Tue
Apr 14 2009 11:55am

But I’m Vor: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Komarr

Komarr has two alternating points of view: Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan, on a mission to investigate an accident to the artificial sun of Barrayar’s conquered subject planet Komarr, and Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the wife of a minor administrator in Komarr’s terraforming project.

The plot of Komarr is one of the best and tightest in the series. Like Memory it’s a perfect mystery, with all the clues in plain sight for a re-read but cleverly misdirected. It also has plausible villains who think of themselves as heroes.

The strength of the book stands or falls on Ekaterin. If you like her, you’ll like the book, because it is largely a character study. What we have here is someone repressed to the point of inhibition, in an abusive relationship, and struggling to have any little piece of ground for herself. It’s very well done.

This is the first of the books where Miles is having an adventure as Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, where Naismith and the Dendarii are entirely behind him. It’s a mystery, and it’s a new direction for the series—the direction was indicated in Memory, but this is where it settles into it.

We don’t see any of the familiar recurring characters except Miles. I think this is the only book in the series with only one familiar character except Ethan of Athos. Lots of them are mentioned, but none of them appear.

I love the way we see Komarr here as a real place. I really like the way Komarr has developed throughout the series, from Aral’s bad reputation in Shards of Honor to a source of terrorist plots throughout, with the Galen/Galeni stuff and then Laisa. Here though we actually get down onto the planet and see some ordinary Komarrans. The plot to close the wormhole is very clever—and I like the way the physics all fits with everything we have had back to The Warrior’s Apprentice about how the wormholes and Necklin rods work—but what I really like is what a sensible idea it is, from a Komarran point of view, how a bloodless engineering coup fits with their culture, how they’re not raving loons like Ser Galen. It’s Dr. Riva who really makes it work for me, Dr. Riva who figures it out and doesn’t want to tell ImpSec because she is a Komarran and it’s such a beguiling idea. If your planet was conquered a generation ago and despite their paternal assimilationist policies you weren’t quite equal to the conquerors and weren’t quite trusted, well, doing something that would get rid of them forever would seem attractive. We get a lot of angles on Barrayar in this series, and this is one of the most interesting. The conquered Komarrans who don’t want to become Barrayaran get a voice, and it’s a reasonable one.

When Miles says to Ekaterin that he would like to be famous and have his father mentioned primarily as being his father, and she laughs, it’s worth noting that for us he has that. We as readers are much more interested in Miles than Aral.

The Betan/Barrayaran dynamic throughout the series is settled in Memory in favour of Barrayar, and the ways that’s a male/female dynamic (even when internal to Miles, and oh, consider Bel in that context!) means that in Komarr there has to be a new female angle. Ekaterin, as a female Vor Barrayaran, provides that. Ekaterin strikes me as just a little too obviously planted as a mate for Miles. She may well be what he needs, now that he has decided to be his Barrayaran self, she’s Vor, she’s not a silly girl but a grown up woman. Her decision to leave Tien just before he’s killed is necessary and effective but his death makes things very tidy and easy. I like Ekaterin as herself, I don’t like her when I see her as a prize for Miles. I’ve talked about how the universe, the text, is for or against Miles in different ways, and Ekaterin, Tien’s death, the whole thing, seems like a little too much of the text being on Miles’s side. In a conventional series he’d have married Elena, and he has spent a lot of time looking for a Countess Vorkosigan, but Ekaterin seems to come a little too patly to hand.

Komarr begins and ends with Ekaterin. She’s in a much better position at the end than she was at the beginning. The thing that works best for me about her is the Vorzohn’s Dystrophy. We’ve heard a lot about how Miles isn’t a mutant, and how mutants are treated on Barrayar, so seeing an actual mutation and the shame and panic it causes is clever. Any normal person would get it fixed, the way it affects Tien is uniquely Barrayaran and Vor. Ekaterin has been supporting him long after love has gone because she gave her word. It takes an awful lot to get her to break it. Her act of leaving him is far braver than her actual act of heroism and saving herself, her planet and everything when she destroys the device on the space station.

