Thu
Apr 9 2009 1:19pm

All true wealth is biological: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance

Mirror Dance is my favourite of the Vorkosigan series. It’s the third Hugo winner of the series, and Bujold’s third Hugo award-winning novel in a row.

It’s a very long book. It doesn’t look any longer than the others, but it’s 560 pages, in contrast to Barrayar’s 386 and The Vor Game’s 342. It needs to be longer, because a lot happens in it.

Mirror Dance (1994) is a direct sequel to Brothers in Arms (1989), though it could be read alone. (All of these books except Memory (1996) could be read alone.) It’s Mark’s book, though Miles is in it, it’s the story of how a nameless clone became Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan. It’s about identity and survival and better living through multiple personality disorder. It’s surprising and brilliant, it does things you wouldn’t think any series book could get away with, and the pacing is astonishing.

The best thing about the book is Mark, becoming a person. The most astonishing thing is that Miles spends half the book dead. In Brothers in Arms, Mark was another doubling of Miles. Here he is trying hard not to be. Also, Miles is hyperactive, brittle-boned, and charismatic. Mark is none of those things. Mark is short but solid, and he has been trained as an assassin.

In the beginning, Mark again poses as Miles and this time successfully takes a Dendarii ship, Bel Thorne’s Ariel, and a battle group, Sergeant Taura’s Green Squad. His plan is to rescue fifty clones from Jackson’s Whole. The clones are being grown for life-extension purposes—not their lives, the lives of their originals, who will have their brains transplanted into the clone bodies, while the clone brains, personalities and all, are classes as “medical waste.” This is a really horrible process, analagous to nothing in the real world, but entirely plausible as just the sort of thing unethical rich people would do. In this book we see Jackson’s Whole in revolting close-up detail—again, Bujold makes me feel the details would have been there all along if only I’d been focusing on them.

Miles comes back to the Dendarii happy and confident; his only problem is that Quinn won’t marry him. He collects some cryo-revival cases, cleverly setting us up with more detailed information on cryo-revival than we’d had before, though it has been mentioned right back to The Warrior’s Apprentice (1986). He goes to the fleet, only to find the Ariel gone. He rushes off in pursuit. Meanwhile, Bel has figured out that Mark is Mark, but goes on with the mission for its own reasons. The mission goes horribly wrong, Miles arrives, rushes down to rescue Mark, and is killed.

The first time I was totally shocked when I got to Miles’s death. Nothing had prepared me for it, not Murka in “The Borders of Infinity,” not the body he hides under in Brothers in Arms, not any of the other deaths Miles has been close to. Death is there in military science fiction, death is right there but your protagonist always has a hairsbreadth escape. It’s very hard to emotionally believe that one could really die oneself, that the world could keep going on but you wouldn’t be in it, and point-of-view characters in fiction get this same special protection, especially after you’ve been reading about them for books and books. By the time Mirror Dance came out, I’d caught up to the rest of the series, this is in fact where I started buying them as they came out. And I was online, yes, it was 1994, that’s when I went online. I remember seeing (and not reading) “Mirror Dance (spoilers)” threads on rec.arts.sf.written and not being able to wait for the UK edition. Anyway, Miles’s death is another example of those things you just don’t expect.

Miles stays dead for a long time. When you’re reading about Aral and Cordelia trying to deal with Mark as the potential next Count Vorkosigan, the first time you have to ask yourself whether you are going to have to deal with him as the potential protagonist. I like Mark. But I was terribly worried about Miles.

When my son was ten, he read (in internal chronological order) all the Miles books up to Brothers in Arms, in about a fortnight. He then wanted to read Mirror Dance, and I wasn’t at all sure about it. There’s some very disturbing stuff in it, and I wasn’t sure if ten was old enough. I am all in favour of there being books appropriate for adults and not children, and I think it’s the parent’s responsibility to make sure kids don’t get upset by things that are likely to really upset them. “Maybe you should wait on this one until you’re older,” I said. He hadn’t just read half a ton of Miles for nothing. “How about if I read the ones about Cordelia, then?” “Great!” I said. “Because after I’ve read them, I’ll be older...” I gave in, but when I gave him Mirror Dance I said that if there was anything that upset him I was there to talk about it. He came downstairs at seven o’clock the next morning. “Jo! Miles is dead!” “I told you there were upsetting things in that book.” “He does come alive again, doesn’t he?” “Yes.” “I’m not going to school today.” “Why not?” “How can I go to school while Miles is dead?”

