“He isn’t like anything, he’s the original.” Some thoughts on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Aral Vorkosigan

Aral Vorkosigan appears in most of the books of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, and even when he doesn’t appear he’s an important character because he has been such a shaping influence on his son Miles. There are fictional characters you come to know because they feel so real, and when you’ve lived with them so long them feel like your friends. You can gossip about them. The last time I re-read the Vorkosigan books I read them in publication order and considered them as the evolution of a series that gets better as it goes along. After reading the newest volume, Cryoburn, I immediately rushed off and started re-reading at Shards of Honor (post) went on reading by internal chronology and didn’t stop for a week. I thought I’d probably said all the sensible things there were to say about the books last time, and what I wanted to talk about now is the people.

If you haven’t read the books, do. They’re science fiction, they’re very well written, they consider all sorts of burning issues of life and death and the influence of technology on both. They stand alone very well, and my posts on the series discuss good starting points. But you don’t want to read any more of this post unless you really don’t mind spoilers.

Spoilers for everything except Cryoburn, which will be separately marked.

We never see Aral from his own point of view, always from outside. We first meet him in Shards of Honor, from Cordelia’s point of view, as an enemy. He’s an honourable enemy from the first, and in their trek across the wilderness with the brain-damaged Ensign Dubauer. She soon comes to like him and then love him, and the qualities that draw her are his honour and his humour. I think those are the key things about Aral—he’s honourable by default, and he’s funny. He’s funny with Cordelia almost at once. “I’m one of the fittest men in my command,” he says, then adds. “Over forty.” “And how many men are there in your command over forty?” “Four.” She later claims, when he says he fell in love with her when he saw her throwing up, that she didn’t fall in love with him for several days. I fell in love with him right there. I’ve talked before about how things meant to be funny often irritate me. Aral’s sense of humour works for me.

So Aral is over forty when he first appears as a character. But we learn a lot about his earlier life. His father, Count Piotr is a great hero of the Cetagandan invasion that marked the end of Barrayar’s Time of Isolation. His mother was half-Betan, his maternal grandparents were Prince Xav Vorbarra, son of Emperor Dorca, and a Betan diplomat. He’s Vor, part of the military caste, and High Vor—we later learn that there are arguments by which he has a claim to the throne, through his mother and Prince Xav. (He says he doesn’t because of Salic descent, but as Dorca’s own claim was by Salic descent, this doesn’t hold up.) But what it really means to him to be Vor is that he has a duty to Barrayar and to the Imperium. He defines his life in relation to how he stands to Barrayar. Aral has honour, he also has duty and responsibility—and that redeeming touch of irony.

He was the second son, the cadet, not originally the heir. When he was eleven he saw his mother and older brother killed in front of him by assassins sent by Mad Emperor Yuri, and he participated in the ensuing civil war. When he came to give Yuri his death blow, Yuri sneered at him as a child and he said “You killed all the children in that room.” This is the key event of his life, I think. He’s still thinking about being the second son as late as Mirror Dance (post), and Miles knows this whole story very well. Aral knows that the next thing coming through the door might be an assassin, he always knows it, it’s not something you can forget. He lives his life in the shadow of that potential door—and the way he copes with it is by living in the moment with constant thought for tomorrow. “All true wealth is biological.”

When he was twenty he married, in a typical arranged marriage. He was happy with the marriage, he says to Cordelia, but he returned from ship duty to find she had two lovers, both of whom he killed in duels. The wife (who I don’t think is ever named?) then committed suicide. He was never charged with their deaths, it was assumed they killed each other. This would have been about twenty years before Shards, and it’s reason enough for why he didn’t re-marry, despite his need for an heir. I don’t recall Miles ever mentioning this—I don’t suppose it’s a secret, but I also can’t imagine Aral bringing it up in casual conversation. Cordelia mentions it to Mark, but not specifically.

After this duel-suicide incident, he had a homosexual relationship with Ges Vorrutyer. This eventually ended, but Vorrutyer remained obsessed with Aral. We don’t learn anything about this from Aral. He never talks to anybody about it. Vorrutyer tells Cordelia, in the rape scene, and then Vordarian tells Cordelia in a ballroom, hoping to destroy Aral’s happiness. Cordelia, being Betan, isn’t at all bothered by the genders of the people involved, just the psychological effects. She tells Vordarian he “was bisexual, now he’s monogamous,” which must reflect Betan views of sexual orientation rather than modern ones. (They’re probably ear-ring code statuses.) She tells Mark in Mirror Dance that she thinks Aral is sexually attracted to soldiers of either gender. Barrayar, of course, only allows men to serve. (I’ve always wondered how Aral felt about Bel.)

Then came Komarr, when he was about thirty. He conquered Komarr for the Empire brilliantly—his book on the subject is considered a classic by Tung a generation later. But the shine is taken off the whole thing by the massacre of prisoners, followed by his murder of the man responsible, without waiting for trial. This gains Aral the name “Butcher of Komarr” which always makes him wince. It also casts a long shadow down his life—not just in how people react to him, but the existence of Mark comes from this.