Bujold talked about SF as being “fantasy of political agency” in the way romance is “fantasy of perfect love” and mysteries are “fantasies of justice.” Thinking about this, the political agency plot of Komarr is just about perfect, but the personal and emotional plot isn’t quite in step with it, so the climax and resolution are a little out of balance. It’s great that Ekaterin saves herself and doesn’t wait to be rescued by Miles, and it’s even better that Miles (for whom rescuing people has been such a huge thing) is pleased about that, but the climactic moment of them sharing the same sense of sacrifice (“I’m Vor”) is undercut by his babbling about his romances and her declaration “Can I take a number.” This needs resolution, which it doesn’t get until the next volume. Komarr definitely does not contain a series ending. It has a whole (and very good) political plot but only half (or perhaps two thirds) an emotional plot. It’s a new departure for the series in that it isn’t entirely self-contained.

15 comments
Tony Zbaraschuk
1. Tony Zbaraschuk
We might note it's also an inverse of the standard SF plot where the heroes are the engineers using a new gadget to overthrow the Evil Empire. Here the jackbooted thugs of fascism are the heroes.

And, this being Bujold, it's of course a lot more complicated than that (witness Helen Vorthys raking the Komarrans over the coals about whether or not heroism has a sell-by date, considering the five million Barrayarans who died because the Komarrans let the Cetagandans through their wormholes...)
Tony Zbaraschuk
2. Lsana
I too could sympathize quite a bit with the Komarrans. Barrayar is a fascinating place to read about, but I don't think I would want to live there or under their rule. Barrayarans rule by hereditary right. They have a militaristic culture where everything centers around the army. And they are extremely chauvinistic. I'd hate it there, and it's hard to blame the Komarrans for not wanting any part of this society.

I do like this book, though, mostly because I love Ekaterine. And I love mysteries.
Tony Zbaraschuk
3. OtterB
I liked this one better on reread than I did the first time through, perhaps because of the context of knowing what would happen in ACC. I can identify with Ekaterin. "Has it ever occurred to you that you might be a touch oversocialized?" I enjoy her perspective on the women Miles has been involved with previously, that they've all grown through their association with him, and that that was something lacking in her own marriage. And I like Miles with Nicki.

And yes, this one - unlike, say, Borders of Infinity or The Vor Game - has greater shades of gray in the villains. They were really quite reasonable, except for their willingness to kill millions or throw them back to feudalism on a Barrayar in a new Time of Isolation.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
I like Ekaterin as herself, I don’t like her when I see her as a prize for Miles.

And, in retrospect, this is what makes _ACC_ look worse to me than it did at first. Which also colors my impressions of this somewhat, too.
Tony Zbaraschuk
5. legionseagle
Komarr is the one I most persistently re-read, fond though I am of the others (and aware that Mirror Dance and Memory may well be technically "better").

Something about having Ekaterin's take on Miles is so refreshing; she's not exposed to him in his glittering Naismith persona and it's very grounding. And the planet Komarr itself is so well realised - especially the file of Komarran jokes Miles finds on someone's computer, and the way you can just feel the grit and bits of weed in the park pond they fall into.

The claustrophobia of the Komarran domes is so good, too; it's evocative of Cordelia at the beginning of Shards enjoying the novelty of water falling from the sky to have Ekaterin making the comment about the Komarrans perhaps growing up too agoraphobic when the terraforming is complete to be able to leave their domes. In each case Cordelia and Ekaterin need open space, and get it, even if it does come with Barrayaran disadvantages.

In some respects I think one of the things I relate to in Komarr stems from its being so evocative of episodes of Doctor Who and, more especially, Blake's Seven of my youth. These BBC series, for budget reasons, had a disused factory and a disused quarry making up practically the whole of the location shots, so they had to rely on character conflict not special effects to drive the story. Given you could do the whole of Komarr as a TV adaptation in a quarry (large part of budget allocation to swampy green stuff), a disused factory (Waste Heat facility, interior, night/Waste Heat facility, exterior, night/Space Station, interior, irrelevant in space) a living room/balcony set and the corner of a municipal park it made me feel completely at home. I could visualise every last inch of it.
Tony Zbaraschuk
6. sylvia_rachel
I do like Ekaterin, and Komarr, a lot. The distressingly true and real examination of Ekaterin's unhappy marriage is, for me, simultaneously disturbing (Oh, god, it hurts) and comforting (She gets it. She really gets it). Maybe you have to have been in, or been very close to, a bad marriage of this particular sort to appreciate that, as you say, Ekaterin's bravest single act is not creating "that mess in the cargo bay" (though that whole section is indeed made of awesome) but sitting down in the kitchen with her large, strong, controlling, scary husband and telling him she's leaving.

