Nov 17 2010 3:44pm

“Hyperactive git”: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga are the kind of science fiction books that consider hard edged ideas about new technology and change, and show them to you in a social matrix so smoothly that you hardly feel as if you’ve been reading something crunchy at all. I suppose this is why the books get filed as military science fiction and space opera rather than hard sci-fi.

The last time I read them, I wrote about them in publication order as a series that gets better. This time, the new one, Cryoburn, sent me haring after a fast reread of my favourites. They have such great characters that sometimes I just want to gossip about them, and that’s what I’m doing here. If you haven’t read them, start with The Warrior’s Apprentice. But don’t read the rest of this post, unless you don’t mind spoilers for everything except Cryoburn, which will be separately marked.

Spoilers for everything pre-Cryoburn. Cryoburn spoilers will be indicated with the words “CRYOBURN SPOILERS.”

Miles Naismith Vorkosigan was literally shaped by Barrayar. He was, as he says, “a casualty in the war of Vordarian’s Pretendership before I was born”—he took collateral damage in an assassination attempt on his father. A teratogenic poison in the antidote to the poison gas made his bones start sloughing calcium, experimental treatments made him a misshapen dwarf rather than “something that needed to be carried in a bucket.” And his mind was just as shaped by his world, just as forced into form. He’s sure that the mind can compensate for the body—at seventeen he petitioned for the physical and written tests for admission to the military academy to be considered together, and while it hasn’t always been that literal, that’s where he’s always been.

One of the major themes of the books is Miles’s need to serve. Playing as a child, and even growing up, he wanted to be the heroic Vorthalia the Bold. He constantly thinks about his life as an offering—an offering to be burnt to the dead, or an offering to lay at the feet of a lover. He wants to free people—daring rescures are his speciality, and metaphorical rescues run them a close second. He sees his relationships with everyone from his emperor and his grandfather down to people he barely knows (Harra, Elli at the time of Warrior’s) in terms of how he can serve them. He desperately wants to dedicate himself—and I think this is no less true of him at nearly forty. What makes Miles happy is having a sense of dedication and people who will accept his offering. Cordelia thinks that Barrayar has eaten him, and indeed it has. But he’s her son too—he sees very clearly.

Unlike Aral, who we first see fully formed and over forty, we see Miles practically from conception. He’s born twice in Barrayar, once part way through gestation after the soltoxin damage and then again, triumphantly, at the end. What a wonderfully complex world he’s born into! He’s the eleventh generation of Vorkosigans, he’s the heir to the count his grandfather, by some arguments he’s closely in line for the Imperium, the Emperor is his foster brother and his father is Regent of Barrayar. His bodyguard is Sergeant Bothari, a psychotic murderer and rapist, his grandfather wants to kill him. And the whole hunchbacked dwarf thing might not be so bad if he didn’t live on a planet that hates mutants and sees him as one. His mother is a Betan. There’s a whole galaxy out there, friends and enemies from even before he’s born.

Also unlike Aral, we see Miles mostly from inside Miles, we get Miles’s own vision of himself and his world and his place in it. When Miles screws up, we see his own version of what happens. This is one of Bujold’s great achievements I think, Miles’s point of view, when Miles takes his own weird culture and his own odd drives utterly for granted. Miles has immense charisma, he’s manipulative, he’s hyperactive, he’d be impossible—and on the rare occasions we see him from outside we see this. But from inside yes, we see Rowan going crazy being cooped up with him, we see his black depression after Bothari’s death and after he’s thrown out of ImpSec, but we understand it and sympathise. We’re in third person but about as close as third can get. Externally Miles isn’t necessarily attractive or sympathetic—internally, he really is.

