Nov 10 2010 3:47pm

“He isn’t like anything, he’s the original.” Some thoughts on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Aral Vorkosigan

Aral Vorkosigan booksAral Vorkosigan appears in most of the books of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, and even when he doesn’t appear he’s an important character because he has been such a shaping influence on his son Miles. There are fictional characters you come to know because they feel so real, and when you’ve lived with them so long them feel like your friends. You can gossip about them. The last time I re-read the Vorkosigan books I read them in publication order and considered them as the evolution of a series that gets better as it goes along. After reading the newest volume, Cryoburn, I immediately rushed off and started re-reading at Shards of Honor (post) went on reading by internal chronology and didn’t stop for a week. I thought I’d probably said all the sensible things there were to say about the books last time, and what I wanted to talk about now is the people.

If you haven’t read the books, do. They’re science fiction, they’re very well written, they consider all sorts of burning issues of life and death and the influence of technology on both. They stand alone very well, and my posts on the series discuss good starting points. But you don’t want to read any more of this post unless you really don’t mind spoilers.

Spoilers for everything except Cryoburn, which will be separately marked.

We never see Aral from his own point of view, always from outside. We first meet him in Shards of Honor, from Cordelia’s point of view, as an enemy. He’s an honourable enemy from the first, and in their trek across the wilderness with the brain-damaged Ensign Dubauer. She soon comes to like him and then love him, and the qualities that draw her are his honour and his humour. I think those are the key things about Aral—he’s honourable by default, and he’s funny. He’s funny with Cordelia almost at once. “I’m one of the fittest men in my command,” he says, then adds. “Over forty.” “And how many men are there in your command over forty?” “Four.” She later claims, when he says he fell in love with her when he saw her throwing up, that she didn’t fall in love with him for several days. I fell in love with him right there. I’ve talked before about how things meant to be funny often irritate me. Aral’s sense of humour works for me.

So Aral is over forty when he first appears as a character. But we learn a lot about his earlier life. His father, Count Piotr is a great hero of the Cetagandan invasion that marked the end of Barrayar’s Time of Isolation. His mother was half-Betan, his maternal grandparents were Prince Xav Vorbarra, son of Emperor Dorca, and a Betan diplomat. He’s Vor, part of the military caste, and High Vor—we later learn that there are arguments by which he has a claim to the throne, through his mother and Prince Xav. (He says he doesn’t because of Salic descent, but as Dorca’s own claim was by Salic descent, this doesn’t hold up.) But what it really means to him to be Vor is that he has a duty to Barrayar and to the Imperium. He defines his life in relation to how he stands to Barrayar. Aral has honour, he also has duty and responsibility—and that redeeming touch of irony.

He was the second son, the cadet, not originally the heir. When he was eleven he saw his mother and older brother killed in front of him by assassins sent by Mad Emperor Yuri, and he participated in the ensuing civil war. When he came to give Yuri his death blow, Yuri sneered at him as a child and he said “You killed all the children in that room.” This is the key event of his life, I think. He’s still thinking about being the second son as late as Mirror Dance (post), and Miles knows this whole story very well. Aral knows that the next thing coming through the door might be an assassin, he always knows it, it’s not something you can forget. He lives his life in the shadow of that potential door—and the way he copes with it is by living in the moment with constant thought for tomorrow. “All true wealth is biological.”

When he was twenty he married, in a typical arranged marriage. He was happy with the marriage, he says to Cordelia, but he returned from ship duty to find she had two lovers, both of whom he killed in duels. The wife (who I don’t think is ever named?) then committed suicide. He was never charged with their deaths, it was assumed they killed each other. This would have been about twenty years before Shards, and it’s reason enough for why he didn’t re-marry, despite his need for an heir. I don’t recall Miles ever mentioning this—I don’t suppose it’s a secret, but I also can’t imagine Aral bringing it up in casual conversation. Cordelia mentions it to Mark, but not specifically.

