Choose again, and change: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga

The Vorkosigan saga began to be published in 1986, there are thirteen volumes so far, the most recent one published in 2002, and there’s a new one being written. It’s a series of standalone volumes that you can start almost anywhere, a series where very few of the books are like each other, where the volumes build on other volumes so that you want to read them all but you don’t need to for it to make sense. It’s science fiction, specifically space opera set in societies where the introduction of new technologies is changing everything. Some volumes are military science fiction, some are mysteries, one is a romance (arguably two), some are political and deal with the fates of empires, others are up-close character studies with nothing more (or less) at stake than one person’s integrity. It’s a series with at least three beginnings, and with at least two possible ends, although it is ongoing. Lots of people love it, as you can see by the threads about it here, but others despise it, saying that technologies of birth and death are not technological enough. As a series, it’s constantly surprising, never predictable, almost never what you might expect—which may well be what has kept it fresh and improving for so long.

I started it first in the middle, went back to the beginning, read the books in entirely random order until I was caught up, and subsequently read the books as they came out. My shelves started off with scruffy second hand British paperbacks, graduated to smarter new British paperbacks, then new US paperbacks, then US hardbacks.  Over time I’ve replaced the second-hand British paperbacks (except for Shards of Honor) and for this re-read where I’ve been reading really fast and carrying the books around with me, I replaced my hardcovers with paperbacks. (I’d never buy hardcovers if it wasn’t for impatience. I often end up buying a hardcover and then replacing it with a paperback. When we finally get print on demand, I’m going to demand trade paperbacks instantly at hardcover prices.) I first started reading them in the early nineties and I’ve re-read them often in the two decades since, but always in internal chronological order. I started reading with Brothers in Arms and got hooked on Shards of Honor.

And I’ve been re-reading them non-stop for a fortnight now. I’ve done 13 posts about them in 15 days. (I’ve been so entirely immersed in them I had a terrific dream about the Third Cetagandan War the other night.) I started reading them in publication order to consider them as a series that improves as it goes on, and I’ve been thinking about them as a series and as a whole.

I find them remarkably easy to be entirely absorbed in, and surprisingly hard to stand away from and analyse. Some of these posts I’ve managed it, others I’ve just burbled. Gossiping about the characters is easy.

I have a theory that that’s one of the functions of long-running series. It’s not just art, which is between you and the artist, it’s also gossip, between you and other people. Certainly I have discussed these books a lot. With a long series where details and information and events reflect on other volumes, there’s more to discuss because there’s more context. There’s more gossip. The Vorkosiverse is very open to gossip, about the characters, about the history, about the details. Consider the discussion about the Escobaran replicators still going on a week after I posted about Barrayar. People care about the characters, and the history, and it all fits together well enough that you can trust it.

Bujold has said she reserves the right to have a better idea. Nevertheless, she does remarkably little changing things—you get occasional things, like “Luigi Bharaputra” losing the “and Sons” but mostly the universe can be trusted to stay where she put it. When you get more history it almost always appears to be fractally opening out from what you already knew.

There are good things with long series, where little things from early on get picked up and built on, or just mentioned. Miles never stops missing Bothari. Elena is visiting her mother. Ivan isn’t an idiot.

Occasionally, I noticed a tech thing where the real world has moved faster than you’d expect. In Komarr, Miles uses (and snoops on) Ekaterin’s comconsole. Yeah, I used to borrow other people’s computers to check my mail in 1998 as well. There’s surprisingly little of this, considering that a lot of books written in the late eighties have been entirely left behind by widespread home computers, the internet, and ubiquitous mobile phones.

Some people who started reading late in the order of the published series say they like Lord Vorkosigan more than Admiral Naismith, others have other opinions. I’ve always liked the duality in Miles, the multiplicity in Mark, the complexity of the universe.

As I was finishing Diplomatic Immunity the other day and considering whether it made a good end for the series, I realised that I had no idea what the new book would be about. No idea who it would be focused on, when it would be set, or even what subgenre it would be in. She could do anything with this series. I’d rather thought she’d moved beyond it, with the Five Gods books and the Sharing Knife books, but I’m really pleased she’s coming back to it—or going on to it, as Elena says in Memory, you don’t go back, you go forward.

The quote for this post comes from Brothers in Arms, and it’s what Miles says to Mark when Mark is terrified and stuck and totally in control of Miles, who is strapped to a chair at the time. Mark says who and what he is, and Miles tells him to choose again, and change. (Someone else in that situation might beg him to, Miles pretty much orders him to.) The series seems to have taken that advice, it makes new choices, it changes, it goes on from where it is and becomes something different.

So I was thinking what I’d like to be in the new volume. Ideally, I’d like it to have some Mark and Ivan. I’d like it to be partly set on Barrayar and partly elsewhere. And I’d like it to entirely surprise me. How about you? What do you especially hope for, or especially dread?

I was also wondering about dangling loose ends. There are surprisingly few. There’s Sergyar, how nice it was to see someone from Sergyar in Diplomatic Immunity, and with worm-plague scars too. I’d be so interested to find out more about what it’s like now. Miles and Ekaterin’s children, how will they grow up, and how will Miles cope with fatherhood. Will Nikki be a problem? Will Aral die, as Bujold has hinted he might? Will the damage from the Cetagandan bioweapon prove as subtle and lingering as the cryofreezing damage? How will Mark and Kareen develop? Where is Cavilo, and what is she doing these days? How is Elli Quinn coping alone? Taura’s decline and death—Quinn promised to call Miles when she started to decline. That’s got to happen at some point. When did Miles perform an assassination for Illyan? (Mentioned in A Civil Campaign. Did I miss it, or is it something unwritten?) Do Miles and the Cetagandan Emperor have a future destiny? (Thank goodness he didn’t give Miles a haut wife at the end of Diplomatic Immunity. Gosh that would have ruined his life. Would have been interesting though. I can imagine him and Ekaterin a bit like Charles and Camilla.)  Will Arde Mayhew ever find an RG freighter? Will anyone ever uncover any of the buried secrets? (In Anthony Price’s Audley series, one of the later volumes is about some people investigating the events of one of the earlier volumes. I can see totally see someone writing a book about the invasion of Sergyar and finding out more than they wanted to.)

Any more?

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