When we first encounter Miles in The Warrior’s Apprentice, he thinks of himself as hideous and twisted and looking like a mutant villain from Barrayaran drama. He thinks the only women who would be interested in him would be kinky/curious Betans. But in fact he has plenty of romantic encounters before his eventual marriage, and plenty of love. Miles wants love—he wants to be loved, and he wants to be allowed to love. We see him have a romantic entanglements with the bio-engineered eight foot tall fanged Taura, and with Elli, later Admiral, Quinn, and with Rowan Durona—and all of these are based on them being attracted to him. We also see him fail to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart Elena Bothari—not because he’s physically misshapen, but because of Barrayar. He has a version of the same problem with Quinn, of course, she doesn’t want Barrayar. It’s interesting that what really draws him to Ekaterin is his need to rescue her and her matching Vor compulsions.

We first meet him failing to climb over a wall—impetuous and longing to serve. He then invents a whole mercenary fleet, with himself as admiral, out of essentially nothing. He has just become a count’s heir, with his grandfather’s death, and he takes advantage of that enthusiastically to swear two strays he meets as soon as he lands on Beta Colony, the Betan freighter pilot Arde and the Barrayaran deserter Baz. The whole Dendarii scam begins as a brilliant improvisation and a set of conning lies. His skill at this is part of what he’s inherited or learned from Cordelia. The way she gets off Beta at the end of Shards is very similar to Miles in manic mode, talking the journalists into taking her to the spaceport, talking Arde into taking her along with him. He’s also like her in carrying on in carpet slippers.

From then on what we see from Miles is the way he’s torn apart. On the one hand the whole Admiral Naismith improvisation is a house of cards—he needs it, but he doesn’t have his heart in it because it isn’t for anything, it isn’t dedicated, he doesn’t just want to be a soldier and have fun, he wants to serve. On the other hand, he wants to serve Barrayar and Barrayar does not (pre-Memory) need him in any useful ways. He’s insubordinate and impossible. He’s a fine commander, but he’s a terrible follower—the bit in The Vor Game where he has all three of his recent commanding officers locked up in a row is typical. Ivan complains about not having ship duty and says Miles has had more than anyone, because Miles has had it as part of his brilliant improvisation.

The most interesting Miles books for me are Mirror Dance and Memory, whuch are the books where Miles has to face himself. After his death and revivification among the Duronas he’s amnesiac and down to basics. And basics for Miles are “talk your way out of things” and “survive” and “serve somebody.” When he gets his memory back, the cascade, it’s very telling that it’s Bothari he feels he has let down. Bothari and Piotr have between them really had as much influence on Miles as Aral and Cordelia. In Memory when Miles does back himself into a corner and confront himself, I think the most significant moment is when in Illyan’s confusion we see him going through the stages and he tells Miles to trust Bothari and watch out for Piotr.

I think it’s interesting to consider the question of what has changed Miles. First, and physically having the plastic bones and the post-cryorevival spine straightening has made him a lot less fragile—which is usually but not always a win, as in Komarr when he can’t break the bones of his hand to escape the handcuffs. Then having a brother has changed him—his whole interaction with Mark and how he can trust him. I like it when he realises that Ivan is more his brother. (I can’t wait for Ivan’s POV. Waaaant!) But I like the way they are together. Success has changed him—becoming Admiral Naismith, and then transcending Admiral Naismith, becoming an auditor and realising he doesn’t need to keep playing soldiers. Lastly, marrying and planning children, becoming a link in the generations. Miles says he’s the eleventh generation and the last generation weighs heaviest—he has to think of that when he thinks of being a father.

It’s hard to see where Miles can go from here—whether that’s the “here” of Diplomatic Immunity or of Cryoburn. He has a lot of history, a lot of people, a lot of connections. He can infinitely investigate things as an Auditor, but he’s either away from Barrayar and his support network and the problem is with making things matter enough, or else he has too much power. I don’t know if there’s anything left to do with him... to him... but I’ve been wrong about this kind of thing before.

It might be nice to have some books about his children.