After this duel-suicide incident, he had a homosexual relationship with Ges Vorrutyer. This eventually ended, but Vorrutyer remained obsessed with Aral. We don’t learn anything about this from Aral. He never talks to anybody about it. Vorrutyer tells Cordelia, in the rape scene, and then Vordarian tells Cordelia in a ballroom, hoping to destroy Aral’s happiness. Cordelia, being Betan, isn’t at all bothered by the genders of the people involved, just the psychological effects. She tells Vordarian he “was bisexual, now he’s monogamous,” which must reflect Betan views of sexual orientation rather than modern ones. (They’re probably ear-ring code statuses.) She tells Mark in Mirror Dance that she thinks Aral is sexually attracted to soldiers of either gender. Barrayar, of course, only allows men to serve. (I’ve always wondered how Aral felt about Bel.)

Then came Komarr, when he was about thirty. He conquered Komarr for the Empire brilliantly—his book on the subject is considered a classic by Tung a generation later. But the shine is taken off the whole thing by the massacre of prisoners, followed by his murder of the man responsible, without waiting for trial. This gains Aral the name “Butcher of Komarr” which always makes him wince. It also casts a long shadow down his life—not just in how people react to him, but the existence of Mark comes from this.

During Shards of Honor, Aral compromises his honour to save Barrayar—the Escobar invasion, the death of Prince Serg and the elimination of his political faction. At the time the books have reached, this secret has been kept as far as I know. Miles doesn’t know. I don’t think Gregor knows. Most of the secrets of Shards have come back to bite—Bothari’s nature in The Warrior’s Apprentice (post), Serg’s nature in The Vor Game (post). But this one stayed secret. Aral thought he had destroyed himself in doing Ezar’s bidding with this, but Ezar wasn’t finished with him. It was difficult for him to go on—he still had his sense of duty, but his honour was wounded. This is why, I think, he was so rigid about the need for Carl Vorhalas to die for duelling. Miles, from the same culture a generation later, thinks of breaking his word as a kind of virginity lost. Aral had kept his honour through so much, and with it lost he was trying to go by the book.

He also fell in love with Cordelia. The thing I like the most about this is that he has kept her uniform and has it with him, neatly folded. It’s the only thing she left except the shuttle, which “would have made an awkward momento.” Awww. Of course she fell in love with him. He’s irresistible.

So, we have reached the beginning of Barrayar (post). Evon Vorhalas’s attack with the soltoxin grenade primarily wounds Miles (“I was a casualty in Vordarian’s Pretendership before I was born!”) but Aral’s response to this is interesting. You’d think it would be like Piotr’s, but it isn’t at all. He backs up Cordelia, he wants this child, however damaged. He says he will not fail his firstborn—although he already has, and he backs up and says he will not fail him again, a second chance Piotr was not given. Aral is immensely busy being Regent and running the war, and he makes decisions instantly. He can’t go and get the replicator. But he loves Cordelia and trusts her and has her back. Their relationship really isn’t Barrayaran—but it isn’t Betan either.

We don’t see him with Miles as a child, but we’re told in Miles’s memories that he took a two hour lunch every day and spent it with him, and that he was the only person who could make Miles behave. Miles had a number of adults to pattern himself on—both parents, his grandfather, Bothari. Clearly Aral taught him the immense sense of duty he owed and what it meant to be Vor. By this time, Aral was again acquiring flexibility. Aral’s Regent, and he has an unconventional wife and an unconventional son, as well as the cares of the whole planet. But he copes and brings them all through alive—and in the case of the planet, much improved. (Three planets, actually, which makes it even trickier.)

When we next see him seventeen years after in The Warrior’s Apprentice he has given up the Regency and become Prime Minister, and Count. He has to cope with his father’s death and his son’s treason—oh all right it isn’t treason, but it is breaking Vourloupolis’s law, and it is a trial for treason. I’d love his point of view here. Piotr dies, Miles fails to get into the military, goes offplanet and...disappears. Rumours return of the Dendarii—what Miles is doing is insane when you look at it, and Aral has to keep manouvering to put off the trial, to change the charge, all without knowing whether Miles will come back. If Miles had stayed with the mercenaries then, Aral would have lost him just as much as if he’d come home and been executed. It didn’t tempt Miles, then, but did Aral know that? The son who comes home and offers him a swig of antacid isn’t the son who left.

