This is my old identity, actually: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Memory

Memory (1998) is in my opinion the worst place to start the Vorkosigan saga, because it is a sequel to all the books that have gone before it. I know that by saying this I’ll be prompting several people who started with it to say that no, it absolutely hooked them, but even so, I think you will get more out of Memory if you come to it with knowledge of the earlier books, and the most if you come to it with all of the earlier books fresh in your mind. It contains some very sharp spear points on some very long spears. Memory was nominated for a Hugo but did not win, and I suspect that might have been partly because it is so very much a sequel. (It was a very strong year, though. There are three of my all time top favourite books on that ballot.)

The themes of Memory are temptation and elephants.

This is the book where everything Miles has been getting away with from the beginning catches up with him. The text—the universe—has always been on Miles’s side. He’s always been right, against all odds, he’s always won, he’s always got away with things. It hasn’t been without cost, but he has always got away with everything. He’s been incredibly lucky and he’s even survived death. It’s been the kind of life that real people don’t have, only protagonists of series with the author on their side. In Memory, it appears at first that Bujold has stopped being on Miles’s side. The first part of the book is really grim, and really hard to read. Then the plot begins, and it gets really distressing. I’m not safe to read Memory in public because it always dissolves me into a pool of tears. Then Miles wrestles temptation two falls out of three and wins, and wins through. The whole book is about Miles’s identity, Miles split identity as Naismith and Vorkosigan, Miles discovery of his own identity, his own integrity.

My son, reading the first part of Memory, still ten years old, asked me if Miles ever got off the planet. I deduced from that that he wanted Miles to run off to the Dendarii, and when he’d finished reading it I asked if he was sorry Miles hadn’t made that choice. “Jo!” he said, furious with me, “The one thing you can’t give for your heart’s desire is your heart!” After that, I let him read whatever he wanted, because once you know that, you can’t go far wrong.

The elephants are an underlying motif, they keep cropping up. I thought about tracking all of them this read-through and decided not to bother. Somebody has probably done it. There are a lot of them.

The temptations—well, there’s the central one of Miles’s temptation to run off back to the Dendarii. The first time I read it I, like Cordelia, would have bet he would go. But the centrality of his Barrayaran identity, of what he’s fighting for, goes back to “The Mountains of Mourning” (1989), and the central turning point of Memory is his visit to Silvy Vale, where nothing has been standing still. He’s tempted again afterwards, he’s tempted, not to say bribed, by Haroche. Miles resists the temptations, he comes to his central (and much quoted) realisation that “the one thing you can’t give for your heart’s desire is your heart.” The author is still on his side, he finds integration and integrity, and he gets to be an Imperial Auditor—which might work slightly better if we’d ever heard of them before, but never mind.

Haroche though, Haroche was tempted and gives in. The Haroche plot totally fooled me the first time through—of all the books in this series with mystery plots, this one is the best. All the clues are hidden in plain sight, it all makes perfect sense when you’re re-reading remembering exactly what they are, and so does the reason you didn’t see them the first time. The whole plot is brilliant. And the way it’s interleaved with the themes and the incidentals is incredible. I would be in awe reading it, if I wasn’t always in tears.

The plot is against Illyan, who we have seen constantly in the background since Shards of Honor (1986) and who now comes into the foreground. I don’t think for a moment that when Bujold wrote about his memory chip in 1986 she thought “and in 1998 I can write about it breaking down.” This isn’t that kind of series. I like Ilyan. The description of his disintegration remains very distressing. The first time I read it I actually broke down and sobbed on the line “Ivan, you idiot, what are you doing here?” Yesterday, on a bus, and expecting it, I just had tears in my eyes. The whole section is almost unbearably brilliant.

There’s a lot of romance in this book. There’s Gregor’s marriage plans, Galeni’s marriage plans, Ivan proposing to Delia and Martya Koudelka on the same day, Alys and Illyan, Miles and Taura at the beginning, Miles and Elli Quinn giving each other up at the end. That looks forward to the other books in the series, where romance becomes increasingly a theme.

Cetaganda (1995) is the last of the books to be written out of order. The series preceding Memory was written all over the place, chronologically. From Memory on it marches straight forward, one books succeeding the next, chronological and publication order are the same.

I’ve talked about the different ways the series begins, and I’ve talked about the way all the books stand alone and recapitulate important information so you don’t necessarily have to have read the other books. I started this re-read thinking about how this is a series that got better as it went on, instead of starting with a brilliant book and declining. I think a lot of what made it get better was starting with adventures and a deeper level of realism than adventures normally get and then going on taking those adventures seriously and making the realism more and more realistic. There’s this thing where a reader accepts the level of reality of fiction as part of the mode, part of the “givens” of the text, the controlling axioms. So we don’t really think that a seventeen-year-old could create the Dendarii out of bluff and illusion, but we go along with that because we get enough details, and because the emotional level of plausibility is there, and the cost is there—Bothari, and Naismith not being Miles’s name. And by Memory, the mode is different, and what we have is a psychologically realistic novel about the psychological cost of having got away with all of those things for so long.

Endings are a problem with an unplanned series, because the series isn’t working towards an end point, just going on and on. Bujold is particularly good at endings on individual volumes, there isn’t a single book that doesn’t have a satisfactory climax. But the series as a whole doesn’t have an end, doesn’t go anywhere. Memory is one possible place for the story to end. It’s a capstone for all that’s gone before. It’s not as if there isn’t more than can happen to Miles—and indeed, we have three more (and a fourth being written) books about Miles. But what happens from Memory on is a set of different things, going on from there, not really reaching back to the earlier books. You can see it as two series—three. One about Cordelia, one about Miles growing up and being Admiral Naismith, stretching from The Warrior’s Apprentice to Memory and the third post-Memory, a series about Miles’s love life and his career as Imperial Auditor. Memory is a climax for the whole series so far, and I think if it had ended there there would have been a feeling of rightness, a satisfaction, about that. I do not urge people to stop reading at Memory, but when you’re looking at the series as a series and how it works, it’s worth considering it as a possible end.

It is also my opinion that Memory is the point where the series stopped getting better. The other three books, while they’re a new direction for the series, while they’re never repetitive or just more-of-the-same, are no better than Memory. (The new one when it comes may well prove me wrong, as Bujold has certainly gone on getting better as a writer in her post-Miles career.)

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