In last week’s blog post, I asserted that Ekaterin had a number of reasons to flee Barrayar screaming. I recall the first time I read the opening chapter of Komarr as one of the biggest surprises of my reading life because Ekaterin was the viewpoint character. Framing the book with her perspective lets Bujold get right down to brass tacks on the reasons to flee screaming front.
The first couple chapters of the book introduce Ekaterin and Tien Vorsoisson. Using Ekaterin’s point-of-view allows Bujold to reveal Tien as an asshole with remarkable economy. In his first appearance, he criticizes his wife’s family and her cooking without pausing for breath and then moves on to barring Ekaterin from seeking help in getting him medical treatment. This conversation has a dramatic finale—she begs him not to kill himself on the way to the shuttleport. This is the everyday discourse of their marriage. I can only imagine how terrifying life must be for their son, Nikolai.
Ekaterin and Tien are the galactic Vor middle class. They’re currently residing on Komarr because of Tien’s job as an administrator. This is not work for which Tien has any particular passion. Ekaterin does not work “as such”—one of her favorite diplomatic phrases. Nikki attends a private school run in the Barrayaran style. They have a lovely apartment—spiral staircase, gorgeous western views, adjacent to a city park—but otherwise, their lives are much more constrained than they could be, mostly, I think, because of their (Tien’s) need to keep up appearances. They can’t have Komarran friends because Tien can’t make friends, and Ekaterin doesn’t meet anyone. They can’t send Nikki to a less expensive school—it’s not Vor! They can’t be mutants.
Here is the crux of Ekaterin’s problems. Her brother-in-law killed himself when he discovered that he had an irreversible case of Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, an adult-onset disorder caused by a mutation from the Time of Isolation. Tien and Nikolai have tested positive for this mutation. It’s not killing them; there is treatment and even a cure. Tien’s fears of Barrayaran prejudices are making the situation exponentially worse. He claims he is planning a “galactic vacation” during which he and Nikki can be treated confidentially so their mutation will never be known to anyone on Barrayar. The trip has been in the planning and budgeting phase for several years.
Many, many books ago, in Barrayar, Cordelia told Piotr that if nothing else, Miles would make life easier for those who came after him—that he would show what could be done for children like him, and what those children could, in turn, do. Tien’s family has not received the messages of Miles’s existence. Ekaterin herself is more open to these ideas. Komarr has excellent access to galactic medical technology, but it makes no difference to Ekaterin—under Barrayaran law, she isn’t Nikolai’s legal guardian and has no right to take him for treatment. All she can do is wait and watch her son and husband for signs of tremors. Tien’s hands are already shaking. Ekaterin’s diplomacy is evident in her assessment of Nikki’s hands—she holds them up to her own and tells him about puppies with big paws. She fends him off the cake she made for dessert by offering him juice in a grown-up wine glass. Nikki is plainly the center of her universe, and Barrayar is keeping her from protecting him from the flaws in his genetic code.
Deepening the aura of impending disaster, Komarr’s soletta array is broken. Like Miles’s accident with the plasma arc and Vorberg’s legs, the soletta accident took place off-stage, shortly before the book started. The soletta array provides light to facilitate growth of oxygen-producing plants. These are vital to the centuries-long effort to turn Komarr into a habitable planet—its population lives in climate-controlled domes. Ekaterin is galactic enough to be concerned for the impacts of the accident on Komarr’s terraforming efforts as well as on her own plants—a tiny collection of Barrayaran native species in pots on her kitchen balcony.
Miles and his fellow Auditor, Ekaterin’s Uncle Vorthys, explain the accident over dinner—there was a collision. It involved the soletta array and an in-system freighter that was passing between it and one of Komarr’s many local wormholes. The wormhole in question doesn’t go anywhere interesting or useful.
The rest of the dinner conversation involves Tien making insensitive comments and Miles refuting them. Not being part of the High Vor social set or heir to a seat on the Council of Counts, Tien is not privy to any details of Miles’s military career and is shocked to learn that he even had one. The Saga usually surrounds us with people who regard twenty years of military service as the early phase of a career, so it’s jarring to see Tien talk about his ten years of service as both typical and boring. Lord Auditor Vorthys isn’t about to let his nephew-in-law cherish his assumptions, pointing out that Miles spent his thirteen years of service in covert ops. I know that Miles doesn’t kill Tien, but given what we’ve seen so far, it wouldn’t bother me if he had. Dinner is a little awkward. Nikki either doesn’t notice or accepts adult awkwardness as normal.
In chapter two, Miles works through reports on the accident investigation on Ekaterin’s comconsole. He takes a break from his work to break into Ekaterin’s personal files and look at her budgeting spreadsheets. Her household accounts are exactly what you would expect for a woman preparing to do battle against a disease her husband is trying to pretend doesn’t exist. She uses a garden planning simulator as her hobby. Miles starts thinking of uses for the bare patch of ground next to Vorkosigan House the moment he sees it—his intentions towards Ekaterin aren’t entirely pure even at this early point—he’s already had an almost-erotic dream about her.
Next week—Bujold takes an even more in-depth look at the Vorsoisson’s marriage.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.