Fri
Dec 7 2012 5:00pm

Those Two Imposters: How Aral and Miles Vorkosigan Deal With Triumph and Disaster

Those Two Imposters: How Aral and Miles Vorkosigan Deal With Triumph and DisasterI’ve written quite a bit about Bujold’s Vorkosigan series on this site—start here or here. I’ve recently re-read most of them in rather an odd order in the wake of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. I had an interesting thought doing this about the contrasting ways Miles and Aral deal with failure. I can’t come anywhere near this without spoilers for pretty much the entire series up to Memory. There are no spoilers for Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance.

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;

(Kipling’s If)

We see Miles facing career failure three times—at the beginning of The Warrior’s Apprentice when he fails to get into the Imperial Service Academy, at the end of the Weatherman segment of The Vor Game when he’s in semi-disgrace internally in ImpSec, and over and over again in Memory, which is all about Miles facing failure. We also see him facing romantic failure in The Warrior’s Apprentice (Elena), over and over again with Quinn in Mirror Dance and Memory, also with Rowan in Mirror Dance, and then with Ekaterin in A Civil Campaign.

In the worst state we ever see him in, in Memory, with his health, his career and his love life in shreds, he’s sitting in a chair in Vorkosigan House, almost catatonic, with a sealed bottle and a sheathed knife, when Ivan comes to throw him into ice water. He also goes into a paralyzing funk after the death of Bothari in The Warrior’s Apprentice. Freezing up is his problem. And Miles, like Churchill, has “black dog” depressive moods, everyone in the fleet knows about them.

But Miles’s typical response to disaster is summed up by Pym in A Civil Campaign when asked about Miles’s spirits after he believes he’s just lost Ekaterin forever:

“I believe the drain crisis brightened his spirits only temporarily.”

Miles, confronted with disaster, generally finds something to do. It might not be related to the disaster—fixing the drains in Vorkosigan House doesn’t help with his romantic crisis, finding out what’s wrong with Simon Illyan doesn’t help with his career crisis—well, it does, but it isn’t intended to. The point is that Miles needs forward momentum, and any direction will do. Without forward momentum, he’s frozen in place. But he generally gets out of that by being forced to do something, anything, and starts moving again. His revelation in Memory is that at root he’s a Dendarii hillman who’s too dumb to know when to quit and wins by refusing to admit defeat.

Aral, on the other hand, his great father whose achievements Miles cannot hope to emulate, Aral the youngest space admiral ever, the Lord Regent of Barrayar, the Prime Minister, the Viceroy of Sergyar—Aral does great with triumph, but he’s a disaster with disaster. Consider the situation when Cordelia arrives at the end of Shards. Aral thinks he has lost her, and he has lost his job. He’s in much the same position as Miles in Memory. And how is he dealing with it? He has crashed his lightflyer in Dendarii Gorge twice—the second time so badly he doesn’t remember the incident. He is spending one day getting incapably drunk by lunchtime, then spending another hung over and ill, then spending one day sober running errands for his father, then starting again with the alcohol. This is much much worse than Miles at his worst. He isn’t finding anything to do, no cheering drains to fix—he’s only saved from an alcoholic death by Cordelia showing up, which only really happens because of Beta Colony’s Intelligence incompetence.

When Miles is in internal exile after Kyril Island, Aral tells him that he himself spent time on Kyril Island in disgrace, as an example of how one can come back from such a thing. But Aral says he spent his time there drunk. Miles deals with that better too.

When we first meet Aral he’s “one of the fittest men in his command over forty.” We’ve seen Miles gain a great deal of wisdom and self knowledge, but we’ve never seen Miles that old. When a younger Aral discovers his first wife’s infidelity, not only does he murder/duel her two lovers but he then gets involved with terrible people—Ges Vorrutyer and his set, with alcohol and drugs involved. Surely even if he was bisexual with a preference for soldiers as Cordelia says he could have found some nicer more friendly gay or bi male soldiers to have romances with? Even on Barrayar? Ges Vorrutyer no doubt got worse in between then and when we see him as a sadistic rapist with a drawer full of torture implements and a diseased servant (poor Bothari) but even ten or fifteen years before and assuming he wasn’t into all that non-consensual stuff then, even so if he was the best Aral could do then Aral wasn’t doing well.

The only other disaster we see Aral dealing directly with is the soltoxin attack. His initial response is admirable—he recognises the gas, gets the antidote from the Residence in time to save their lives and gets Cordelia into the shower. In an actual military-style emergency he’s great—as we already saw in Shards. But the aftermath of that is that he has to cope with the fact that he failed to protect Cordelia and the unborn Miles from the attack, and he doesn’t deal at all well with that. Cordelia carries him through all of it. It’s Cordelia’s will, all through Barrayar.

