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The Conversation with Lois McMacter Bujold
happened on "Strannik-2000" of 24 September 2000

© edited by Lois M. Bujold

Question: Where do you get your ideas?

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Lois McMaster Bujold: The story ideas don't usually appear alone or singly, but happen when two or more ideas hook up. The key ones can have been lying around in the author's brain for years before they meet their right mates and come alive. To give an example, I will tell how the several ideas came together that triggered the 'Weatherman' sequence that opened The Vor Game.

The first element, in this case, was a book. T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), after his WWI adventures left him with what we would nowadays call a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder, attempted to change his identity and life by enlisting in the British air corps as a grunt under a pseudonym ('Aircraftman Shaw'). He wrote a memoir about going through enlisted basic training, titled The Mint, which pretty much summed up the dismal horrors of army basic upon a nervy, intelligent man. I read this, heavens, sometime back in the early 70's; it went into the bag of authorial data and lay there pretty much dormant.

The second element was an early Christian martyr story. The story comes from Roman times. A Roman legion was deployed in, I believe, Dacia, off the Black Sea somewhere that had horrible cold winters. The high command was going through flip-flops over whether Christianity was to be an allowed religion among the troops. They decided it wasn't, and the order came down that everyone who had become Christian must recant. Forty men refused. To punish them, they were sent to go stand on the ice of a frozen lake naked until they changed their minds. One man broke, and decided to come back in. The other thirty-nine stood out on the ice, and one of the watching Roman officers was so impressed with their fortitude that he went out to join them, to make up their numbers. They all died together, and so became the early Christian martyr story known as 'The Forty Martyrs of Sebastiani'. That was element two:

Element three. My father, who was a university professor, had a moonlighting job as a television weatherman in Columbus, Ohio, when I was growing up. And he was very good at this. His weather reports -- analyses and predictions -- were better than the military weather reports that the Strategic Air Command pilots at the local Air Force base were getting. So the SAC pilots used to call him to get weather reports for their flights to Thule and other places. Eventually, the pilots' commander caught up with them and cut them off, told them not to do this because it was breaking security. So they had to go back to their inferior military weather reports, which made them unhappy. But anyway, that's where the notion of a weatherman came from. In addition, one of the things I had from my father was a picture, which hung on his home office wall for years, of an arctic weather station. (I still have this.) It was a sort of stylized watercolor print of a man in a parka who has come out into the snow and is checking his instruments. So that was idea cluster three.

Then I had, of course, Miles himself. The Warrior's Apprentice was already written and published, as was Brothers in Arms. I wanted to write a story about Miles going back to the Dendarii mercenaries, but it would have to be a prequel. He had left the Dendarii at the end of The Warrior's Apprentice, but he was obviously back with them in Brothers in Arms. How had he re-connected?

So, I needed a Miles story. I was doing the dishes and listening to music, a tape by the Irish singer Enya, and on the tape was a song she sang in Latin [ Enya, "Cursum Perfico", "Watermark" album, 1988, 32kbps, 192kbps]. Now, I don't understand Latin, and I really have no idea what the song is really about, but somehow the sort of military ecclesiastical rhythms made all the ideas cross-connect in my mind for the first time. And so I though, 'Ah, I know! I will send Miles to a miserable arctic army base as his first assignment, where he'll be assigned to be a weather man and get in all kinds of trouble and replay 'The Forty Martyrs of Sebastiani' and he'll be the fortieth man.' That would be the opening of the story and how he gets into trouble and gets reassigned back to ImpSec. And then the story went on from there.

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Vladislav Goncharov: What do you think of the "Starship Troopers" movie?


Lois McMaster Bujold: Voorhoven should be assigned to the deepest reaches of hell.

Vladislav Goncharov: Is it true that this movie was taken seriously by many people in the United States?


Lois McMaster Bujold: God, I hope not! It could not decide if it was going to be a war movie or an anti-war movie. It was just a mess. It tried to be a parody and it wasn't, and it tried to be a war movie and it failed: Terrible, stupid movie.

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Dmitry Volodihin: Why Miles is an invalid?


Lois McMaster Bujold: First of all, it started off as something to do to his parents. I wanted to give Aral and Cordelia a challenge. Very early in my thinking about them, I knew that they would have a handicapped son in their very patriarchal, militaristic culture, and they would have to deal with things not being the way they'd expected or planned. So that was the earliest beginning. And then I wanted to write an action hero who was different, the opposite of everyone's expectations.

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Edward Gevorkian: Is it possible to become an Emperor for Miles?/td>


Lois McMaster Bujold: Not, if he can help it.

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Sergey Pereslegin: At the present time we can say that military days are gone for Miles, and he already showed his detective talents, is it possible to become a politician in the future?