You're right, of course, that the set-up strains belief -- not only Ekaterin and Miles but the larger situation: what are the odds that of all the Terraforming offices in all the domes on all of Komarr, the conspirators will happen to be working in the one overseen by the husband of the Lord Auditor's sole Komarr-resident relation? But these are things that occur to me only when I'm not reading it, because while I am, the story's Forward Momentum easily overrides such concerns.

I really like that scene at the end where Miles brings the flowers, but it does have more in common with the tone of ACC than with most of the rest of Komarr, and it certainly doesn't have the same climactic quality as "But I'm Vor." "True Vor, milady." I tend to think of these as two books with but a single plot -- which isn't true, of course, each has its own plot(s), but The Love Song of Miles N. Vorkosigan needs both halves.
Ursula L
7. Ursula
sylvia_rachel wrote: I tend to think of these as two books with but a single plot -- which isn't true, of course, each has its own plot(s), but The Love Song of Miles N. Vorkosigan needs both halves.

I see several of the books as matched pairs. Shards and Barrayar are Cordelia's story. The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game are the genesis of Admiral Naismith, the transformation of Lord Miles into Admiral Naismith. Borders of Infinity and Brothers in Arms are the life of Admiral Naismith. Mirror Dance and Memory are the transformation of Admiral Naismith into Lord Vorkosigan. Komarr and A Civil Campaign are the growth of Lord Vorkosigan into Lord Auditor Vorkosigan.

Miles isn't a character who "comes of age" in the normal literary sense. He's someone who grows up, and continues to grow up over time. Having each transformation happen over two books helps avoid the traps that "coming of age" stories fall into, the idea that growing up is about single transformative rituals rather than growing and evolving maturity.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Ursula: I always think of Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance as being a pair about Mark, which I think, along with the distance from each other at which most of your pairs were written, highlights the fact that all these other books do stand alone as well as fitting together.
Tony Zbaraschuk
9. cbyler
You're right, of course, that the set-up strains belief -- not only Ekaterin and Miles but the larger situation: what are the odds that of all the Terraforming offices in all the domes on all of Komarr, the conspirators will happen to be working in the one overseen by the husband of the Lord Auditor's sole Komarr-resident relation?

Well, the quick answer is 5%, because there are twenty terraforming districts. Miles has had much more unlikely things than that happen to him. But it's not that simple anyway.

The conspirators went to an out-of-the-way backwater in order to not attract attention. Tien was parked in an out-of-the-way backwater because he's an idiot (and not in the Ivan sense of the word) and his superiors realize it.

At least, that was my interpretation. The unlikely part is Vorthys and Ekaterin being related to said idiot, even (or should that be especially?) by marriage.

I like Ekaterin as herself, I don’t like her when I see her as a prize for Miles.

That's a disturbing interpretation. My first reaction was that this is an excessively Miles-centric view, because after all, the events of this book and the next are ultimately good for her, too - but in a fictional universe, that might not be a valid objection. She was only introduced as a character at all in order to interact with Miles, and all of her history is invented to set up that interaction. (Contrast _The Sharing Knife_, where both characters are independently developed and this kind of interpretation is impossible.)

I think Miles has the same problem - seeing her in relation to himself rather than as a person in her own right - which is how he blunders so spectacularly in _ACC_. But from outside the universe looking in, that's all a setup too.
Tony Zbaraschuk
10. sylvia_rachel
The conspirators went to an out-of-the-way backwater in order to not attract attention. Tien was parked in an out-of-the-way backwater because he's an idiot (and not in the Ivan sense of the word) and his superiors realize it.

