Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga are the kind of science fiction books that consider hard edged ideas about new technology and change, and show them to you in a social matrix so smoothly that you hardly feel as if you’ve been reading something crunchy at all. I suppose this is why the books get filed as military science fiction and space opera rather than hard sci-fi.
The last time I read them, I wrote about them in publication order as a series that gets better. This time, the new one, Cryoburn, sent me haring after a fast reread of my favourites. They have such great characters that sometimes I just want to gossip about them, and that’s what I’m doing here. If you haven’t read them, start with The Warrior’s Apprentice. But don’t read the rest of this post, unless you don’t mind spoilers for everything except Cryoburn, which will be separately marked.
Spoilers for everything pre-Cryoburn. Cryoburn spoilers will be indicated with the words “CRYOBURN SPOILERS.”
Miles Naismith Vorkosigan was literally shaped by Barrayar. He was, as he says, “a casualty in the war of Vordarian’s Pretendership before I was born”—he took collateral damage in an assassination attempt on his father. A teratogenic poison in the antidote to the poison gas made his bones start sloughing calcium, experimental treatments made him a misshapen dwarf rather than “something that needed to be carried in a bucket.” And his mind was just as shaped by his world, just as forced into form. He’s sure that the mind can compensate for the body—at seventeen he petitioned for the physical and written tests for admission to the military academy to be considered together, and while it hasn’t always been that literal, that’s where he’s always been.
One of the major themes of the books is Miles’s need to serve. Playing as a child, and even growing up, he wanted to be the heroic Vorthalia the Bold. He constantly thinks about his life as an offering—an offering to be burnt to the dead, or an offering to lay at the feet of a lover. He wants to free people—daring rescures are his speciality, and metaphorical rescues run them a close second. He sees his relationships with everyone from his emperor and his grandfather down to people he barely knows (Harra, Elli at the time of Warrior’s) in terms of how he can serve them. He desperately wants to dedicate himself—and I think this is no less true of him at nearly forty. What makes Miles happy is having a sense of dedication and people who will accept his offering. Cordelia thinks that Barrayar has eaten him, and indeed it has. But he’s her son too—he sees very clearly.
Unlike Aral, who we first see fully formed and over forty, we see Miles practically from conception. He’s born twice in Barrayar, once part way through gestation after the soltoxin damage and then again, triumphantly, at the end. What a wonderfully complex world he’s born into! He’s the eleventh generation of Vorkosigans, he’s the heir to the count his grandfather, by some arguments he’s closely in line for the Imperium, the Emperor is his foster brother and his father is Regent of Barrayar. His bodyguard is Sergeant Bothari, a psychotic murderer and rapist, his grandfather wants to kill him. And the whole hunchbacked dwarf thing might not be so bad if he didn’t live on a planet that hates mutants and sees him as one. His mother is a Betan. There’s a whole galaxy out there, friends and enemies from even before he’s born.
Also unlike Aral, we see Miles mostly from inside Miles, we get Miles’s own vision of himself and his world and his place in it. When Miles screws up, we see his own version of what happens. This is one of Bujold’s great achievements I think, Miles’s point of view, when Miles takes his own weird culture and his own odd drives utterly for granted. Miles has immense charisma, he’s manipulative, he’s hyperactive, he’d be impossible—and on the rare occasions we see him from outside we see this. But from inside yes, we see Rowan going crazy being cooped up with him, we see his black depression after Bothari’s death and after he’s thrown out of ImpSec, but we understand it and sympathise. We’re in third person but about as close as third can get. Externally Miles isn’t necessarily attractive or sympathetic—internally, he really is.
When we first encounter Miles in The Warrior’s Apprentice, he thinks of himself as hideous and twisted and looking like a mutant villain from Barrayaran drama. He thinks the only women who would be interested in him would be kinky/curious Betans. But in fact he has plenty of romantic encounters before his eventual marriage, and plenty of love. Miles wants love—he wants to be loved, and he wants to be allowed to love. We see him have a romantic entanglements with the bio-engineered eight foot tall fanged Taura, and with Elli, later Admiral, Quinn, and with Rowan Durona—and all of these are based on them being attracted to him. We also see him fail to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart Elena Bothari—not because he’s physically misshapen, but because of Barrayar. He has a version of the same problem with Quinn, of course, she doesn’t want Barrayar. It’s interesting that what really draws him to Ekaterin is his need to rescue her and her matching Vor compulsions.
