Barrayar is where the Vorkosigan books stopped being really good and lots of fun and became brilliant.
I started this thinking about series that improved. What has improved by this point is everything: the writing, the plotting, the depth of background, the significance of the issues, the characterisation—and remember that Shards of Honor was already well ahead of expectations on most of these things.
Barrayar is a direct sequel to Shards of Honor. It should be a story with no tension, because we already know what happens, if we have read anything about Miles at all. “I was a casualty in Vordarian’s Pretendership before I was born!” he thinks in The Vor Game. This is that story. But despite knowing what’s going to happen—Vordarian will start a civil war, Cordelia’s unborn baby will be harmed by a gas attack, the baby will survive with teratogenic damage—it’s an incredibly tense book, especially near the end.
It’s very interesting to read a fast-paced science fiction novel about motherhood. There are fewer of them than you might think. Indeed, considering how much death there is in SF, there’s not as much birth as you might expect. When there is birth it’s usually high-tech and detached, and even then it’s usually written by women. Here we have pregnancy and birth up close and surprisingly exciting. It is important—giving birth, giving life, does matter. If Ethan of Athos is making the point that reproduction isn’t just for girls, Barrayar is really making future birth central and significant.
Someone mentioned that Bujold overshot the end of Shards, and that makes sense. It would be interesting to know how far that went. However it was, she must have rewritten that overshot. Shards has a lot of unexpected political and emotional honesty, but it’s a first novel and it’s written relatively clunkily. Delany talks in The Motion of Light in Water about the expected rhythm of prose and how you can go with that and use cliches and go along with the expected flow of language, or how you can push back and vary it and do things against the expected beat to make it syncopate or harmonize. On a prose level, Shards slides along with the expected thing every time. The language is in charge. By Barrayar, Bujold was entirely on top of language and pushing it for all it would do stylistically. There’s a scene early on where Cordelia’s at a party and she thinks that on Beta there would have been cameras and everything would have been done for the camera angles, but on Barrayar
The only recordings were made by ImpSec, for their own purposes, which did not include choreography. The people in this room danced only for each other, all their glittering show tossed blithely away in time, which carried it off forever; the event would exist tomorrow only in their memories.
The insight’s the important thing and she could have had the insight in Shards, but here the mature Bujold is dancing with the language as well as the ideas.
From a series point of view, she was going back and filling in some more. She wrote Brothers in Arms and left the Mark plot dangling there for years while she did the necessary set up for Mirror Dance. This is the opposite of the standard series thing where the first book has all the ideas and the other books try to repeat or extend them. Far from writing something just like the last thing, or something more about mercenary adventures, she went right back to the beginning and wrote this slow-starting firecracker book about motherhood. And it won a very well-deserved Hugo. Oh, and it contains the awesome “Shopping” scene, which isn’t in context funny at all, to me, because Cordelia is right on the edge there, she isn’t putting up with any more from Barrayar at that point, she’s almost as mad as Bothari. It’s a great scene though.
This is the book where Piotr gets the character development he deserves. Miles and Ivan are both born. (Ivan’s birth is one of the most nail-biting moments in the book.) We see Gregor as a small child. Alys Vorpatril, who has been mentioned but barely developed, gets a lot of development, setting her up for the position she holds in the rest of the series. One of the very clever things Bujold manages is making people seem as if they’ve been there all along. Alys has been mentioned briefly as Ivan’s mother, when we find out about the rest of her job it just seems as if it wasn’t mentioned because it wasn’t important, never as if it’s being shoehorned in. The same goes for the Koudelka daughters, who drift in to the series in Mirror Dance, as a direct consequence, I’m sure, of Drou and Kou’s romance here which probably had no existence before Barrayar. But they don’t feel tacked on. Bujold has a genius for making things flow, for expanding her sketches into bas-relief and then three dimensionality without any visible jerks. (I have to go back and change things to get this to work. I could never make it work over multiple volumes in cold print.)
Barrayar is about Betan Cordelia being swallowed by Barrayar. It’s also about Barrayar adapting to her, by giving her spaces it doesn’t believe are important, like the education of the emperor up to the age of twelve, like the marriage of a grocer’s son and a corporal’s son in the Imperial Residence, like the importation of uterine replicators and technology to choose the gender of your children.
My son has a joke about the three standard plots being “Man versus Man,” “Man versus Plan,” and “Man versus Canal.” Most of the Miles books could perfectly sensibly be categorised as Man versus Plan. Barrayar has a certain amount of that, but it’s also Man versus Canal—the way technology changes things. There’s more technological change and sociological change and the effect technology has on society, and economics, and the effect economics has over time, in these books than in anything else I can think of—and it passes almost invisibly, perhaps because so much of it is classifiable as “girl stuff.”
I gave Barrayar to a friend who had read The Handmaid’s Tale and wanted to know more about this SF stuff, and she loved it, after initially having terrible problems with the cover. This isn’t a “guilty pleasure” type read, this is as good as it gets, speculation and consequences and action and significant human issues. However it looks like it, we can put this with Le Guin and Delany and Vinge, this is a book that should make us proud of our genre.