Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: “Borders of Infinity”

This week, we’re rereading “The Borders of Infinity,” the third novella in Borders of Infinity. Together, “Borders” and “Labyrinth” provide the explanation for those cost overruns that Illyan is looking into. The story was first published in 1987, in a Baen anthology titled Free Lancers. As an introduction to Miles, “Borders” works well on its own; This is the story where Miles arrives at the Dagoola IV prison camp empty-handed, quickly loses his clothes, and then saves everyone. He’s like a leprechaun who can pull combat drop shuttles out of his butt.

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.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

It’s entirely possible to enjoy the story without having read Cetaganda first, which is a good thing because Cetaganda didn’t hit the shelves until 1996. But the novel offers some fun background for “Borders.” The Marilacan Embassy hosted the reception Miles and Ivan attended on the first evening of their visit to Cetaganda. That was the site of Ilsum Kety’s initial attack on Miles through the mechanism of Ghem-lord Yenaro’s art installation. On that occasion, Ambassador Vorob’yev explained to Miles and Ivan that Marilac had been accepting Cetagandan economic aid, believing that they were located on a natural border, and that the Cetagandans wouldn’t attack an ally.

Oops.

The wormhole jumps in Marilacan space are not so much a natural border as a direct route through to wormhole-rich Zoave Twilight. In hindsight, that thing with the sculpture looks like an early move in an Otto von Bismarck-style effort to isolate Marilac diplomatically prior to waging a short victorious war.

I can’t tell how long the war was for the Cetagandans, but it seems to have been a refreshing change from their humiliating defeat at Vervain. I would think that, at this point, the Cetagandans should be able to identify an individual to whom their Emperor awarded an Order of Merit, but whether or not they should, they quite evidently don’t. I like headcanon, so I’m entertaining the possibility that the Council of Counts may have had Miles’s adventures on Cetaganda in mind when they sent Illyan to look into the Dendarii’s finances. There is no evidence of any of this in “Borders” itself, because most of the story takes place in a bubble.

THE PLAN

The Dagoola IV prison camp is holding Marilacan prisoners of war. Miles is going in to rescue Colonel Guy Tremont, the Hero of Fallow Core, who Barrayar hopes will lead the Marilacan resistance. Elli Quinn and Elena Bothari are undercover with the Cetagandan authorities so they can monitor Miles and coordinate extraction. Miles is claiming to be a Marilacan soldier. In the camp, he claims to have been a clerk. All the other prisoners at Dagoola IV were elite combat troops, so this reads as a cover, and draws a lot of attention to Miles as a mystery. When Miles arrives, Tremont is dying. Miles has to improvise.

The prison camp itself is like Plato’s Cave. Inside, prisoners are isolated. They can’t see what’s happening in the outside world. But in Plato’s Cave, the guards carry objects across a walkway, and the prisoners use shadows to try to guess what the objects are. At Dagoola IV, there are no visible guards. The only shadow of the outside world is confinement itself. A few characters suggest to Miles that the Cetagandans are constantly watching and monitoring. A stack of ration bars arrives at a random location around the perimeter of the bubble twice a day. The Cetagandans can shrink the bubble, or remove the air to punish prisoners. But for the duration of “Borders of Infinity” they don’t. The camp is the whole world, and the prisoners turn on each other.

Miles seems like a shadow of the outside world, a situation that is fraught with both danger and opportunity. The most obvious explanation of Miles’s mystery is that he is a Cetagandan spy. The idea that he is on a rescue mission may offer hope, but is too dangerous to acknowledge. Miles finds an ally to help him with this; He encounters Suegar shortly after losing his clothes. Suegar possesses the only piece of writing inside the camp—a tiny fragment from A Pilgrim’s Progress. I’m a cultural Protestant, but mostly lapsed, and my only prior exposure to A Pilgrim’s Progress comes from reading Little Women as a child. Suegar and I are not well-equipped to comment on this as allegory. I prefer to see it as a faint shadow of the outside world, and just as Plato warned, the prisoner who sees what others cannot or have not seems mad to his comrades. Nonetheless, Miles fits himself into Suegar’s one-man cult of hope and builds more alliances from there.

This is a story that emphasizes Miles’s resourcefulness. Miles has a crucial resource the other prisoners don’t—he has reason to believe that he is in contact with an outside world that is concerned with his welfare. He needs to convince the other prisoners that they are too. Rescue is not just about having shuttles, but about preparing for them. Miles can do that too. Having failed to rescue Tremont in time, Miles finds more leaders for Marilac’s resistance. As one does.

The story’s final blow is about what Miles can’t do. On the last shuttle out of camp, Miles’s shuttle faces heavy Cetagandan fire, and has to take off with the hatch jammed open. Miles’s Dendarii bodyguard, Lt. Murka, has been killed by the Cetagandans. His Marilacan bodyguard, Beatrice, sacrifices her life to unjam the door and save Miles and the rest of the prisoners. I just read Ethan of Athos, so I’m halfway into the Miles/Elli romance, but Miles hasn’t read that book, and he is half in love with Beatrice when she falls to her death. The moment when he tries and fails to grab her as she falls will haunt him for years.

Miles has spent most of Borders of Infinity with the Dendarii. Next week, the Dendarii will come into uncomfortably close contact with Miles’s Barrayaran life, in Brothers in Arms, the only adventure that required Miles to take on both roles at once.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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