The speculator

  • Article by: SARAH T. WILLIAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2008 - 9:58 AM

Lois McMaster Bujold of Edina, author of more than 30 books of science fiction and fantasy, says she "looks and acts like a soccer mom," but what's inside her head is far from conventional.

Lois McMaster Bujold at her home library in Edina. Behind her are some of her books, many of them are n different languages.

Photo: Steve Rice, Star Tribune

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In a modest house on a modest lane in Edina lives a modest-looking woman blessed with a wildly inventive, encyclopedic mind of seemingly galactic proportions.

She is Lois McMaster Bujold, 58, the author of more than 30 works of science-fiction and fantasy-romance adventures. Her books are translated into 21 languages, including Russian, Chinese and Japanese, and her fan mail comes from as far away as Uzbekistan. Battalions of Nebula, Hugo and Mythopoeic awards line the shelves of her neatly decorated home, along with gifts from fans: an ancient Afghani hairpin, a chunk of Saddam Hussein's palace.

If by chance you met her in the grocery store, you'd register a mild-mannered woman in a comfy old sweater and jeans, with soft curves, corn-silk hair and a touch of blue eye shadow. You might notice the slight tremor in her hands ("not Parkinson's," she assures). But you'd never guess that space-borne mercenaries, interstellar invasions, bioengineered bugs, epic love affairs, psychic monsters and battle strategies are swirling in her head.

"I look and act like a soccer mom," she says.

She is anything but.

With more than 1 million books in print, two grown kids and the house paid off, you'd think she'd give it a rest. But Bujold is compulsively at it, surfacing now and then between books to do a reading, answer fan mail, grant an interview or attend a sci-fi conference. "Passage," the third in her Sharing Knife series, is out this week by William Morrow, and as soon as her authorial obligations are met, Bujold will "disappear" again into her writer's space.

It's not all work and no play: She walks (to get ideas flowing), dines with friends (mostly other genre-fiction writers), reads books of all kinds, watches movies and admits to being too-often diverted by the Internet.

"Wikipedia is so dangerous," she said during a recent interview at her home. "You go online to look up the definition of eclampsia, and three hours later you find yourself reading this earnest explanation of tentacle porn in [Japanese] anime."

Rest assured, dear reader, that the time was not wasted.

A techie dad

From an early age, Bujold began hoarding information and ideas, running them through her imagination and spinning them into tales. As a third-grader in suburban Columbus, Ohio, she made the joyous discovery that the entire school library was at her disposal. She gobbled up Marguerite Henry's equine sagas and books for young readers by Robert Heinlein and other sci-fi writers. A favorite was Eleanor Cameron's "The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet."

At home, Mom was reading straightforward histories and the Wall Street Journal, while Dad, a welding engineer and nondestructive testing expert, was bringing home issues of Analog magazine from his travels. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury were among the greats published in this long-running magazine, and Bujold, the youngest of three with two older brothers, "picked it up because it was there."

Bookish and flying beneath the "in-crowd" radar, Bujold formed her own "out crowd" with other girls who liked to read and write. In eighth grade, she and her best friend, Lillian Stewart, began writing for each other -- mostly imitations of books and TV shows they loved. Bujold even tried an imitation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" in Spenserian verse. "It was not viable," she said, "but it was a valiant attempt."

Bujold's education continued at the University of Ohio, where, much to her parents' dismay, she cut an aimless course, switching majors and emerging after five years with no degree -- becoming "an overeducated old undergrad," she said, quoting Tom Lehrer.

The bugs and the bees

Bujold may not have been piling up credits toward a diploma, but she was building a treasury of experiences, images and oddments that would become indispensable to her as a writer.

"The thing about writing is that even your failures get reclassified as raw material," she said. "The stuff that you did as a young person that came to nothing, that disappointed your parents, that broke their hearts, that should have become careers and didn't ... you can mine for characters and situations and settings -- every kind of thing."

Take bug photography, for example.

During a stint as a biology major, Bujold signed up for a six-week tour of the ecosystems of East Africa. With her Pentax single-lens-reflex camera and macro lenses, she discovered a whole world of tiny miracles.

