In the 1970s, science fiction began to fragment into smaller subsets: the New Wave fizzled out, leaving its own imprint on the genre, while new subgenres grew in the aftermath. One author of the time looked back to her roots for inspiration for her stories, developing her own brand of science fiction that at once revered the classics of the genre while using the same building blocks to subvert them.
Lois McMaster Bujold was born in Columbus, Ohio, on November 2, 1949. Her father, Robert Charles McMaster, an engineering professor, was an avid reader of science-fiction magazines and stories and passed them along to his daughter. Throughout Bujold’s youth, she devoured every science-fiction novel she could get her hands on. In high school, she began writing along with a friend of hers, Lillian Stewart, and when she entered college in 1968, she began studying English. Her passion for the academic subject waned, but her "heart was in the creative, not the critical end of things." According to Bujold’s official website, she noted that the New Wave “left me cold; I found it, much like the ‘alternative comics’ I encountered in my college years, to seem dreary, ugly, and angry.” From college, she went on to work as a pharmacy technician at the Ohio State University Hospital. She left to get married and had two children: good for reading, not for writing. Throughout this time, she read voraciously.
When her friend Lillian Stewart Carl published her first short story in 1982, Bujold found a renewed commitment to writing. In 1983, she completed her first novel, Shards of Honor, and an additional two in as many years: Warrior's Apprentice and Ethan of Athos. Initially, major publishers rejected her unagented manuscripts. In an interview for the Baen Books website, Bujold said that "[Warrior's Apprentice] had been rejected by Tor and Ace; on the advice of the Ace editor, who said it was a YA (Young Adult, what used to be called "Juvenile Fiction" back in my day—think early Heinlein), probably because the protagonist was 17, I sent it to YA publisher Atheneum, who plainly disagreed; the manuscript came back in about eight weeks." Dejected, she spoke with friends about what her next step should be. Carl recommended that she send it to a recently founded publisher, Baen Books. Bujold followed her advice, and shortly thereafter, "in late October of 1985, was Jim Baen calling me on the phone, there in my kitchen in Marion, Ohio, and offering to buy all three volumes. I was completely flummoxed by the acceptance being a phone call; I would at the time have assumed any word would travel by mail."
In 1986, Baen Books was all of two years old. Its founder, Jim Baen, had enjoyed a successful career in science-fiction publishing to that point, beginning at Ace books in their complaints department in the late 1960s. He became one of the publisher's editors when its parent company, Charter Communications, installed editor Tom Doherty to revitalize their publishing holdings. Doherty asked Baen to manage their science-fiction lines, and when he left in 1980 to found his own publishing company, Tor, Baen followed him. He lasted until 1983, when Simon and Schuster made an offer: they wanted him to be the lead editor for their own science-fiction holdings. According to an article by sci-fi author David Drake on Baen’s life, "Jim thought about the offer, then made a counter-offer: with the backing of two friends, he would form a separate company which would provide S&S with an SF line to distribute. S&S agreed and Baen Books was born."
Baen purchased Bujold's first three novels and published them in quick succession over the course of 1986, something, according to Bujold’s official website, that led "the uninitiated to imagine that I wrote a book every three months." The novels were a hit, earning her several award nominations. In 1987, Analog Science Fiction and Fact serialized her fourth novel, Falling Free, beginning in the December 1987 issue. The novel, collected and published by Baen in April 1988, went on to earn her the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1989, as well as nominations for the Hugo, Locus and Promethean awards. "I was particularly pleased to be featured in Analog, my late father's favorite magazine—I still have the check stub from the gift subscription my father bought me when I was 13 (a year for $4.00)." A second serialization, Barrayar, appeared in the July–October issues of Analog, netting her the Hugo and Locus Awards for Best Novel in 1992. Follow-up novels and stories brought in award nominations almost yearly, and her novels have continued to sell well, with her 2012 novel Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance hitting the New York Times bestseller list upon its publication.
Bujold began to expand on her early novels: they became part of a larger world later known as the Vorkosigan Saga, a vast space opera in which humanity colonizes the galaxy. Many of her stories follow members of the Vorkosigan family, "part of an elite military caste from the planet Barrayar, recently rediscovered by galactic civilization after regressing into semifeudalism," as described by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
Bujold’s stories are notable in that her novels cover a wide range of subjects, from military science fiction to political intrigue to biological ethics. Notably, her characters cut against the grain of what is typical in the genre: her novels feature prominent women and disabled individuals, and she’s described her books as “very much a space opera counter-hero, or critique of the original genre, and indeed, of the whole male-adventure genre including James Bond and the like.”
This complicates the picture of science fiction enormously. From the Golden Age of Science Fiction came the New Wave, a deliberate push against genre tropes. And in the aftermath of 1970’s science came a splintering of genre stories, with subgenres such as Cyberpunk emerging throughout the 1980s. In her own way, Bujold pushed against the long-standing conventions of space opera by using its own tropes against it. Heavily influenced by the Golden Age tales of the 1950s and 1960s, Bujold’s stories are their own evolutionary branch within genre literature. They’re not a throwback as much as they are a separate evolutionary pathway: her stories embody much of Baen’s appeal to genre readers, as they offer their own brand of action and adventure. Judging from the health of Bujold’s career, it seems that there’s still a healthy appetite for that branch of science fiction.