Apr 3 2009 3:52pm

Why he must not fail: Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Borders of Infinity

The Borders of Infinity is a collection of short stories about Miles. One of them, “The Mountains of Mourning,” is about Miles Vorkosigan on Barrayar, and the other two are about Admiral Naismith, galactic mercenary (daring rescues a specialty).

Brothers in Arms and the collection The Borders of Infinity were both published in 1989. When I re-read the way I normally do, chronologically, I’m never sure which order to read them in, as the stories take place at such different times, the frame story is clearly after Brothers in Arms and yet Brothers in Arms opens with Miles surveying the damage from The Borders of Infinity. (It’s probably a good thing the collection doesn’t exist in that form any more except for hardback collectors so people who want everything chronological can have it in the new versions.)

But I’m reading in publication order, and they were both published in 1989. With the computer off, I couldn’t tell which had actually been published first. So I grabbed The Borders of Infinity on the grounds that at least some of the stories are earlier. Looking around, it seems I was wrong, sorry.

The frame story is set immediately after Brothers in Arms and does not develop the main internal chronological plot of the series at all. Miles is having the bones of his arms replaced with plastic bones, and ImpSec is being audited. It’s a very shallow frame, barely an outline to hang the three novellas from. It’s a fairly clunky device. Having said that, I kind of like it. It gives us a bit more Miles, a bit more Simon, and it actually does some set-up for Memory, though it probably could have done that better if it had known what it was doing. In losing the collection in favour of inserting the stories at the right chronological points, the frame is lost entirely, and I think I’d miss it.

The Mountains of Mourning is set immediately before The Vor Game, which of course she hadn’t written yet. It’s the best written thing in the series so far. Miles, fresh out of the Imperial Academy, goes up to the backwoods of the Dendarii mountains and discovers what he’s fighting for. It’s the most significant part of the whole sequence as far as understanding Miles goes, because Miles doesn’t work without his heart in Barrayar. Miles is interesting most especially because he’s pulled in many directions, and this one is what matters most. This is Miles’s emotional core. The story is quiet and understated and people mentioned in the Warrior’s Apprentice post that it’s online.

Labyrinth gives us a close up look at Jackson’s Whole and thus sets up Mirror Dance. It also introduces Taura, and has a quaddie, connecting back to Falling Free and forward to Diplomatic Immunity. It’s an interesting model of daring rescue, actually. Miles is sent in to kill a monster, when what’s necessary is to rescue a princess. He thinks this himself, and Taura’s transformation from monster to princess (or at least mercenary) is what the story is about. It all goes very smoothly.

The Borders of Infinity is clearly a thought experiment of Miles carrying on naked. I noticed that in Shards of Honor Cordelia thinks Aral could do it, and here Miles does it. It’s another daring rescue, he rescues thousands of prisoners of war from a prison camp after getting them organized using nothing more than willpower. This gets the Cetagandans really mad at him, which becomes important in Brothers in Arms. He also traumatises himself by losing a woman out of the shuttle, as if he needed to be any more traumatised.

Through all of these Miles continues convincingly manic depressive and to make his physical problems seem trivial. He sometimes manages to carry on through unconvincing amounts of pain, or at least sufficiently more pain than I could carry on through, and I’m fairly used to it myself. Having said that, she never really pushes it into total unbelievability—and here the frame story helps, by showing us Miles completely helpless.

In the context of the series, she wrote these three stories that are oh-so-definitely about Miles, and contextualising the whole universe around Miles, while at the same time writing the next Miles novel, so she must have definitely made some decisions about direction. It’s a good place to start the series, or at least a lot of people seem to have happily started it here and gone on to love it. It’s taking the series forward by focusing on Miles. I mentioned that the most interesting thing about Miles is his dual nature, the way his heart is on Barrayar and yet he can only really relax, and only really succeed, and only really serve when he’s being Admiral Naismith. The novels all play on that. These stories divide him up, one on Barrayar, two in space. The frame roots them to Barrayar.

Evan Goer
2. Evan Goer
I read The Borders of Infinity after reading about half of the other Vorkosigan novels, basically in random order. What impressed me about this story is that it showcased how Bujold is able switch tones so effortlessly between individual Vorkosigan stories. You get into the series, and you find out that one book is light romantic comedy, another is cool interstellar espionage, and then another can be dark and vicious.

