People 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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