Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Borders of Infinity, “The Mountains of Mourning”

This week, we’re heading to Vorkosigan Surleau and then into the Dendarii Mountains with Miles. We will be looking at “Mountains of Mourning,” the first of the three novellas in Borders of Infinity. We’ve gone back in time here to the moments after Miles’s academy graduation and before his sojourn at Camp Permafrost. Assuming that Barrayar’s atmosphere is similar to Earth’s, space is going to be about 62 miles away for this entire story. Some parts of this space opera are still finding their way home.

This reread has an index, which you can consult if you feel like exploring previous books and chapters. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.

SUMMARY

Miles returns home from a swim to find a woman from the backcountry hills arguing with the gate guard. Harra Csurik is seeking justice for a murder that her village speaker refused to record or investigate. Miles takes her to see his parents.

COMMENTARY

I’m distracted by the scenery at the beginning of the story. Cordelia found Bothari at that gate when she came to Barrayar. She and Aral are eating breakfast in the pavilion where Aral used to get drunk. After his swim, Miles heads to the cemetery where Cordelia first met Piotr, to burn an offering on his grandfather’s grave. The Vorkosigans keep a brazier and some juniper bark in one of their downstairs cupboards, for offerings to the dead—practical home organization for the Barrayaran political class.

This is our first trip back to Vorkosigan Surleau since the War of Vordarian’s Pretendership. Piotr seemed to have a closer relationship with his district than Aral does, because of the time he spent there fighting the Cetagandans. I’m not entirely sure where the theater of conflict was in Yuri’s War. The Vorkosigans seem to regard their work for Barrayar as a benefit to the District. They made the choice to look outward for good reasons; the waste of Vorkosigan Vashnoi demonstrates the impact of galactic wars on local affairs. It means that the lake house functions more-or-less like Camp David—a retreat, not the usual center of the action. Teenage Miles turned down a job in the District when he failed his Military Academy Entrance exams. Burning his officer’s commission and his Academy transcripts on his grandfather’s grave, Pre-Kyril Island Miles is enthusiastically optimistic about his military career and intimidated by the accomplishments of the generations that have come before him. He misses the message of their resumes—if you live long enough, you wind up being a lot of things.

Armsman Pym makes his first appearances here, escorting Harra to see the senior Vorkosigans, and then fetching Miles from his ceremony in the graveyard. Harra is here to accuse her husband of murdering their infant daughter, Raina. Little Raina had a harelip and a cleft palate. Harra had intended to take her for treatment at the hospital in Hassadar. She blames her husband, Lem, for Harra’s death. The evidence gets a little iffy at that point, but it is clear that Raina was murdered for being a mutie, and Lord Vorkosigan is going to Speak to his district about it by sending Miles. Miles’s tent and his horse are both attacked during his investigation, which ultimately reveals that the murderer was not Harra’s husband, but her mother.

“Mountains of Mourning” reminds me of George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” Like Orwell, Miles is an outsider who has power over others who are not necessarily convinced of his right to it. Like Orwell, Miles is facing a problem that threatens grave harm to the community. Orwell shot the elephant, not very competently. Miles is more sensitive in his actions as his father’s agent that Orwell was as Britain’s; Miles recognizes that executing Harra’s mother, Ma Muttalich, is an action entirely without benefit. It would show his power, but the power to execute old women, even murderous ones, is surely not worth having. Miles’s goal here was to bring the certain knowledge of galactic medical advances for birth defects to the people of Silvy Vale, to make Raina a person deserving of justice in her community’s eyes.

Ma Muttalich deserves justice too. She confesses to having killed two of her own children in addition to Raina. These were horrible acts. When these children were born, around the time of Miles’s birth, Ma Muttalich had nowhere to go for help. The hospital at Hassadar—the one Harra planned to take her baby on a week-long walk to reach—had not yet been built. Harra’s siblings might have lived, and they should have had the chance. Ma Muttalich was just the final agent of a long chain of deprivations—the Time of Isolation, the lack of galactic technology, the destruction carried out by the Cetagandans, Barrayar’s own wars, poverty, no comm links, no hospitals—that killed not three children, but many. Her suffering is not paramount in my concerns in this story, but she has suffered horribly. I can’t imagine how it must have felt when her mother forced her to kill her own newborn children. Ma Muttalich has sacrificed her sanity to that torment and now just looks to inflict it on others; She’s angry that she missed Raina’s birth, and with it, her opportunity to make Harra kill Raina.

In the end, Miles commutes, Ma Muttalich’s sentence, giving Harra complete control over her property and her life. I find this solution unsettling. It seems like a lot of responsibility to hand to Harra and her control over her mother cannot possibly be complete. If Miles couldn’t kill her mother, Harra certainly can’t. Surely, Ma Muttalich’s presence will cast a shadow over Harra’s future pregnancies and children. I would have preferred some form of incarceration. I know Barrayar has jails—Miles has been in them. I’m less certain about prisons. They’re quite fond of capital punishment, these Barrayarans.

But the ending I want will eventually come. We will revisit Silvy Vale in Memory, and we get to see Harra living her life as an offering to Raina, teaching at the Raina Csurik School. Lem is Speaker for the village, and helped build a hydroelectric dam, also named after his first daughter. They have two other children. Bujold is careful not to turn this into a fable about everything happening for a reason; Instead, Miles reminds us on the way up the mountain, we are all here by accident. I am still looking for one last piece to lay Raina’s soul to rest—the moment when Miles looks at a Barrayaran backcountry recruit and sees the faint scar on his upper lip. Maybe it’s already happened so many times that Miles doesn’t feel it’s worth mentioning.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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