"The African insects are amazing -- technicolor grasshoppers with iridescent wings, black chevrons on their thighs, astonishing colors. The giant crickets were quite fascinating, and the scorpions and ticks. Ten years later, when I sat down to write my first novel and wanted an alien landscape in which to set characters for their cross-country trek, I was able to take what I'd seen in East Africa and use it to give them [the characters] a more authentic, alien-planet setting."

Her delight in the insect world also took her into the labs of her biology adviser, who was experimenting with cockroaches' resistance to insecticides. ("The animal-rights people never hassled him, for some reason," she says.) She observed that the cockroaches, when exposed to powdered poison, would climb the walls of their little plastic boxes, keeping their forelegs out of the stuff and reducing the level of exposure.

Add to that a trip to the apiary at the Minnesota State Fair, plus inspiration from John Payson's 1992 hilarious short film, "Joe's Apartment" (which features singing, dancing and partying cockroaches), and you have the makings for the bioengineered "butter bugs" that make their appearance in Bujold's "A Civil Campaign: A Comedy of Biology and Manners" (1999). Butter bugs consume low-grade organic feed (corn stalks, grass clippings, seaweed), which is broken down in their guts by "a carefully orchestrated array of symbiotic bacteria," then regurgitated as curds for human consumption. Yum! You can even flavor the stuff -- by using rose petals as feed, for example.

Miles Vorkosigan, the soldiering hero of Bujold's longest-running futuristic series (and perhaps her most beloved character), is ambivalent after his first taste: "'Bug vomit,' said Miles, working through the implications. 'You fed me bug vomit.' He touched his hand to his lips, and hastily poured himself some wine."

As much attention as she pays to detail, Bujold also deftly handles big themes: gender equality, physical handicaps, class differences, religion, conduct in war, battlefield atrocities, honor, valor and betrayal. Her characters, too, are fully formed, with physical and emotional flaws and huge obstacles to overcome. (Miles, for example, was poisoned in utero and suffers from brittle bones and other physical disabilities.)

All of which is much appreciated by her fans.

"There are three kinds of science fiction," said Scott Raun, 48, a computer technician from south Minneapolis who said he has read "every single word" Bujold has written. "There's science fiction driven by the gosh-wow techie stuff. There's science fiction driven by nifty plot. And there's science fiction driven by character. They all have some element of each, but one of the three predominates. All of Lois' stuff is character-driven; these end up being real people."

'A timeout'

Bujold, who, at the urging of fellow writers and friends, moved from Ohio to Minnesota in 1995 a few years after her divorce, said she loves the feedback from her fans and appreciates the intimacy among sci-fi lovers, who seem to speak the same language. At "cons" (sci-fi conventions), judgment of physical and emotional differences is suspended, she said.

"A visiting speaker to a convention once pulled me aside and asked in a whisper, 'Why are there so many overweight people here?' Upon reflection, I thought the better question was, 'How are overweight people systematically excluded from the venues your eye is used to?' The real answer is, overweight folks show up at cons because they can be socially comfortable in this milieu, because they have found that those around them will be a lot more interested in what's inside their heads than on their outsides." Likewise for people in wheelchairs and people with autism or Asperger's.

She hopes she's giving her fans what she gets from reading.

"If you are a reader, and life is bad, your boss is driving you nuts, whatever, you can open a book and have another place to go. It gives you a timeout. It widens your world, of course, at the same time."

Sarah T. Williams is the Star Tribune Books editor.

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  • LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD

    Family: Born 1949 in Columbus, Ohio, to Robert and Laura McMaster; two older brothers. Married John Fredric Bujold in 1971 and divorced in 1992. Has a grown son and daughter. Moved from Marion, Ohio, to Edina in 1995.

    Selected titles and awards: "Shards of Honor" (1986); "Falling Free" (1988, Nebula); "The Vor Game" (1990, Hugo); "Mirror Dance (1994, Hugo); "Komarr" (1998, Minnesota Book Award); "The Curse of Chalion" (2001, Mythopoeic Award); "Paladin of Souls" (2003, Hugo, Nebula, Locus awards); "The Sharing Knife: Passage, Vol. III" (2008).

    Event: 1 p.m. Sat., Uncle Hugo's, 2864 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.

    Online: Bujold keeps an up-to-date website at www.dendarii.com/ and blogs at blog.myspace.com/loismcmasterbujold.

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