Lois McMaster Bujold: He has heritage that requires him to do so, to be political. That's his job, he'll inherited the job of count which is administrative. He has a political job that's heading his way as soon as his father dies.
Sergey Pereslegin: Actually, I mean intergalactic politics.


Lois McMaster Bujold: I don't know. I would have to work on the background, devise more planets, make up a situation, figure out something for him to do. The wormhole structure of my universe, which we talked about earlier, gives the advantage to the defense. It requires and rewards inter-planetary cooperation. But it also means that any planet has a limited number of immediate neighbors to conveniently have conflicts with, and Barrayar's neighborhood is pretty quiet at the moment. So if I want to stir up trouble for Miles I may have to stir it up someplace else than near his home world.>

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Oleg Pol: Is it possible that Miles's engagement could be broken?
Lois McMaster Bujold: Have you read "A Civil Campaign":?
Oleg Pol: Yes, we have read it, but there is no wedding described:


Lois McMaster Bujold: I probably will not write his wedding, since that would require I make a disastrous adventure of it. (It's not so much that I don't want to plague Miles, as that I don't want to do it to Ekaterin.) There are plenty of things I can do to him later in his life.

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Andrey Lazarchuk: The structure of the Saga allows to write some new books about his younger years, are you going to go back to this topic?


Lois McMaster Bujold: I don't know. They way I choose what to write is not a process about which I'm very articulate. Looking back on all the books I've written, I think I choose subjects according to what theme I need to write -- and think -- about in a given year. Whatever subject my back-brain wants to examine, that's what the story needs to be about. The theme I think I want to work on this year involves a character named Ista from the new fantasy book (The Curse of Chalion, due out in hardcover from Avon/Eos/Harper Collins in August 2001). The themes I want to work on for her are themes of life as an older woman, which is not a theme I can transfer to Miles. So, some set of concerns will have to come up that engage my imagination that belong to Miles, that can be explored by him. I have a lot of flexibility about where I can start the next Miles story, as I could go back in time or forward. (I think I prefer forward, but I can't predict in advance.)
Edward Gevorkian: Well, it is possible to put Miles's brain into the body of an old woman:
Lois McMaster Bujold: Miles would not choose to have a sex change operation.
Sergey Pereslegin: Why should we think about Miles when you can develop the problem of an old woman from the point of Cordelia?


Lois McMaster Bujold: It's different kind of old woman. Cordelia is already in power, she's already made her journey to a stable place. And Ista is a character who has not yet done so. The story would be how she gets from where she is to the kind of place where Cordelia is already.

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Ekaterina Smolyanina: There are no absolutely evil characters in your books, and even Baron Ryoval and Ges Vorrutyer:
Lois McMaster Bujold: They are pretty close.
Ekaterina Smolyanina: They're just insane, mad. We understand it that you think that normal people cannot do such evil things?


Lois McMaster Bujold: Normal people can and do do evil things. There are all kinds of ways people can be psychologically manipulated into doing things they would never have thought they could or would do, both good and bad things. (Army basic training is an example; so are propaganda and atrocity stories and news spins and religious indoctrination, and on and on.) Normal people can be tricked or triggered or manipulated into doing astonishing acts -- it happens all the time, in wars, in political or economic crises, in domestic violence. Human beings are immensely malleable and we're capable of all sorts of things.

But speaking of sane villains -- I always wondered, looking at the villains in James Bond movies for example -- if they have all the resources they display in the course of the plot, why haven't they just invested them all in mutual funds and retired? They clearly don't need to be villains in order to meet any need they could have. Convincing villains are not villainous at random; they have to have a reason or motivation. Real people don't just go out and say 'I'm going to be villainous today!'

But most people find themselves doing evil things because they've got into a situation that they don't understand, didn't predict, didn't anticipate. Sometimes they get drawn into evil just 'cause they don't realize that they can say "No!" Or the cost of saying "no" means that they will be shot. Always ambiguous, always difficult.

Sergey Pereslegin: A kind of serious question from the one side and funny from the other. Don't you think that Cordelia could be a secret agent of Beta Colony?


Lois McMaster Bujold: That thought has crossed a number of people's minds. I think while she is not an agent of the Betan government, she is an agent of Betan culture. She feels that her culture has something that Barrayar can learn -- like "don't kill your children", basic lessons. So, yes, she is an agent of change and she is an agent for better liberalism, I guess. But she is not an agent of the government, although, yeah, you could work up a great conspiracy theory with it. And I'm sure some Barrayarans have.

Sergey Pereslegin: And the serious part of the questions was, how Cordelia, a soldier of an enemy planet, could get access to Barrayar? How Ezar and ImpSec could allow her to arrive?