During Shards of Honor, Aral compromises his honour to save Barrayar—the Escobar invasion, the death of Prince Serg and the elimination of his political faction. At the time the books have reached, this secret has been kept as far as I know. Miles doesn’t know. I don’t think Gregor knows. Most of the secrets of Shards have come back to bite—Bothari’s nature in The Warrior’s Apprentice (post), Serg’s nature in The Vor Game (post). But this one stayed secret. Aral thought he had destroyed himself in doing Ezar’s bidding with this, but Ezar wasn’t finished with him. It was difficult for him to go on—he still had his sense of duty, but his honour was wounded. This is why, I think, he was so rigid about the need for Carl Vorhalas to die for duelling. Miles, from the same culture a generation later, thinks of breaking his word as a kind of virginity lost. Aral had kept his honour through so much, and with it lost he was trying to go by the book.

He also fell in love with Cordelia. The thing I like the most about this is that he has kept her uniform and has it with him, neatly folded. It’s the only thing she left except the shuttle, which “would have made an awkward momento.” Awww. Of course she fell in love with him. He’s irresistible.

So, we have reached the beginning of Barrayar (post). Evon Vorhalas’s attack with the soltoxin grenade primarily wounds Miles (“I was a casualty in Vordarian’s Pretendership before I was born!”) but Aral’s response to this is interesting. You’d think it would be like Piotr’s, but it isn’t at all. He backs up Cordelia, he wants this child, however damaged. He says he will not fail his firstborn—although he already has, and he backs up and says he will not fail him again, a second chance Piotr was not given. Aral is immensely busy being Regent and running the war, and he makes decisions instantly. He can’t go and get the replicator. But he loves Cordelia and trusts her and has her back. Their relationship really isn’t Barrayaran—but it isn’t Betan either.

We don’t see him with Miles as a child, but we’re told in Miles’s memories that he took a two hour lunch every day and spent it with him, and that he was the only person who could make Miles behave. Miles had a number of adults to pattern himself on—both parents, his grandfather, Bothari. Clearly Aral taught him the immense sense of duty he owed and what it meant to be Vor. By this time, Aral was again acquiring flexibility. Aral’s Regent, and he has an unconventional wife and an unconventional son, as well as the cares of the whole planet. But he copes and brings them all through alive—and in the case of the planet, much improved. (Three planets, actually, which makes it even trickier.)

When we next see him seventeen years after in The Warrior’s Apprentice he has given up the Regency and become Prime Minister, and Count. He has to cope with his father’s death and his son’s treason—oh all right it isn’t treason, but it is breaking Vourloupolis’s law, and it is a trial for treason. I’d love his point of view here. Piotr dies, Miles fails to get into the military, goes offplanet and…disappears. Rumours return of the Dendarii—what Miles is doing is insane when you look at it, and Aral has to keep manouvering to put off the trial, to change the charge, all without knowing whether Miles will come back. If Miles had stayed with the mercenaries then, Aral would have lost him just as much as if he’d come home and been executed. It didn’t tempt Miles, then, but did Aral know that? The son who comes home and offers him a swig of antacid isn’t the son who left.

In The Vor Game, Aral has to cope with his foster son growing up. The Vor Game is very focused on Gregor through Miles’s eyes, and there isn’t anything like enough Aral in it. Aral sees Miles after the Kyril Island incident, and Aral says Miles did “a right thing.” Miles works hard for that crumb of approval. And it’s the same at the end, when they meet after the battle, Aral is there to approve what Miles has done, but we don’t really see what Aral thinks of it. He lets Gregor come to the battle. That’s his real triumph, Aral has guided the Imperium and he’s stepping back to let Gregor do it, and Gregor is competent to do it. Having said that, Gregor ran away out of depression, so they haven’t done all that well.

The next interesting thing is how Aral dealt with Mark. He ducked out on the first meeting, and then he avoided him until he thought Miles was dead. He says “he might be all we have left of Miles.” He doesn’t want to think of him as what he is. Mark is very difficult. But all the same, I was disappointed in Aral until he tried, at Vorkosigan Surleau, to really make a connection. Then he does, and what he tells Mark in the hospital is what makes it possible for Mark to do what he does. He wishes he could send Bothari with him. (So do I.) It’s very strange that what they have in common is murder, but Mark is so screwed up that this is useful. I wish we saw more of them together later, but my favourite Aral line in the whole series is in A Civil Campaign (post) where he’s confronted with “Do you know what your son has done now?” and answers “Which one?” That’s a great degree of acceptance of a clone designed as your assassin.

Aral and Cordelia are sent off to Sergyar after Mirror Dance to have another job to do, and to get out of the way of the younger generation. It makes sense, and it’s nice to think of them doing something useful and fun and not just vegetating, but…it’s a pity not to see them.

Now we get to spoilers for Cryoburn, and I’m really sorry if saying this is in and of itself a spoiler for Cryoburn.

So, Aral’s dead. But fictional characters are different from real people—he’s still alive in the earlier books. But he’s dead, and he’ll never do anything new or call Cordelia “Dear Captain” or make me laugh with surprise. This read through I kept tearing up when he said things that always make me laugh. I’m really going to miss him.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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