All true wealth is biological: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance

Mirror Dance is my favourite of the Vorkosigan series. It’s the third Hugo winner of the series, and Bujold’s third Hugo award-winning novel in a row.

It’s a very long book. It doesn’t look any longer than the others, but it’s 560 pages, in contrast to Barrayar‘s 386 and The Vor Game‘s 342. It needs to be longer, because a lot happens in it.

Mirror Dance (1994) is a direct sequel to Brothers in Arms (1989), though it could be read alone. (All of these books except Memory (1996) could be read alone.) It’s Mark’s book, though Miles is in it, it’s the story of how a nameless clone became Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan. It’s about identity and survival and better living through multiple personality disorder. It’s surprising and brilliant, it does things you wouldn’t think any series book could get away with, and the pacing is astonishing.

The best thing about the book is Mark, becoming a person. The most astonishing thing is that Miles spends half the book dead. In Brothers in Arms, Mark was another doubling of Miles. Here he is trying hard not to be. Also, Miles is hyperactive, brittle-boned, and charismatic. Mark is none of those things. Mark is short but solid, and he has been trained as an assassin.

In the beginning, Mark again poses as Miles and this time successfully takes a Dendarii ship, Bel Thorne’s Ariel, and a battle group, Sergeant Taura’s Green Squad. His plan is to rescue fifty clones from Jackson’s Whole. The clones are being grown for life-extension purposes—not their lives, the lives of their originals, who will have their brains transplanted into the clone bodies, while the clone brains, personalities and all, are classes as “medical waste.” This is a really horrible process, analagous to nothing in the real world, but entirely plausible as just the sort of thing unethical rich people would do. In this book we see Jackson’s Whole in revolting close-up detail—again, Bujold makes me feel the details would have been there all along if only I’d been focusing on them.

Miles comes back to the Dendarii happy and confident; his only problem is that Quinn won’t marry him. He collects some cryo-revival cases, cleverly setting us up with more detailed information on cryo-revival than we’d had before, though it has been mentioned right back to The Warrior’s Apprentice (1986). He goes to the fleet, only to find the Ariel gone. He rushes off in pursuit. Meanwhile, Bel has figured out that Mark is Mark, but goes on with the mission for its own reasons. The mission goes horribly wrong, Miles arrives, rushes down to rescue Mark, and is killed.

The first time I was totally shocked when I got to Miles’s death. Nothing had prepared me for it, not Murka in “The Borders of Infinity,” not the body he hides under in Brothers in Arms, not any of the other deaths Miles has been close to. Death is there in military science fiction, death is right there but your protagonist always has a hairsbreadth escape. It’s very hard to emotionally believe that one could really die oneself, that the world could keep going on but you wouldn’t be in it, and point-of-view characters in fiction get this same special protection, especially after you’ve been reading about them for books and books. By the time Mirror Dance came out, I’d caught up to the rest of the series, this is in fact where I started buying them as they came out. And I was online, yes, it was 1994, that’s when I went online. I remember seeing (and not reading) “Mirror Dance (spoilers)” threads on rec.arts.sf.written and not being able to wait for the UK edition. Anyway, Miles’s death is another example of those things you just don’t expect.

Miles stays dead for a long time. When you’re reading about Aral and Cordelia trying to deal with Mark as the potential next Count Vorkosigan, the first time you have to ask yourself whether you are going to have to deal with him as the potential protagonist. I like Mark. But I was terribly worried about Miles.

