Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Memory, Chapters 10-11

This week’s chapters deal with Miles’s 30th birthday. Happy birthday, Miles!  

My copy of Memory was purchased from the Oberlin College Cooperative Bookstore shortly after I turned twenty. That was a very different time to be reading about Miles turning thirty than now, almost exactly twenty-one years later. Thirty seemed old then. I sort of got what Miles said to Martin about middle age being a moveable feast, always ten years older than you are, but it really hit home on this read. Miles is striking me as shockingly young this week because I finally noticed that his birthday means that he must have been killed at twenty-nine. Or possibly at twenty-eight—it was a long convalescence. He’s been leading the Dendarii for slightly more than a decade, and he’s been assigned to ImpSec for approximately seven years. Rank notwithstanding, his career has been meteoric; he has come an incredibly long way as a result of a few impulsive decisions he made to impress a girl while vacationing at age seventeen. Gregor has already asked him not to return the the Dendarii, but I think he needs to go further. Miles is Not Safe to be out of direct Imperial control. He’s dangerous; he needs a job.  

Miles chooses to deal with his birthday mainly through avoidance. He retreats to Vorkosigan Surleau with Martin, puts off looking through his mail, and visits Silvy Vale. Miles gets a lot of birthday mail. He’s a popular guy. This is a nice way for Bujold to remind readers of all the characters here and their relationships to Miles. Quinn, for example, is a little perplexed and stiff. My favorite is the video message from Aral and Cordelia, who reminisce about where they were at thirty. They point out some mistakes that they made, and how in the long run, the consequences were what they’re doing now. They seem fairly pleased with their personal outcomes. They end their message with the super-affectionate salutation, “Communicate, dammit!” I love them. I want to read a book about their noble struggle against the worm plague on Sergyar. In my heart of hearts, I think their message to Miles should be reassuring. My heart is not the most interesting place the impact of the message is measured—Miles has created a weird competition with his father, the youngest Admiral in the Imperial fleet. Somehow, Miles has done this without noticing that promotion to that level required time behind a desk as well as time on a ship. Aral is not only not participating in that competition, he doesn’t appear to know or care about it. I’m glad, because Miles’s notions of career success are completely arbitrary and self-imposed. Some of them came from his grandfather, but no one required him to take Count Piotr seriously, and even Miles isn’t sure he does anymore.

Miles intended the trip to Silvy Vale as a pilgrimage. He wants to burn an offering on Reina Csurik’s grave. He finds the site flooded by a new hydroelectric dam. Silvy Vale also has a new Speaker—Lem Csurik—and a new school, led by Harra. The community responds to Miles’s arrival with an impromptu celebration. Martin gets to trade dance moves with the locals and learn some life lessons about maple mead. Miles wanders off to the water’s edge for a deep conversation with Lem, Harra, and more maple mead. He bares his soul to them about his seizures and his medical discharge. Lem is a mostly silent presence here, circulating the jug of mead PRN. Harra is more vocal—Harra is feudal, but not in a servile way. Feudal systems are supposed to work through mutual obligations. Miles and Aral have both commented on the Vorkosigan tradition of Imperial service as a hidden tax on the district. Harra didn’t need to hear their commentary—she knew. She’s grateful for Miles’s attendance at her graduation from teachers’ college (and so am I—that was a really meaningful and touching thing for Miles to do), and she’s pleased that he will be spending more time in the district. Lem and Harra have done a lot for Silvy Vale, but like every other Barrayaran who doesn’t have a Vor in their name, they don’t have a vote in the Council of Counts. They’re not interested in killing the Vor beast; they want someone who has the skill and the authority to put the Vor beast in a harness. This scene is often noted for Harra’s simple wisdom about dealing with loss and tragedy—she says you just go on, and she talks about her life as the offering she burns—but her political views, which are not so much opinions as attitudes and assumptions that she and Miles have always shared (not in the sense of having talked about them, but in the sense of both having been marinated in them), are in the process of moving to the forefront of the story.  

The third notable feature of Miles’s birthday is his egregious failure to deploy Ma Kosti. It’s one thing for Miles to slink off to his family’s lake house to face the enormous weight and consequence of his thirtieth birthday alone. A ludicrous and overdramatic thing, wow, thirty, I mean, in today’s terms that’s a mere decade away from being included in the group protected by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. But I can understand where Miles is coming from. He feels like his life is over, and hearing the clock strike thirty isn’t helping his creeping sense of mortality. The house at Vorkosigan Surleau is staffed so Miles doesn’t have to fend for himself or eat Martin’s cooking (although, if I had to guess, I would guess that Martin’s cooking is totally passable, if not particularly fancy). There are rolls. That’s useful. Ma Kosti needed a job because she was bored. It seems like a bad move for Miles to leave her in the capital while he mourns the things he did in his twenties. She might get bored again! A birthday isn’t really different from any other day, Miles notes, in that each day makes you the oldest you’ve ever been. SO TRUE. You know what else isn’t different from any other day? They’re all improved by an awesome meat paste sandwich and a spiced peach tart.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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