We hear about one other really significant failure—the thing that earned him the title “Butcher of Komarr”. In the Komarr revolt, a subordinate killed prisoners, and Aral retaliated by killing the subordinate in a fit of temper. Miles doesn’t have that temper. I can only think of two comparable things he does—allowing Bothari to torture the pilot in The Warrior’s Apprentice (did Bothari learn that from Vorrutyer? Yuck) and lying about his seizures in Memory.

As for triumph, both men seem about equally convinced that the reward for a job well done is another job.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. 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.

21 comments
Deana Whitney
3. Braid_Tug
Miles not being like his Dad in this respect, all I have to say is:
"Thank you Cordelia."
Nick S
4. kukkurovaca
I think this is a tricky comparison, because of Miles's and Aral's very different temperments and tempos. Miles's life is a cycle of finding and resolving trouble. While the fate of empires may sometimes hinge on Miles's successes or failures in particular incidents, Aral maintains and sustains Barrayar through history.

What Gregor says in Cryoburn ("The man has carried me since I was five years old.") sums up Aral as well as anything. He isn't distinguished by the quality of particular reactions to particular situations, but by what he has endured (and for what ends) over a lifetime.

What Miles learns from his errors makes him a better person. What Aral learns from his mistakes tends to manifest in public policy. (As with the duels.) And also in parenting -- Aral's ability to reflect honestly on his mistakes and share them with others is a big part of what makes him a good father.

And the timescale matters. Aral tends to be slower to recover from setbacks, and to learn and grow than other characters, but that doesn't mean it isn't happening. (E.g., in his relationship with Mark -- he lags well behind Miles and Cordelia in coming to terms with Mark's existence, but when he does, it's pivotal.)
between4walls
5. between4walls
I agree with the main point of your analysis (Miles dealing much better with failure than Aral) but don't think this bit works:
"In the Komarr revolt, a subordinate killed prisoners, and Aral retaliated by killing the subordinate in a fit of temper. Miles doesn’t have that temper. I can only think of two comparable things he does—allowing Bothari to torture the pilot in The Warrior’s Apprentice (did Bothari learn that from Vorrutyer? Yuck) and lying about his seizures in Memory."
Letting a prisoner be tortured in cold blood is way worse than and imo not comprable to killing a mass murderer in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity. A more comprable low point for Aral would be killing one of the two lovers, the one who didn't want to duel and was begging for his life.

I think Miles dealing with failure better is partly Cordelia, who's pretty good at dealing with disaster, but more that because of his disabilities, he experienced a lot of setbacks very early in life. If he went on a drinking binge at every one of them, he'd never get anywhere near his goals. He has to be twice as persistent and good at bouncing back as everyone else from an early age.

One example of Miles not coping well with romantic failure is his teenage suicide attempt after a failed relationship on Beta Colony in his teens, mentioned in The Warrior's Apprentice. Otoh, his "all or nothing, no playing around" attitude toward suicide percludes ambiguous crashes or trying to drink himself to death like his father does.

I think the reason Aral gets involved with Ges Vorrutyer's set is implied in Shards, when Ges claims he revealed Aral's wife's affairs in the first place. Talk about manipulative.
between4walls
6. between4walls
The bit where I think Aral copes with disaster well is when Miles is a hostage during Barrayar, both in not sending a mission to rescue him and in letting Cordelia go.
Alan Brown
7. AlanBrown
1. A major difference between the characters is that Aral looks like a recruiting poster, Miles does not. And Aral does not have to worry about his body letting him down like Miles does.
2. Aral would not be nearly as effective without Cordelia--he absolutely needs her support and counsel to be successful. Only together with her is he a complete, balanced, and successful person. I have seen people like this in my life, and when they lose a spouse, they go to pieces. His son is more balanced in this regard, and while he finds love, is much more complete as a person when he enters into this relationship.
3. I think that, despite his failures and funks, Miles is more comfortable in his own skin than his father is. This is rather ironic, since physically, Miles got the short end of the stick.
4. I think Aral has the edge in strategic and operational thinking, while Miles is more of an inspired and flexible tactician.
5. They have black moods in common, which seems to run in the family, as Miles' grandfather suffered from funks as well. Miles seems most prone to these funks when there are no outside crises--what the Foreign Legion refers to as 'le cafard,' or barracks fever.
6. What they have in common is that they have both failed, survived, overcame those failures, and thrived in spite of them. And what has made them suffer has made them stronger. I would far rather go into a pinch with people at my back who have failed and picked themselves up, rather than recruiting poster types who have never failed nor had to deal with a setback.
Pamela Adams
8. Pam Adams
I always wonder how much of Aral's reactions come from his first disaster- the killing of his mother and older brother by Yuri. As I recall, he froze and ever after has blamed himself- even though he too was a small child. Piotr couldn't have been much help- he had a rebellion to run. I can see that retreating into alcohol as an adult might be an attractive option.

