Tue
Jul 19 2011 2:17pm

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn

This week we’re looking at the 2011 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel. You’ll be able to find all the posts in this ongoing series here.

Cryoburn is the eleventh book to star everyone’s favourite hyperactive little dwarf, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. With an eight-year gap between it and 2002’s Diplomatic Immunity, those of us who are Miles fans may have been anticipating its publication with rather more eagerness than is entirely decorous. (Not that I’m admitting to anything, you understand. Certainly not anything indecorous.)

The novel opens very much in medias res, with Miles alone and hallucinating after having escaped an abduction attempt at a cryogenics conference on the planet Kibou-daini. Miles being Miles (if some years older than when last we knew him), this interests him far more than it disturbs him. Before long he has encountered Jin, a local eleven-year-old who proves important to the narrative, and got himself on the trail of a series of events which will have far-reaching consequences.

Kibou-daini is a planet ruled by the cryo-corps. Due to local laws, the vast conglomerates hold the voting proxies of the frozen people in their basements, and one of them, WhiteChrys Cryocorp, is attempting to expand to Komarr. Miles’s presence on Kibou-daini has come about because something about the planned expansion doesn’t smell exactly right. So being Gregor’s right-hand troubleshooter, he has been sent off to shoot trouble.

Somewhat more trouble than he’d originally bargained for, but once Miles meets Jin and starts poking his nose into corners in a typically Milesian way, that’s probably inevitable.

Jin is one of the best things about this book. He’s very perfectly eleven, with an eleven-year-old’s obsession with animals—he has a small menagerie of hens, rats, a three-legged cat and other assorted creatures—and a penchant for collecting strays. This last is how he ends up bringing Miles home. He lives on the roof of a disused (officially) building which houses a collection of Kibou-daini’s dispossessed and unwanted, a cryogenic co-operative, freezing people off the grid as a quiet form of civil protest.

As Miles investigates, we learn that Jin’s mother, Lisa Sato, was—or is: the proper verb tense for the frozen-not-exactly dead rather confuses me, I must admit—a cryo rights activist who has been frozen by the government in what appear to be suspicious circumstances—a dubious diagnosis of mental illness, for which she’s been frozen to await a ’cure’. To Miles, this is like a red rag to a bull, and hereafter follow assorted capers, kidnappings, attempted arsons, corporate cover-ups, and takeovers, watched by the increasingly bemused and resigned Barrayaran ambassador, Vorlynkin (who is made of quite a large amount of win). Both Jin and the long-suffering but tolerant Armsman Roic share point-of-view with Miles, and it is interesting to see the different views each has of him.

We also get some old friends turning up during the course of events, like Raven Durona—who appeared in Mirror Dance—Lord Mark, and Kareen Koudelka.

Despite the fact that, to me, the endgame felt rushed and incomplete, Cryoburn is a perfectly cromulent little book. Its themes of mortality and the fear thereof mesh well with the character and concerns of an older Miles, and while Cryoburn possess both action and humour, its central focus on a political mystery and on Jin Sato, his younger sister and their mother, keeps the spotlight relatively personal.

It has some flaws. The Japanese flavour of Kibou-daini society can feel a little shallow. And compared to the likes of Memory or Mirror Dance or Brothers in Arms—or even KomarrCryoburn, up until the wrenching epilogue, is not rolling up its sleeves and getting its emotional hands dirty. It’s very much a series book, which works best in the context of pre-existing investment in Miles.

It’s not the strongest book in the series. In many ways, it’s a book that plays the safe option, and it’s less a book about Miles than one through which Miles passes. That’s perhaps my greatest complaint. Kibou-daini doesn’t matter to Miles the same way Barrayar or Komarr does, and at this point in his life, Miles doesn’t have a lot left to prove—to himself, or to anybody else, including the reader.

Although it’s not the best thing I read in 2010—and not, in my opinion, the best of the Hugo Award nominees this year—it is a good book, and a damn entertaining one.


Liz Bourke is a lifelong reader of SFF who is presently reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She also reviews for Ideomancer.com.