Miles does indeed come alive again, though not without cost. But there’s a great big chunk of the book when he’s dead, and it’s actually the most interesting bit. Mark goes to Barrayar and meets his parents and Gregor and Illyan and Kareen Koudelka. He stops trying to be Miles and starts to discover who he is himself. He joins in the search for Miles, having learned Miles from a different perspective and grown ready to value him. “All true wealth is biological” is what Aral says when he thinks he’s dying. Mark doesn’t understand it for a long time—he means you cannot buy love, or friendship, or family, and he is at that point, thinking Miles is permanently dead, inviting Mark to be family.

All the books up to this point have contrasted the feudal masculinity of Barrayar with the egalitarian femininity of Beta Colony. Mirror Dance puts the integrity of Barrayar against the conniving of Jackson’s Whole. Bujold has always been good at giving characters the virtues of their flaws, and for that matter, the flaws of their virtues. It’s easy to hate Barrayar in Barrayar, but here we see what is most attractive about it, and we see it begin to heal Mark, or find a way for Mark to heal himself, to become Mark.

When Mark decides to return to Jackson’s Whole to rescue Miles, the story goes back to Miles, but Miles newly awakened and amnesiac. Miles is endearing trying to figure out where he is, what’s going on, and how to get on top of the situation. But it’s all very tense. We remain in Miles’s point of view for long enough to get used to it, then alternate between Mark and Miles as Mark is tortured by Ryoval and Miles is kept prisoner by Bharaputra. Mark waits for ImpSec to come, or the Dendarii, they’d have come for Miles... and horrible things are done to him. But he heeds Aral’s advice and does not sell himself to his enemy in advance, and he manages to kill Ryoval and escape.

(The torture sequences, and the psychological effects of that, brilliantly done as they are, are what I actually thought unsuitable for a ten-year-old—in fact he had no problem with them, I think the most distressing aspects probably went over his head.)

A note on the pacing here—Bujold never uses suspense for its own sake, but the sequence of information of what we know when about Miles, and about Mark and Ryoval, is very cleverly done, not just in what it leaves out but in when it gets us information.

At the end of the novel Mark has beaten Ryoval, has beaten Jackson’s Whole, and Miles is alive but fragile. The two of them are a lot more equal than they have been, and they have become brothers.

There are two moments in Mirror Dance that brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it, and they’re one for each of them. The first is when Miles gets his memory back and he thinks immediately of Bothari “Oh sergeant, your boy really messed up.” I don’t know why I should find that so heart-stirring, but I do. The other is when part of Mark, in dissociation, talking to himself, shyly thinks that Aral is a killer too. I just find that incredibly touching.

Barrayar is about being a parent. So is this. Miles is in one sense Mark’s parent, and so are Aral and Cordelia, trying to find a way to cope with a new grown-up and screwed-up son. Mark has to learn to have parents, and a home. “For the first time in his life, he was going home” he thinks as he returns to Barrayar at the end. Mirror Dance is about finding identity—not only for Mark, but for poor amnesiac Miles as well.

On re-reading, the first part, up to Miles’s death, has the inevitability of Greek tragedy. The shadow of “remember you must die” falls across all what we see of Miles being happy and relaxed. Mark isn’t given a name, in his own thoughts, because he doesn’t yet have one in his own mind.

I find it a very difficult book to analyse. It’s so good, and so immediate that it sucks me right in, it’s hard to stand back from it at all.

29 comments
Tony Zbaraschuk
1. Tony Zbaraschuk
The one I always remember is Mark overhearing Aral and Cordelia discussing what to do about him, and thinking as he goes away So that's what integrity sounds like. All the more fun after his panic on approaching Barrayar.

And Mark escaping from Ryoval. I am too a Vorkosigan. The one who was trained as a deep-penetration mole and assassin.

This has one of the three scenes in the entire series I can't bear to re-read: Mark after the rescue molesting (to use no stronger term) one of the rescuees. Thematically, of course, it contrasts with Miles later talking one of the clones into a new destiny... but it still hurts too much to watch Mark becoming what he set out to fight against. (The other two are the dinner party in A Civil Campaign and Miles faking the report in Memory, in case you're interested.)
Leigh Butler
2. leighdb
Mirror Dance is brilliant, but I think it's the only Miles book that I have not re-read. The whole thing was just so wrenching, the torture scenes most particularly, that it's one of those books that I'm extremely glad to have read but never feel the need to put myself through that again. This is the problem when the author is a little *too* good at getting you to identify with the characters.