Miles had Aral's experience to help. Those two-hour lunches where Aral not only played with Miles, but helped him to bear his physical therapy shaped Miles to the idea that bad things would end, as long as he kept going.
Rob Munnelly
9. RobMRobM
Aral had lower lows than Miles (family except for Piotr murdered; blatantly and publicly unfaithful wife; loss of significant friends and comrades in the Escobar misadventure) and responded by deeper depressions (gross drunkeness and near suicidal acts). Once he had Cordelia by his side, Aral still had significant lows, again potentially worse than what Miles experienced (notably, apparent loss of Cordelia during Pretendership, apparent loss of Miles in Warrior's Apprentice, actual loss of Miles in Mirror Dance) but weathered them with near-equanimity. Cordelia made the difference. Miles had funks but they were always short term and not hitting the full depths. Nice insight, Jo, that he needed projects to get himself back on track.
Maiane Bakroeva
10. Isilel
Aral was with Ges first, wasn't he? So, after the duels and his first wife's suicide he went _back_ to Ges, who, meanwhile became worse than the boy Aral used to love. Ges, for his part, remained obsessed with Aral until his death.

I also think that, in a way, Aral had it worse than Miles growing up. Mother and brother murdered in front of him, savagery of the civil war, participation in Yuri's dsmemberment, Piotr for a father, huge burden of expectations, claim to the throne hanging over his head and affecting the course of his life... it is no wonder that his lows are worse, IMHO.
between4walls
11. M. Montgomery
I think Aral's disastrous triumph is also worth a mention - being hailed as a hero when his actions condoned the deaths of at least hundreds maybe more.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Very good points about Aral's childhood experiences and the Komarr revolt.

But I don't think Aral looks like a recruiting poster. He's relatively short -- SoH -- and Cordelia's mother thinks it certainly can't be his looks that attract Cordelia. He's not ugly like Bothari, but there's a wide range between that and, well, Ivan.
between4walls
13. a1ay
Another point worth making about Aral: he makes the conscious decision never to have another child, in order to avoid the pressure to disinherit Miles in favour of his (presumably) taller and healthier younger brother.

An interesting question: we never get any definite idea of whether Cordelia might have wanted to have another child. There are hints that Elena is a sort of surrogate daughter...
Rob Munnelly
14. RobMRobM
Jo - see Mountains of Mourning - Aral's face is described as worthy of opposition caricature as a tyrant - except for his penetrating eyes.
Alan Brown
15. AlanBrown
I guess I was picturing Aral based on what he has looked like on dust jackets, rather than in the text. The artists have generally portrayed him as a handsome man.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Aral is how unusual he was as a character in the era when the books first appeared. There weren't too many folks with a background like him being presented as a romantic love interest in books back then.
Maiane Bakroeva
16. Isilel
Alay@13:
An interesting question: we never get any definite idea of whether Cordelia might have wanted to have another child.
Well, she did say repeatedly that "Barrayar eats it's children" or something along those lines, so she seemed to agree with Aral's position, though for somewhat different reasons.
And IIRC Bujold confirmed at some point that Cordelia would like to have a daughter - but not raise her on Barrayar.
between4walls
17. S.M. Stirling
Aral also comes from a period when Barrayar was a much more brutal place, much closer to the Period of Isolation and the awful guerilla war against the Cetegandans.

I'd say that he deals badly with certain -types- of disaster, particularly ones where his sense of duty and of personal honor come into conflict and he has to do things which violate that sense of honor.

He can deal fairly easily with things that merely hurt; he's a stoic. It's things that make him thing worse of himself that throw him into a depressive loop.
Alan Brown
18. AlanBrown
I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head, Mr. Stirling.
between4walls
19. Alisonmh
We hear about one other really significant failure—the thing that earned him the title “Butcher of Komarr”. In the Komarr revolt, a subordinate killed prisoners, and Aral retaliated by killing the subordinate in a fit of temper.

