Innocent Bystander: Some thoughts on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ivan Vorpatril

Ivan Vorpatril is the tall goodlooking cousin of Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of most of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Ivan appears in most of the books, usually as a foil to Miles. He’s a very interesting character who starts off looking very simple but develops a fascinating complexity as the books go on. Nobody knows how to do a spearpoint better than Bujold, she takes books and books building her spear so when the point hits you it goes in really deeply.

Spoilers for everything pre-Cryoburn.

All the book-links are to my posts about the books.

Like Miles, we see Ivan before he was born and being born in Barrayar, during the War of Vordarian’s Pretendership. (Or, as it’s recently been renamed, the Pretender’s War.) Unlike Miles, Ivan managed to stay inside his mother’s womb for the fullest possible gestation—more than nine months. His parents were hiding in Vorbarr Sultana and were discovered by the enemy while Lady Alys was in labour. His father was killed, and Lady Alys was saved by Cordelia, Bothari, Drou and Kou. Ivan was delivered by Bothari on Kou’s jacket in a slum house where they all took refuge.

He never knew his father, Lord Padma Vorpatril. We don’t see much of him either, but from what we do see (from Cordelia’s point of view) he seemed an amiable enough Vor aristocrat. We also see that he’s considerably taller than Aral. (Time after time Miles thinks if not for the soltoxin damage he would be as tall as Ivan, never looking at Aral’s height or thinking about this.) Padma’s influence on Ivan was mostly by his death—heroic and stupid, he led the enemy back to Alys when he went out to find a doctor. He was dead, and therefore Alys was focused exclusively on Ivan. His other lingering influence was his blood—Padma’s mother was younger sister to Aral’s mother—they were both Vorbarra princesses. That’s Ivan’s real genetic problem, not his own Vorpatril family, where he doesn’t stand all that high, but his potential Salic bloodlines that put him very close to the Imperium. 

We first see Ivan properly at seventeen, where Miles says it was years before he found out that Ivan wasn’t his middle name. This strongly implies that “That idiot Ivan” was what Aral and Cordelia normally said around the house. Ivan has been typecast as an idiot, and he plays up to it. He wants to be seen as an idiot, not as a potential replacement for Miles, still less Gregor. Aral says that must have made him a very Machiavellian five year old, but five year olds do take on strategies like that. “Do you think of yourself as an innocent bystander?” “God knows I try to be,” sighed Ivan. He tries to slide along, an idiot, not a target, not someone to involve in plots, not someone to assassinate. His career is like that, good enough, regular promotions on time, nothing outstanding. He doesn’t want to be noticed. He’s going to be a target and a threat whatever he does, and his way of dealing with that is to try not to draw any more attention to himself.

The main force in Ivan’s life right up to Memory is his mother, Lady Alys. With no husband, no partners, and no other children, Ivan is most of her focus. As he gets older she becomes the social leader of Vorbarr Sultana, but she can’t let him go. Ivan lives in his own apartment, unlike Miles, but he isn’t detached from his mother until she becomes involved with Illyan. And at that point, almost thirty, he panics. He’s been chasing women with a catch and release policy—he’s been avoiding matrimony, which is what his mother most wants. As soon as she loses interest, he becomes desperate to marry—at the end of Memory and all through A Civil Campaign he’s in a state of romantic panic.

After the exciting events of his birth and escape from the city with his mother and Kou, we don’t know much about his childhood. He spent some time at Vorkosigan Surleau—the incident with Miles and Elena and the weapons cache (“You might never get the chance again to drive one of those old tanks!”) happened when they were children. Apart from that we mostly see his reflexes—firstly when it comes to not hurting Miles, because Miles’s bones could break so easily, and then also the way he’s so easily persuaded by Miles. Miles trusts him—and in Brothers in Arms Miles recognises how much of a brother Ivan is to him. Ivan also grew up with Gregor—five years older, and already Emperor.

Another thing that happened before his first appearance in The Warrior’s Apprentice is the lightflyer races through the Dendarii Gorge with Miles. We know it’s a dangerous place for lightflyers—we know Aral crashed two lightflyers there while in suicidal drinking mode after the Escobar invasion. (I wonder if Miles knows that?) Miles and Ivan take turns trying to make their other one lose their lunch, doing more and more dangerous things, until the point when Miles does it with his eyes closed and Ivan doesn’t challenge again. I think what we learn about Ivan from this is that he’s brave and stupid, though not any more stupid than Miles, and that he does have a sense of self-preservation and it’s much more sensible than Miles’s. If either one of them is an idiot at sixteen flying their lightflyers through that gorge, it isn’t Ivan.