When my son was ten, he read (in internal chronological order) all the Miles books up to Brothers in Arms, in about a fortnight. He then wanted to read Mirror Dance, and I wasn’t at all sure about it. There’s some very disturbing stuff in it, and I wasn’t sure if ten was old enough. I am all in favour of there being books appropriate for adults and not children, and I think it’s the parent’s responsibility to make sure kids don’t get upset by things that are likely to really upset them. “Maybe you should wait on this one until you’re older,” I said. He hadn’t just read half a ton of Miles for nothing. “How about if I read the ones about Cordelia, then?” “Great!” I said. “Because after I’ve read them, I’ll be older…” I gave in, but when I gave him Mirror Dance I said that if there was anything that upset him I was there to talk about it. He came downstairs at seven o’clock the next morning. “Jo! Miles is dead!” “I told you there were upsetting things in that book.” “He does come alive again, doesn’t he?” “Yes.” “I’m not going to school today.” “Why not?” “How can I go to school while Miles is dead?”

Miles does indeed come alive again, though not without cost. But there’s a great big chunk of the book when he’s dead, and it’s actually the most interesting bit. Mark goes to Barrayar and meets his parents and Gregor and Illyan and Kareen Koudelka. He stops trying to be Miles and starts to discover who he is himself. He joins in the search for Miles, having learned Miles from a different perspective and grown ready to value him. “All true wealth is biological” is what Aral says when he thinks he’s dying. Mark doesn’t understand it for a long time—he means you cannot buy love, or friendship, or family, and he is at that point, thinking Miles is permanently dead, inviting Mark to be family.

All the books up to this point have contrasted the feudal masculinity of Barrayar with the egalitarian femininity of Beta Colony. Mirror Dance puts the integrity of Barrayar against the conniving of Jackson’s Whole. Bujold has always been good at giving characters the virtues of their flaws, and for that matter, the flaws of their virtues. It’s easy to hate Barrayar in Barrayar, but here we see what is most attractive about it, and we see it begin to heal Mark, or find a way for Mark to heal himself, to become Mark.

When Mark decides to return to Jackson’s Whole to rescue Miles, the story goes back to Miles, but Miles newly awakened and amnesiac. Miles is endearing trying to figure out where he is, what’s going on, and how to get on top of the situation. But it’s all very tense. We remain in Miles’s point of view for long enough to get used to it, then alternate between Mark and Miles as Mark is tortured by Ryoval and Miles is kept prisoner by Bharaputra. Mark waits for ImpSec to come, or the Dendarii, they’d have come for Miles… and horrible things are done to him. But he heeds Aral’s advice and does not sell himself to his enemy in advance, and he manages to kill Ryoval and escape.

(The torture sequences, and the psychological effects of that, brilliantly done as they are, are what I actually thought unsuitable for a ten-year-old—in fact he had no problem with them, I think the most distressing aspects probably went over his head.)

A note on the pacing here—Bujold never uses suspense for its own sake, but the sequence of information of what we know when about Miles, and about Mark and Ryoval, is very cleverly done, not just in what it leaves out but in when it gets us information.

At the end of the novel Mark has beaten Ryoval, has beaten Jackson’s Whole, and Miles is alive but fragile. The two of them are a lot more equal than they have been, and they have become brothers.

There are two moments in Mirror Dance that brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it, and they’re one for each of them. The first is when Miles gets his memory back and he thinks immediately of Bothari “Oh sergeant, your boy really messed up.” I don’t know why I should find that so heart-stirring, but I do. The other is when part of Mark, in dissociation, talking to himself, shyly thinks that Aral is a killer too. I just find that incredibly touching.

Barrayar is about being a parent. So is this. Miles is in one sense Mark’s parent, and so are Aral and Cordelia, trying to find a way to cope with a new grown-up and screwed-up son. Mark has to learn to have parents, and a home. “For the first time in his life, he was going home” he thinks as he returns to Barrayar at the end. Mirror Dance is about finding identity—not only for Mark, but for poor amnesiac Miles as well.

On re-reading, the first part, up to Miles’s death, has the inevitability of Greek tragedy. The shadow of “remember you must die” falls across all what we see of Miles being happy and relaxed. Mark isn’t given a name, in his own thoughts, because he doesn’t yet have one in his own mind.

I find it a very difficult book to analyse. It’s so good, and so immediate that it sucks me right in, it’s hard to stand back from it at all.


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