11 comments
a1ay
1. a1ay
Kibou-daini doesn’t matter to Miles the same way Barrayar or Komarr does, and at this point in his life, Miles doesn’t have a lot left to prove—to himself, or to anybody else, including the reader.

The problem is that doesn't really matter to the reader very much either - we'd never heard of it before this book. There used to be a sense in which, even before Miles visited them, we knew about the various worlds, just from hearing people talk about them; we knew a bit about Cetaganda (rich, menacing empire, good with genetics) from the start, we knew about Jackson's Whole (amoral commerce, ruled by the Houses) and so on. We've still barely seen Beta Colony - a few short scenes in Shards of Honour and The Warrior's Apprentice - but we know a hell of a lot about it.
But no one's ever mentioned Kibou-daini. So you start off with quite a bit of so-whattery.
And, as a result, even when it turns out that there's a sort-of threat from them to Barrayar, it's difficult to bring yourself to care: not like the climax of Diplomatic Immunity, when the threat is a) much more severe and b) from Cetaganda, who have been the (albeit nuanced) Big Bad from the very start.

I'll be interested to see (if there's another one) what happens to Miles next, given LMB's admitted trick of devising plots by asking "what's the worst thing that can happen to this character" and then making it happen. The parallel that comes to mind is what happens to Hornblower, a rather Miles-like character, at the end of Hornblower and the Atropos - or indeed the news he gets at the end of Flying Colours.
James Burbidge
2. jsburbidge
Lois is working on an Ivan-centred book; I believe there are some videos on YouTube of her reading the first chapter or so.

I thought both Cryoburn and Diplomatic Immunity were relatively weaker than most of the rest of the Vorkosiverse series. Not bad, but lightweight. It needed something more resonant -- perhaps a more extended scope in which the events of the end happen while echoes of the main plot continue to need tidying up at the Barrayar/Komarr end, with additional resonances on the death/ aging theme between the two plots.
Chuk Goodin
3. Chuk
I thought the book was quite good but definitely a lesser Vorkosigan book. Jin was well done, and Miles was Miles -- I am not sure if it's just that he's mellowed with age and fatherhood or if it's just the book itself.

("Safe" is a good term for it, I think. I'd agree that it wouldn't be my pick for the Hugo this year either. Still better than a lot of other authors' best work.)
Stefan Raets
4. Stefan
I agree with your opinion of the book. It's good, but far from the best of the series. I liked Jin, but my favorite parts of the book were the ones narrated by Roic. It was fun to see Miles through the somewhat exhausted eyes of someone who already knows Miles and knows what to expect. As much as I love Bujold and Miles, I think there are at least two novels on the ballot that are considerably better.

Great review!
a1ay
5. Dank
This review was absolutely spot on. I enjoyed this book, but it didn't live up to the enormously high expectations I have from the series, which may be my favorite ever. I think that Bujold has to give Miles and the other characters some hard choices for the series to continue. Right now every living charater is right where they want to be, and everything anyone tries ends up working out.

The best way to kickstart - one of Gregor's children is killed by terrorists, sending Gregor off tilt. Miles has to decide whether, and how much to try and temper his foster brother, and how much is justifiable rage and how much is Serg Vorbarra's sadistic genes finally expressing in his son.
a1ay
6. SitkaSpruce
This review summed up my feelings on Cryoburn. The "dribbles" at the end were such a game shift in this series that the rest of the story really didn't hold up, per se. Still heads above a lot of other books I read last year, but then Lois is one of my favourite writers. She is sublime.
I am pumped for this Ivan book! Ivan, Ivan, Ivan - so carefully hiding behind Miles, so good at being blandishly functionary and not the centre of attention - good luck hiding from Lois, buddy! I can't wait.
a1ay
7. Megaduck
I liked this book because it's basically the end of Miles. In all the other books Miles was still growing up in ways. He was figuring out who he was, what he wanted, and how he was going to get it.

It is this book that shows that he's come into his own. He doesn't make any mistakes out of impatience or youthfull immaturity. He's not overwhelmed or frantically improvising, he knows what he is doing. The frailties of his body do not handycap him in this book, he knows how to work around them.

