Lois McMaster Bujold’s new book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, was released on February 2, and when I checked just now, it was #11 in Space Operas on the Amazon rankings chart, and #18 in Adventures –> Science Fiction. (find the links here on GJ&RQ’s Amazon page; BTW, the rankings listed didn’t jive with the links) (Don’t put too much trust in these figures; they change hourly, and are sure to be different by the time you read this. At any rate, hooray for book number 17 in the Vorkosigan Saga!)
Studying this release is interesting from several angles. First of all, it’s a great book from the fan perspective (it ties up a lot of loose ends in surprising ways), and it’s also accessible to the first-time reader. (Bujold blogs about it – a long-time concern is that she’s afraid fans are scaring off new readers by saying, “Oh, you really need to read all 15, 16, 17 books in order to really appreciate this one.” Here on her Goodreads blog, she links to proof that it’s not so.)
Second, it was released from Baen Books as an eARC, with is an electronic advanced reader copy (Baen explains here ). The very interesting thing is that anybody with $15 (price of earc) could become an early reviewer. (Offer only lasts until the book comes out; after that, you can buy a regular ebook.)
Fans get an early look, the writer gets a good cut of the proceeds (Bujold mentions it here on her mailing list), and if the book is good, it gets word-of-mouth. How does that affect sales? Well, many fans (myself included) spring for the hardcover, which will have the errata corrected (and will be suitable for reading during power outages and in wire-free environments). So, she’s gaining in that quarter. Will the buzz be sufficient to attract new readers to balance out the “lost” readers who bought the eARC? I think it’s too early to tell with this book, but I suspect the answer is yes. I think it’s a case study we can learn a lot from. (By the way, I talked a little bit about eARCs in October here, when the GJ&RQ eARC came out.)
Third, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is definitely science fiction, but it’s not mainstream science fiction. I don’t think it’s too spoilery to say that the book is about a woman cleaning up her life and really thinking about what her legacy to the universe is going to be. And also, she’s thinking about how she can get the best quality of life out of the years she has remaining to her. The biggest explosions are emotional ones; Cordelia and her cohort are saving the universe with common sense, not light sabers. I wouldn’t call the conflicts smaller, but they are more intimate, and they don’t allow the reader to escape the niggling concerns of daily life. The conflicts make some readers reflect on their own lives.
Sometimes we complain that slapping a label like “chick-lit” or “women’s fiction” is a kind of ghettoization of women’s issues. “Stand over there: girlz only.” But how can we say this when women make up 51 percent of the population, and a majority of the reading market? I would like to see more women’s science fiction. Putting a girly label on it would make it easier to find, and cause enough controversy that people would realize it’s out there. And judging from the Bujold mailing list I belong to, there are plenty of men who are interested in women’s literature and see it having just as valid a viewpoint as from a male point of view (when both are done well).
And fourth, because it’s almost Valentine’s Day, I would say GJ&RQ is definitely worth a read for the non-traditional-genre romance. Cordelia has lost her husband, Aral Vorkosigan. Jole has lost his long-time lover, Aral Vorkosigan. They’ve all been very good friends, and they have suffered through a respectable time of mourning. Then, Cordelia drops the bombshell on Jole in the first chapter: through the wonders of modern genetics and uterine technology, would you like to have some children with Aral’s DNA?
I guess technically speaking, we can’t call it a romance. It’s really about a woman’s journey and a man’s journey at a specific point a few decades before the end of life (gosh, I hope they don’t get killed off!). But it is so suffused with love, and love of all types, that I find it hard not to read it as a romance. It’s a beautiful romance that doesn’t spring from power imbalance or silly misunderstandings, but a real sorting-out of things. How does Bujold do that?
Which brings me to my fifth and final point: write what you like. When you are writing, don’t worry about genre or boundaries or anything else. Just write. If it’s good enough, someone’s going to want to read it, and these days, we have so many ways to get our story to the reader. If it’s not good enough, it’s probably beneficial to your mental health to have gotten it out on paper, anyway. Either way, doing it will make you a stronger writer.
Bujold has made a career by sharing great stories with surprising twists. She didn’t make great stories with reader-friendly formulas in order to have a career. Do you see what I mean? I’m pretty sure she would argue that the career part was pretty darn important to her. But, she doesn’t take the “easy” way: she doesn’t play in other people’s universes (ie: no Bujold novelizations of, say Jurassic Park, which would be a lot of fun indeed, considering the movie came from a Michael Crichton book), she doesn’t sharecrop her universe out to journeyman writers for shared writing credits, and she just doesn’t follow the template that a lot of SFF writers and fans like to follow – in fact, she seems to take unholy glee and pleasure in taking a template or meme, turning it on its head, and shaking it good and hard until something interesting falls out of its ears. And I say thank all the gods of story for writers like that!
Well, anyway, don’t take my word for it. Check out some reviews (here’s a nice one from Barnes & Noble’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog), and see if Bujold’s new book is a worthwhile study in fun and profit. For further edification, I direct you to two interviews. The first from “nerds of a feather flock together” blog/fanzine shows us what Bujold is reading. The second from Goodreads is chock-full of writing insights. I would love to hear what you think!
(Full disclosure: Bujold shared many of these links on her Goodreads blog and on the mailing list, so a lot of my work here today was just re-mixing, not going-out-and-seeking-and-reporting-back. Still, I hope you enjoy having all this in one place.)