Cryoburn isn’t remotely a “what’s the worst thing that could happen to Miles” book, not even the last three words. It isn’t really a book where Miles is the protagonist—he doesn’t change or grow by what happens. He may be changed by the consequences of being Count, but we don’t get to see that yet. He also gets away with making a promise—to look after the animals—and then palms the duty off on someone else, and this is without consequence, it all works all right. Nor does he rescue the children, they rescue themselves. And the solution to the problems comes from Mark. Miles sails through very smoothly.

I was surprised that Miles is so happy with his marriage and children. It’s what he thought he wanted, I’m really surprised he was right. Most marriages start off with honeymoon expectations and become...real. I’d have thought Miles’s would have done that—I would have thought by this time he’d be glad of a galactic adventure away from domesticity, not be desperate to get home to them and mooning over baby videos. Roic thinks that maybe the mission is arranged to get Ekaterin a break from Miles, if there’s any of that I’d have thought Miles would also be wanting a break—for there to have been just the tiniest shred of relief as well as regret that he was away. I want to see him with the children and Ekaterin, and I want it to have the kind of flaws that even the best marriage develops.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. 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.

Susan Loyal
1. Susan Loyal

Initially I, too, thought Miles floated through the medium of the plot on a straight trajectory for the last three words. I looked at it again and completely changed my mind. I've come to the conclusion that Cryoburn is in many ways a companion volume to Memory, done mirror image: in Memory Miles grows "up" into Lord Vorkosigan after the death of Admiral Naismith; in Cryoburn Miles grows "up" toward Count Vorkosigan in advance of the death of Lord Vorkosigan. All the limitations of the Count's role--too much power to wander around unprotected, too much power not to use influence, too many connections to others to risk himself in quite the same way--slowly manifest more and more through the novel until those final three words. He starts out alone, hyperactive, and dependant on the kindness of strangers and winds up connected and with a limited range of motion--going where his attache tells him to because of the Dowager Countess's needs and saying what the speech writers tell him to in order to reassure his children--and everybody else. I think from now on we'll likely see Count Vorkosigan from the outside, as we did Aral.

Where the marriage is concerned, there's some suggestion that hitherto Ekaterin has born most of the weight of compromise, while Miles has been allowed to remain himself and come along toward change at his own pace. He says to Mark that he's afraid his children will discover that he's not really grown up, and Mark says he thinks that Miles' wife already knows that. Well, the Count's a de facto grown up, and even though Miles has been moving that direction, I'd expect the limitations of all connections to snap back in his face fairly hard, fairly soon. The Vicereine of Sergyar will have something to say about that, I imagine.

By contrast, it's fun to watch Mark so conscious of and so comfortable with his connections and his exercise of power. "Let's talk fire sale!"
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
I too am afraid that we won't see more of Miles. Howevwer, more Mark- or for that matter, more of Sasha, Xander, Alex and his sisters would be acceptable. (Especially fun will be Count Vorkosigan's reaction to his children's adventures) I loved that they named a child after Taura, and miss her very much.

Heck, I'd be glad to be the fly on the wall and just watch the family all day long.
Rob Munnelly
3. RobMRobM
I found Miles to be interestingly split - old school, fend for himself, daring versus the one who has to remind himself he is not on Barrayar and can't just order it done by someone else. And blended too, such as when he commits to take care of Jin's pets and has to delegate the duty to someone else. Very interesting transition novel between Old Miles and New Miles, especially in the choice of speech at end. I agree the new, responsible, Miles wins the day in the end.

Ursula L
4. Ursula

Reading Cryoburn, it struck me as being Jin's story, and to a lesser extent Rioc's story, much more than Miles's story.  Miles's POV  could have dropped out of the story, and I probably would not have missed it.

This was actually rather nice.  We see the old Miles, who loved a daring rescue, but without the need to prove himself.  He rescued Jin's mother simply because he could, and it was something Jin needed.  

While Miles has the insecurity many people have of not feeling fully adult, he actually is fully adult.  He knows himself, his powers and his weaknesses, he knows what responsibilities he has, and what he can and should delegate.  