When they were older he tried to put sexual pressure on Elena. We don’t know if this happened at Vorkosigan Surleau or in Vorbarr Sultana when she was on a visit there. This is the least pleasant thing about Ivan, and we know he repeated it in Tau Verde, because she used unarmed combat skills repelling him. We also hear that Alys wants Aral to tell Ivan to stop having sex with the servants—and we don’t know the consensuality status of that sex. It’s iffy even if it’s entirely seduction, because there’s a power imbalance. It’s sexual harassment—and we know from Elena that he doesn’t take a politely expressed “no” as reason to stop. He does seem to grow out of this, mostly.

Offstage, and sometime before Cetaganda, Ivan had an affair with Lady Donna Vorrutyer, who turns up as Lord Dono in A Civil Campaign. Lady Donna was more than ten years older than him and taught him a great deal about sex and women—and we do not see him being obnoxious with women after this. He’s still “gallant” and interested in sex without consequences, but we don’t see anything worse than picking up a student and taking her out for dinner. So maybe all the sexual harrasment was youthful indiscretions. Also—Miles has the advantage of Cordelia and her Betan experience, whereas Ivan only has Alys. He’s going along culturally with what he sees around him. He’s a lout at seventeen, as Aral calls him, he makes girls cry. But he does learn better.

Ivan’s career is exactly as it’s supposed to be—Academy, then a stint in Ops in the Capital, promotion to Lieutenant, a stint in Security at the Embassy on Earth getting some galactic polish, then back to Ops in the Capital. He wants ship duty, of course, but there isn’t enough to go around. The problem with duty in Vorbarr Sultana is that is doesn’t get him away from his mother—and as he says in ACC, he joined the service to get away from his mother. When we see him doing his job—in the “Weatherman” section of The Vor Game and in Brothers in Arms, he’s always doing just enough to be comfortable and competent, never excellent but never awful either. However, when he needs to make a hole in the security system to let Miles back into the Embassy, he does it. Galeni says he’s good at his escort duties.

In Memory, when he’s helping Miles with the problem of Illyan, we see him at his best. He says he’d rather die than be left alone with Simon, and Miles notes that and sends him in, and he goes. And Illyan says, “Ivan, you idiot, what are you doing here?” as part of his malfunctioning memory, and it makes me cry every time because it goes all the way back to The Warrior’s Apprentice and because Ivan isn’t an idiot and he’s grown out of being a lout, he’s brave and he’s gone back into the room. And when Lady Alys gets there, Illyan condoles with her on the loss of Padma, at the time of Ivan’s birth. It wouldn’t have been possible to write that scene without all the long spear of the rest of the series leading to it.

A Civil Campaign is when we first get to see Ivan from inside. Ivan’s feeling strangely directionless both because his mother seems to have lost interest in him (because of the stress of organising the Royal Wedding and her new love life) and because Miles also seems to have stopped needing him. Right up to Memory Miles has needed Ivan. Ivan has always been there. “I’m not your donkey,” Ivan says, but he has been, and he expects to be. When Miles says he’ll manage without, he doesn’t know how to cope. Ivan’s normal position with regard to Miles is refusing and being persuaded. At the climax Miles starts to call him an idiot and Ivan refuses it—Ivan has saved the day.

But Ivan is in emotional freefall. He’s spent his whole life being pushed around by other people’s expectations and trying to get away from that, and now nobody’s expecting anything of him. With Gregor married and having heirs, and the same with Miles, he isn’t in the position he’s always been in of being just three heartbeats from the Imperium. He’s a Captain in Ops, without ship experience, he’s a friend of Gregor’s, and everything that was pushing on him has stopped pushing on him. God knows he’s been trying to be an innocent bystander—what happens when he doesn’t need to try, when he gets what he wants, when nobody is bothering with him? What does he want, for himself, at thirty, if he’s done being an idiot?

I cannot wait for the Ivan book.


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.

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