We first meet him failing to climb over a wall—impetuous and longing to serve. He then invents a whole mercenary fleet, with himself as admiral, out of essentially nothing. He has just become a count’s heir, with his grandfather’s death, and he takes advantage of that enthusiastically to swear two strays he meets as soon as he lands on Beta Colony, the Betan freighter pilot Arde and the Barrayaran deserter Baz. The whole Dendarii scam begins as a brilliant improvisation and a set of conning lies. His skill at this is part of what he’s inherited or learned from Cordelia. The way she gets off Beta at the end of Shards is very similar to Miles in manic mode, talking the journalists into taking her to the spaceport, talking Arde into taking her along with him. He’s also like her in carrying on in carpet slippers.
From then on what we see from Miles is the way he’s torn apart. On the one hand the whole Admiral Naismith improvisation is a house of cards—he needs it, but he doesn’t have his heart in it because it isn’t for anything, it isn’t dedicated, he doesn’t just want to be a soldier and have fun, he wants to serve. On the other hand, he wants to serve Barrayar and Barrayar does not (pre-Memory) need him in any useful ways. He’s insubordinate and impossible. He’s a fine commander, but he’s a terrible follower—the bit in The Vor Game where he has all three of his recent commanding officers locked up in a row is typical. Ivan complains about not having ship duty and says Miles has had more than anyone, because Miles has had it as part of his brilliant improvisation.
The most interesting Miles books for me are Mirror Dance and Memory, whuch are the books where Miles has to face himself. After his death and revivification among the Duronas he’s amnesiac and down to basics. And basics for Miles are “talk your way out of things” and “survive” and “serve somebody.” When he gets his memory back, the cascade, it’s very telling that it’s Bothari he feels he has let down. Bothari and Piotr have between them really had as much influence on Miles as Aral and Cordelia. In Memory when Miles does back himself into a corner and confront himself, I think the most significant moment is when in Illyan’s confusion we see him going through the stages and he tells Miles to trust Bothari and watch out for Piotr.
I think it’s interesting to consider the question of what has changed Miles. First, and physically having the plastic bones and the post-cryorevival spine straightening has made him a lot less fragile—which is usually but not always a win, as in Komarr when he can’t break the bones of his hand to escape the handcuffs. Then having a brother has changed him—his whole interaction with Mark and how he can trust him. I like it when he realises that Ivan is more his brother. (I can’t wait for Ivan’s POV. Waaaant!) But I like the way they are together. Success has changed him—becoming Admiral Naismith, and then transcending Admiral Naismith, becoming an auditor and realising he doesn’t need to keep playing soldiers. Lastly, marrying and planning children, becoming a link in the generations. Miles says he’s the eleventh generation and the last generation weighs heaviest—he has to think of that when he thinks of being a father.
It’s hard to see where Miles can go from here—whether that’s the “here” of Diplomatic Immunity or of Cryoburn. He has a lot of history, a lot of people, a lot of connections. He can infinitely investigate things as an Auditor, but he’s either away from Barrayar and his support network and the problem is with making things matter enough, or else he has too much power. I don’t know if there’s anything left to do with him… to him… but I’ve been wrong about this kind of thing before.
It might be nice to have some books about his children.
Cryoburn isn’t remotely a “what’s the worst thing that could happen to Miles” book, not even the last three words. It isn’t really a book where Miles is the protagonist—he doesn’t change or grow by what happens. He may be changed by the consequences of being Count, but we don’t get to see that yet. He also gets away with making a promise—to look after the animals—and then palms the duty off on someone else, and this is without consequence, it all works all right. Nor does he rescue the children, they rescue themselves. And the solution to the problems comes from Mark. Miles sails through very smoothly.
I was surprised that Miles is so happy with his marriage and children. It’s what he thought he wanted, I’m really surprised he was right. Most marriages start off with honeymoon expectations and become…real. I’d have thought Miles’s would have done that—I would have thought by this time he’d be glad of a galactic adventure away from domesticity, not be desperate to get home to them and mooning over baby videos. Roic thinks that maybe the mission is arranged to get Ekaterin a break from Miles, if there’s any of that I’d have thought Miles would also be wanting a break—for there to have been just the tiniest shred of relief as well as regret that he was away. I want to see him with the children and Ekaterin, and I want it to have the kind of flaws that even the best marriage develops.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. 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.