There's no one true "skin" for a Vorkosigan tale, and that's one of the reasons I think Bujold was able to keep this long-running series so interesting.
Evan Goer
3. JoeNotCharles
I mentioned before that I think this is the perfect introduction, but I'll go one further - apparently the opening chapter of The Vor Game was published in a magazine as The Weatherman, and I think that story belongs in here too. That would give two Barrayar stories - one about his relationship to his homeland, and one about his relationship to the military - and two mercenary stories, with the last one coming back around to touch on Miles' reasons for serving again.

(And besides, after the Weatherman section, the rest of The Vor Game isn't all that great.)
CD Covington
4. ccovington
Bah, I totally disagree, Joe!Charles. I love TVG, but I'll save the argument until Jo gets there ;)

tMoM is so incredibly perfect. There are two passages that make me cry every damn time: the scene where Miles is passing his judgment and telling Harra the name he proposes for the school, and the very last paragraph, where Miles is talking to Raina.

Borders of Infinity (as collected in Miles Errant) was the first story I read after Cordelia's Honor. It was ... well, I have to say it was quite a surprise when the Dendarii came, because I didn't have that a-ha of knowing about them beforehand. Like the people imprisoned on Dagoola IV.

Labyrinth doesn't stand out much for me. It's not a bad story, by no means, but it's not one that jumps off the pages.

Evan Goer
5. Kylinn
I read the three novellas separately, as they were published, and only read the frame story later when it was put together for the collection. The frame I barely remember, but the three stories are quite clear in my mind. They're all very good, especially Mountains of Mourning. And Borders of Infinity. Love Mile's hat in the latter!
- -
6. heresiarch
ccovington: I agree about the tearing up in tMoM. I felt my tear ducts start up just reading about you reading them.

For me, though, I don't skip the soul-searing bits. They're needed to balance out the joy. That's what makes the Vorkosigan series so great--it covers the entire spectrum from silly hijinks to utter emotional devastation. Unlike many series that limit their tone to certain emotional subranges, Bujold gives you the full range of reality, from laughter to tears in a heartbeat. One without the other would be flat by comparison.
Evan Goer
7. Tony Zbaraschuk
"The Mountains of Mourning" is great SF, both about technology (the effect of truth drugs on legal processes -- I love both Miles' repeated insistence that "I can't condemn an innocent man" and the realization that this does not suddenly make the administration of justice any easier) and about character (Miles, Harra, the Speaker, the boys, Len, Ma Matulich... all still so very memorable. Oh, and Fat Ninny.)

The story, if you want to read it (and are willing to trust the guy in the car muttering "the first one's free, kid"...) is online at the Baen Free Library ( ). Enjoy.
Evan Goer
8. Lois Bujold
Hi again!

I'm a little sorry you chose to skip _Falling Free_, as it seems important to me in my development as a writer -- the first book I wrote after starting to sell, the first story ever I managed to get into _Analog_, the first I ever wrote (partly) when already under contract. But anyway, publication/writing order on the _BoI_ novellas might could use a word, here.

"The Borders of Infinity" was actually written first, between chapters 5 and 6 of _Falling Free_. My father had died in June of '86, and while I was still rather stunned from that, Betsy Mitchell had called me to ask me to write a novella for her invitational anthology _Free Lancers_. I'd had about a 4-page outline for the start of a Miles tale in my notes, that didn't seem to know what to do next, but the novella length was perfect for the idea, so I decided to give it a whirl. It was first published in Sept. 1987; the other two tales were by Card and Drake, which introduced me to their readers.

Went back and finished _FF_ as a singleton, then Baen offered a 3-book contract. Next written, iirc, was _Brothers in Arms_. Worried about not writing fast enough, I bethought of recycling the novella plus two more to give me a jump-start on a book, so then I wrote the other two novellas back-to-back to fill the volume; "MoM" first and then "Labyrinth". (Published in _Analog_ in May and August of 1989 respectively.)

"MoM" was partly a result of a debate with Jim Baen of what to put in the banner on the cover of _Brothers in Arms_, now it was apparent there would be more of Miles: "A Miles Naismith Adventure" or "A Miles Vorkosigan Adventure". Jim, who was still hoping I would turn into a sort of female Tom Clancy or at least Gordy Dickson, was pitching for Naismith. The novella was written, among other reasons, to show him why it had to be the other way around.

