Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Cetaganda, Chapters 2-3

Last week, Ivan got in a fight, and Miles picked up some dropped artifacts. This was all very exciting, and very foreign to my personal experience as a person who has never been in either space or a fight. This week, Miles is going to engage in an activity with which I am much more familiar—he’s going to a party and looking at art. There will also be an elaborate funereal ceremony for the Cetagandan Dowager Empress, which I suppose might not be considered a party in the traditional sense. I am counting it as one because it involves both a large group of people and lunch.

The Vorkosigan series has more parties than it does space battles, and Bujold uses them really well. Miles exposes a lot of his personal insecurities about his life, his future, and comparisons between himself and his cousin at the first one. He starts unpacking Cetagandan politics and culture at the second.

The first party is hosted by the Marilican embassy. It is a reception for visiting dignitaries who have a free evening in their schedule because the funeral ceremonies planned for that time are Haut-only. In addition to the diplomatic corps being at a bit of a loose end, the lower-ranking Ghem have the evening off and need to find something to amuse themselves. I am confident that the process of reading and reviewing Cetaganda with really, really careful attention will eventually create the deep understanding of Cetagandan social classes that I currently lack. Miles doesn’t understand Cetagandan social classes either at this point, so I feel like my confusion is a reflection of the authenticity of my identification with Miles’s perspective.

The Marilican reception was recommended to Miles and Ivan’s attention by Ambassador Vorob’yev, as an orientation to the diplomatic personnel from other embassies to Cetaganda. Vorob’yev offers an astro-political orientation by explaining that Marilac is trying to establish its value to the Cetagandans as an ally, and has perhaps misinterpreted the lessons of the recent situation in the Hegen Hub. Vorob’yev also introduces the boys to Lady Mia Maz, who works on protocol for the Vervaini embassy, specializing in women’s etiquette. No one knows anything about Miles’ role in the Hegen Hub crisis, but Maz expresses her grateful appreciation for Aral’s intervention at the end of The Vor Game. Maz and Vorob’yev are obviously romantically entangled, in addition to having great respect for each other’s work. There’s also a nice moment here when Vorob’yev laments not being able to find a Barrayaran expert in women’s etiquette because no one has the experience, and Miles does that thing he does where he gently suggests that experienced personnel are made, not found. We will be seeing Maz again.

Outside of Maz’s immediate orbit, Miles is feeling awkward and Ivan is flirting with women. This is an activity that typically offers Ivan intermittent rewards, so he’s pretty into it. It’s never done anything for Miles, so he feels like people are only talking to him to be polite to Ivan, and he occupies himself with an inner monologue of self-doubts. Tonight’s self-doubt—will he ever find love? If Miles knew how much worse parties would need to get before he does, would he embrace it and try to ruin all the parties, or would he try to find a way to escape the Surprise Bug Butter and Secret Proposal Dinner like a tragic hero in a Greek play?

In the current moment, Miles and Ivan are introduced to Ghem-lord Yenaro, who has designed a sculpture as a gift to the Marilicans. It is interactive in the sense that viewers can walk through it. As long as the viewers aren’t wearing leg braces. Miles is wearing leg braces—this book is set before he has the surgery to replace his leg bones with synthetics—and the sculpture unexpectedly causes them to heat up and burn. Miles declines to consider this an assassination attempt, but privately feels that it’s shady as heck. So shady that he accepts a party invitation from Lord Yenaro for a later chapter, to facilitate further investigation.

In chapter three, Miles attends a ceremony in which visiting dignitaries leave funeral gifts in a spiral around the Dowager Empress’s funeral bier. A Haut lady in a force bubble pulls Miles aside and asks to know about the object he picked up in the space port. The Lady Rian Degtiar, Hand-Maiden of the Star Creche, also explains who the Ba are—they are a sexless, often-hairless, race of servitors bred by the Haut as genetic experiments. There’s a lot to chew on there. The Ba Lura—who, it turns out, attacked Miles and Ivan at the spaceport—is found dead in the position intended for the first gift. This is the point in the rising action of the mystery where Colonel Hastings sends a wire to his good friend Poirot, or someone writes a letter to Miss Marple. Since Miles is already on site, we already have our chief investigator in place. Since he’s only 22, this still has the air of an exotic intergalactic adventure, and has not yet delivered on the premise of most mystery novels—that the evil that men (and women, Ba, and hermaphrodites) do is universal regardless of the strangeness of one’s surroundings. This is not news to the Cetagandans, who convey their faith in the banality of evil by making a minor adjustment in the schedule and serving lunch before the ceremony rather than after.

Maz, Yenaro, and the Haut Rian Degtiar will go on to play major roles in the story. So do the Ba, and Haut and Ghem constructions of class and gender. I will be spending the week trying to determine if George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion could be adapted for Cetagandan audiences.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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