be poor. And I refuse the suggestion that this is an example of the word choices used by Miles himself, as this is clearly a description of him reminiscing. The term for prose of this type is “purple,” and while “The Mountains of Mourning” has much less of it than The Warrior’s Apprentice or the first chapter of Memory, the color is not a subtle hue.

Postscript 2014: As mentioned, my analysis and opinion of Bujold’s prose gained me a bit of notoriety in certain circles.  So be it.  Contrary to many who disagreed with me, and shifted from analysis to personal attacks, I hold by the above, which is not directed at Bujold personally, but on her prose. Even now, many years later, I don’t see anything I would change about it: what bothered me about Bujold’s writing still bothers me today. I enjoyed discussing this with her on rec.arts.sf.written back in 1998 and, in the end, we agreed to disagree.

[Finished July 1998]

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