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A civil campaign

A civil campaign / Lois McMaster Bujold

A civil campaign is definitely my favorite of the Vorkosigan books to date. It features a significantly more lighthearted tone than most of the series, and Bujold herself has described it as a “romantic comedy”. 

Plot summary

After returning to Barrayar Miles is eager to court Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Unfortunately, the arrival of sex-selection technology around the time of Miles’s birth has resulted in a generation with a severe gender imbalance and Miles must contend with a horde of other suitors.

Meanwhile, Ekaterin is living with her aunt and uncle, both highly respected engineers. Deciding to pursue her love of gardening and landscape design she has sworn never to marry again. After the events of Komarr are classified at the highest levels, Ekaterin  and Miles discover themselves implicated in an ugly rumor, one that ImpSec refuses to dispel as it provides an effective cover story for what really happened during the Soletta Array disaster.

So how is it?

As I’ve said, it’s not the “best” Vorkosigan book but it is my favorite. There’s a playful silliness here that serves as a nice contrast from the drama of psychological abuse that serves as the center of Komarr. Together, the two books balance each other out wonderfully.

There are several interesting subplots in A civil campaign that sere as interesting social commentary, especially as they intersect. 

René Vorbretten, newly married and eager to start a family, discovers that his grandfather was the son of an officer of the Cetagandan occupation, not his great-grandfather. The conservative faction of the Council of Counts jumps on this opportunity to have Vorbretten stripped of his titles.

In another subplot, Barrayar’s system of male primogeniture is challenged by the newly available medical technology.

In a third subplot, one Count attempts to deal with both the underpopulation of his district and the general societal gender imbalance by taking unused donor eggs and growing himself several hundred daughters.

All of these subplots have some interesting things to say about the assumptions made by chauvinists about how widely their views are held, and the way different interests interact to create political coalitions. 

A civil campaign might be the “romantic comedy” of the series, but that doesn’t mean it shares the normal conflation of obsessive, possessive behavior with romance. Miles’s attempts to court Ekaterin without her knowledge end up working well as a deconstruction at the way the classic romantic comedy structure eliminates women’s agency.*

Miles is presented as much more flawed here than he sometimes is, and finds himself confronting that his standard strategy when dealin with people is attempting to manipulate them into doing whatever he wants.

The way everything comes together is perfect, complete with an obnoxious proposal and a Shakespearean pairing-off of most of the recurring characters, but there are some really poignant moments. The emperor Gregor’s discovery about the type of person his father really was from The Vor game comes back here as Ekaterin struggles with letting her son know what really happened at the end of Komarr.

It’s a great book, but it’s conceivable that it might be too silly for some. There are several Oscar Wilde-sequel moments, including a disastrous dinner party and a scene where one character’s creditors catch up with them. There’s also what amounts to a food fight in there. A civil campaign maintains the emotional depth of the series but never feels grim. My favorite Vorkosigan book, but Sam the Eagle types will be cranky at the tone.

*the best of the classic romantic comedies is obviously His girl Friday, and a major factor in that is that the original stage version was about a platonic relationship between two men.

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