I thought that in spite of (or because of) his killing the subordinate, the Komarrans and most others believed that he had secretly given the orders to kill the prisoners. And killing the subordinate erased any possibility of getting at the truth. The prisoners' deaths earned the sobriquet.
T Neill
20. Anarra
between4walls wrote: The bit where I think Aral copes with disaster well is when Miles is a hostage during Barrayar, both in not sending a mission to rescue him and in letting Cordelia go.

Aral didn’t “let” Cordelia go. She went without his permission and there wasn’t much he could do to bring her back. He did figure she might well succeed and had things ready to deal with the replicator as soon as she returned.



AlanBrown wrote: A major difference between the characters is that Aral looks like a recruiting poster, Miles does not. And Aral does not have to worry about his body letting him down like Miles does.

According to Ms. Bujold, Aral looks like Oliver Reed, scar and all. I agree about the profound difference in their upbringing, including that Aral can rely on his body and action where Miles must rely on his brain to get out of situations. That, I think, is the root of the profound differences in how they deal with events. Miles can’t give up. Failure is death.



AlanBrown wrote: I think that, despite his failures and funks, Miles is more comfortable in his own skin than his father is.

Miles certainly, by Memory and Komarr, has become so. Earlier in his life, not so much I think.



M. Montgomery wrote: I think Aral's disastrous triumph is also worth a mention - being hailed as a hero when his actions condoned the deaths of at least hundreds maybe more.

Aral acknowledges this when he’s giving Miles his lecture on reputation and honor at the request and requirement of Gregor. When the whole world hailed Aral as a hero with his honor in shattered fragments at his feet.



bluejo wrote: But I don't think Aral looks like a recruiting poster.

Was it you who pointed out that Miles’s surmise that, but for the soltoxin he would look a lot like Ivan, wasn’t based in realistic idea of what his parents actually looked like (and how tall they weren’t)?

I don’t think Aral has gone through life with the assurance of his looks the way Ivan and Renee Vorbretten have. Oliver Reed is striking but not in the class of, say, John Barrowman.



a1ay wrote: An interesting question: we never get any definite idea of whether Cordelia might have wanted to have another child. There are hints that Elena is a sort of surrogate daughter...

Cordelia definitely wanted more children. She gloats about how possible that is early in Barrayar when she’s pregnant with “Piotr Miles” (as he would have been called then). Legions of little Vorkosigans.

I suspect that they fell back on the soltoxin damage to Aral as a reason for no more children. Which precluded her even going for a daughter via the Uterine Replicator and one of Arals cells because if they could do that then they could certainly have another son.

She calls Mark her hope all unlooked for—for another child.



I wonder at what point Aral hit his wall? Did he never hit his wall or did he hit it many times and keep going anyway? Interesting that Miles wonders about his mother hitting her wall but never about his father hitting his.

He was born during the Cetagandan occupation and was probably alive when Vorkosigan Vashnoi was nuked and salted with plutonium. His entire remaining family, barring Padma and Piotr, was killed by Yuri while he looked on impotently. He fought a two-year civil war before he was 13 and participated in the dismemberment of the Emperor—he was given the first cut. He worked his way up to Admiral at a very young age while the Barrayaran space fleet was being built and strengthened; and no doubt participated in whatever needed to be done to secure the four wormholes (and at least 9 wormhole stations) between Barrayar and Komarr. Then the Solstice Massacre, Camp Permafrost, and the honor-gutting Escobarran plot.

And then the damage to Miles, the Vordarian revolt and Padma’s death.

He then had to pick himself up from the ashes of all of that to carry the Regency through 15 years of what sounds like continual crises and a further 13 years of being Prime Minister, including the death of his father.

Gregor is a harsh taskmaster to saddle him with being co-Viceroy of Sergyar after all that. Needing to get him off the planet to make people go to the new Prime Minister notwithstanding.
jon meltzer
21. jmeltzer
I can imagine Aral as Lord Kitchener on a recruiting poster:

"BARRAYARANS! I want YOU in your Emperor's Military!"
between4walls
22. Megaera
As someone on the Bujold list (where the link to this was posted, and how I found it) said, it wasn't so much Aral's loss of Cordelia that sent him into his funk at the end of Shards (although it was her reappearance that rescued him from it). It was the shattering of his honor by being part of the scheme to kill Serg by betraying all those thousands of soldiers to their deaths. Serg needed to be gotten rid of, but all those men...
between4walls
23. John Cowan
I don't think they need recruiting posters on Barrayar. Except maybe later on, for women.

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