(Whereas I can and have read A Civil Campaign over and over - though I admit that, like Tony, more often than not I skip the dinner party scene too.)
Tony Zbaraschuk
3. wsean
Ha! I'm exactly the same. Those scenes are like one of those horror movies where you know the character is about to get themselves killed and you're shouting at them to do something different.

Or like seeing a train wreck coming and knowing there's nothing you can do to stop it.

It's tough to read through again.
Tony Zbaraschuk
4. literatewench
This is the book I liked on first read, disliked on recall, and liked even more on second and third read. I tend to put it lowest on my favorites list in my memory, until I re-read it; possibly because it's Complicated, and difficult for my memory to classify straightforwardly. (Is it a Miles adventure? No, not really. Is it an Aral and Cordelia? No, not really. Is it a Mark adventure? Sort of, but Mark isn't really Mark yet, so...)
Tony Zbaraschuk
5. hawkwing_lb
Mirror Dance. Of all Bujold's books, it and Memory are the two I can least bear to reread. I think I've reread Mirror Dance all of twice, and Memory not at all.

They're very painful, perfect books.

And the whole process of Mark becoming Mark is so very fascinating.
Tony Zbaraschuk
6. OtterB
The other piece of this one that I really like is the way the relationship develops between Mark and the Dendarii, especially Elena. They go from fury and contempt to eventual respect, an outer reflection of Mark's feelings about himself.

And I'm with Tony @1 in the scenes I don't reread.
CD Covington
7. ccovington
I don't skip any of the painful scenes, despite my distinct embarrassment squick. I read them all, every painful moment.

@hawkwing: I've read Memory so many times. I'm in the middle of it right now. (Well, 2/3 maybe. Just back from V. Surleau and fishing.) I love it; it's my favorite of them all. I could read it a million times.

I haven't re-read ACC, though. I don't know why not; it's fine, and I've since developed a taste for Heyer, but it doesn't suck me in like Memory does.
Tony Zbaraschuk
8. cbyler
The other is when part of Mark, in dissociation, talking to himself, shyly thinks that Aral is a killer too. I just find that incredibly touching.

It was his father's advice that helped him out of that difficult situation, after all.

As for the dinner party scene, I find most of it quite enjoyable. One part is... dramatically necessary. It's the hub on which half the book turns - either leading up to it, or playing out the ramifications of it.
Tony Zbaraschuk
9. Anne Zanoni
Wow, Jo!

You brought tears to my eyes too. That's what I meant yesterday about POV. Here I was, already fond of Miles, and he dies. Yet I couldn't put the book down -- I couldn't just walk away from Mark. I already cared about Mark.

That's a sign of greatness right there.

Someone said of Roger Zelazny once that you knew you were in good hands, and I always thought it one of the highest compliments. With this, my second-ever Miles book, I knew that of Lois.

Definitely in good hands.

That part with Aral and Mark makes me cry.

The bit when Miles asks someone about a leap of faith -- would you crash a shuttle for me? -- is so satisfying to him. Encapsulated in BoA: He loved the Dendarii. They didn't _argue_ with him.

Anne*---
Tony Zbaraschuk
10. SteveC
I have to disagree on one key point. "Barrayar" did not heal Mark, *Cordelia* healed Mark (of course, in the ultimate analysis Mark healed himself - as we all must, but it was Cordelia's input which was critical.)

Barrayar, absent the moderating influence of Cordelia Naismith Lady Vorkosigan, is every bit the feudal hellhole. Admittedly, Aral is an adnirable figure who struggles to rise above his culture - but without Cordelia he must ultimately fail. Cordelia is the true hero of the Vorkosigan saga. Without her Barrayar is nothing but a planet full of "Vor bores".

-Steve
- -
11. heresiarch
It also has a relatively excellent cover.
C C
12. Hatgirl
I am yet another one who can't re-read it because it is too good. I tend to only re-read the parts where Mark is on Barrayar.

Ivan crying always breaks my heart.
Ursula L
13. Ursula
I have to disagree on one key point. "Barrayar" did not heal Mark, *Cordelia* healed Mark...

I'd have to say that Barrayar was essential to the healing process.