In The Vor Game, Aral has to cope with his foster son growing up. The Vor Game is very focused on Gregor through Miles’s eyes, and there isn’t anything like enough Aral in it. Aral sees Miles after the Kyril Island incident, and Aral says Miles did “a right thing.” Miles works hard for that crumb of approval. And it’s the same at the end, when they meet after the battle, Aral is there to approve what Miles has done, but we don’t really see what Aral thinks of it. He lets Gregor come to the battle. That’s his real triumph, Aral has guided the Imperium and he’s stepping back to let Gregor do it, and Gregor is competent to do it. Having said that, Gregor ran away out of depression, so they haven’t done all that well.

The next interesting thing is how Aral dealt with Mark. He ducked out on the first meeting, and then he avoided him until he thought Miles was dead. He says “he might be all we have left of Miles.” He doesn’t want to think of him as what he is. Mark is very difficult. But all the same, I was disappointed in Aral until he tried, at Vorkosigan Surleau, to really make a connection. Then he does, and what he tells Mark in the hospital is what makes it possible for Mark to do what he does. He wishes he could send Bothari with him. (So do I.) It’s very strange that what they have in common is murder, but Mark is so screwed up that this is useful. I wish we saw more of them together later, but my favourite Aral line in the whole series is in A Civil Campaign (post) where he’s confronted with “Do you know what your son has done now?” and answers “Which one?” That’s a great degree of acceptance of a clone designed as your assassin.

Aral and Cordelia are sent off to Sergyar after Mirror Dance to have another job to do, and to get out of the way of the younger generation. It makes sense, and it’s nice to think of them doing something useful and fun and not just vegetating,’s a pity not to see them.

Now we get to spoilers for Cryoburn, and I’m really sorry if saying this is in and of itself a spoiler for Cryoburn.

So, Aral’s dead. But fictional characters are different from real people—he’s still alive in the earlier books. But he’s dead, and he’ll never do anything new or call Cordelia “Dear Captain” or make me laugh with surprise. This read through I kept tearing up when he said things that always make me laugh. I’m really going to miss him.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Chris Meadows
1. Robotech_Master
You forgot to mention that Baen's Cryoburn bind-in CD, which includes every Vorkosigan volume except for Memory (left out by mistake) and a number of Bujold interviews (including one with you!) and essays, is available online (with Baen's permission) at the Fifth Imperium BaenCD repository for downloading or free reading.

If you'd like more people to read it, that's a great place to start. I've already managed to corrupt one of my call center co-workers, who wondered what I was reading between calls and I was happy to show her…
Sean Arthur
2. wsean
Re: the ending of Cryoburn. Amazing how much meaning and emotion can be conveyed in three short words.

That ending line was like a punch to the gut.
Ty Margheim
3. alSeen
I was tearing up the entire time I read the article. Not only for Aral, but for Taura too.

Bujold is an amazing writer. The 100 word drabbles at the end were wonderful. I was upset that we didn't get to experience Taura's passing though.
Jonah Feldman
4. relogical
Please, please, please, please put more spaces or a bigger warning before the Cryoburn spoilers. I scrolled down a few lines too quickly and now I'm really upset. I don't know the details of Cryoburn and whether it's actually much of a spoiler for the plot of the book, but still, come on. That's not cool for everyone else who hasn't read it yet.

Otherwise, great post.
Chuk Goodin
5. Chuk
wsean @#2; I felt the same way.

I think the drabbles were an interesting way to not quite leave the reader hanging. They worked for me.
Pamela Adams
6. PamAdams
I could have sworn that we had some of Aral's POV, but you're right- it's all from the outside. Perhaps someday we'll get Aral's secret diaries.

I haven't yet read Cryoburn- it's in the mail. I've got to say that I'm not surprised by your spoiler. (reaches for Kleenex)
7. JoeNotCharles
Ahhh, crap, I read one line too far. I thought "they'll be separately marked" meant "they'll be in a separate post, which'll be marked 'spoilers for Cryoburn'", for some reason.
Beth Friedman
8. carbonel
This is a lovely eulogy for a fictional character.
Rikka Cordin
9. Rikka
Can anyone tell me the order of these books. I want to read them and I've wanted to read them but I hate reading out of (published) order.
10. Sitka
Bujold is my favourite writer, period.

