Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Cetaganda, Chapter 1

Last week, I made the briefest and most casual possible passing mention of the plot of Cetaganda, which involves Miles and Ivan attending a state funeral on Cetaganda. Like tiny little Barrayaran Vice Presidents. (In space!)

This week, I’m actually getting into the plot of the book, which is part mystery, part extended encounter between Miles and that portion of his brain that functions like the protagonist in Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

The Pigeon wants his captain’s tabs really, really badly.

Chapter 1 features the most space-tastic scene in the book, a zero-gravity fistfight that pits Ivan Vorpatril against… a guy. Whose hair is fake-y glued on. In a combat scene that spins from zero-gee to normal-gee and back again, with bonus nerve disruptor flying around the interior of, um, a space vehicle-thing that Miles and Ivan are on. PLEASE PLEASE remember that I am here for the adventure, the characters, the relationships, and the hyperactive git (I SAY THAT WITH AFFECTION) and not for the precise descriptions of the space vehicles or the laws of the physics. And you shouldn’t be here for the physics either, because that nerve disruptor fits in Ivan Vorpatril’s pocket without notably disturbing the hang of his uniform pants. Or jacket. Or whatever garment he shoved it in. Is all menswear capable of this miracle? Because I’m feeling seriously cheated by dresses this week. I have some great ones, but I can’t pocket a pen or a cell phone without everything going all wonky.

Let’s call the location of that incident Shuttle Docking Bay 1 of the Cetagandan orbital station. Miles and Ivan are in a vehicle we will call a shuttle, docked at Shuttle Docking Bay 1. They are accompanied by a shuttle pilot we will call the Sergeant. We will call him that because Miles does, and because that reminds us of the sergeant that he is not. Bothari’s presence on the shuttle would have made this book very short. Having obtained a surprisingly compact nerve disruptor (not just because of the pocket thing—Miles describes this nerve disruptor as surprisingly compact) and a mysterious object with an eagle on it from the unknown individual with the glued on hair, Miles, Ivan, and the Sergeant are directed to undock from Shuttle Docking Bay 1 and proceed to Shuttle Docking Bay 2, where they meet the Barrayaran Ambassador to Cetaganda and some Cetagandan officials welcome them to Cetaganda, the planet they are not yet on. Cetagandan customs takes their luggage, but does not search their persons, ask What They Have Got in Their Pockets, or notice that Ivan is acting strangely. Miles does not mention the encounter or the associated loot to the Cetagandan officials or the Barrayaran ambassador.

Ivan thinks this is weird. Ivan follows Miles’s lead publicly, but has many questions in private. Questions like, “Aren’t we supposed to tell a grown-up?” and “Remember that time you made me drive a hover-tank into a barn?” Miles has too much going on the take these questions seriously. When we talk about Miles’s disabilities, we usually focus on the friability of his bones. This can lead readers to overlook the significant neurological issue that drives the plot of the Saga to a far greater extent than Miles’s osteoporosis—he’s got a honking huge case of ADHD. As you might remember from last week, I have interviewed Lois McMaster Bujold, and I had the opportunity to ask her anything I wanted, and I didn’t ask her if Miles had ADHD. Because it’s so ridiculously apparent that he does that I wouldn’t believe Bujold if she said he didn’t. Every interpretation of Miles that I have ever considered revolves around this. He’s incredibly bright, incredibly curious, and incredibly impulsive. This might be a result of his long periods of immobility in childhood. The Freudian explanation for hyperactivity is quaint, but this is fiction so it’s also valid. I’m more inclined to attribute Miles’s neurology to genetics—Miles’s parents are kind of impulsive too, and it’s well-established that Miles takes their personalities (and, in some cases, their medical problems) and kicks them up to 11. Miles is my ADHD hero, because whatever improbable scrapes his impulsivity gets him into, it also gets him out of them again. He doesn’t always escape unscathed, but that’s life—it scathes you.

Miles did not impulsively start a fight with an individual in a stolen Station Services uniform. But he did tuck an unknown item into his pocket, bribe his cousin with a nerve disruptor, and then start digging himself a hole. I blame Ivan. As the shuttle approached Shuttle Docking Bay 1, Ivan undermined his cousin’s self-confidence and triggered his associated anxieties with a casual anti-mutant remark. The remark in question is the kind of thing the entire population of Barrayar would have felt perfectly comfortable saying, the kind of thing Miles has to struggle against all the time, quite likely a kind of thing Miles has heard from his cousin before—their rivalry is not always easy. The attitude the remark reflects might even explain why Miles’s ADHD was never (as far as I know) formally diagnosed or treated. When the fight arrived, Miles was looking for a way to redeem himself in the face of an insult he knows he can’t respond to directly; He wanted to show that he’s better than someone. It’s a young man’s mistake, and the Miles we have in Cetaganda is not only young, he’s stripped of the things that make him feel most confident—his cultural competency, his mercenaries, and his usual work.

Miles’s initial plan to get some of his own back relies on cooperation from Cetagandan authorities. They are supposed to know that the shuttle docked at Docking Bay 1. They can’t have seen the fight because Docking Bay 1’s security cameras had been ripped out of the wall, but Miles assumes that they must have shut down that section of the orbital station to pursue the mysterious individual in the stolen Station Services uniform, and they should at least want to pursue the possibility of an encounter. Miles assumes that he and Ivan will be questioned about this by a Cetagandan official who will attempt to maintain at least a pretense of being polite, and that this will allow Miles an opportunity to show off his ImpSec chops by gathering information from his enemy’s attempt to gather information. In the process, Miles will probably also be able to create a comparison between himself and Ivan that is very, very Miles-friendly.

The Cetagandan authorities do not cooperate with Miles’s plan. Half the plot of this book is the Cetagandan authorities not showing up. The other half is Miles working out the problem he has put himself in without their help or anyone else’s. He has to decline all assistance, or he can’t get back at Ivan. And he can’t just talk it out with Ivan, because when you do things impulsively, you don’t have time for the introspection required to understand the origins of your impulses. Miles doesn’t tell the Ambassador. He doesn’t call on the Embassy’s security staff, or the Protocol Officer who he knows is the ranking ImpSec commander on Cetaganda. He puts the mysterious object in his pocket, and waits until he comes up with a better plan.

What does he do while he’s waiting? Next week, he goes to a party. There is art.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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