Apr 10 2009 2:31pm

Luck is something you make for yourself: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cetaganda

I don’t like Cetaganda (1995). I’ve never liked it. I often skip it on re-reads, to such an extent that re-reading it now was almost like reading a new book. (There’s a disadvantage of re-reading as much as I do in that there are series where the books I don’t like become, in time, the ones I like the best because they’re the ones that retain freshness after I have the ones I like memorised. I can see Cetaganda getting on that list along with Five Red Herrings and Our Man in Camelot.)

Cetaganda is a very slight book, to have been written between Mirror Dance (1994) and Memory (1996). It’s set two years after The Vor Game (1990). It features Miles and Ivan going off to Cetaganda to a diplomatic function, where they get into trouble and out of it again. It’s notable in being the first of the series apart from Ethan of Athos (1986) that’s definitely a mystery and not a military adventure, and I suppose that’s the logic in binding it with Ethan of Athos and “Labyrinth” as Miles, Mystery and Mayhem. Or maybe not. Most of the reprint compilations make perfect sense to me, but this not one.

Cetaganda is about Cetaganda, the mysterious empire that has, thus far in the series, been seen only as a mysteriously aggressive enemy. It’s first mentioned in Shards of Honor (1986) when Cordelia thinks her camp might have been trashed by Barrayarans, Cetagandans or Nuevo Brasilians—maybe we’ll see some of those one day. We then hear that there have been three wars between Cetaganda and Barrayar, and later encounter Ceragandans, always as bad guys. They are the invaders in The Vor Game, and the prison guards in “The Borders of Infinity.” They’re pursuing Admiral Naismith across London in Brothers in Arms, (1989) and we know they have painted faces, ghem-captains, and itchy trigger fingers. In Cetaganda we find out a lot more about them... and unfortunately, I don’t find them that interesting.

One of the things I’ve noticed on this re-read is that the amount I like the books tends to be directly proportional to how much Barrayar there is in them. It seems that the thing I really like about this series is the Barrayaran roots. So that’s my new complaint, not enough Barrayar. The book starts with arriving on Cetaganda and ends with leaving it. That also means we don’t see any of the familiar Barrayaran characters except for Miles and Ivan, though Illyan is referenced.

However, my original complaint about Cetaganda when I first read it was that it doesn’t have any Admiral Naismith or Dendarii Free Mercenaries—Miles is Lieutenant Vorkosigan all through. So not only do we not have any of the familiar Dendarii characters, there’s no Miles duality to make it interesting. And compared to the Miles I just left in Mirror Dance, Miles at twenty-two seems strangely shallow, without everything he has learned since—and the same goes for Ivan. I don’t think this is a complaint because I wanted a MilSF adventure and got a mystery. It’s more than I wanted a novel and got a romp. This is particularly noticeable in publication order.

The stakes are also fairly low in this book. We know Miles and Ivan escape pretty much unscathed. What happens to them is amusing enough, but that’s all. There’s no real possibility of a Cetagandan explosion, because we know it didn’t happen. We know they did attack Marilac, and seeing the complacent Marilacans beforehand is one of the nice touches.

What else do I like, apart from the Marilican Embassy? Ivan and the anti-aphrodisiac and the consequences of him getting away with it. Yenaro, the descendant of the General who failed to defeat Barrayar, who is a perfumer. The garden with the luminescent frogs who sing in chords. Miles getting the medal and saying he won’t wear it unless he needs to be really obnoxious—which looks forward to the scene in Memory where he wears all his medals. Ghem-Colonel Millisor calling in from Ethan of Athos, which I had totally forgotten about until reminded here.

I don’t find the Cetagandan political set-up very plausible, and worse, I don’t find it very interesting. The same goes for the actual mystery and solution, which I’d half-forgotten. I don’t like Miles’s desire to keep information to himself and be a hero charming, in the context of what’s going to happen when he, as Elli puts it at the beginning of Mirror Dance, runs out of hairs to split with these people. I don’t much care for the supernatural beauty of the haut ladies floating around in their bubbles. (“Mutants on purpose are still mutants.”)

The duality here is between sincere (if rough around the edges) masculine Barrayar and highly civilized (if not all the way over into decadent—that kitten tree!) feminine Cetaganda. It’s interesting that there’s more to Cetaganda than a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, but did they have to be quite this effete? This depth of Cetaganda is set up for Diplomatic Immunity (2002), but I don’t like the Cetagandan bit of that either. Maybe it’s just me and everybody else loves Cetagandans, the haut and the ghem?

