A Civil Campaign

A Civil Campaign - Lois McMaster BujoldPeople keep recommending books with trans characters in them to me. One that gets mentioned a lot is A Civil Campaign, one of the Miles Vorkorsigan series from Lois McMaster Bujold. I’ve steered clear of it in the past as I wasn’t sure if I needed to read all of the previous Miles books first. However, as Bujold was a Guest of Honor at Finncon this year, I decided to give it a go.

I should start by saying that reading the rest of the series was not necessary, despite the fact that the events at the end of the previous book clearly had a major effect on events in this one. You can read this book stand-alone and enjoy it, though there’s a good chance that if you do you will then go out and buy the rest of the series.

I gather that the other books in the series are more adventure-based, but A Civil Campaign is a romantic farce. Miles has set himself to woo the attractive and intelligent widow, Ekaterin Vorsoisson. His efforts are complicated by three things: Ekaterin’s late husband was a total jerk so she has sworn off men completely; her husband’s death came as a result of Miles’s investigations into his affairs; and as a former spy and trainee politician Miles has no idea how to handle personal relationships. The misunderstandings that are the stock-in-trade of genre romance duly ensue.

Because Bujold wants to have more going on than just the romance she gives Miles some diplomatic problems to wrestle with. Barrayar is a planet ruled by an hereditary nobility, and Miles is one of the leaders of the Progressive faction. The other major party are the Conservatives. I was a little surprised to find a book from what is supposedly a major work of Military SF making fun of the Republicans quite so obviously, but Bujold does it very well, and one of her tools in this book is a trans character.

Inheritance on Barrayar is, of course, patrilineal, and the Conservatives aim to keep it that way. Count Pierre Vorrutyer has died unexpectedly without immediate heirs. His despicable cousin, Richars, is in line to inherit, but Pierre’s sister, Lady Donna, has other ideas. She takes herself off to another planet that has advanced medicine and has herself transformed into Lord Dono, thereby trumping Richars’ claim.

I mentioned above that the book is a farce, and some of the comedy comes from the existence of a trans person. Ivan Vorpatril is a common butt of jokes in the book. He previously had an affair with Donna, so when the devious Byerly Vorrutyer goes to collect Lord Dono from the spaceport he takes Ivan along without letting him in on the secret. Ivan then pulls a similar trick by taking Dono as his “date” to a dinner party organized by the unsuspecting Miles.

I have to say that I’m not happy about a trans person being used as a joke character in this way, but having said that it is exactly what people do. Indeed it was done to me once. Dave Langford, bless him, had absolutely no idea who I was, and reacted very well when he was told. More to the point, Bujold makes it clear that the nice characters in the book react positively to Dono, whereas the nasty characters recoil in horror. So a point is being made.

There is also a much more subtle argument being advanced. The other political problem that Miles has to solve is that of the unfortunate Count René Vorbretten. DNA analysis has proved conclusively that one of René’s ancestors had an affair with a foreigner. To be precise, one of the Cetagandan army that was, at the time, occupying Barrayar. It is rather like a French nobleman discovering that his grandmother produced his father as a result of an affair with the local Nazi commandant. As René is now provably not a pure-blood Barrayaran, he must forfeit his title unless his can persuade the Council of Counts to make an exception for him.

The point here is that both Dono and René are seen by the Progressives as being people in their own right who can define their identities. Dono claims to be a man, René claims to be a Barrayaran. Both are very serious about this. But the Conservatives claim that Dono is “really” a woman, and René is “really” a Cetagandan. Bujold even has René say to Miles, “Biology isn’t destiny”.

What I think Bujold is trying to do here is provide two examples, one of which most of her readers will see as manifestly unjust (René losing his title because of something an ancestor did), and one of which they may be in two minds about. The idea is that thinking about René’s case will get them thinking about Dono’s as well.

Where the whole thing falls down is that Dono is a very unconvincing portrait of a trans person. Lady Donna was notorious for her appetite for men. She was married three times and had many more lovers than just the unfortunate Ivan. There’s no suggestion that she wants to be a man for any reasons other than to secure the title, and for intellectual curiosity. Furthermore, following the example of John Varley’s Steel Beach, sexual orientation is presented as inextricably linked to biology. No sooner has Donna become Dono than he’s on the lookout for nubile young ladies to seduce. It doesn’t take him long to find a bride.

This is not normally the way things work, folks. There are some people today who are happy swapping between genders on a whim, and swapping sexual orientation with it. Perhaps, in the future, when the technology is improved and gender ceases to become a major source of social discrimination, such behaviour will become common. But right now most trans people are not like that. They don’t transition for personal gain, or for fun, but because their lives are intolerable in a gender that doesn’t match their psychology. You’d have to be a good liar to pass the battery of tests that gender specialists put in your way before you are allowed to transition unless you really, really needed to do it. And those few who do lie well, or who use money to grease the wheels, generally bitterly regret what they have done.

There’s no serious discussion of Dono’s state of mind, or even awareness that this might be an issue. For him, changing gender is just a lifestyle choice. And presenting the issue in that way makes the religious fundamentalists look correct. As far as they are concerned, being trans is just a choice that people can, and should, decline to make. If that were so then there would be much less of a case for granting trans people protection against discrimination, or helping them obtain medical treatment. So presenting gender transition as only a choice is very damaging to the trans rights cause here and now.