That much is certainly true. Tien is presumably not the first incompetent ex-Lieutenant Vor-something to hold down the Barrayaran Administrator's desk at the Serifosa Terraforming office on the assumption that at least there his incompetence wouldn't hurt anybody.

The slightly-too-coincidental bit is the order in which things happen: not Miles and Vorthys detect skullduggery in Serifosa District Terraforming office followed by Miles meets and falls in love with clever, beautiful and mistreated wife of incompetent administrator of Serifosa District Terraforming office, but the other way round.

But as you say, far, far more unlikely things happen to Miles fairly routinely ... and if I thought about it I could probably come up with a number of more unlikely things that have happened to me.
Tony Zbaraschuk
11. Reebism
She was only introduced as a character at all in order to interact with Miles, and all of her history is invented to set up that interaction. (Contrast _The Sharing Knife_, where both characters are independently developed and this kind of interpretation is impossible.)

But by that interpretation, the whole world of The Sharing Knife was actually created in order to create a fantasy/romance hybrid, so Dag and Fawn were created to, eventually, fall in love with each other...! Do not peek so far behind the curtain!

While I realize Ekaterin wouldn't have been introduced without Miles needing to go searching for a wife, I don't think of her, at all, as a prize for Miles: in a lot of ways, I think that both she and Miles end up winning each other.
Michael Dolbear
12. miketor
Lsana said

I too could sympathize quite a bit with the Komarrans. Barrayar is a fascinating place to read about, but I don't think I would want to live there or under their rule. Barrayarans rule by hereditary right. They have a militaristic culture where everything centers around the army
==

Up to a point, Lsana and armed forces, not army.

See the discussion in BiArms on the Emperor ruling with the consent of the Counts, General Staff etc and what happens to those who fail to honour that consent.

Barrayar is much more a electoral monarchy than a hereditary right one.

(aka Little Egret)
Tony Zbaraschuk
13. thermopyle
Ekaterin's and Tien's failed marriage and Tien's death do seem like an overly tidy package, custom-made for Miles, unless you consider that Miles may have assassinated Tien. Miles already knew Ekaterin was unhappy and that Tien was in the process of implicating himself as a bad guy. Add to that, Miles may have more split-personality going on than is apparent. I can easily see Admiral Naismith whispering to Miles' subconscious, "you don't need call for backup" - "if this is a dangerous situation, I'm more likely to survive it than Tien." This would all go on at a level that Miles wouldn't be aware of and could never admit to himself. It looks like death by negligence from Miles or stupidity on Tien's part, but Miles, on some level, may have evaluated all those outcomes and decided (or Naismith decided) that it was well worth the risk to carry-on with Tien and not call for any backup.

I've only recently started entertaining this theory, after numerous re-reads. It's a bit crack-pot but it does help resolve the issue of the overly convenient setup-up of a widow custom made for Miles to woo and win. She wasn't made for him, he helped create her.
Rob Munnelly
14. RobMRobM
Obviously, this is long past the post's sell by date, but as Leigh commonly notes on the WoT posts, it is tons of fun when a character who you know to be awesome based on text gets to have said awesomeness seen through the eyes of a witness. In that light, the first third of Komarr is about as fun as fun can be as Ekaterine, expecting from Tien's description some kind of obnoxious Vor assistant to her beloved uncle, gets to meet and get to know the hypercompetent Miles, both through her own eyes and the informed perspective of her uncle. Wonderful set up, beautifully executed. The final bit where Miles feels compelled to disclose to Ekaterine his history of lovers ("a little of this, a little of that") in the Aunt's presence flat out blew me away. I really enjoyed it.

Rob
Tony Zbaraschuk
15. All_Day_SCI-fi
One of the most interesting things about the story which almost no reviews mention is that reality does what reality does regardless of what people think. Science is about figuring out how reality works. The wormhole did not behave the way they conspiracists expected and Dr. Rive figured out what it really did. A scientific discovery like that could be important long after the events involved in the discovery.

It is kind of like The Cold Equations.

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