Miles committed to caring for Jin's animals, and he did so.  First he cared for the animals himself.  When it became clear that Jin had not been able to complete his mission, Miles didn't abandon the animals, he asked someone else to provide the needed care, providing written instructions.  He returned to the embassy, not merely to resume his mission, but to look for Jin. When Jin finds Miles again, Miles lets Jin know the animals are cared for, and arranges for the animals to be reunited with Jin.  Miles takes the commitment he made to Jin about the animals completely seriously, and ensures that the care is given, without letting himself become obsessed or distracted by it. 

If I was looking for a book to use as an example of how adults should treat children, I might suggest Cryoburn.  Miles treats Jin and Mina with respect, but without demanding anything non-age appropriate, and he recognizes and meets their needs on their level.  He's honest with them, and explains things.  
Susan Loyal
5. Christopher Byler
"He’s a fine commander, but he’s a terrible follower—the bit in The Vor Game where he has all three of his recent commanding officers locked up in a row is typical."

Yeah, Major Cecil has him dead to rights at the beginning of _TVG_, with the comment about "your rather irritating habit of treating your superior officers as your cattle, to be driven to your will". On the other hand, I don't think he tries that sort of thing on his father or (directly) on Gregor, and only once, under great pressure, on Simon Illyan. (Which indirectly *is* doing it to Gregor, a fact that socks him in the gut pretty hard when he realizes it.) So maybe it's just superior officers he doesn't respect that he has a problem with, and he doesn't respect offices, only people (and not many of those).

"It’s interesting that what really draws him to Ekaterin is his need to rescue her and her matching Vor compulsions."

That doesn't really seem to fit with his letter to her in _ACC_, though. "I wanted to own the honor of your heart, unbowed in the vilest horrors of those bleak hours on Komarr. I wanted your courage and your will, your caution and serenity." Doesn't sound to me like he's describing a rescue mission -- do you think he's fooling himself about what he's really drawn to about her?

"what’s the worst thing that could happen to Miles"

I have long felt that the worst thing that could happen to Miles is the same as the worst thing that could happen to Gregor: Mad Emperor Gregor. Miles is loyal to his family, to Gregor, and to Barrayar. So far, he's been lucky enough to have all those loyalties point in the same direction (and the one time he did something selfish that went against all three, he really suffered for it), but what if they split? If in order to do the right thing for Barrayar and protect his family (the Vorkosigan part of it -- Ivan and Gregor _are_ his family, by blood as well as by upbringing), he had to act against Gregor, or believed he did? Insanity runs in their family, along with the cold-blooded ruthlessness of Emperor Ezar. ISTM that Gregor has feared that for a long time (possibly having picked it up from Aral, who thought it was an occupational rather than a familial hazard -- but Gregor could get it both ways).

Aral did something terrible in the service of his Emperor and Barrayar and it tore him up inside (he later described the experience as "soul-destroying"), but what if Miles had to do something terrible *against* his Emperor in the service of Barrayar? It would destroy him even worse. And nobody would ever read the latter parts of _The Vor Game_ the same way again.

If you want to twist the knife even more, make everyone else on Barrayar, even Ivan, believe that it's Miles who's going crazy (and everyone knows that's a short trip for him) and he has to work around, or even outright confront, his cousin and best friend in his attempt to save the planet from his other cousin whom he's served all his life. Naturally, this is the moment when Ivan, finally unable to avoid responsibility for something really important, has to reveal that he's not as dumb as he pretends to be and has (at least mostly) known his way around Miles's twisty mind for decades.

It's such a nightmare scenario I'm not sure I would even want to read it. But if you want the worst thing that could happen to Miles, worse than his own death (and this is one series in which that is absolutely not rhetorical exaggeration), IMO, that's it.

