Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Cetaganda, Chapters 11-12

When Miles and Ivan return from the science fair (sans unicorn), Vorreedi invites Miles for a friendly chat in his office. What do we learn about Vorreedi? He collects Cetagandan art. What do we learn about Miles? His chain of command is very short, and he can use it to argue BOTH that his post is a sinecure provided by his high-ranking connections, AND that he is the very most special of special agents. Miles is everything. He is Lord Peter Wimsey. He is Bertie Wooster. He is Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings. He is both Phineas and Ferb.

What is he going to do today?

Miles thinks of himself as the only thing standing between whatever mysterious Cetagandan lord is behind this whole evil plot and chaos in the Cetagandan Empire. I’m a huge fan of Miles, so I say this in the most loving way possible: He seems to have forgotten about Rian, the Cetagandan Emperor, and the entire Cetagandan security apparatus. Also, we know which Cetagandan lord it is, because Yenaro told us at the end of chapter 10. It’s Ilsum Kety. I didn’t mention it last week because I was watching the mini-unicorn.

I’m not being deliberately inattentive—that’s not where Bujold wants my attention. If it was, she would have told me enough about the Haut to make it pay off. My careful assessment of the post-poetry reading buffet a couple weeks back suggests that Miles has spent less than an hour socializing with the Haut governors at this point, and they found him annoying. In the moment, this was a fair assessment. All the Haut governors have reasons to want the Great Key. They all have copies of the gene bank. I guess only three of them were docked at the orbital station when the crucial meeting with Ba Lura took place. Readers are supposed to be able to figure out mysteries. Cetaganda wasn’t built for that. I’m supposed to be paying attention to something else.

I’m having difficulty spotting my target. The next thing available to my attention is the second meeting with Benin. Ivan is along for the ride this time, with Vorreedi monitoring. Vorreedi is alarmed to be hearing the story of Miles and Ivan’s fight in the shuttleport for the very first time at the same time Benin hears it. Miles is forced to explain that he was trying to normalize international relations and thought the fistfight might interfere with this very important Barrayaran diplomatic priority. Ivan provides the captured nerve disruptor by way of evidence. Benin has to be satisfied with the intelligence Miles has offered, because the embassy is Barrayaran territory. Vorreedi is not obligated to be satisfied with anything. He moves quickly from wondering what his visitor might have been tasked with to thinking his visitor is a complete shit. In fairness to Vorreedi, Miles does seem to have exceeded his brief by several orders of magnitude. Even Miles, the ADHD Avenger, is beginning to acknowledge that he’s in over his head, and please remember that Miles is a man who has been in over his head before. Literally. Miles has also faced charges of treason on two separate occasions, which suggests some interesting nuances to the assertion he made, back in Vorreedi’s office, that his ass is still intact.

9286Miles wishes to follow up on his conversations with Vorreedi and Benin by having another conversation with Rian. He sorts through Ivan’s latest stack of invitations to find one to a Haut lady’s garden party, and then forces Ivan to go to it. I’m still not sure where Bujold wants me looking, but at this point I’m focused on Haut force bubbles. The Haut force bubble has many useful applications, and I’ve already said that I want one for personal transport, zombie defense, and community service projects. And that’s all great, on Earth, where I live, or on Barrayar, where Miles hangs out every now and then. But I’m curious—and a little concerned—about their purpose in the Cetagandan cultural milieu. Is a force bubble a high-tech space burka?

Miles speculates that the bubbles protect Haut women from onerous male attention. He believes this because he finds the Haut exotic and captivating, and they do not reciprocate his interest. Haut Pel uses her force bubble as a glider, which demonstrates the recreational potential of the device and one of the reasons why having one can be construed as a great privilege. None of this suggests that navigating life in a force bubble is empowering or universally enjoyable. In A Civil Campaign, Cordelia will point out that both Beta Colony and Barrayar seek to control reproduction. Beta Colony controls the ovaries, and Barrayar controls the whole woman. Both options have significant implications. Cetaganda controls all reproduction at a government level. This has significant implications too.

Somehow, in a process we have not seen, Cetaganda has to have persuaded everyone to cede this control to higher authorities. This is why the gene banks are important—they aren’t actually necessary to reproduction in the colonies. Bujold has said, over and over, that in her universe, one person’s toenail and another person’s skin cells are all that’s necessary for reproduction if you have a replicator. But absent a replicator and an approved genomic crossing, Cetagandans can still reproduce. They don’t, because they think pregnancy and childbirth are gross, but the Haut haven’t somehow destroyed the ability. Haut Pel tells Miles that they test new gene sequences in the Ba to prevent them from “escaping” via sexual routes, so clearly, those routes still exist. A truly ambitious satrap governor could find a means to incentivize any reproduction that his expansionist goals might require, regardless of central control of gene banks and replicators.

I think—and I am willing to accept the possibility that I am wrong, because I’m speculating far beyond the limits of the available evidence—that Haut women use force bubbles to make themselves inaccessible to petitioners with reproductive concerns. If they were visible, they would be inundated with questions about whose genes would be crossed with whose, and which children in a constellation’s creche had which gene complexes. These questions are inconvenient for a society in which reproductive decisions are being carried out on a level that ignores individual preferences. Marrying a Ghem means that one no longer plays a role in that decision-making process and can’t answer any of those questions anyway. The major hole in my reasoning is that Haut men make equally interesting decisions of other kinds, and they don’t ride around in force bubbles.

I don’t know if Bujold did it to clarify my thinking, but the relationship between Miles and Ivan in this book demonstrates why Cetagandans might consider excessive familial loyalty a threat to good order. Whether he was assigned to the duty or not, Ivan has been acting as Miles’s ADC and body man on this trip. He arranges Miles’s exits, fetches hover cars, holds elbows, covers absences, corroborates testimony, brings coffee and dry cleaning, accepts invitations and removes boots. Ivan does not take initiative or override Miles’s judgment. Nothing is stopping Ivan from taking the nerve disruptor and going to the ambassador with the full story. It’s a very unusual nothing—it’s so close to being something that Vorreedi accepts Miles’s completely uncorroborated assertion that sometimes a genius needs an idiot to follow orders. Ivan isn’t an idiot, but he does follow Miles’s orders and in this regard he is outside anyone’s control. He is the anti-Ba.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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