It may be worth noting here that despite coming after three consecutive Hugo winning-novels this was not even nominated for a Hugo, as discerning Hugo-nominating Bujold fans, far from being mindlessly adoring of everything she writes, noticed that this was a minor work.

1. Will "scifantasy" Frank
It's my understanding that Cetaganda was sort of a runup to Memory. I don't recall when or how I heard that, but I definitely think it shows.
2. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho
I won't go so far as to say that Cetaganda is my all-time favorite of the series, but I do like it quite a bit.
Ursula L
3. Ursula
I agree that publication order makes Cetaganda frustrating. I'm left wanting to give Miles a good shake, and telling him "grow up!", and with a horrible case of the cliff-hangers for how everyone will recover from Mirror Dance. It's much better in the internal chronology, when it fits in with the other stories of Miles being young and reckless and thinking he's going to live forever.

What it is useful for is pinning down the Cetagandans. Making them a specific culture, with specific (if strange) political goals, allows for the recognition that they're becoming more isolationist, which in turn allows for Miles to be removed from the Dendarii without leaving everyone wondering who is going to be running around foiling Cetagandan plots. I don't think that Memory could have developed as it needed to without neutralizing the Cetagandan threat in some way first.
Paul Meyer
4. pmrabble
I didn't like Cetaganda when it first came out either. The thing that changed my mind (now like it quite a bit) was listening to the old Reader's Chair audiobook version. There's something about the pacing of the audiobook that really works here.
Edward Bear
5. sehlat
It really depends on how you define "minor." It's not as overwhelmingly dramatic as military action, but Miles basically insures a fairly long peace between the rest of the galaxy (Barrayar included) and the Cetagandans in this one.

As I put it once "He single-handedly wins a major interstellar war by keeping the damned thing from ever getting started. Now THAT is 'excellence in the art of war.' "

And he manages all this in the course of surviving at least one assassination attempt and getting the hell beaten out of him by the bad guys.

(spoiler)Since I consider Barrayaran-Cetagandan relations to have been one long war of varying intensity from the Occupation through "Cetaganda", I laugh like hell at the notion of Miles having managed to win BOTH sides' equivalent of the Medal of Honor, in the same war, without ever having committed treason.

Until the Five Gods novels and Sharing Knife series came along, this and Memory were my favorite stories.
6. EmmetAOBrien
One of the things that I think Cetaganda is doing is that, unless I misremember, it's the first time (by publication order) we've seen Miles supposed to work closely with a superior officer who is neither a villain nor incompetent, and he still messes them around.
Janet Kegg
7. jmk
This one is missing the "Vorkosigan saga" tag.
8. Cara the Cat
I'm a major Bujold fan (need to say that first!), but I agree this is one of my least favorite Bujolds, and probably the one I re-read least often. However, I first read them in the order that they occur, so I think I was spared some of the frustration many of you felt!

My husband, on the other hand, really loves this book, because he considers it very science-fictional, with all the world-building and such. And maybe he liked the idea of the very gorgeous haut ladies, I don't know! (Whereas I sort of wanted to punch one in the face.) ;-)
9. SteveC
One of the major sub-themes of the Vorkpsogan saga as a whole is profiling diverse reactions to the emerging revolution in biotechnology on the galactic scene. Jackson's Whole displays the "free enterprise" pproach, while the Cetagandans depict a bio-aristocracy. I think the fleshing out of this theme is the true value of Cetaganda.

Chris Meadows
10. Robotech_Master
I think it's kind of interesting to compare the Cetagandans with the Liaden novels by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. Like the Yxtrangi from the Liaden books, the Cetagandans paint their faces in denotation of rank and clan and so forth.

But like the Enemy from the first war (from the Crystal books), they're genetically improving themselves beyond the point where, someday, they might not think of the rest of humanity as "human" anymore.

11. BJVL
One of the things I find most fascinating with Cetaganda is the parallels between the haut and the Lakewalkers of the Sharing Knife books.
12. Yrf
I generally like Cetaganda. However, what bugs me about the book is how similar the Cetagandan and Barrayaran aristocracies are in forms of address, rough outline, severe gender role lock, etc. Yeah, okay, it would be weird if the Barrayarans picked up nothing from the Cetagandans during the occupation, but none of the characters ever -address- the very obvious parallels and it does bug me. Stuff like "My Imperial/Celestial Master", blood feuds, random Lords running around, nobility indicated by a prefix, the militaristic aristocracy, even Imperial Security. It beggars belief that these things supposedly evolved in isolated retro-feudal parallel.
Karen Lofstrom
13. DPZora
I enjoyed it, but perhaps for an odd reason. Heian Japan, the world of the Genji Monogatari, is the obvious template for Cetaganda. I have read the Genji Monogatari umpteen times (usually in the Waley version) and Cetaganda resonated with that fascination.

