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

I’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.


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