A lot of Mark's problems came from Galen, and his warped view of what Barrayar is and Mile's role in Barrayan culture, as well as the role of the rest of the family. In order to heal, Mark had to learn what Barrayar really is, and that the Vorkosigans didn't live in a little bubble of perfect power and bliss - that they were real people, in a real culture, and that the culture caused them real problems. An important epiphany for Mark was when he learned that Miles suffered discrimination on Barrayar for his disabilities.

Barrayar let Mark know that Miles was human, with human limits and problems, which in turn allowed him to stop measuring himself against Galen's impossible-yardstick-Miles.

Barrayar was also important in healing Mark because it provided his identity. Generally, one doesn't get to choose one's name and identity as a full-grown adult. You may change your name, and your identity evolves and grows, but the identity of your birth always remains an important part of who you are.

Even though no one knew it at the time, Barrayar gave the little clone such an identity. He's Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan, has been since the day he was a blastocyst put in a replicator, and neither he nor anyone else can change that. If he'd gone straight to Beta colony, he'd have had therapy, and lots of support in choosing an identity, but he wouldn't have gotten what he needed, recognition that he belonged in a particular place and role simply by virtue of being born human.

Mark had years of getting to pick and choose his identity. It didn't work. With Barrayar, he got an identity with an entire planet to support that identity, reaffirm it, and reaffirm him as a unique individual with a unique identity from his birth.
Tony Zbaraschuk
14. Joel Polowin
Re: Mark's identity, IIRC Mark is referred to only as "he" in the narration in his chapters until after Miles has been killed. I thought it a nice touch emphasizing his lack of personal identity.
Liza .
15. aedifica
One of the things that impresses me about LMB's writing is that she fits in details so beautifully that you don't realize you're being clued in. I really discovered this a few years ago when, thinking I had read all the books in the series and was going back for a re-read, I discovered with shock that I had actually never read The Warrior's Apprentice, The Vor Game, Cetaganda, or Mirror Dance!

Reading A Civil Campaign without having read Mirror Dance, I really didn't like Mark much at all. Reading MD gave me a much better appreciation for his character and helped me understand (and like) him better in ACC.
Tony Zbaraschuk
16. SteveC
Ursula writes:

Even though no one knew it at the time, Barrayar gave the little clone such an identity. He's Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan, has been since the day he was a blastocyst put in a replicator, and neither he nor anyone else can change that. If he'd gone straight to Beta colony, he'd have had therapy, and lots of support in choosing an identity, but he wouldn't have gotten what he needed, recognition that he belonged in a particular place and role simply by virtue of being born human.


I respond:

At the risk of quibbling aand picking nits, I must respond - so great is my distaste for the Vor. (Although I admit to a soft spot for Lord Midnight :)

Formally, what you say of Vor naming customs is accurate. But would it have been applied in that alternate universe in which Aral and Cordelia had never chanced to meet? Dealing with the culture shock of glactic biotech is not one of the Vor strengths. In the event, it is Coedelia with her Betan/rationalist background and extraordinary strength of personal character that takes leadership in transforming Vor culture. I doubt that the clone's reception as "Lord Mark" would have been at all assured in a non-Cordelia reality.

Vor culture as we see it emarge in the course of the Vorksogian culture is actually Vor plus. And the most significant element of the plus is the person of Cordeila Naismith - the right person at the right moment to literally change a world.

Toward the end of Brothers in Arms as the clone runs off into the shadows, Miles calls after hin - "Your name is Mark!" - understanding perfectly how critical the question of identity must be to him.

But would a pure Vor - say a young version of Aral - have had such insight? I think not. Such wisdom is Betan in background, and Cordelia's in its development. Miles at that moment is being much more his mom's kid than his dad's.

And, perhaps I can verge off topic just a bit to regret Miles' decision to choose his Vor identity over the Betan Admiral Naismith. How, after having been raised in the household of a genuinely heroic woman, could he ever be happy with the Vor bore "desparate housewife" figure of Ekatrin? I mean, OMG, where did the writer find *her*? Shaker Heights? Not that Ekatrin is evil - she is merely weak - although struggling to escape her own weakness. Bit try to imagine even for a moment *Cordelia* marrying s fool like Ekatrin's first husband and putting up with years of emotional abuse. Not ever! Which shows the difference in character between the two women, and why Ekatrin would never be a fit partner for Miles - even though he's clearly so "whipped" that he fails to recognize this.

No, I think the true score here is Betans 5 Vor 1 (give them a point for Aral - although maybe really only a half-point - because without Cordelia he would surely have drunk himself to death long since.)

Sorry for the rant - but I *really* dislike Vor culture a lot!