The big one however, is at the very end, when Miles removes himself from the spot light. He lets the Saito and the Ambassador take all the credit while he fades annonamously into the bankground and it doesn't bother him in the slightest. He has nothing to prove, not to himself, not to his enemies.

That's really the big one I think because it means he is fully mature at last. Over the course of the eleven books we've seen him go from an insecure boy trying to figure out what he wants to be in life to a mature man who knows exactly what he is.

I thought the ending was a nice punctuation to that. He's not in anyones shadow anymore.
a1ay
8. a1ay
My vote would still be for a Piotr book. There's a lot of unexplored depth in the character, from what we saw of him in Barrayar and Warrior's Apprentice, and from what people say about him. We've seen how Miles feels about growing up in the shadow of a Great Admiral. I want to know how Aral felt about growing up in the shadow of the Old General.

He's a bit of an old monster, it's true, there's a lot of atrocity there, but he seems to have inspired immense loyalty from people who knew him as well. And there's a lot of interesting ground that you could cover in his life; the end of Isolation, the Mad Emperor business, the Cetagandan War. And I want to see more of the real old monster of the books - Emperor Ezar. We've only seen him as a bedridden old man. He and Piotr in the prime of life must have been a fearsome pair.

Plus, as Dank points out, things are just too stable and happy for everyone right now. Time to jump back a couple of generations.
Rob Munnelly
9. RobMRobM
Re Cryoburn, I agree with the general comments that it is an enjoyable but lesser Miles book. Need higher stakes for it to move towards the top tier. The drabble at the end was well done though.

I disagree with comments about Diplomatic Immunity being a lesser book as well. It is surprisingly strong and tightly written, and holds up on re-reads. Not my very favorites (that would be Mirror Dance, Memory and Mountains of Mourning) but the next level down.

After the Ivan book, I expect a jump forward and the final big engagement with Cetaganda that will cap off the entire series and allow Lois to put Miles and his saga to rest.

It is referenced several times in the book that Miles and Ceta have unfinished business with each other. Agree that danger for Gregor's kids - kidnapping during a vacation or diplomatic mission - could well be the start of it. It would also involve Gregor to putting the recovery effort and overall war strategy in Miles' hands, over the objections of generals who still see him as a nepotism pick. The kicker will be that his eldest daughter Helen will be in the thick of it - she's not the heir, she'll hate the limited roles available to women on tradition-bound Barrayar, she'll have Miles' wanderlust and taste for adventure -all of which points to having her either being with the kidnapped royals or, more likely, joining the Dendarii. I'd pay to see Helen showing up for the first time to meet Admiral Quinn.

Rob
Ursula L
10. Ursula
The best thing about Cryoburn was, I think, seeing Miles from the outside. Jin doesn't know Miles, but needs him, and Rioc knows Miles too well.

I would have really missed Miles's POV if this had been written without it. As with the missing Ekatrin POV in Diplomatic Immunity, it's hard to read a story involving a character you care about, when you're familiar with their POV, and not having their voice in the story. But having read it with Miles's POV, I wonder if it might have been stronger if you did drop Miles's POV, and focus on that outside view. I'd miss Miles, but seeing him through the eyes of others is fascinating.
a1ay
11. neroden
The odd "incompleteness" of Cryoburn makes me think Bujold is going to get back to the theme of the effect of cryofreezing on a society.

She does that. Cloning: Brothers in Arms was succeeded by Mirror Dance; uterine replicators: pretty much every book takes the implications of these further; Quaddies: Falling Free is followed by Labyrinth and Diplomatic Immunity...

In general if it feels like there are thematic loose ends she will turn around and get back to them eventually. And she's made it clear she's interested in the implications of cryofreezing as more than a plot device. I await the next book which explores it more...

After all, Miles has been cryofrozen and revived, but that was for an accident. People we don't know very well on Kibou-daini have been cryofrozen for much longer and revived. What if someone we actually know and care about is cryofrozen for a long period?...

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