Lois McMaster Bujold: Several things are going on. First of all, Aral wanted her, and he has a certain amount of power in this situation. Everyone wanted Aral to marry and have a kid, since Barrayar is one of those cultures where it is part of your social duty as a member of the aristocracy to create the next generation. So everyone was waiting for Aral to do his job. Piotr certainly wanted Aral to marry, and Piotr is also a man with a great deal of clout in this situation. Cordelia created her own status by being an enemy soldier, and a successful one. She became admired, sort of the way some American military history buffs admire General Rommel ('The Desert Fox' of WWII fame in North Africa), who although he was the enemy was good at what he did and had some interesting positive qualities. It is quite possible to admire an honorable enemy, especially if you are a militarist and attached to the military virtues yourself. And fourth, Ezar wanted Aral married so that he would not be trying to marry Kareen, the Dowager Empress (dowager crown princess, technically). Cordelia might not have been Ezar's first pick, but she was the woman on the spot.

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Anna Hodosh: But why Ezar was so against the idea of joining Aral and princess Kareen?


Lois McMaster Bujold: Because of possibility that they would have a child who would replace Ezar's grandson. If they had a child, they would want him to inherit instead of Gregor.
Ekaterina Smolyanina: Is it possible that princess Kareen was from Vorbarra family too, and Ezar managed wedding of Serg and Kareen to force the political position of Vorbarra familiy?


Lois McMaster Bujold: I have never decided exactly what Kareen's family was. Some high Vor, certainly, but I've never invented the details. So I don't know.
Edward Gevorkian: What do you think at what age young Americans join science-fiction literature? From the comics or cartoons?


Lois McMaster Bujold: It's all over the map. Most of the science-fiction readers I know began reading early; they were precocious readers. I know a very few people who started reading science-fiction older, in college or later. Most of them start around the time they become voracious readers and start reading everything they can get their hands on -- typically 9, 10, 11, 12. One hears about SF readers who started reading when they were as young as four. Most of the fans I know all started as young teenagers, or only a little bit older.

We can asked around the room what ages the people here started reading science-fiction?

Lois McMaster Bujold: OK, I rest my case.
Vladislav Goncharov: How you started to read science-fiction and started to write it?


Lois McMaster Bujold:Age - nine. My father read science-fiction and this is how it came into my family. He would buy the magazines such as "Analog" magazine or paperback books to read on the plane when he went on the engineering consulting trips. When he came home I would get them from him. So I started reading those, then went on to find books in those libraries that I could get to. (We lived out in the country, or rather, at the edge of the suburbs, so I was dependent on my mother transporting me by car to get access to libraries before I was old enough to drive myself.) Then at age 13 dad bought me my first subscription to "Analog" magazine.

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Natalia Mazova: It was a similar situation with me. My father had subscription for "Chemestry and Life" magazine, and issues of  this magazine were laying everywhere in the flat. I read different SF stories printed there and I admired them without understanding sometimes.
Vladislav Goncharov: The "Chemestry and Life" was the best magazin, where the best science-ficion stories were printed in those years.
Sergey Pereslegin: Where and how you studied military history and military science?


Lois McMaster Bujold: I started reading history in my teenage years -- junior high. This interest had three main triggers. First of all, this was the early 1960's, and American television was filled with World War II shows. It was the big thing. We had Combat, a WWII adventure series (starring Vic Morrow) centered on a platoon of men in the battle of Normandy that ran for several years longer than the real battle ever did. We had documentaries like Victory at Sea (13 one-hour episodes-- my brother Jim was especially fond of that one). (I should probably mention, I had two older brothers who likely did a lot of the selecting about what the family sat down to watch.) We had all this WWII material on television. So it was all around in the culture.

Secondly, I hit the movie "Lawrence of Arabia" by David Lean. My friend Lillian and I went to see it seven times, in those days before VCRs were even imagined. This stimulus triggered a whole string of reading. I read "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" which was Lawrence's war memoir -- even though it was way over my head at the time -- and other materials about Lawrence. So, I was mainly interested in Lawrence as a hero and in Lawrence as tortured psychology -- and the military stuff just came along for the ride.

Lillian (Lillian Stewart Carl) was my best friend from seventh grade on. She was very very interested in history and archeology. So we exchanged our shared interests, she got me interested in reading history and archeology, I got her interested in reading science-fiction and fantasy.

Her father had been trained as a bomber pilot in WWII, although he never got to Europe -- he was injured in a training accident and mustered out. She was interested in a military history because her dad had read it, and lived it. So we shared books from her father's bookshelf like Escape from Colditz- -- which was about WW II prisoner of war camp escapes in Germany by American soldiers.