-Steve
Tony Zbaraschuk
17. sylvia_rachel
SteveC @ 16 -- Bit try to imagine even for a moment *Cordelia* marrying s fool like Ekatrin's first husband and putting up with years of emotional abuse. Not ever!

... but actually Cordelia does almost exactly that at a similar age, as she obliquely confides to Aral in Shards. She doesn't marry him, but she does give up something that's important to her, and allows him to manipulate her for his own purposes, and comes to regret it. And just as Ekaterin's relationship with Tien, and every painful lesson she learned from it, is necessary background to her relationship with Miles, Cordelia's relationship with that anonymous Survey colleague all those years ago is necessary background to her relationship with Aral.

To each his own, obviously, but I'm puzzled by the Ekaterin-haters ... maybe because I read later books first and got to know and love Miles, Lord Vorkosigan, before really meeting Admiral Naismith. I agree that Ekaterin would likely not be a good match for Admiral Naismith -- but I think she's perfect for Lord Vorkosigan, not least because both of them take that whole bizarre, dysfunctional, somewhat insane Barrayaran Vor oath-making thing so seriously, while at the same time seeing its flaws. At twenty, as Ekaterin notes at the end of ACC, they likely wouldn't've looked at each other twice; at thirty, they've grown to have matching scars and matching life goals and complementary needs and talents.

You're right, though, about those critical moments when Miles is much more his mother's son than his father's.
Tony Zbaraschuk
18. mandalei
In response to the question whether Ekaterin is The One: has anyone read the short story "Winterfair Gifts"? It gives another brief look into Miles's and Ekaterin's relationship, and why it works. Although, I have to admit that once they got married, some of the shine seemed to rub off, and Diplomatic Immunity was a bust for me.
Tony Zbaraschuk
19. Carl N.
Strange...while there are movies I find I cannot watch a second time, I cannot imagine re-reading only part of a book. I generally respect the author (and this author in particular) too much to play editor with the stories they choose to tell, in the way they choose to tell them. Maybe it is just me, but it seems like cheating, somehow.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Carl: It's not just you. The only way I can imagine doing it is if there's a detached part of a novel, like a self-contained story that's part of it, and reading just that for some specific reason.
- -
21. heresiarch
SteveC @ 16: "How, after having been raised in the household of a genuinely heroic woman, could he ever be happy with the Vor bore "desparate housewife" figure of Ekatrin? I mean, OMG, where did the writer find *her*? Shaker Heights? Not that Ekatrin is evil - she is merely weak - although struggling to escape her own weakness. Bit try to imagine even for a moment *Cordelia* marrying s fool like Ekatrin's first husband and putting up with years of emotional abuse. Not ever! Which shows the difference in character between the two women, and why Ekatrin would never be a fit partner for Miles - even though he's clearly so "whipped" that he fails to recognize this."

One, spousal abuse is not something that happens to weak and/or stupid people. It happens to people who accidentally give psychological access to abusive personalities. Read this.

Two, "whipped?" Please tell me you didn't just say that.
- -
22. heresiarch
Carl N.: Agreed. Rereading the stuff I enjoy without rereading the soul-wrenching stuff would feel incomplete, like I was cheating somehow.
Ursula L
23. Ursula
SteveC wrote:

Formally, what you say of Vor naming customs is accurate. But would it have been applied in that alternate universe in which Aral and Cordelia had never chanced to meet? Dealing with the culture shock of galactic biotech is not one of the Vor strengths. In the event, it is Coedelia with her Betan/rationalist background and extraordinary strength of personal character that takes leadership in transforming Vor culture. I doubt that the clone's reception as "Lord Mark" would have been at all assured in a non-Cordelia reality.

Well, if they'd never met, there'd never have been a Miles, or a Mark, so the point's a bit odd.

But it isn't just the naming I'm talking about. It's the larger sense of place-in-the-world. When Cordelia talks to Mark, he's amazed at the concepts of "son" and "son-once-removed" which are the alternative categories that Beta has for his relationship with Cordelia. But he wouldn't be perfectly accepted on Beta - he'd be "unlicensed", and as much adrift without the willingness of his biological parents to adopt him - Cordelia makes a point that she'd have to "claim him as an heir."

The very lack of formal rules for clones on Barrayar made it easier for people to accept Mark in the identity of "Lord Mark" - he's the first of his kind, and if the Vorkosigans say that clones will be accepted as legitimate heirs, then that will be the precedent.