P.S. I am so excited for the Ivan book!
11. Rob T.
Just finished reading Cryoburn, which I thought was pretty special even before getting to the (devastating) ending; I must have missed the Miles Vorkosigan universe more than I thought. I cherish your insights here, and look forward to a companion essay on Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan should the inspiration strike you.
Chris Meadows
12. Robotech_Master
@9: Rikka: See here for the publication order.

Personally, it never seemed to me that the Vorkosigan saga was a series where reading in publication order mattered so much. They're tightly-plotted enough that you honestly can't tell they were written out of order if you read them chronologically.

Either way, they're really enjoyable. See comment #1 above for where to find most of them.
13. JoeNotCharles
Now that I've finished - managed to spoil myself twice, first by reading this and again by being slow to move my eyes to the top of the page as I turned the last page, so I managed to read the final line itself without any of the lead-up. Still made me tear up a bit when I finally read it in its proper place.

How amazing that the finale contains such strong links to books from 25 years ago - not only did Miles think ahead to hearing these exact words in The Warrior's Apprentice, I was blown away by Cordelia's thought of Dubauer, which fit so perfectly.
14. a1ay
I think it's Aral's relationship with his father that's most underexplored, and most interesting. Yes, Aral's done well in the capture of Komarr, and later as Regent and Viceroy; but his father was the Old Count, the emperor's right-hand man in what must still be the defining war of recent history. Twenty years of fighting for independence, tooth and nail against a vastly superior enemy. I wonder how Aral felt, with that to measure himself against, when the wars of his generation turned out to be the virtually bloodless conquest of Komarr, and the flawed and compromised attack on Escobar? Like being Wellington's son, and fighting only in Opium Wars.
I still wonder what Piotr was like as a younger man. We get a glimpse of it through Kly's memories in Barrayar, but only a glimpse. He must have been an interesting character. And his wife must have been even more interesting. Daughter of a Betan and the heir to the throne? Growing up in the middle of a guerrilla war in a near-mediaeval world and marrying a war hero at the end of it?
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Rikka: I did a series of posts on them in publication order in the spring of last year. If you use the search bar here for the tag "Vorkosigan saga" you'll get all of them, and the date order I posted them is publication order. The first one is _Shards of Honor_ in any case.

Re Spoilers -- sorry, I did have a whole paragraph saying that spoilers were starting and I thought that was enough. Spoilers for the last three words of _Cryoburn_.

JoeNotCharles: "Sorry, Ensign Dubauer" made me cry. It also made me re-read _Shards_ immediately.
Janet Kegg
16. jmk
Cryoburn is my next read and I've avoided spoilers to this point (I had no trouble skipping the last sentence of this post). But in reading the comments I suspect the word choice in #8 has done it. Oh well.
Jim T
17. nabcif
Jo: by the time I read "Now we get to spoilers for Cryoburn", I could see the spoiler itself; it was only a cm or two down. Not that it mattered to me personally -- I've already read it -- but that paragraph wouldn't enough for folks who read like I do. I would have expected either some vertical white space, rot13, or "highlight the following to read".
18. joyceman
aiay - Aral was the regent during the 3rd Cetagandan War which happens offscreen. I started reading throught the series after finishing Cryoburn as well, and The Vor Game has a few references to that war. Lt Ahn asks Miles about his father and Miles thinks over his career and references the improbable victory in the 3rd Cetagandan war and the death of Captian Duvallier. A story I would like to read sometime.
19. a1ay
joyceman: I thought the Third War was the one in The Vor Game? In which case you're right, there's still the Second War to deal with. Not sure when that happens though - before or after the start of the series. Either way it'd be interesting. (And we don't know who Duvallier was spying for. Might not have been the Cetas. We don't even know that he was spying; just that he was executed for it.)
20. Lsana
About Mark: I always thought that Aral's reaction to him, whether it was the "right" reaction or not, was exactly what Mark needed. Cordelia offered him unconditional maternal love--and nothing in Mark's upbringing had prepared him for dealing with that. Aral, on the other hand, acknowledged that he had some sort of responsibility for Mark, but wasn't quite sure what that responsibility was. Basically, he found the whole situation as awkward as Mark did, and that allowed the two of them to figure out their relationship together. In the long run, I think that was more valuable to Mark than Cordelia's instant "But you're my son, so of course I love you" reaction.
Eugenie Delaney
21. EmpressMaude
Hold the presses!