The frame was written at Jim's request, to make the thing look more novel-like, as it was known, then as now, that collections didn't sell well. It was the first time I'd written such a thing.

Regarding the first three -- actually, four -- books versus starting a series, at the time I had no idea if any of them would sell, or one might but not the other two, or some other such combination, so I wanted to make each a potential stand-alone, rather than having them all so closely connected that they must necessarily sink as one, roped together like people falling through the ice. Nevertheless, being in the same future "universe" is enough to define a series in this genre, so I placed them all in the same future history in the hopes I might yet get to write a series. The first three were all written on spec, so there was no feedback from the market in any way about them that affected their creation/development (well, aside from all those manuscripts returning, eventually, from New York.)

Ta, L.
Madeline Ferwerda
9. MadelineF
Borders of Infinity might be my favorite novella ever. And I like the frame story... More Illyan is always good, particularly when he gets bawled out by the terrified doctor for torturing Miles. Looks terribly miffed. Ha! That's from memory, since I haven't reread this one recently...

Labyrinth I think is the only Vorkosigan story that goes a bit wrong. "Tell me of this earth thing called love"... Er. I'm not sure if it's a trope that really washes. The redeeming power of sex with some random dude... I don't know, it's a bit icky. Still, this is one I need to reread, since I recall the beginning is one of those classic fun "Miles has bird in hand, goes for bird in bush also" things... Would be nice to read in light of Mirror Dance and Mark's attempt at same. And would be nice to see Nicol's introduction again; I like the quaddies a lot.
seth johnson
10. seth
J. Walton,

You do a wonderful job drawing attention to jems like these stories. Thank you. It's also nice to see an author like Bujold chime in with fascinating backstory.

Joseph Blaidd
11. SteelBlaidd
Ahh but it's not the sex. It's the stuff they do afterward that's redemptive.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Lois: Thank you, that's very interesting about the order in which the novellas were written.

I'm sorry about not reading Falling Free. I tend to think of it as quite separate from the series. I'll almost certainly re-read it and write about it here at some future point, because I like it, it just doesn't scratch my itch when what I want is these.

Once the first three were written and out there as books and selling, did you start getting feedback like "We want more Miles!!!" Or was Miles you always hoped the series could be about?
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Lois: And another thing, you mean you wrote "The Mountains of Mourning" to demonstrate to Jim Baen that the one thing you can't give for your heart's desire is your heart?

That's just so cool.
Evan Goer
14. wsean
I love that "Mountains of Mourning" was written to show that you can take Miles out of Barrayar, but you can't take Barrayar out of Miles.

I think that story was when I first realized how wonderful the Vorkosigan stories were. I enjoyed the action and adventure of the first few books just fine, but this one had pathos and humor and Miles-y ethics questions in spades. The bit where Miles samples a rose and declares he is obviously not a horse made me literally laugh out loud.

CD Covington
15. ccovington
I'm so glad it became a Miles Vorkosigan series, not Naismith! The series would have been very different, indeed.

I read tMoM out loud to my husband, whom I've been trying to lure in for years now, unsuccessfully ("I don't have time to read a 14-novel series!"), and he enjoyed it. I caught him laughing at the funny parts (Dea and the horse, for example).

Jo's comment @13 hit me with a dash of insight: Memory is my absolute favorite, because there's so much internal Miles, Miles growing up, and realizing he can't trade his heart for his heart's desire. Barrayar is in him, and he's going to change this place he loves, his home, his heart, into something more beautiful, more perfect (more egalitarian, even.)

Mountains is the same story, in a way: Miles loves Barrayar, the barbaric backwater dirtball that eats its young. But change is coming, inexorably, inevitably. "So the infanticide is actually a murder," said Pym; Miles thought it was an interesting turn of phrase, my poor Barrayar.

(Linking myself again: Novellas I Love: tMoM I'm reading Memory for the next installment. Slow going, since I have a thousand other things to do. I don't know how Jo is going through these so quickly!)
Evan Goer
16. Lois Bujold
Bluejo at 12:

In the late 80s, when these books were first coming out, a *lot* less feedback fed back to the writer. A few reviews, a tiny trickle of fan mail, evasive remarks from one's publisher as to how well one's books were selling (or not); that was about it. So I was working, pretty much, in a vacuum, chucking things out and hoping they'd land on good ground somewhere.