Vor culture as we see it emerge in the course of the Vorkosigan culture is actually Vor plus. And the most significant element of the plus is the person of Cordelia Naismith - the right person at the right moment to literally change a world.

Well, yes we see Barrayar with 30 years of Cordelia's influence. But we're still seeing Barrayar, a planet with a population in the billions, where one person, no matter how powerful, can have only a limited influence.

Barrayar provided the raw material that Cordelia worked with. It provided a culture where people want large families, and more children, rather than trying to limit the number of children through strict licensing and mandatory birth control. Cordelia points out to Kareen (in ACC, I think) about the implications of Beta's strict controls. (Think of China's one-child policy, with waiting lists for your chance to have a child, and strong pressure toward abortion of unlicensed pregnancies. Legitimizing an unlicensed child can involve heavy fines, and a strong legal stigma.) This is not going to be a place where Mark can just walk in and find a home - not because he's a clone, but because his birth was unlicensed.

Toward the end of Brothers in Arms as the clone runs off into the shadows, Miles calls after hin - "Your name is Mark!" - understanding perfectly how critical the question of identity must be to him.

But would a pure Vor - say a young version of Aral - have had such insight? I think not. Such wisdom is Betan in background, and Cordelia's in its development. Miles at that moment is being much more his mom's kid than his dad's.


Aral, at that age, would have been confused by the concept of "clone" - his world didn't have clones. But he would have been familiar with the idea of family, and that someone biologically descended from his parent would be "sibling."

Cordelia would not have shouted "your name is Mark!" or recognized the clone as family, either. In her culture, legitimacy is conveyed by who licences the birth, not by biological decent. Her thought, at that young age, might not have been "my brother, child of my parents, my family" but "my biological sibling, Galen's son, part of Galen's family."

It takes modern Barrayar, the world created by Aral and Cordelia's joint efforts, to be a place that both recognizes the nature of cloning and places the clone into a family by virtue of blood relation. That's a world that is 95% Barrayan/Vor culture, but with Cordelia in place to help introduce the new reproductive technologies - and introduce them for a use that is quite different from the Betan use that she grew up with.

And, perhaps I can verge off topic just a bit to regret Miles' decision to choose his Vor identity over the Betan Admiral Naismith. How, after having been raised in the household of a genuinely heroic woman, could he ever be happy with the Vor bore "desperate housewife" figure of Ekatrin? I mean, OMG, where did the writer find *her*? Shaker Heights? Not that Ekatrin is evil - she is merely weak - although struggling to escape her own weakness. Bit try to imagine even for a moment *Cordelia* marrying s fool like Ekatrin's first husband and putting up with years of emotional abuse. Not ever! Which shows the difference in character between the two women, and why Ekatrin would never be a fit partner for Miles - even though he's clearly so "whipped" that he fails to recognize this.

As others have mentioned, Cordelia discusses being in a very similar emotionally abusive relationship to that of Ekatrin and Tien, when she's getting to know Aral in Shards. She didn't marry, but only because in her culture, marriage comes much later in a relationship - long time lovers who are considering having children. She did make a similar level of commitment, giving up promotion in her career for the hope of a family, in the same way that Ekatrin gave up her education for the hope of a family with Tien.

Abuse happens because of abusers, not because the abused person somehow triggers it by some type of weakness. Anyone can wind up abused in a relationship, as the very emotional openness that allows an emotional relationship to develop also leaves one open to manipulation by an abuser.

No, I think the true score here is Betans 5 Vor 1 (give them a point for Aral - although maybe really only a half-point - because without Cordelia he would surely have drunk himself to death long since.)

Sorry for the rant - but I *really* dislike Vor culture a lot!


"Beta good, Barrayar bad" is an unfair evaluation of both cultures, as Cordelia herself points out. Each culture has its own oppressions, and its own freedoms, its own strengths, and its own weaknesses.

We've seen less of Beta, so it is easy to overlook its faults, but they're there. For example, oppressive control of reproduction and little room for people to live without government control and observation (as we see at the beginning of The Warrior's Apprentice). The reputation for freedom that Beta gets seems to be mostly from the point of view of Barrayans in their late teens and 20s thinking "cool, I can have sex!"

