Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: The Vor Game, Chapters 5-6

This section starts with a siren in the night: There’s been a spill in the toxic stores bunker. The mutagenic poison leaking from its broken barrels is going to set off a chain of events that drives Miles to an unplanned act of civil disobedience.

These chapters also offer our very first ever official sighting of Oliver Jole. The spoiler embargo has now ended! Comments about future books in the series should bear at least a tangential relationship to the events in this section, please.  

The spill was a result of some techs fooling around with a fork lift. The toxic chemical involved is fetaine, a biological weapon that the Barrayaran military has been keeping even though they have never used it in combat. Its mutagenic nature makes it Barrayar’s worst nightmare. Miles proposes sealing the contaminated storage bunker with some mines. That’s pretty decent junior officer-ing, right there. Lt. Yaski refines Miles’s proposal by suggesting slow heat release and some neutral plas seal to keep the roof of the bunker from falling in before the fetaine is destroyed. Miles goes off to check the wind direction, since he’s the weather guy, and Bonn and Yaski go to present the plan to Metzov.

Metzov hates the plan. He sees preserving the fetaine stockpiles as part of Lazkowski Base’s mission. He doesn’t want it destroyed—he wants it cleaned up. Bonn and his techs are unwilling to clean it up—the available protective gear is believed to be ineffective because fetaine penetrates permeables. In a classic example of Barrayaran ableism, Yaski proposes that Miles handle the entire cleanup project because he’s a mutant already. Nice going there, Barrayar—four languages, two habitable continents, and one very limited vision of full personhood.

To deal with the techs’ refusal to enter the bunker, Metzov calls a discipline parade. He orders a group of trainees to aim nerve disruptors at the techs and orders the techs to strip naked. When they’re ready to follow orders, they can put their clothes back on and go clean up the bunker. It’s really cold—frostbite, hypothermia, and freezing-to-death cold. This situation is very dangerous. Bonn strips to join his techs. Technically, Miles is not involved. Technically, it is not his job to clean up fetaine spills, because he is a meteorologist. But he is present, and Metzov orders him to either take up a nerve disruptor or leave. Miles takes the nerve disruptor, not entirely voluntarily.  

Miles is on a personal mission to earn ship duty. The terms and conditions he is attempting to fulfill require him to practice subordination, whether he thinks his commanding officers deserve it or not. But Miles is also Vor. We can criticize the institution of the Vor all we like—and from the comment threads, I gather that we like to criticize it a lot—but it has meaning to Miles. He has an obligation to these shivering techs; their ghosts will follow him into space if he lets them die so that he can have ship duty. The price of Miles’s ambition was never intended to be their lives. In this situation, Miles does not have a lot of options. Metzov is the base commander; there is no one above his rank who Miles could appeal to before Bonn and his techs freeze to death. Miles is intimately familiar with a higher power, though—it’s his dad. He’s thinking of Aral when he strips. Freezing fast, Miles points out that his death is certain to be investigated. He talks Metzov into arresting the mutineers.  

In the here and now, one of the more persistent of our wildly inaccurate national myths is that acts of civil disobedience are spontaneous. Students just sat at lunch counters because they were hungry, Rosa Parks was just too tired to move to the back of that bus, and one day you too could make a spur-of-the-moment personal decision that unleashes a revolution. Effective civil disobedience requires coordination and planning. Miles and Bonn are not prepared. Miles’s timing is poor—the trainees are arresting Miles, Bonn, and the techs when the base surgeon and Metzov’s second-in-command arrive to deal with the situation. Nonetheless, Miles has achieved his immediate goal—he’s not dead, neither are the techs, and no one goes into the bunker. Bonn is less than thrilled. I feel for Bonn, but he didn’t have a better plan.  

Civil disobedience isn’t cheap, either, even when its impacts are very limited—it’s dangerous, and it has serious personal consequences. It turns out that when a Vor lord joins a mutiny, he is automatically charged with high treason. Miles is under arrest by Imperial Security. He’s transported back to the capitol to face Simon Illyan and, possibly, a second round of treason charges. The good news for Miles is that his father supports him. Aral will have to take a public stance that is at odds with his private support for Miles’s decision to undermine his CO. Metzov’s orders were illegal. In public, Aral distances himself from his son, who is not under arrest, but who is unpleasantly confined to the ImpSec infirmary. In private, Aral and Cordelia are very proud. Cordelia proposes that Miles consider a different career—her approach to the topic implies that she has proposed this before. Miles offered to resign his commission, but the decision has been made to reassign him to Illyan and to ImpSec. I feel like that part was a little hand-wavy; it would have made a lot of sense for Miles’s military career to end at this point.

Ivan doesn’t have the inside scoop on this situation that Aral and Cordelia do, and he has to deal with the aftermath of Miles’s little experiment with ImpSec’s security protocols. He refuses to talk to Miles on the comm. Ivan has been one of Miles’s major allies—this is a significant loss. Miles’s heart was in the right place. He made a noble effort, but the outcome is limited, and his abandonment by one of the few Barrayaran allies he has of his own generation highlights the costs.

If you were looking for a distraction from all of the privilege and sacrifice and career consequences, take a look through Illyan’s office door—it’s Jole! I don’t know whether or not Bujold had planned his relationships with Aral and Cordelia when she wrote The Vor GameI suspect not—but Jole gets a shocking amount of description for a guy who’s in the room for less than a minute. He’s devastatingly handsome, and smart, and a military hero, and Miles is wildly envious of him. We will later learn that Jole and Aral were lovers at this point. There is no clear evidence of this in the glimpse we see here, and that makes sense because the relationship Bujold is looking at in this chapter is the one between Aral and Miles. But I can look at any relationship I like. It’s interesting that the Prime Minister had his secretary accompany him all the way to the threshold of the private meeting he didn’t officially have with his wayward son, isn’t it? In hindsight, that is a pretty significant hint at a closer connection. I don’t recall Jole reflecting on this incident while considering his reproductive options. I can imagine how it might come up for him at some later date. I hope we get to read that story.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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