Shards of Honor

Shards of Honorrating: 4 of 5 stars

Bujold tells the story of Cordelia Naismith, a scientist from Beta Prime who gets captured by Aral Vorkosigan, a Lord from Barrayar, and thrust into the political and military intrigue of that planet. The book moves along at a good clip, with solid character development and an interesting set of premises.

I see three key issues to discuss in my book club on Thursday:

Societies:
The two societies, Beta Prime and Barrayar, embody different approaches to politics. Beta Prime seems to be an outgrowth of the American or European model of democracy (given the strongly religious bent of American politics, it’s probably closer to European democracy ala United Kingdom, France, or Germany). What little we know of Beta Prime comes from the conversations Cordelia has with Aral. We learn that they’re a technologically advanced culture, with strong Western values such as human rights and gender equality. They have a military, but Cordelia is part of the “expeditionary” force, an exploratory group sent out to survey planets and find wormholes (this universe’s solution to faster-than-light travel).

By contrast, Barrayar is an Imperial society, with a warrior caste and a strong sense of honor (even if many people don’t hold to it). They value life much differently than the Betans do, with war and assassinations a constant part of their culture. Of course, the implication is that the entire society is this way, but we haven’t seen much of the civilian side of the population. We do learn toward the end of the book that military research drives their science and technology. When one of the scientists suggests studying the artificial womb technology the Betans gave them, the commander suggests finding a military use for the tech before making the proposal.

The conflict between the two cultures emerges in the dialog between Cordelia and Aral, as they debate what to do with her permanently-damaged crewman (Aral would euthanize him, Cordelia refuses). The discussion about how they captain crews used to different kinds of debate highlights these differences as well.

Bujold does a good job overturning the easy readings of these two cultures by highlighting the way the truly powerful in Beta prime exercise the same kinds of vicious techniques they pretend to despise in the Barrayarians.

Gender:

Again, the interactions between Aral and Cordelia introduce a conversation about gender roles and the way culture constructs them. Cordelia, a competent and clever commander, overturns Aral’s assumptions about female soldiers. There are vicious men in the Barrayarian army, people breaking the law but getting away with it. Aral, of course, defies these men and does his best to destroy them. In this regard, the book seems most like a bodice-ripper, as the honorable man stands out among a sea of malevolent ones. Reminds me a bit of a pirate story in this way. The mix of honorable and despicable men also exacerbates this impression.

At the same time, as we learned from the execrable G.I. Jane, when women join the military force, the honor (or beastliness) of the enemy puts them in a special kind of danger.  The Barrayarians, in this book, seemed equally disposed to rape both military and non-military prisoners, but the implication of Aral’s surprise in having women in combat is that it makes it “that much harder” to keep men from raping them.  This is the same argument used against allowing gays into the military.  The frightening statistics about the rampant sexual harassment and abuse in our own military illustrates that Bujold deals not in hypotheticals here.

It’s probably appropriate to note that being male didn’t prevent the shameful torture of military prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison.  The kinds of degredation and sexual abuse perpetrated there weren’t tempered by their sex.  One wonders if female Al Queda (were their such a thing) would have been abused equally.  My heart hopes no, but my mind says probably.

Honor:
When I’m in Literature Professor Mode™, I rely on the title to prod discussions. This book, Shards of Honor seems rife for interpretation along those lines. We have the conflicting forces of honor and duty in play throughout the book; Cordelia and Aral both struggle with a third force too–love. Each person faces challenges as they try to determine their obligations, their debts (of honor or otherwise), and their hearts.

For Aral, the primary conflict is between his senses of honor and duty. He does the things that he feels are right most of the time, but he also plays the political game with the Emperor, which sometimes makes him forfeit his honor for his duty. Cordelia seems to oscillate more between love and duty. She isn’t regularly asked to sacrifice her honor, but a couple times she has to choose to do something (or not) that will uphold her duty but sacrifice her love.

I think this line of questioning will be most fruitful in the book club: how does the book construct honor? Where do the shards of honor come from? Why that word and not pieces or chunks?

A note about the cover:
This cover, unlike many crappy SF covers, actually does address the issues in the book.  We have Cordelia front and center, with Aral behind and to the left.  In the rear is Cordelia’s wounded crewman, lurching along like a zombie (the feeling produced by this image fits the feeling the book created quite nicely).  The bubbles in the air are depictions of a strange air-jellyfish that lands on animals to suck blood like a leech.  At the same time, Aral looks like he walks funny or is about to break into a dance, and Cordelia seems much more like a leader than the person tending to the wounded man in the back.  The cover of the edition I read is part of the double-edition that includes the second novel, Barrayar, which I would like to read but must put aside in favor of the book for my mystery book club, which meets on Saturday.