Likewise, Barrayar has its advantages. It is sexually and politically repressed, but in other ways, it has much more freedom. Cordelia is amazed by the unlicensed fireworks to celebrate the Emperor's birthday. Many people can live their lives with the government only lightly touching them. There is room for initiative and experimentation, and very little regulation - the little town in the mountains that builds its own hydro plant, without apparent concern for environmental impact, Mark being able to introduce bug-butter as a food without having to get it approved as a safe food. (Both are things that probably should be regulated, I think.) For all the reputation as a "police state", there isn't much policing at all.
Tony Zbaraschuk
24. legionseagle
Ursula @23: Couldn't agree more, with all of it, especially the reflections on Beta's dark side - after all, military tech is one of its major export industries and Mehta's one of the more chilling characters we meet, predominantly because that sense of her own righteousness is bulwarked by the "therapy" framework within which she works. C.S. Lewis (not a man whose political views I normally cite with approval) puts his finger on the dangers of the Betan approach when describing in That Hideous Strength the decision by N.I.C.E. to reclassify prisoners as people in need of treatment which "by abolishing the name 'punishment' made the thing infinite". Cordelia isn't being punished for being suspected of being a spy, not in Mehta language, but since an onion has no seeds the Mehta process of looking for them will add up to a life sentence nonetheless.

Another point about Cordelia as an abuse survivor: it's telling that when she is preparing herself for being raped in Vorrutyer's quarters in SHARDS she thinks back to the last few weeks of sex with her older lover and thinks This could well be no worse. That gives me the cold grues every time I read it - the sheer economy of conveying what must have been hellish abuse in six words. And very clearly echoed in the later sex scene between Ekaterin and Tien in KOMARR.
Tony Zbaraschuk
25. meaplet
This is absolutely my favorite of the Vorkosigan books. I've read it fewer times than I have Civil Campaign but it breaks me to pieces every single time.

I was astonished to notice the second or third time through how very many details of Mark's torture had in fact happened not on the page but in my head. One of my favorite things about Bujold as an author is how much she can convey with so few words.

In the age-old decision between showing and telling, she seems to go for hinting instead. She gives her audience just enough rope to hang themselves and I at least fall and keep plunging.

(Or maybe, given Jo's spear metaphor, I just happen to have a very long shaft behind the point supplied by the few suggestive sentences that cover exactly what Ryoval has done to Mark.)
Tony Zbaraschuk
26. SF_Fangirl
Well, I totally have to reread this one. I am sure I've only read it once, but your description makes it sound like I should like it more. My only problem is time.

Let me echo the comments that Beta isn't perfect. Recall Cordelia essentially had to run for her life at the end of Shards. The govt was going to destroy her not because they were malicious but because they didn't understand. (Modern US parallel, anyone?) She didn't want to move to Barrayar despite loving Aral, but it became the better choice for her than Beta.
Tony Zbaraschuk
27. SteveC
I'd like to thank those who responded to my comment. The responses were thoughtful, and remained calm in the face of some provocative expression on my part. Perhaps I expresed my sentiments a little one-sidedly, but this is a dissatisfaction that has been building up literally for years, as I have read and reread the Vorkosigan books, especially toward the end as we see Miles pushed inexorably by the march of events into accepting his identity as Vor.

I must acknowledge that although I presented a simple-minded "Beta good/Vor bad" argument, I do understand it is not all so black and white. I suppose I have just been captivated one too many times by the happy spectacle of some bit of Vor idiocy wilting under the amused disbelief of Cordelia's Betan rationalism. I suppose I must admit, however, that this heroine is almost as extraordinary for Beta as Aral is for Barrayar,

As to the question of Ekatrin's abuse, I am aware that this is a sensitive issue and I do not wish to disrespect those people suffering in abusive situations who may, perhaps accurately, feel that there is no way to deal with their situation but through compliance. Though, I must add, such a state of affairs makes my heart sick to contemplate. It happens that I live about 20 - 30 miles from the small town of Dansville, Michigan which was home to Francine and Mickey Hughes. (Actually, I think they lived outside of town in the country). Francine's story is retold in the movie "The Burning Bed" which did much to raise awareness of spousal abuse and, hopefully, struck fear into the hearts of abusers. Legally, Francine's case represented a landmark in the defense of abused women who kill their abusers. I suppose, if you were to back me into a corner ethically, I would have to admit that Mickey's crimes were not so horrendous as to merit a death sentence. Perhaps Francine might have found some other answer. Emotionally, however, I tend to be glad she did what she did. At least she acted - she didn't just take it.

