Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Barrayar Chapter 19 and Epilogue

With the Imperial Residence on fire, and a uterine replicator and Vordarian’s head under a blanket, Cordelia and crew drive through two security checkpoints. When the car breaks down, they switch to the monorail, which interests me because (a) Barrayar has a monorail, at least in one District, and (b) Vordarian’s head travelled on it, so it’s a monorail of historic significance. Everyone is reunited with everyone else, and the war winds down. Once Vordarian’s head is detached from his shoulders, we have time to dig deep into Barrayar’s needs and limitations.

I pre-reread The Warrior’s Apprentice this week and the end of the Gentleman Jole spoiler embargo is so close I can practically taste it. If you haven’t read Gentlemen Jole and the Red Queen yet, put yourself on a library hold list today! If you have, remember to hold your thoughts until the human recruiting poster makes his debut. Previous posts in the re-read can be found here.

No blog post on this section would be complete without mention of the reveal of Vordarian’s head, which Koudelka identifies for the security guard’s inventory as “a Winterfair gift for Admiral Vorkosigan. From his wife.” Once again, Piotr is the agent provocateur who drives Cordelia’s outrageousness, this time by demanding to know where she has been. The aggressive normalcy of the dialogue (“Every Vor lady goes to the capital to shop”) sets up a dramatic contrast with the head on the table that is almost gleeful until Cordelia explains that the cost (something you give, not something you get) was Kareen. Cordelia says that Kareen was shot in the melee—which is undeniably true. She doesn’t say that Kareen started the melee. Cordelia is flying high at the beginning of the scene, fueled by anxiety and adrenaline, but her explanation of Kareen’s death suggests that she’s tightly controlled as she heads towards the crash landing, posturing for the audience of Aral’s staff and Vordarian’s quislings. Cordelia and Aral have made tight control a lifestyle choice. They combine it with a deep understanding of each other’s limits, and a truly incredible ability to read each other’s eyes.

The other relationship on display here is Koudelka and Drou’s. Prior to chapter 19, they’ve had, like, two conversations, plus sex, not in that order. But if you speak in words of one syllable, you can say a lot in a short time. On the occasion of their reunification at Tanery Base, they finally take Cordelia’s unspoken advice from the Emperor’s Birthday and switch to necking—Kou is “plastered all over with tall and grubby blonde.” Barrayar has not been kind to this couple. Barrayaran women face a lot of limits on their personal agency. Wounded Barrayaran veterans have a high suicide rate. Drou’s career opportunities are far more limited than her potential. Kou’s injuries make him an object of mockery and pity. Their wedding—in the Imperial Palace, with everything “right and proper” from the Baba to the dancing—celebrates their ability to function within this culture despite its limitations. Bothari’s teasing (“If you feel really nauseous, Lieutenant, put your head down”) shows that he sees no difference between Koudelka and any other young officer. Drou’s father shuts down her brother because Drou has more combat experience (“Quiet Jos… You’ve never handled a nerve disruptor in combat”). These are gifts that many Barrayarans would not think to give them. Alys Vorpatril also gives a gift that will be vital to the couple’s future. In the years to come, the Koudelkas will use the beach house to help fund their daughters’ educations. Half of the Koudelka girls will be replicator births. We know that this technology can be prohibitively expensive for Barrayaran families; I wonder if the beach house helped fund that as well.

Moments like the Koudelka wedding throw the usual inflexibility of Barrayaran culture into relief. The problems facing these characters are not just their own limitations, but Barrayar’s. Barrayaran culture assumes that everyone is strong, both individually and collectively. To be “right and proper” on Barrayar is to fit within very specific ideals of ability, health, and relationships with others. Barrayar lacks a vision of universal access; Accommodation for those outside its norms requires struggle. A couple can marry without sending the Baba as Aral and Cordelia did, but that is not the Barrayaran romantic vision—it’s not “right and proper.” Even very minor, common permutations of what Barrayar considers normal can put “right and proper” out of reach. Ky the Mail has served his community faithfully for sixty years, but because he has no children, he doesn’t know who will light his funeral offering and remember him after his death. Kou and Bothari both served in the military, but Kou is mocked for being “spastic” and Bothari’s very serious mental illness is treated with torture even though better options are available. Drou can build a career in Imperial Security, but she can’t take the traditional route through the military. She is forced through a more convoluted path, and it almost destroys her chance for a relationship with Kou. Infant Miles emerges from the replicator directly into the struggle with Barrayar’s limitations. His problem is not just that his bones are brittle; It’s also that he is born into a society that is hard. Miles will have to challenge Barrayar at every turn. In his first struggle, he loses his grandfather but gains a bodyguard. Bothari is the first tool Miles’s parents give him to force Barrayar to reconsider its traditions. Cordelia does this as easily as breathing—Dubauer needed help, Koudelka needed a swordstick, Miles needed a bodyguard, Bothari needed a job. Cordelia challenges Barrayar in many ways, but this is the one in which she is most persistent.

How does that work out? We see a little bit of it in the Epilogue, when Miles is five. After years of medical treatment, he can finally walk, swim and, evidently, climb onto horses. Bothari is on hand with an inflatable cast to set his broken arm and deal with the aftermath. Five-year-old Miles is an unsophisticated observer; He sees a horse as a way to run faster. It also puts a relationship between Miles and Piotr within reach. Piotr could not connect with his injured infant grandson, but he can forge a relationship with the little boy who likes the springy horse and wants to run fast. Horseback riding is the second most dangerous sport in the world now, after skydiving (I assume Barrayar has come up with something more deadly in its time). It’s not really a good choice for someone with Miles’s brittle bones. The risk of fracture is quite a bit less if you don’t fall off, so there’s that. It’s a good analogy for the imperfections in Miles and Piotr’s relationship. The affection that takes root there is fraught with danger, mostly for Miles.

Barrayar isn’t just inflexible towards the slightest deviations from it’s masochistic focus on strength—it also struggles with the possibility of radical political change. The topic of the District that attempted to start a republic came up in the comments as a reflection of Aral’s failure as a progressive. If Ezar wanted to limit Aral’s potential as a liberal reformer, making him Regent was a very clever move. As Regent, Aral’s oaths prevent him from undermining the power of the Imperium. It might have been dangerous for Ezar to leave Aral a free agent. Aral tends to express his progressive ideals through his personal decisions, rather than through the political powers available to him as Regent. I don’t want to underplay the importance of his personal decisions—the personal is political, particularly when Aral rejects his father’s embrace of regressive Barrayaran conservatism. In this particular case, I’m at war with myself. I like republics. They have a lot of potential. As a reader, I would like to see Barrayar grow and change, and republicanism may or may not be the quickest path to reducing its cultural brutality. Cultural change via totalitarian dictatorship isn’t a great source of hope either. Aral really can’t commit his troops to support the party that has seceded from his government. Whatever Ezar’s motives in appointing Aral, he never intended him to be Buchanan to Gregor’s Lincoln.

Next week—The Warrior’s Apprentice!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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