Ivan book?

My stars! Can this be? I've had a deep, abiding crush on dopey, hunky Lord Vorpatril since I was in high school.

Plus, Lady Alys is actually my favorite character in the saga.
22. joyceman
I pulled the quote from The Vor Game off the cryoburn disc at the fith imperium... its a nice character moment and presages the quote that is in the title of this post.

Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan. The colossus of Barrayaran history in this half-century. Conqueror of Komarr, hero of the ghastly retreat from Escobar. For sixteen years Lord Regent of Barrayar during Emperor Gregor's troubled minority; the Emperor's trusted Prime Minister in the four years since. Destroyer of Vordarian's Pretendership, engineer of the peculiar victory of the third Cetagandan war, unshaken tiger-rider of Barrayar's murderous internecine politics for the past two decades.

The Vorkosigan.I have seen him laugh in pure delight, standing on the dock at Vorkosigan Surleau and yelling instructions over the water, the morning I first sailed, dumped, and righted the skimmer by myself. I have seen him weep till his nose ran, more dead drunk than you were yesterday, Ahn, the night we got the word Major Duvallier was executed for espionage. I have seen him rage, so brick-red we feared for his heart, when the reports came in fully detailing the stupidities that led to the last riots in Solstice. I have seen him wandering around Vorkosigan House at dawn in his underwear, yawning and prodding my sleepy mother into helping him find two matching socks.

Ty Margheim
23. alSeen

chronological order is fine for this series, and probably less confusing.

I didn't read the Cordelia books until after the mainline Miles books though.

It isn't like the Narnia books where if you read them in order, one of the books is spoiled (reading Magicians Nephew first is sacrilige).
24. Christopher Byler
At the time the books have reached, this secret has been kept as far as I know. Miles doesn’t know. I don’t think Gregor knows.

I always wondered if that was what Gregor found out about in _The Vor Game_ that made him run. ISTM that what he has always feared more than anything is failing to live up to the duties of his position. The idea that he's related to Serg and Yuri is bad enough, but if he finds out what Ezar, the one apparently capable and decent man in his (blood) family, was capable of, too...

wife (who I don’t think is ever named?)

IIRC, her first name is never given, but in _ACC_, Byerly claims that she was one of his aunts on the Vorrutyer side. I'd really like to see a Vorrutyer family tree sometime -- how exactly do Pierre le Sanguinaire, Aral's first wife, Ges, Count Pierre (the one who dies shortly before _ACC_), Byerly, Richars and Donna all fit together?
Sean Arthur
25. wsean
Sitka@10- Ivan book? Ohmigod, please be true, please be true.

My only real complaint for the last two Vorkosigan books is the distinct lack of Ivan-you-idiot. I reread Brothers in Arms recently (not one of my favorites, but still good stuff), and was reminded just what a perfect Miles-foil Ivan makes. An Ivan focused book could be a whole lot of fun.
Jo Walton
27. bluejo
In re the Ivan book, she's been reported to have been reading from it, so it must be at a stage where it can be anticipated.

Yay, Ivan book!
28. a1ay
joyceman, OK - sorry for doubting you. So we're technically up to four Cetagandan wars now!
And "the peculiar victory of the third Cetagandan war" sounds like a promising lead. Given what we've seen and heard of his other campaigns (Komarr, for example), I'm betting on another "victory-without-fighting".
I'm just worried that Miles' universe is getting a little, well, tame. The last three books have involved either being on Barrayar and no danger at all (ACC) or going off to some previously unexplored solar system and dangerous stuff happening there (Diplomatic Immunity, CryoBurn). And in his current elevated position (Count, Auditor, paterfamilias), is there really much chance of Miles getting into any more entertaining scrapes? He's not a young man any more, you know.
29. Michael S. Schiffer
As I recall, when Miles's father was his age, he was getting stranded on planets with Betan survey captains. Granted, Aral had to become persona non grata with the then-current government to get the assignment (and backstabbing) that led there. But Auditor seems to have been authorially designed as a pretty hands-on position.