"If I was looking for a book to use as an example of how adults should treat children, I might suggest Cryoburn. Miles treats Jin and Mina with respect, but without demanding anything non-age appropriate, and he recognizes and meets their needs on their level. He's honest with them, and explains things."

ISTM that he already showed the same traits toward Nikki in _Komarr_ and _A Civil Campaign_, a point likely not lost on Nikki's mother. In particular, when Ekaterin says late in _ACC_ that she only ever knew one man able to talk Nikki out of a locked room, she isn't talking about his father.

Come to think of it, you could say the same even earlier about Lilly Durona Jr. (so to speak) in _Mirror Dance_.
Susan Loyal
6. Sitka
I like the arc that Miles' life takes - IMHO I don't think there is a better written character out there /rabid fan bias. Though Lois has indicated that she doesn't want to be checking in on Miles as the 'new' Count; for the time being Cryoburn is the last Vorkosigan book. HOWEVER she said the same thing after Diplomatic Immunity and then there's the upcoming (well nacsent) IVAN Book! Wheee!

However, I do have a question - in the Miles chronology, there is a story that details Miles uncovering a plot against his father while Miles himself is recovering from surgery - at first I thought this was the story where Miles meets Mark for the first time on Earth, but I don't recall any hosptial segments. It's driving me nuts that I haven't been able to find this book! Apparently it is a part of "Brother in Arms", which I haven't been able to find in Canada. Arrgh and I didn't see it on the Cryoburn CD-ROM nor the compliation books (Miles Errant, I think?)

Susan Loyal
@ Sitka: What you are looking for is Borders of Infinity, a collection of stories including "The Mountains of Mourning", "Labyrinth" and the title story, which are all linked with Miles being in the hospital shortly after the events in Brothers in Arms. Both Borders and Brothers are definitely available in Canada (that's where I got them). I haven't explored the Cryoburn CD-ROM enough to know if it is there or not. In my opinion, these hospital segments aren't critical to Miles' overall story arc and they are quite short. If you already have the individual stories, you can skip this unless you want to be complete. If you don't have the stories, get them right away!

I think that the worst thing that could happen to Miles at this point would be to have something happen to his children, or to Gregor, as a previous commenter mentioned. I'm supposing, with absolutely no evidence, that Lois (can I call her Lois?) is too fond of these characters to let that happen, and therefore is leaving Miles alone for now. Ivan, however, is another story.

... Although, I wonder how Miles would react if one of his kids took off and created his or her own mercenary fleet?
Susan Loyal
8. a1ay
Well, the Count's a de facto grown up, and even though Miles has been moving that direction, I'd expect the limitations of all connections to snap back in his face fairly hard, fairly soon. The Vicereine of Sergyar will have something to say about that, I imagine.

If she's still around: ISTR LMB saying a few years back that the next book was going to involve Aral's death and Cordelia leaving for Beta Colony.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Christopher: I think Miles is very mixed up on what attracts him to everyone post-Elena.

LAJG and others: Remember the bit in _Memory_ where Aral says he thought the worst thing was sending people out and wondering if they were ready, but now he knew it was sending them out knowing they weren't? He said that to Mark, but he must have been thinking about Miles as the first case. Miles is going to find that even harder, when it comes to it. Aral has to live up to Piotr, and Miles had to live up to Aral, and his children -- I'm even more interested in how the girls come out than in Aral Alexander.
Sam Kelly
10. Eithin
CRYOBURN SPOILERS in this comment.

What saddened me the most about Cryoburn was that we never got to see Aral with his grandchildren, or see Cordelia's reaction to his death. I can imagine her doing something Quite Drastic - I've always seen Aral as her brake, her safety catch - her, if you'll excuse the pun, governor.

What it's making me hope for is a Roic novel - he did well in Cryoburn, and then I read Winterfair Gifts (for the first time) after that. He's practically Mile's Lewis.

