Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Cetaganda, Chapters 4-9

As I leave behind chapters 2-3, it has become screamingly obvious that Cetaganda is all about invitations. Getting invitations, accepting invitations, sending invitations, being entertaining, being entertained. The Cetagandan social whirl is astounding.

I am not of the opinion that this novel benefits from further in-depth analysis. There are plenty of opportunities here to examine the broader significance of a variety of aspects of Cetagandan culture, society and politics but since the Cetagandans are mostly in the background of the rest of the series it is difficult to test any conclusions that one might draw in this way. I’m wanting to get back to the action. In my opinion, the action reappears in chapter ten. The easiest way to summarize the intervening section is through the invitations.

The first invitation is extended by Miles to Mia Maz, for an informal conversation at the Barrayaran Embassy to discuss some aspects Cetagandan society and etiquette that Miles has found intriguing. Maz is eager to do anything she can to offer assistance to the son of the hero who saved Vervain. Maz is not in the inner circle on that one.

Although Miles and Maz converse in frank and direct terms, Maz and Vorob’yev are communicating in the complex secret language of desserts. Codes like these had to be subtle, because they had to be hidden in plain sight. In this language, chocolate petit fours mean “I understand and respect that we are both here for professional reasons and cannot be distracted from our important work, but I am delighted to know that you are near me.”

Maz’s important work, in this case, is to tell Miles about the Star Creche, and how the Haut negotiate reproduction. This is a complex eusocial process that has nothing at all to do with relationships between parents. The Ghem seem to be making their own arrangements on a rather more informal basis—Maz doesn’t cover their reproductive goals and strategies in this session. We do know that they regard in vivo pregnancy with revulsion. The Haut regard the Ghem as a source of “wild” unplanned genetic variations, some of which may prove useful in future generations. I have not been able to determine how these genetic variations among the Ghem would find their way back into the Haut genotype. Haut women can derogate to the Ghem. Is there a process through which individual Ghem can be raised into the Haut, or would the Star Creche just collect a sample of some genetic material?

Maz illuminates some key points regarding the mystery, namely that the Ghem lords regard Haut wives as a high honor, and a very expensive one—they aren’t dowered, they expect a high standard of living, and their offspring displace those of any other wives in inheriting property. Miles’s thoughts about dowries seems like a link forward to A Civil Campaign, where Miles will seize on an idea that Ekaterin brings up in response to one of his Auditorial problems.

The second invitation is to Yenaro’s party. Yenaro’s little salon turns out to be a very busy evening for both Ivan and Miles. Ivan has made no secret of his assumption that he has been sent to Cetaganda to acquire some galactic polish, and will be lavishly entertained. He starts off the evening with drinks, and progresses to a room upstairs with some attractive Ghem women. Despite this promising start, the evening does not go well. For Ivan. It goes pretty well for everyone else—Yenaro drugged Ivan to induce transient sexual dysfunction. I’m so thrilled I got to read about Ivan and impotence. Ivan responds to the potential embarrassment of this situation by becoming an incredibly generous lover. Fun fact about Ivan: He has memorized some love poems, and can recite them under pressure. Although Ivan leaves the party dissatisfied and suffering from serious concerns about the potential long-term impacts of the drugs he has ingested, this evening makes him wildly popular with Cetagandan women. He will be flooded with invitations for the rest of the trip.

Miles’s evening will include a series of observations about the struggles of the younger Ghem lords, a discussion of Yenaro’s passion for perfumes, a conversation with the Haut Rian Degtiar, an explanation of what the Ba Lura was up to, and the discovery that the key Miles has been holding is a fake. The Great Key is the catalog to the Haut library of genetic material. It’s no good unless paired with the associated gene bank, so there’s no reason for anyone to want it, unless they have a copy of the gene bank. As it turns out, the late Empress’s final project was to create and distribute copies of the gene bank to the eight governors of Cetaganda’s colonial satraps. She hoped that controlling gene banks of their own would encourage more competition between the governors and lead to imperial expansion. I do not follow her logic, but Cetagandan society follows a form of totalitarianism that is entirely foreign to me. I expected more mass media. And perhaps it exists, and we just don’t hear about it because Miles does not have access to working class Cetagandans. We don’t hear much about Barrayaran mass media either In fact, the only society Bujold has shown us where the press is a notable institution is Beta Colony.

In chapter seven, Ivan invites Miles to hand the entire problem over to Cetagandan security. Or the ambassador. Or literally anyone else. Miles muses about the potential implications for the expansion of the Cetagandan Empire. At breakfast the next morning, Ghem-Colonel Benin of Cetagandan Imperial Security invites himself to have a conversation with Miles, and Vorob’yev decides to allow it. No pastries. Miles does his best to interrogate Benin while Benin does his best to interrogate Miles. The chapter closes on Ivan’s invitations, which stem from the reputation he has gained as a body-birthed barbarian with intriguing sexual practices. If Cetaganda is a competition, this round has gone to Ivan.

In chapter eight, Vorob’yev, Miles, and Maz go to a ceremonial poetry reading in the Celestial Garden. Ivan is not present. Maz is intrigued by the opportunity to observe a usually-private Cetagandan mourning ritual. Miles is intrigued by the opportunity to observe basically everyone who has political power in the Cetagandan Empire. He attempts to gather information by starting conversations with the Ghem lords, who find him boorishly uninteresting. However, his wanderings facilitate yet another meeting with Rian, who shows him around the Star Creche in chapter nine. Rian now feels certain that the Emperor’s brother, Slyke Giaja, stole the Great Key. This is offensive because the genome is not his—it belongs to the Haut women. Two parts of this conversation are significant beyond the immediate moment. They are interrupted by a com call about the location of L-X-10-Terran-C, which Miles files away to tell Illyan about later. The second significant revelation is about Miles—when he mentions his teratogenic injuries, Rian’s face grows expressionless. I’m reading this as a confession of Cetagandan involvement in either genetic manipulation projects on Barrayar during the Cetagandan invasion, or Cetagandan involvement in the War of Vordarian’s Pretendership. Possibly both!

Next week—Miles and Ivan discover the dangers that lurk at a Cetagandan science fair.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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