My point, in case it is not clear, is not that being an abuse victim is in itself a sign of weakness, or that the victim is responsible for the abuser's actions. Remaining a victim, when there are other options, is something else again. If one were to argue that Vor culture is patriarchal, and provides none of the recourse for an abused woman that we are accustomed to in our own somewhat rationalist society, I would say perhaps so - and so much worse for the Vor!

I guess I have trouble accepting the decision of a victim who does not fight back. To paraphrase an aphorism oft quoted by the late Robert Heinlein, "You cannot enslave a free person - the most you can do is kill them".

And, I think there is a reason that Cordelia's abusive relationship represents a shadowy episode in her dim past, while Ekatrin's is almost life-defining for her. I think this is a character difference between the two women, and that Ekatrin comes off poorer in the comparison.

heresiarch:

Yeah, I said whipped. I'm aware that this is a vulgar term, but sometimes a bit of judicious vulgarity has an advantage in conveying clarity and force. Plus, for anyone of my generation, once Beavis and Butthead made "sucks" a household word, it became clear that vulgarity was no longer what it used to be. I could have said "infatuated" - also accurate - but it didn't quite have the flavor I wanted.



And, in closing, I'm a bit surprised that nobody picked up on my "Shaker Heights" crack. I have long felt that when Ms. Bujold created Ekatrin she was less an authentic character of her fictional time and place, and more drawn from late 20th Century suburban America. Unfortunately for the character, the Vorkosigan saga is not presented as contemporary fiction.

-Steve
Tony Zbaraschuk
28. legionseagle
SteveC: I think you are still betraying an over-simplified (and victim-blaming) approach to the issue of abuse. You talk about the victim "choosing" to remain a victim when there are options, and then quote Heinlein, apparently to the effect that morally, suicide is better than slavery - because if you know that specific acts are likely to lead to your death then choosing to perform those acts is to choose death. Which in Ekaterin's case, with a sick child depending on her, would have been an unnacceptable way out. How could she possibly put herself in a position where Tien might use the illegal disruptor or needler or whatever and leave him the sole prop and protector of Nikki?

The key point we see in their relationship is Tien systematically shutting down all her options. This is characteristic of abusive personality types. The methods Tien chooses are those to hand - and that means those available to him as a Vor male in a society which privileges that status. But abusers are ingenious - they use the weapons to hand. I don't doubt Cordelia's abuser used the tactics which made sense in a Betan context. But if you look at the discussion which Cordelia has with Miles about Tien, after the butter-bug incident, Miles refers to him as "One of those subtle domestic parasites which leave you wondering "Am I crazy? Am I crazy?" and she instantly recognises both the type and the technique - as, I'm sure, did a large number of the readers. It's the abuser's game to get the abused to give themselves to the enemy in their own mind, by using every technique at hand - and convincing the victim in their own mind that the abuse is all their fault, because of their own weakness, is an excellent tool in the process. Which is why public characterisation of abuse victims as weak and lacking resolution to do something about it becomes part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Tony Zbaraschuk
29. SteveC
legionseagle,

I'm certainly not trying to "blame the victim". It is the abuser who is the one that did something wrong.

I suppose I'm guilty of having forgotten about Nikki. It is one thing to risk one's own life, but quite another to leave a child motherless.

(And, interestingly, I don;t think Heinlein ever depicts the situation of a child held hostage - although, in Citizen of the Galaxy, he does view sympathetically a culture which routinely places entire multi-generational families in harm's way).

Perhaps Ekatrin really was stuck between the proverbial "Rock and a hard place". Not having children myself, I sometimes have a bit of a blind spot about the effect of parental responsibility on one's life.

But, I guess I do have to ask this, at the risk of sounding insensitive. How can anybody convince you you're crazy if you know better? I know people - one I am thinking of in particular who is a close friend, who seem to always get into situations where they are taken advantage of. I tell them less than half jokingly that they need to find a good Doormats Anonymous meeting. I'm sorry, but seeing the process at close range, it really does appear as something the victim permits. I have even seen the one person I'm thinking of stand up to an abuser - hide, get a protection order, etc. - and then jump straight into a situation where they are being abused in an only slightly more subtle manner. And this is an intelligent educated person who one would think would know better - but she seems to carry around this aura of hopelessness inside herself that colors every situation she gets into.

You know, on talk shows they have muggers come on and explain how they spot their victims - by body language, eyes, etc. Isn't it possible that some people are actually predisposed to be easy prey?

I'm trying to be respectful - but I can't ignore what I have seen with my own eyes.

-Steve

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