Susan Loyal @1: That's interesting about being a replay of Memory - what I got from it was a replay of Komarr, yet again rescuing a woman and her child (Jin is about the same age as Nikki was then, I think? A sister too, admittedly) from a very cold place, physically & emotionally. I don't think it's at all coincidental that Cryoburn is (quite literally) about a woman in a refrigerator. This harks back to Phillipi in Mirror Dance (taken out of the cryochamber for Miles), and Beatrice in Borders of Infinity - and for that matter Sylva Boni, in the Aftermath to Cordelia's Honour. The entire series is about Miles coming in from the cold, metaphorically and literally, and his utter determination to drag everyone with him. If not kicking and flailing, then at least mildly protesting in confusion.

Miles's disengagement throughout Cryoburn is mirroring the author's letting go, I think; it's so palpably a goodbye book, a wrap-up to the series.
Susan Loyal
11. Howard Brazee
Lots of people want to read an Ivan book.
Susan Loyal
12. 12stargazers
Bujold wrote a short bit where she interviewed Miles before she wrote Cryoburn. No spoilers. Mondo teasers, though.

She's also working on an Ivan book. Well, toying with it, to hear her talk (and post). She read an excerpt from it at a book signing for Cryoburn and a fan recorded it. Now it's on you tube.
Joseph Blaidd
13. SteelBlaidd
Im not particular ly suprised that Aral's death is off screen. I remember Lois stating once that she hadn't written a new Miles book be cause the next thing to happen would be this and she wasn't ready for that yet. She stalled with two whole series.

And I can so belive Miles' familial monomania. My wife misses me when I've been at work for 8hrs. I can imagine Ekatarine may try to get Gregor to send him off on ocasional off world missions just to get a little peace and quiet.
Susan Loyal
14. cmpalmer
I'm the kind of late to the party comments, but...

After reading this, I went back and started re-reading the entire series (including the peripheral novels) and what struck me (aside from how incredibly good they were, even on the third or more time through) is how each book is almost a different genre.

I mean they're all undoubtably SF, but the "sub-genres" include murder mysteries, political intrique, hard SF, social SF, spy stuff, huge wars, commando raids, and outright romantic comedy.

In contrast to, say, the Honor Harrington novels (which I also love and I'm not putting them down), where I pretty much knew what I was going to get with each new novel. In the Vorkosigan series, I was constantly surprised in big ways.
Rob Munnelly
15. RobMRobM
Jo - one belated comment. You wonder where Miles can go from here. The answer is obvious. Emperor Gregor's reign has been one of peace, assisted of course by Miles' various past interventions that prevented Cetagandan aggression. At some point in the upcoming years, Gregor and Barrayar will need to be significantly threatened by Ceta. As noted in the book Cetaganda and perhaps in Diplomatic Immunity, Miles believes he has unfinished business with the Ceta emperor. Bujold will need to make this come to pass.

This presents great dramatic possibilities. Perhaps an attack on Beta, with Cordelia on planet living with her mother, might rise the stakes. A Ceta occupation of Sergyar or even Komarr? That would be a fight for suvival time for Barryar. Will Gregor make Miles an Admiral in fact to take advantage of his years of experience in the field? Will the Dendarii, presumably under Admiral Quinn, play a role? What about Commander Cavilo from the Vor Game - she vowed to get revenge on Miles some day. What about Miles' kids - can the family string of greatness reach the fourth generation? I anticipate friction when eldest son goes to service academy as the dutiful heir and eldest daughter is shut out. She's not going to want to be Vor bud on the prowl for a Count's heir. Will she be off-planet when the Ceta's attack and end up joining the Dendarii? (Based on name alone, the second girl is an obvious alternative for ths route as well?) Will Gregor let her be the first to join the Academy (along with the next generation of Koudelka girls). Indeed, what about Gregor and Laisa's kids?

So, I envision the Ivan book, a book with the eldest daugher as the main character, and one or even two books on the big battle with the Cetas. That would make a fitting conclusion to the saga.


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