I did get quite fixated on Miles, in that period and later. Jim, of course, wanted me to develop the Dendarii as a series like Hammer's Slammers. He did try to prime the pump by sending me a copy of Liddel Hart's _On Strategy_ when I was booting up _The Vor Game_, which worked, once.

My possibly-subjective impression is that the "We want more Miles!" chant didn't really gain volume till after I'd stopped writing him; before that it was more, "When are you going to do something else?" ("... more worthwhile..." implied.)

Ta, L.
Evan Goer
17. gollywog
Lois, what a shame you didn't get the feedback about Miles sooner. I thought maybe you'd gotten tired of him. I'm really grateful for all that you've written, especially since your Miles is so much like my Charlie, and I am interested to know what your experiences have been on the other side of the book.

The internet is a wonderful thing!
18. Hatgirl
Labyrinth I think is the only Vorkosigan story that goes a bit wrong. "Tell me of this earth thing called love"... Er. I'm not sure if it's a trope that really washes. The redeeming power of sex with some random dude... I don't know, it's a bit icky.

Aha! You have verbalized my feelings exactly. But I do adore the other three stories. Yes, three. The framing device spoke to me, perhaps because its the only time we've seen Miles when he has been immobilized for a long time.
Ed Graham
19. OKSaddletramp
I first read the Vorkosigan books in publication order (more or less). I started with The Warrior's Apprentice because of the similarity to The Sorcerer;s Apprentice, and ignored the cover (which I don't even remember to this day). I enjoyed it, but it did not leave me with a lasting impression and a need to search out any and all books by this "Bujold" writer. I didn't even know or care if she had anything else in print.

Sometime later, a friend gave me a copy of Shards of Honor and I was enthralled. It is still my favorite Vor novel. Now I began to actively seek her out whenever I was in the bookstore and came across Borders (with the frame story). That it /was/ a frame story was very obvious, and found myself slightly disappointed that I was being given a bunch of "recycled" stories. Until I came to the end of Mountains of Mourning. I became totally hooked on the Miles saga and a permanent fan of Lois'. I have since bought the entire Vor saga and Falling Free and am currently looking to fill the few gaps in her fantasies (Curse of Challion is still absent, I'm sorry to say) on my self.

I bought the omnibus editions and have found that now, with most of the arc in context, that I actually miss having the frame story of Borders. As others have said, it showed Miles in a unique situation (is there any other kind for him?), and I can never get too much Illyan. I wonder if Baen could be convinced to reissue Borders outside of the omnibus (internal chronology be d****d.

I am a big fan of /good/ milSF, but I am truly thankful that Lois made Miles so much more.
Evan Goer
20. Carl N.
Remarkable...I would have bet my back teeth that the creative sequence for the "Borders of Infinity" collection was exactly opposite that described @ #8. I read the first two novellas in Analog when they were published, and never read "Free Lancers."

@#16 - on the subject of giving the audience what they want...may I suggest you pretty much ignore them and your publishers, except insofar as you have existing contractual obligations regarding content. I would like to think that the characters I have come to love came from someone who was eager to write about them. I expect I will also love any new characters that spring from the metaphorical long as they are things you want to write about, and not something written solely to satisfy the squalling groundlings.
Evan Goer
21. John Guarino
What an interesting blog I've run across today, two years down the road from all these entries. I've been googling for Borders of Infinity to first determine what's between the covers, and second, find it!

I've stumbled into this series backassward, finding Brothers in Arms at a local used book store. I then found the omnibus Young Miles. I next came across Ethan of Athos, and simultaneously read on my phone's kindle app, Paladin of Souls. I won't stray from the Vorkosigan theme here but to say that Paladin of Souls was among the best novels I have ever come across.

Winterfair Gifts I found next for my kindle app, and at home, a paperback of Diplomatic Immunity graced our dining room table, propped open with salt and pepper shakers.

A few moments ago I finished the omnibus Cordelia's Honor and am so reminded of Paladin of Souls.

Our local Barnes & Noble has only spotty resources of Ms. Bujold's work. So I'm googling trying to fill the gaps in my reading.

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