Also, I like the idea that women can appear to be powerless while in fact being the secret mistresses of the world.
Martin Wisse
14. Martin_Wisse
Your reread of the Vorkosigan series actually inspired me to take this off the shelves again, to get a bit of a fix without having to read the whole series in order. I agree it's much more of a romp than the books immediately preceding and following it, but that's why I like it. And I especially like Ivan's parallel erm "adventures"...
CD Covington
15. ccovington
@Yrf, Barrayar was colonized by people from Earth, who presumably didn't forget 3000 years of history, including feudalism and how to address royalty. It's not at all surprising that they've got similar forms of address, since they've got roots in the same Earth history, even if the Cetas would rather forget it.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
Something I forgot to say -- Cetaganda is the last book to be written out of internal chronological order, after it, they're all in ongoing time order.
17. Shakatany
At the end of "Cetaganda" there's a hint that there's some unfinished business between the Emperor and Miles. I keep waiting for the book that will explore that - perhaps Cetagandan technology can help Mile's body one day or something similar and LMB has set us up for that by writing this "prequel".
Liza .
18. aedifica
Jo, I've finally found a book you and I have both read that we feel differently about! I'm relieved; it was getting rather spooky. I do like Cetaganda (except the kitten tree, which I think I'll skip on next re-read). I enjoyed getting to know more about the mysterious Cetagandans and learning about the Star Creche, and the anti-aphrodisiac scene was hilarious (Ivan getting into trouble that Miles didn't cause!)
19. mandalei
_Diplomatic Immunity_ has another interaction with the Cetagandans. Although it does not explore the relationship between the emperor and Miles per se, it does give us more insight into the haute.
Kate Martin
20. julian
Yah. Romp, not novel. And (though I haven't read it recently) it does feel as if most of the emphasis is on the worldbuilding, and not on Miles' Issues.

I'm also not, in general, a fan of authors writing books 'out of order' in a series. (I realize this is somewhat silly of me. But I really do enjoy tracking character growth, and prequels just throw me out of that. (This is obviously less relevant after the first time I read the book.) Yes, this does mean Brust gives me fits.)
21. meaplet
The one thing that I like about Cetaganda is that in it, just like in Mountains of Mourning, we get to see Miles as both young and Lord Vorkosigan.

In general, I'm a lot more attached to the books where Miles is older, and seeing him here in a political role is a lot more satisfying to me than seeing him as Naismith.

That being said, it sometimes does feel like an entire book made out of the cat blanket in Brothers in Arms.
Jo Walton
22. bluejo
Meaplet: What a wonderful way of putting it!
David Dyer-Bennet
23. dd-b
I certainly understand about the lesser works in a favorite series (or by a favorite author) gaining in importance as one wears out the better ones. I've actually reread The Number of the Best, for example. And Masters of Space.

I like the Cetegandans a lot, though. I'm not sure I believe in them; but then I'm not sure I believe in us, either. I'm pretty flexible on how people can organize their societies, because the real ones violate my expectations so often.
24. SF_Fangirl
Jo, ditto.

I had more to say, but the internet ate my first attempt to post.
25. mgan
I love the relationship between Miles and Ivan in this book. Ivan is so brother like towards Miles, protective, even suportive in a throughly whiney Ivan sort of way. That idiot Ivan is really more then a little bit competent in this story.

I also appreciate the fact that Miles has a very "independent angle of view" (to quote Gregor in Memory) when it comes to the Cetagandan emperor because of his relationship with Gregor and his mother's Betan politics.

As far as the grouping Jo - "I suppose that’s the logic in binding it with Ethan of Athos and “Labyrinth” as Miles, Mystery and Mayhem. Or maybe not. " I would think it mostly because of the series chronology.
26. neroden
I like the haut -- the idea of an empire built around genetic engineering of future humans as an *art project*. But I think they suffer from being not a fully fleshed out concept -- and one which is difficult to flesh out. This book suffers because the entire plot is a mystery where the resolution is *discovering* that the haut are what they are, so they *really* aren't fleshed out.

Also, the idea that the haut women are magically beautiful really needs some sort of pheremone explanation.

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