The infamous "Was Bisexual, Now Monogamous" lineIn Barrayar, during a social event one of Aral's political enemies tells Cordelia about rumors that Aral was bisexual. Not realizing that in homophobic Barrayar, this man was trying to torpedo Aral and Cordelia's marriage, Cordelia glibly responds that Aral "was bisexual, now monogamous" - a deliberate display of Values Dissonance between Barrayar and Cordelia's home of Beta Colony, which has also earned at least a few notes around this wiki as having some Unfortunate Implications.
One forgets that Beta isn't a stand-in for the present-day United States (or even California) any more than Barrayar is properly a stand-in for present-day Russia.note Each takes and exaggerates elements from these societies, but is not wholly informed by them. In short, it's also meant to be a deliberate Values Dissonance between Beta and Bujold's target market of present-day English-speaking Science Fiction fans.
It's less obvious because we get far fewer direct glimpses into Betan life, but what we do see shows that Betan society is heavily "psychologized," so to speak - they have an almost obsessive tendency to psychoanalyze and deconstruct their understanding of themselves and other people. As such, the Betan understanding of sexuality takes a distinctly different turn from how most modern Western societies understand it. To wit, for Betans, sexuality is not about an "orientation" but about practice - your sexuality is described by what you do. As such, it is something that can change through one's lifetime as one's own sexual practices change. If a Betan man was to go from exclusively having sex with other men to exclusively having sex with women, then he would have been "gay" for a time, and then "straight" (and would be "bisexual" only if such practices overlapped for a time, or in trying to sum up his whole life's sexual practices in one word). If one was to frame it in modern Western terms, then it would be said that many Betans have a fairly fluid sexual orientation that shifts across their lifetime. (Betans wouldn't say that because, again, they would say your practices were what's fluid, and that "orientation" is an artifact of a restrictive understanding of sexuality that relies on categorization and fitting people into boxes. Kinsey has nothing on Beta.)
Monogamy in Betan society thus itself becomes a form of sexuality because it describes someone engaging in an exclusive sexual relationship, which is not universal given Beta is something of a Free-Love Future. Monogamy is about deliberately choosing to practice a Single-Target Sexuality. As a result, in the Betan understanding Aral Vorkosigan would be said to have at one time practiced bisexuality (as he had a wife and also at least one male lover at the same time) and then began practicing monogamy when he took up with Cordelia.
- Many fans reviewing Gentlemen Jole and the Red Queen expressed great upset that Aral was "cheating" on Cordelia with Oliver. The classic line was repeated by many who perceived Aral and Cordelia to be the Official Couple of the series. However, in-universe, Cordelia had no problem with Aral and Oliver's relationship, even though it began while she was traveling. She also notes that she and Aral had discussed the possibility of him taking a male lover at some point. This further ties into the Betan penchant for psychoanalyzing everything. Basically, Cordelia acknowledged that Aral was attracted to men, and that this was in fact his primary orientation. Betans distinguish between sex and love much more definitively than most real-life cultures, and certainly more than Barrayarans. Cordelia did not perceive Aral's need for male intimacy to be an indicator that he loved her any less. She does not equate monogamy with love. This is a reasonable perspective to hold, especially after years on Barrayar where many marriages are political rather than romantic. Even if such marriages maintain a Happy Marriage Charade for propriety's sake, that does not mean the couple is in love. Cordelia, Aral and Oliver became a de facto polyamorous marriage with the full consent of all three participants. Which may be the real distinction Cordelia originally made. Rather than being the spurned wife whose husband was cheating, Cordelia made allowances for Aral's sexuality as a factor in their marriage even before he took up with Oliver. She knew about it and dealt with it as a known quantity and their relationship. Honesty in earrings basically. The torpedo was therefore a dud, because a Barrayaran would likely interpret the insinuation as meaning that Aral was a Depraved Bisexual who would sleep with everything on two legs. Cordelia merely treated it as a factual statement regarding Aral's sexual orientation, but not of his character or merit as a husband.
Symbolism in Komarr and A Civil Campaign
Remember the famous bonsai'd skellytum that was one of the few live plants Ekaterin could keep in her tiny apartment on Komarr? It's a symbol for Ekaterin herself.
- It was given to her as a bonsai by an older female relative, and she treasured and cared for it. (She was trained by her family to make herself small and pleasing for the sake of propriety, and she bought into those values.)
- She carried it with her everywhere she moved with Tien. (She accepted being Tien's accessory, moving with him when he couldn't keep a job, accomodating and pacifying him, she made herself small for him.)
- Tien threw it off the balcony while threatening hershattering the pot and breaking the plant. (Tien's behavior was really what broke up their marriage. The whole situation almost broke herbut also freed her from her cage.)
- Miles took the broken skellytum out of the trash and tried cluelessly to put it back together, prompting her to save a root piece to regrow. (Miles didn't know what she needed to help her heal, but he knew that she deserved it and his admiration helped her toward rebirth.)
- And here's the big one: in A Civil Campaign, Miles offered her a much larger space to regrow the skellytum in, in which we are told it will grow to its natural size, which is huge. (Starting a new life with Miles will give her room to grow to her full potential.)
- Also, in the process of trying to win her heart, he foolishly disrespects her and drives her away. During the worst part of that time, he neglects the skellytum, having failed to read the instructions for its care. After being shown what he has done to her in terms he can understand, he goes out and tries to care for the skellytumby watering it from a mughe's still got a lot to learn, but reconciliation begins while he does this.