Chapters 1 and 2 are really just barely dipping our toes into Mirror Dance. These opening chapters are simple—almost gentle. Nothing clearly bad has happened yet. Mark gets on the Ariel and no one gets tortured or dies. That’s it. We’re OK. Everyone is OK except Mark.
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.
Mark is not OK. When we last saw him, he had killed Ser Galen, and was in possession of a credit chit for half a million Barrayaran marks. Three years later, he’s arrived on Escobar with only three hundred Betan dollars, his righteous anger, and the contact info for the Dendarii. Posing as Miles, Mark calls in, announces a new contract, and tells Bel Thorne about the plan to take down the House Bharaputra for an unnamed client.
I’m sure you all remember how much fun Bel and Miles had on Jackson’s Whole back in “Labyrinth,” when they sprung Taura and Nicol and destroyed House Ryoval’s gene bank. At the time, Baron Bharaputra had expressed a great deal of interest in obtaining a gene sample from Miles, although of course, he already had one. He also requested a sample from Bel. Both declined the honor. Castles were stormed, princesses were rescued, and relationships between certain of the Jacksonian Houses and the Dendarii Free Mercenary Company were destroyed. Bel wanted to do more. They’re excited about the opportunity to do good in the universe. Mark boards the Ariel, has Miles’s kit transferred over from the Triumph, and takes Green Squad off to Jackson’s Whole to set the world to rights. Three days later, Miles shows up and finds one of his ships and all of his stuff missing.
These two chapters are all about who Mark and Miles each are. In a sense, they are twins separated at birth, something usually interpreted to mean that they have a special connection whose nature will tell us something amazing about the forces that shape identity. Twins trading places is also a trope with which a great deal of fun has been had. It’s the premise of The Parent Trap, and although they were not separated at birth, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield did it in more than one Sweet Valley High novel. These works imply that identity is performative, and that twins’ identities can be traded and borrowed like clothes. This idea has many shortcomings. For example, it fails to encompass a meaningful understanding of what it can be like for twins to borrow each other’s clothes. Some days it’s no big deal and other days it’s swords drawn. Sometimes they’re the same day! Furthermore, unlike clothing, no one has property rights to personality traits. There is no meaningful yours/mine/ours—they just are, and people either have a trait or they don’t without in any way impacting anyone else’s ability to have and express that same characteristic. Unless you’re a twin and the world is looking to figure out who’s the artistic one and who’s athletic one and no I don’t have any childhood issues at all, thanks for asking, I AM THE UNCOMPLICATED ONE. In my reading experience, the literary work that does the best job with twin relationship and identity issues is Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. Even Rowell collapses a lifetime of conflicts and experiences into a single year of college, which seems a little excessive, although there are valid plot reasons.
Miles and Mark are an unusual kind of twins. They have the same genes and many of the same mannerisms. They aren’t the same age, and many similarities that might seem like Separated Twins OMG stuff are a result of Mark’s torture. Left to his genetic destiny, Mark would have had normal height and normal bones. Behavioral similarities were forced on him as well, to facilitate Ser Galen’s plan. Mark’s ability to imitate Miles is a result of years of careful study, enforced by abuse. Miles and Mark are also about to work out their emotionally fraught lifetimes’ worth of conflicts and experiences in a very short period.
Those issues are urgent for Mark because he is surrounded by people who at least pretend to believe that he is Miles. I’m a little skeptical about Bel—I think Bel’s excitement about the mission is encouraging them to turn a blind eye. If this is what Bel is doing, it’s exploiting identity conflicts for Bel’s own purposes, and it’s a low and slimy thing to do. If Bel is genuinely mistaken, well, Mark’s a good faker because he’s had to be. For the Dendarii, Miles is a source of excitement. Opportunity flows in his wake. Mark fends off multiple questions about Elli’s absence from mercs interested in his company. He turns down a volunteer who offers to be his batman. Mark isn’t just pretending to be Miles here, he’s trying on Miles’s life and noting which parts do and do not fit. Miles’s wardrobe fits, because of Mark’s recent crash diet. His meal trays don’t. Mark is comfortable with the idea of command, although he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s terrified of Miles’s lovers. Mark is also afraid of Miles’s commitments. The Dendarii are a huge commitment, and Mark’s mission is poorly planned. Bel has made the logical call, and brought in Green Squad, led by Sgt. Taura, for the creche raid. Mark doesn’t know her or her personal history with Miles, so he’s surprised when she kisses him.
I think I made it clear, in our last discussion about Taura, that saving the children should be work that we do with our pants on. This is more than three years since that incident, and neither Mark nor Taura are children anymore. I think they would make an interesting couple. They have a lot in common. They might understand each other well. We don’t get to see that in these chapters, because Mark isn’t himself. Taura is excited about the Jackson’s Whole mission. If Miles were actually leading it, I would be excited for her.
I’m gravely concerned about Mark. Part of this is because I’ve read the book before. But part of it is because he spends his chapter waving a series of red flags. His history of abuse explains the intensity of his self-loathing. I have no idea how he ran through his money, but it seems to have gone away and not bought him a direction in life. I suspect that Mark had difficulties using his identification documents, if he even had any, and that this had a significant impact on his finances. I think he may also have been self-medicating. In stealing Miles’s identity (and also a number of Miles’s personal affects and part of his mercenary fleet), Mark is falling back on a plan his abuser imposed on him. Even in less intense circumstances, I don’t think it’s healthy when a person takes on someone else’s identity and tries to live in it.
Miles arrives on Escobar three days later. He seems very comfortable in his Miles-ness, awash in the confidence that comes with being certain that one’s gene scans match one’s legal identity documents in several star systems, and that they all assert that you are someone awesome. Miles and Elli are in the midst of a conversation about his multiple identities when we first see them; They’re repeating the discussion they had the first time Miles proposed. It’s clear that whatever the outside world may see, Admiral Naismith is one of Lord Vorkosigan’s useful possessions. I think in another world—in a much lower quality story—it would have been possible for Miles to hand Naismith over to Mark. Miles would then have time to be Lt. Lord Vorkosigan and grow along his own trajectory, leaving the Dendarii with their tenuous connection to Barrayar, now more effectively buried in a way that is perfectly in keeping with the cover story Miles made up for that reporter on Earth. The only problem is that Mark would never be able to be Mark. There’s a lot of horror associated with Mark growing into himself, but the alternative is a kind of death for him. I don’t think anyone but Miles can be Admiral Naismith and live. Whether Miles can be Admiral Naismith and live is also an open question. Admiral Naismith is a cliff, and Mark appears to be throwing himself off it.
Join me next week as we contemplate the illusion that Mark is doing a good thing, and try to glean some evidence about his childhood.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.