Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Cetaganda, Chapters 13-16

This week in the Vorkosigan reread, we reach the dramatic climax of Cetaganda. Ivan gets kidnapped, Rian gets the key, Benin gets a promotion, Miles gets a medal, and then we all go home.

Surprising no one, the man behind the curtain of this entire plan was… Ilsum Kety. Just like Yenaro said. Bujold didn’t even try to distract us with a red herring. For his valuable contribution to smoking out the traitors (ie, for knowing a guy’s name) Yenaro gets a job as, like, fifth under-assistant to the 17th imperial perfumer. It’s a low-ranking job, but it’s a real one. My congratulations to Yenaro for turning a situation in which he was nearly killed by an exploding carpet into an opportunity for meaningful and remunerative employment in the arts. As Miles will point out when he delivers his own account of himself to the Emperor Giaja, the best strategies achieve their goals regardless of your survival. Yenaro has suffered a great deal, but in the long game of his own life, this is a remarkable success. Miles owes that maxim about strategy to Captain Cavillo, late of Randall’s Rangers. I am glad to see that she is still in Miles’s thoughts, though grateful that her perfume is no longer afflicting his sinuses.

Kety was assisted in his nefarious plan by the Haut lady Vio, wife of Ghem-General Chilian. Before she showed her hand by kidnapping Ivan, we had exactly 30 seconds of contact with Vio, when she glared angrily at the horizon during Lady D’Har’s garden party. The high Haut ladies deplore her failure to understand the goals of the Haut. This criticism would seem more serious if I understood the goals of the Haut. Indeed, there seems to be some disagreement about whether the late Celestial Lady’s goals should continue to be the goals of the Haut, or if the Haut should go in another direction to solve their problems. My best summary of those problems is that the Haut birth rate is declining so that the Haut Constellations can use their resources for a higher standard of living. That sounds more or less like what the middle class does with their family planning decisions almost everywhere but Barrayar. Lord Yenaro’s predicament—longevity and late retirements limiting employment opportunities for the younger generation—demonstrates why the Ghem might prefer a low birth rate. The limited number of Haut who occupy positions of political power suggest that the Haut may experience similar problems. (The opening of Sergyar to exploration and settlement in combination with an expanding domestic economy encourages a high Barrayaran birth rate—Aral discussed this with Cordelia back in Barrayar.)

Miles sees himself as having solved this mystery, but I’ve been rereading the Miss Marple mysteries in my spare time and consequently, I don’t. Miles was just a tool here. He knew he was working with (and to a certain extent, for) Rian. But the Haut are not individual actors. Until quite late in the story, Miles did not understand that Rian was acting as an agent of the Celestial Garden and the Haut consorts. This is basically a congress of fussy old ladies. Miles is blinded by Rian’s beauty, and finds the combines aesthetic impact of the Haut overwhelming. This leads him to overlook their crucial role in maintaining the Cetagandan status quo and defining the future direction of the Empire. The Haut needed some legs and eyeballs to carry out their investigation, and Miles was convenient. Miss Marple’s superpower is her ability to understand other people’s motivations—she’s never surprised by the sinister. The Haut aren’t either. They’re playing a game with very high stakes, it makes sense to them that someone would try to cheat.

Because he’s overwhelmed, Miles also misses the Haut ladies’ connection to his grandfather’s stories about fighting the Cetagandans. If Emperor Fletchir Giaja is older than Miles’s father but looks significantly younger, the Haut women who look old to Miles would have lived through a significant portion of Cetaganda’s war on Barrayar as adults. They would have looked at the invasion as the biological competition that would identify favorable genetic sequences to be incorporated in the Haut genome going forward. They might even have been involved in identifying genetic characteristics to include in the Haut genome that made that war, or military success in it, more likely. Miles doesn’t see these women as representatives of the force that repeatedly nuked his home planet. If he understood Cetagandan culture better, he might.

Miles’s major struggle in Cetaganda is to understand himself. His actions in this story were triggered by a chance hurtful remark from Ivan. We know that Ivan regards Miles with a great deal of affection, and feels responsible for his welfare. Ivan’s actions were critical to Miles’s survival at several points in this book, and will continue to be Miles’s saving grace in books yet to come. Miles and Ivan will have another conversation on the way home that salves Miles’s wounds. Ivan acknowledges that Barrayaran Social Darwinism is unnecessarily brutal. I don’t think Ivan knows he stuck his foot in his mouth, but what he says now is enough for Miles to know that the remark was careless. And what Miles says is enough for Ivan to know that Miles is grateful for his support.

Next week, we’re leaving these boys behind and taking a trip to Athos with Elli Quinn! We last saw the inestimable Quinn in The Warrior’s Apprentice where she distinguished herself by asking about her pension, getting her face burned off, and then taking down one of Miles’s creditors while blind. The book is titled Ethan of Athos, which I think is unfair, but I suppose “Elli Quinn on detached duty from the Dendarii Mercenaries” doesn’t fit easily on the cover of a mass market paperback. I guess that Ethan guy will be there too.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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