Stalag 17 was another one we both read at the time. Stalag 17 was another prison camp memoir. I think it is because we were trapped in high-school and the idea breaking out of the prison camp was a very captivating idea. 'Maybe if we dig a tunnel we could get out of the classroom:.'

Dmitry Volodihin: Can you image a God in the center of the Universe?


Lois McMaster Bujold: It's hard for me to imagine a God who could account for this Universe. I do not believe in the supernatural in daily life. For the question,, "Is there a Creator? Is there a Mind behind what we see?" I have not been convinced that there is, but I have not closed my mind to other possibilities. I don't know. I am an agnostic.
Vladislav Goncharov: You'd like to said the same thing that was said by Laplas to Napoleon on his question "Where is the God in your cosmic system?" - "My Emperor, I do not require this hypothesis".


Lois McMaster Bujold: I probably have a slight drift to atheism just at present, but I don't label myself as an atheist, because that position claims more certainty of knowledge than I possess. I have not yet come to any final conclusions on the subject of theism. Ask me next week, or next year, or a decade from now, and my opinions may well be different.

There is a great deal in theology and Christian ethics that I find very beautiful and attractive as an artist and as a story-teller. As, for example, the story of Forty Martyrs of Sebastiani.

Vladislav Goncharov: It seems only agnostic can so easily manipulate Christian ethic


Lois McMaster Bujold: The Christian ethic is a good one. The ethics are great, I like Christian ethics. (I note in passing, many of the same ideas of what is good are found in other religions, too.) But Christianity makes historical claims about reality, and what is behind reality, that I do not find convincing. That said, I'm very fond of the writings of the British Christian apologist C. S. Lewis.
Vladislav Goncharov: And only agnostic can analyze Christian ethic.
Lois McMaster Bujold: The Bible is a complex document and people find in it whatever they want to find. My evaluation of Christian ethics is mostly drawn from the way they are explained by C. S. Lewis. His essay -- I think its title is 'The Weight of Glory' -- on the value of human life is one of my all-time favorites.
Natalia Mazova: We all like Clive Lewis very much. He is the only apologist who convinces people from the point of the logic who motivates those thing that supposed just to believe in by other.


Lois McMaster Bujold: He makes Christianity look good. There are many Christians who make Christianity look bad, also. If you want a peek at my fundamental life philosophies, it will require a long dissertation, here.

I distinguish, looking around in the world, two kinds of realities that people often mix up one with another. One is the real reality -- like this bed, this sky, people and trains and oceans and animals and you and me. They are real things -- they will be here tomorrow, regardless.

And then there are consensus realities -- these are things like money, governments, law, rules, corporations, religions. They are the systems of thought and symbols that people have made up for getting around in the world. They are maps that allow us to organize ourselves and manipulate the real world in efficient ways. One can almost think of the two sorts of realities as hardware and software. Consensus reality and real reality. The important thing about those two is not to mix them up -- and never to sacrifice something that is real to something that is made up. Never sacrifice human beings to things like money, governments, etc.

(And here the tape ends because my host arrived to carry me off to dinner.)

If we hadn't run out of time here, I would have gone on to add something like this. A lot of people think that they should be able to figure out an author's political views by the sorts of governments they portray their heroes as possessing in their writings. My work tends to severely confuse people who imagine this. My own view is that there is little to choose among governmental styles, all of them being equally made-up, consensus fictions. Most anything could be made to work, at least for a time, by the cooperation of enough persons sufficiently virtuous or heroic. If one has to pick, my criteria would be pretty much wholly utilitarian -- which system works most smoothly with the least daily heroism, the least requirement for energy input? Which system produces the most stuff for the most people with the least damage to the fewest people -- in this particular historical place and time? Because the answers don't necessarily have to stay the same.

People hate complexity. It makes their brains hurt. They want the world to be simple enough to get their minds around without undue effort; they want to solve problems once and have them stay solved for all time. But I am deeply suspicious of all simple, one-size-fits-all political or economic theories. I don't think any successful government can ever be made significantly simpler than the reality, and the people, it is trying to manage.

The Cast

Lois McMaster BUJOLD

Famous American SF writer

Sergey Pereslegin

SF critic

Edward Gevorkian

SF writer

Dmitrty Volodihin

historian and SF critic

Vladislav Goncharov

SF critic

Andrey Lazarchuk

SF writer

Natalia Mazova

SF critic

Oleg Pol

SF fan

Anna Hodosh

Webmaster of "Russian LMB website"

Ekaterina Smolyanina

SF fan

Alexander Balabchenkov

balabchenkov.gif (2386 bytes) Volunteer interpreter,
moderator or newsgroup

Also were Mikhail Uspensky, Irina Andronati and others...

2000, Lois McMaster Bujold.

2000, Alexander Balabchenkov.

Special Thanks to Vladislav Goncharov for audio materials.