The real trick, as in Cryoburn, is to cut Miles off from his extensive support network for a while. If there are signficant Barrayaran resources, being the Voice of the Emperor tends to make things too easy.

Unless Miles were placed in a position where the Emperor was against him. But the circumstances I can imagine for that are too sad for me to want to see any time soon.
Gabriele Campbell
30. G-Campbell
Heh, now I want to reread the Vorkosigan books. And I totally don't have a veritable portico of TBR piles. ;)

BTW, I vaguely remember to have read somewhere that there are 5 books planned in the world that started with Curse of Chalion, one for each god. Any chance the missing two will be written a some point? Because I love those books.
Sean Arthur
31. wsean
Re: the Ivan book.

A little googling tells me Bujold is ~16 chapters into it now, had to drop it for CryoBurn publicity-type stuff, but will be jumping right back into it once that's done with. And (potential mild spoilers) it's apparently set on Komarr a year after Diplomatic Immunity, and involves our old pal By Vorrutyer.

@30- in a recent interview, Bujold mentioned that she's got some ideas for the last two rattling around her head, but still isn't sure when she'll write them. So it's not clear when she'll get there, but at least they're on her radar!
32. Joel Polowin
Re: the mess involving Aral's first wife, he tells Miles about it in A Civil Campaign, so presumably Miles didn't know about it earlier.

There are low-quality recordings of a couple of Bujold's readings from the Ivan book on YouTube, and people have done transcriptions: first scene,
second scene .
33. Karen Coyle
The Vorkosigan books are my all-time favorites, and always will be. I've tried to explain their appeal to my friends who haven't read them, and I've finally got it boiled down to "Mozart, if Mozart did hip-hop". That's it in a nutshell for me: they're funny and fast and action-packed (the hip hop), but they also always have that breadth and depth of character development, and expert pull on your mind and your heartstrings, that you never quite have the nerve to expect from space opera (because they're written by sci-fi's version of Mozart; little miss talent-through-the-roof Bujold)
And man, oh man, do I miss Aral and Cordelia too! I was so hoping she'd set a book on Sergyar, and explore what it was like for them to go back to that planet where they met and settle there as pioneers, and rulers, of that fascinatingly weird place with the flying poisonous jellyfish. Particularly because we never really got to see Aral and Cordelia kick ass in their own right after Miles came of age, and they were such a great team!
Pamela Adams
34. PamAdams
Sigh. Those three words. Even knowing it was coming didn't help.
35. Helenkosings
I sobbed and sobbed when I read the end of Cryoburn. Aral Vorkosigan is such a wonderful character! Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my all time favorite writers and it has been my joy and delight to introduce my kids to the Vorkosigan saga. And yes, I wish Taura could have lived longer - Winterfair Gifts was such a wonderful detour. And a huge YES to have an Ivan book. I'm especially fond of his mother...... But really I would be happy to read more about any of the Barrayaran universe. I mean - Miles has children now, and I wanna hear more about Mark..... What does Aral's death do to Mark?
Alison Sinclair
36. alixsin
When I originally read this post I was struck by how much Aral was a man of second chances: The second son (in more senses than birth, it seems), who found love in his second marriage, who might have fumbled on his first encounters with Mark but made it up on the later ones. At the end of Barrayar he says something about refusing to fail his son (Miles) again. And I'm not sure how many times he has made political comebacks, but his big one was taking on the regency. Second chances, and coming back to do better on the next go-round, run through Bujold's work.
37. DaveMB
With the lovely disk Baen gave me along with the hardcover of Cryoburn, I just found my favorite Aral quote:

"For that sin, there is no hole deep enough to hide him from my wrath. Metzov will be taken care of, all right."

Aral is defined for me as the guy who can deliver that line and be taken totally seriously (or else)...

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