Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Komarr, Chapter 6

Chapter five ended with the announcement that an unexpected corpse had been discovered associated with the wreckage of the cargo ship/soletta array collision. Our mysterious male space corpse was in a position and on a trajectory that suggests that he was on one of those things at the time of collision. His origin and identity are unknown, and his clothes—the remains of his entirely unexceptional ship knits—have been mostly destroyed by exposure to hard vacuum.

I know I’m supposed to be intrigued by the mystery of the corpse, and I am! I am dutifully intrigued, or I was, the first time I read Komarr, when I didn’t already know who he was. For first-timers, the corpse is a frozen enigma. Is he someone we’ve heard of? Is he someone entirely new? Will he blow Miles’s case wide open? All intriguing questions! After the first time you read a mystery, you know the answers to questions like this and you get to focus your attention on the details.

On this round, I’m focused on the SHIP KNITS. Miles has worn ship knits approximately one gajillion times in the course of the Saga. He practically lives in them. Or in uniforms of some sort, or in suits that subtly reflect the uniforms he used to wear. He also has a collection of backcountry-style shirts, which is an admirably non-descript description, revealing the impression conveyed by the shirt while providing no information about the shirt itself. Komarr clarifies that ship knits are the everyday wardrobe of spacers who might need to don pressure suits on a moment’s notice. The closest thing we have to this in contemporary fashion is athleisure, which at it’s best, subtly suggests that the wearer has, or has had, the earnest intention of going to the gym at some point. I don’t know what ship knits look like, but I don’t care, because what I need in my life—what I think EVERYONE needs if they’re being honest—is a garment that says “I might put on a space suit today, or alternately, I might stay in.”

Miles is perusing the reports on our previously ship-knit clad corpse and hoping that Ekaterin will deign to speak to him, when Nicolai Vorsoisson stops by Ekaterin’s workroom for a chat. It’s a small thing, but I’m grateful that the Vorsoisson’s Komarran flat is so large—kitchen, balcony, spiral staircase, dining room, living room with sunken conversation pit (Komarr may be Space Venice but its domestic architecture is mid-century modern), master bedroom with bath, bedroom for Nikki, guest bedroom, home office for Tien, workroom for Ekaterin, second bath. I’m glad they have room to get away from each other. I don’t think they would have made it for this long if they lived in an NYC-style tiny walkup. I’d be happy to see Tien succumb to a series of acute untreated foot injuries from Nikki’s toys, but I’m afraid Ekaterin would be the first to die. Nikki has left his designated domestic zone to come to stare at Miles, who he has been informed was once a spy. Miles is also interesting because he’s a child-sized adult and an obvious mutant. Miles denies having been a spy, and sticks to the official cover story about having been a courier officer. He travelled a lot, and went on a lot of jump ships. Nikki wants to be a jump pilot when he grows up. Of all the people who have reasons to flee the Barrayaran Empire screaming, only the ten-year-old has a plan to do it.

Nikki’s plan is very Vor—he’s going to join the military and get his pilot’s training and his implant that way. Miles, sensitive to the looming tragedy of lost childhood dreams, proposes that he consider a civilian route to his goal. Having Vorzohn’s Dystrophy is a bar to being a jump pilot in the Barrayaran military, even if the condition is cured.

This is not the first time that qualifications for service in the Barrayaran Military have come up on this blog. We had a memorable and heated conversation about this issue when Miles plunged off a wall during the Imperial Military Academy’s physical fitness testing in the opening chapter of The Warrior’s Apprentice. In that case, I asserted that servo-assisted armor and other technologies meant that Miles’s disabilities were irrelevant to his ability to serve as a combat officer. A vocal dissenting contingent among the commentariat strongly implied that anyone not capable of storming the battlefield in a leather kilt like the ancient Romans shouldn’t be considered fit for service in anyone’s army. A reasonable reread blogger would never bring this topic up again. But why hone the comment guidelines if I’m not going to take them out for a spin?

The Vorkosigan Saga takes place a long time in the future—the Komarran terraforming project has been in progress for a thousand years. Over that time span, Horace’s notion of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori might have been sufficiently faded and tarnished in its popularity at several points that a prudent planetary government would look for ways that individuals can serve, rather than sticking to exclusionary traditions that dictate that a large number of possibly willing individuals cannot. If treated in a timely fashion, Nikki’s mutation will only be relevant when he has children of his own.

Most Barrayarans feel that the life of the Emperor is more important than a lot of trade goods not getting stuck in a wormhole. However, there are a number of organizations that see the trade goods as more immediately vital to their survival, and in some circumstances, I think those organizations have a valid point. Nonetheless, outside of the Barrayaran military, neither Miles’s nor Nikki’s condition excludes an individual from jump pilot training. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles disguised himself as a jump pilot in order to return to Barrayar incognito, and his mother was excited that he had chosen to take pilot’s training. The trade organizations of the Galactic Nexus would not hesitate to have a mutant like Nikki pilot their goods around. Barrayar should consider loosening up.

If Barrayar says people with cured mutagenic disorders can’t be jump pilots, Tien can’t imagine why they should. As Miles and Nikki bond over Nikki’s collection of jump ship models, Tien drops by to disapprove. Unwilling to take an open and honest approach to the problems posed by Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, Tien instead attempts to dis his son’s dreams to death. Miles’s assertion that some people grow into their dreams instead of out of them comes very close to being blatantly rude to the man who is, nominally, his host. Miles thinks wistful thoughts about relocating to a hotel over dinner.

Miles is never going to a hotel. Tune in next week to find out why he’s still sleeping in a grav bed in Ekaterin’s workroom.

Meanwhile, please enjoy the comment thread. The comments are a place for interesting, vibrant and respectful conversations. Posters should please observe the following guidelines:

  • Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand.
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  • Like Earth, Barrayar and other places in the galactic nexus live out sets of cultural practices that range from beautiful to genocidal. Regardless of what may be commonplace as a cultural practice in any place at any time, comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome.
  • The comments on this blog are not an appropriate place to debate settled matters of fact, history, human rights or ethics.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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