So, an as example of a “good” portrayal of a trans character, I’m afraid I don’t think A Civil Campaign cuts it. I certainly wouldn’t give it to someone wanting to learn about trans people. Other than that, the book is a lot of fun, and it was both a Hugo and Nebula nominee. As romance novels go I found it remarkably readable. It does follow the traditional plot structure, but Bujold manages to create that from the characters of Ekaterin and Miles, not by forcing them to follow the plot. It also pokes fun at social conservatives, and has a nice twist in the tail. Recommended, but with one very important caveat.

For more information about Lois McMaster Bujold, see the SF Encyclopedia.

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11 Responses to A Civil Campaign

  1. Pingback: Book Review – A Civil Campaign | Cheryl's Mewsings

  2. Martha says:

    Hi Cheryl,
    Interesting review and I think your point is well taken.
    If you don’t mind, it would be useful to me if you would recommend 2 – 3 fiction works that do present an appropriate picture of trans-people. I want to up my reading game this winter.

    • Cheryl says:

      Hmm, interesting. You could certainly try The Drowning Girl, though Abalyn’s not a central character. Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child talks about the process well, though the central character decides that transition is not for her. Delany’s Triton has a good portrait of someone who transitions for all of the wrong reasons. And Alison Goodman’s Eon has a decent trans character (though I’ve seen people complain about it for other reasons).

      • Martha says:

        Thank you for those. I had read your review of The Drowning Girl and it is on my list of books to order this autumn. I was also intrigued by your review of ‘Eon’ and will add that to the list as well. Then we’ll see.

  3. Farah Mendlesohn says:

    Good review. There is a comment in an earlier book that Beta Colony can change one’s sexual orientation, but it’s fleeting.

    Having read Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance I am getting more uneasy: not a single gay character gets out alive, and at least one person is inveighled into the most unconvincing heterosexual romance ever.

  4. First, yes, I find “sex change for profit” to be a problematic trope.

    The trans date at dinner joke is tired, but the joke is on the unsuspecting conservative society. So not good, but effective.

    As to Dono’s sex drive and orientation… anecdotes do not data make, but I’ve known more than a few butch lesbians whom, on transitioning, discovered they were actually butch gay men. Biology and hormones are a force, and a stronger force for some people than others. I found this to be a plausible outcome for Dono, if a bit rushed (but that’s the plot).

    • Cheryl says:

      Oh, I’m not saying there isn’t variation. The trans community is nothing if not diverse. And a better counter-example might be the many trans women who marry and father children before transitioning.

      However, those cases are not simple. Varley states that preservation of sexual orientation is a natural law. Bujold doesn’t, but everyone acts as if it was. Dono’s sudden interest in women is never questioned. It’s just another area where the complex psychology of gender identity is never explored.

  5. ULTRAGOTHA says:

    “As René is now provably not a pure-blood Barrayaran, he must forfeit his title unless his can persuade the Council of Counts to make an exception for him.”

    It’s got less to do with whether Rene is “pure blood” and more to do with the fact that the 5th Count Vorbrettan was not the father of the 6th Count Vorbrettan; and does that nullify the 6th Count’s (Rene’s grandfather’s) inheritance of the District?

    Since on Barrayar Count’s choice of heir preempts strict primogeniture (hence all the discussion in the book of Lord Midnight the Count’s heir that was a horse) it was an arguable point whether or not the 5th count knew his heir was not his biological son. The vote came down to the 5th Count confirmed his son as his heir regardless of actual parenage so Rene can keep his inheritance. Mainly along party lines, I suspect.

    As for Dono, the whole point of his changing from Dona to Dono is to make him fit, under the law, to become the heir to the Vorrutyer District. And part of that is sireing an heir. If he wasn’t able and willing to sire an heir then he wouldn’t be eligible over his horrible cousin to be Count Vorrutyer. So I think the objection to his immediately finding a wife in Olivia Koudelka is aside the point of that part of the plot.

    Regardless, Dono’s crack about wanting for once to be a virgin on his wedding night aside, Barrayar has uterine replicators so no sex need actually happen to have an heir. I’m assumming he and Olivia will have sex, but they need not if they don’t want to. It’s possible Dono is still primarily interested in men. It’s possible Olivia is interested in that aspect of him. It’s possible they’ll have affairs on the side. It’s possible that Dona was bisexual. As with so much in her backstories, Bujold doesn’t enlighten us.

    (This book is set before Miles spent all that time on a committee to overhaul Barrayar’s antiquated reproduction laws. Whether marriage is currently, as of Cryoburn, needed to produce a legal heir is another data point not shared with the readers.)

    • Cheryl says:

      You are right on the strictly legal point, but the book makes it clear there’s far more to it than that, for both René and people who know him. There’s the “biology isn’t destiny” quote, and I recall a section in which someone says how awful it is for René to have been brought up thinking he was a Barrayaran and then discover that he’s part Cetegandan.

      As for Dono, there are all sorts of reasons that could be suggested to explain his behavior, but the fact remains that they are not mentioned, and as such are irrelevant. Furthermore, had his interest in his bride been solely that of producing an heir, I would have expected Miles to have disapproved, given everything else that happened in the book.

  6. ULTRAGOTHA says:

    It’s also a visceral reaction against Cetagandans. As you said, oh, my God his grandfather was a Nazi! Only worse, as they’re ‘mutants’ as well (as young Ivan says in Cetaganda ‘mutants on purpose are mutants still.’ He gets over it when he’s older and less callow; but I think it’s a common reaction amongst the more conservative Vor and proles.)

    Actually your second point is very valid. Given the personality and ethics of Olivia and the rest of the Koudelkas, she cannot be interested in Dono, nor Dono in her, solely for reproductive purposes. Olivia must be interested in Dono for himself and vice versa or she never would have agreed to marry him.

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