Lois McMaster Bujold’s newest novella, “The Flowers of Vashnoi” (with beautiful cover art by Ron Miller), came out on May 17 (Goodreads announcement), and it’s a good one. If you like Bujold, you will like this novella set in the Vorkosigan’s radioactive district, about four years after Ekaterin and Miles get married.
I really like the spirit of experimentation Lois puts into her self-published novels. She’s a pro, and writes well, and has apparently learned good lessons from her time with traditional publishers (I might be wrong: is it natural, or is it L’Oreal?). But now, she’s retired, and she’s been breaking some of the rules in order to tell the stories she wants to tell, without undue stress and story-bending to fit the rules of an outside publisher.
For example, this is women’s fiction. (We’re told over and over that women’s fiction doesn’t sell . . . and women’s science fiction? Not even a category. Chick Sci’ Lit? Chicka-Sicca-Fi Lit? Nobody’s labeled it as such.) This is totally Ekaterin’s story, and she isn’t some sweet young single fresh out of school. She’s in her mid-30s with three children, and a husband she loves to bits, but who gets slightly in the way at times. This is her project; she makes decisions as Lady Vorkosigan; and she shares the credit gracefully, but is the boss. Not exactly a common heroine in modern genre fiction.
It’s not a love story; it’s not an epic adventure. There are no demons or vampires or werewolves (although there is soupcon of Baba Yaga), but there are some cool bugs that turn widespread radiation into something that can be dealt with. (Not a spoiler: Bujold has been flirting with this since A Civil Campaign. We fans are very lucky to see it happen on the page.) A dash of love, a dash of horror, a dash of thrills.
It isn’t a book. It’s a novella, and runs about 20,000 words – so it’s a nice treat for the afternoon, as well. But “we all know” that publishers like books — and even more, they like series. The kind of thing that makes readers binge for the entire weekend or more.
What is “The Flowers of Vashnoi”, then? It’s a bureaucratic thriller about the issues people and technology run into, set in the great outdoors. Problems are solved with the greater social network that we humans seem to automatically build. The problems are not neat, and the solutions aren’t complete and perfect, but they do reflect the human condition in a way that seems realistic. That sounds like faint praise, but it’s a good read. And, it’s definitely a story that is engaging on the first read, and becomes great with contemplation (and I would add, with discussion with other people who can add their own experiences to the tapestry that Lois has woven).
Earlier in Lois’s career, she wrote several important short stories. One of my favorites was “Borders of Infinity”. “The Flowers of Vashnoi” has important parallels with “Mountains of Mourning”, which was about Miles (Ekaterin’s husband)coming into his own power as the heir of the Vorkosigan District. These stories were published in science fiction magazines before making their way into collections. I wish I had asked for an interview, now, because I’m very curious about how much the magazine’s editors and standards shaped those stories.
But the fact is, the short stories were traditionally published, passed traditional gatekeepers, and found a wider audience and produced natural PR for her backlist and future books.
“The Flowers of Vashnoi” was 440 yen (about $4?) for me. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (print version) has a cover price of US$8.99, about double the price, and I would have gladly paid the price for a Bujold story. (Assuming, and this is a big assumption, that someone would send me the magazine. Add postage costs to Japan.) There are benefits to publishing traditionally (either via online or print) – I would have been exposed to other writers that I might have liked, and other readers may have been exposed to Lois’ work for the first time.
But it’s easy to see the disadvantages of the system. Would a woman’s cozy adventure find a home in a modern SF magazine, even if it came with a name like “Bujold” on it? It seems like a lot of hassle. Auditioning, making changes (or arguing for one’s choices), the long wait for publication, and then finally, I am assuming, a lower paycheck.
This way, Lois got to do almost everything from the comfort of her own home. The cover artist, Ron Miller, is not only a pro but a good friend, so she got to sit and watch him finish it up, and I assume she had more input into the visual process than the normal short story author. She had to wait before her story went out in the world, yes, but it sounds like it was a matter of weeks (announced in April) and not months.
And as fans, we get to see more stories from Lois because it’s just easier for her to get them out there.
Some traditional publishers have worked with authors to bring out stories that may seem more niche than mainstream-genre. I’m reminded very much of Dorothy Sayers, and her Busman’s Honeymoon and other short stories after A Gaudy Night. And that was happening in the late 1930s, just shy of a hundred years ago. So, it’s not impossible. But you have to be a Bujold or a Sayers to even have a chance.
The thing is, SFF still has a thriving short story community. On the other hand, I’m not sure what the short story market for romance is. It used to have a strong presence in women’s magazines and even made its way into general magazines. The only consistent short story romance market I remember reading is the one-page mini-romance in First For Women (and I believe they may have discontinued that feature). There are a few anthologies out there, especially around Christmas time, that carry three or four romantic stories, but the perceived wisdom is that these don’t make money, so there aren’t a lot of them.
The self-published market may be the biggest game in town right now for people who write niche stuff like short-length science fiction romance or romantic fantasy. Is it the only one?
Next week, I’d like to open up a Spoiler Thread for discussion of “The Flowers of Vashnoi” so I hope you’ll take the time to read it, and come back and join us for a discussion. I really want to know what you think of it!