Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Mirror Dance, Chapter 5

This is the moment, people! Grab a box of tissues and keep your companion animals close at hand—we’ve reached the chapter with the raid. Nothing good is going to happen here.

This reread has an index, which you can consult if you feel like exploring previous books and chapters. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.

Mark and Bel Thorne lead the Dendarii into House Bharaputra, and then their plans go horribly wrong. This is, in large part, because they didn’t have a plan. Mark wanted to be the clone who stuck it to House Bharaputra and saved some other clones, and Bel Thorne wanted that too. Neither of them gave sufficient practical thought to the challenges involved. The strategic mastermind that drives the action this week is hidden somewhere in the bowels of Bharaputra’s in-house ops division, which they clearly have because they’re very well-prepared.

I’ve spent a lot of the last month thinking about Mirror Dance, and my conclusion right now is that everyone needs a reason to live. The idea of saving his fellow clones is Mark’s reason. His life has been pretty limited—he hasn’t been able to run across a lot of other potential reasons. In an odd way, he’s taking advice from his mother. Having only been exposed to her genetically, and not grown up in her orbit, Mark has a limited ability to understand the idea that if you desire an outcome you should act in a way that leads to that outcome. This is a pretty crucial issue right now, but I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not even one of his more intense personal limitations—the kid is twenty and he doesn’t have a name he thinks of as his own. Mark wants to save everyone Jackson’s Whole has ever cloned, so he’s off to save some clones! Cordelia would have urged Mark to plan more thoughtfully.

I’m not sure what Cordelia would say to Bel. I have some ideas about what I would say. Bel has their own reasons for wanting to take down House Bharaputra, dating back to “Labyrinth.” As the raid goes badly wrong (to the tune of several Dendarii lives), Bel will admit that they knew they were dealing with an imposter, and simply hoped that the raid would work out. Mark is an adult now, and he is responsible for his own actions. But Bel knew who Mark was, and chose to allow him to continue the fraud of being Miles until Green Squad took losses. Bel abdicated responsibility as a Dendarii commander because they were excited about an opportunity to pursue personal goals.

I like the idea that Bel, Mark, and some of the Dendarii would go rogue and take on the Jacksonians. That would make sense for both Bel and Mark, and it would offer some interesting insight into what they’re like as strategists. That’s not the story I’m here to read. It seems unfair that Miles could create the Dendarii through deception and Mark and Bel can’t co-opt them for this mission in the same way. Seventeen-year-old Miles was not a lot more skilled than twenty-year-old Mark, and he was certainly not more honest. Miles had Bothari, Elena, Arde, and Baz. I believe Bel is capable of many things, but he’s not loyal to Mark. Mark can’t tell because he has no personal experience with loyalty; He wants a reason to live so badly he’s willing to give up his chance at life to get it. Bel and Mark are like Kevin and Arnold from The Book of Mormon if Arnold was severely depressed. They want to do something incredible (and Bel is willing to take on a sidekick) and make the world a better place through the overwhelming force of their idealism. They fail (at least for now) because they don’t understand the situation on the ground.

Bujold makes sure I’ve noticed the stories I’m not reading by talking about them on the shuttle ride down to Jackson’s Whole; Taura and Mark talk about her life before her rescue. Mark realizes that they’re from the same neighborhood and they have a lot in common. He wonders what it would be like to get to know her as himself, and not just while posing as Miles. I really like this alternate scene, and Mark’s alternate life in this alternate Vorkosiverse. I imagine it would be part of a progression towards an alternate raid. I’ll admit that might all go a little too smoothly, and the next thing would be Mark becoming Naismith while Miles goes back to Barrayar to be Lieutenant Vorkosigan. I’m glad not to have that ending, even though I’m sad to miss that conversation.

Taura points out that House Bharaputra was bad, but not overtly abusive. She talks about undergoing medical tests that hurt, but not because they were supposed to be a form of torture—she describes pain as an unfortunate occasional side-effect of science. She says House Ryoval was worse. Thanks for the foreshadowing, Taura! Of most immediate importance is the treatment of cloned children in House Bharaputra’s care. The Bharaputrans murder children. They abuse those children by grooming them to be complicit with their own coming slaughter. Further abuse can be carried out to order, at the direction of their clients, but most of Bharaputra’s clones are happy with their lives. They aren’t savvy enough to identify the twisted mix of lies and manipulation that helps send them to their deaths, even when they’re aware of their intended purpose. The clones aren’t savvy enough to fight it either.

Mark expects to walk into the clone dormitories, talk the clones into boarding the Dendarii drop-shuttle, and depart in an orderly fashion with the clones sitting cross-legged in rows on the floor. I’m not convinced he’s given a lot of thought to their future after that. He doesn’t have a facility selected to provide therapy and education; he’s planning to take them back to Escobar where they will get help. Mark is at the end of his resources—he’s not going to be funding the Dendarii Therapeutic Group Home for Abused and Exploited Minors, or finding fosterers for sixty teenagers. He would have to leave that for the government of Escobar, if he ever got that far.

The Bharaputrans aren’t running a Dickensian workhouse; they’ve put some careful thought into how to brainwash their victims. The clones are physically well-cared for and treated with emotional sensitivity because treating them kindly makes them easier to handle while they mature. Bharaputra isn’t making anyone suffer in any way that isn’t needed to promote their business plan. This is unfortunate for Mark because it means that the clones are terrified to be rescued. Their resistance is disorganized and inept, but it gives the Bharaputrans enough time to destroy the Dendarii shuttle with Dendarii thermal grenades—against my will, I am impressed by Bharaputran thrift and efficiency.

With the shuttle destroyed and the rescue in shambles, Bel blows Mark’s cover and orders the Dendarii to fall back to the dorms. The chapter ends on a cliffhanger—the Dendarii don’t have any way out, and they don’t have any means of completing their rescue. Everything they do now will be a holding action while they cross their fingers and wait for the real Admiral Naismith to bring the fleet to their rescue. I’d like to say that Miles will rescue them or die trying, but sadly, this is more of an “and” kind of situation.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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