Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Komarr, Chapter 11

Up to this point in Komarr, Tien Vorsoisson has served in the role of melodramatic villain. He’s embezzled, he’s abused his wife, he’s been careless about matters of life and death. He made every situation he was involved in at least marginally—and often significantly—worse. If he had a mustache, he would have twirled it. Now he is dead.

I’m perfectly willing to speak ill of the dead, especially when the deceased is a fictional character. For argument’s sake, I’m also willing to take a moment to catalog his redeeming qualities. I know of one: His son didn’t hate him. Nikki is nine, and he doesn’t hate his father. I don’t find this surprising. I know it is very difficult for a parent to make a nine-year-old stop loving them, but it is possible. Tien is not so far lost to the bonds of human affection that he has alienated his nine-year-old son. It’s a low bar, and Tien has cleared it. Their relationship wasn’t a great one, at least from my perspective as a reader. Many, many parents have to work with their children to deal with factors that limit their children’s ability to pursue their hopes and dreams. Sometimes they need to find a way through the difficulties, like Miles did. Sometimes the obstacles are immovable. But it is a thing that parents sometimes have to do, and lots of them find a way. Tien’s approach falls far short of the 21st-century state-of-the-art on this problem. But that is my judgment, and not Nikki’s.

In these chapters, Nikki is sleeping over at a friend’s house. Ekaterin was careful to make arrangements for him to be out of the house when she told Tien she was ending their marriage. As chapter 11 opens, Ekaterin is turning off the lights and picking up her suitcase, headed for a cold night on a park bench to conserve her limited funds. She is Ibsen’s Nora in postmodern form—she would give anything, and do anything, to help her husband and her son, but Tien has fractured her loyalty. Staying with him means betraying Barrayar. Her honor means too much for her to do that.

Ibsen left open the question of what happened to Nora after she left Torvald. We’re less than halfway through Komarr and SFF is somewhat less likely 19th-century drama to leave those kinds open questions about a character’s fate. Ekaterin’s preparations for departure are interrupted by a comm call from Lena Foscol, who informs her that she needs to pick Tien up at the Waste Heat Embezzlement Station. Ekaterin attempts to protest, but Foscol tells her everyone else has left and cuts the comm. Nikki is very much on Ekaterin’s mind here—she decides to go get Tien in order to maintain a civil relationship with him to facilitate co-parenting. That’s very practical diplomatic thinking. By the time Ekaterin gets to the walkway where Miles and Tien have been chained, it’s hours too late.

The Vorkosigan Saga spends a lot of time on death. For me, Bujold’s descriptions of it emphasize the powerlessness of time, space, and technology to have a meaningful impact on death (at least, thus far—it’s been a long time since I read Cryoburn). Bujold focuses on the shock, the work of preparing the deceased for burial or disposal, and the next stages as survivors move on. In a happier moment just a few chapters ago, Ekaterin and Miles discussed the futility of his attempt to stop a falling body more than half again his size. Neither of them refers explicitly to that here—and Tien is dangling, not falling—but they don’t try to move Tien’s body either.

Ekaterin has the point of view for this scene, and I’m curious about how it might seem different from Miles’s perspective. Somewhat stunned, Ekaterin assists Miles in getting unchained, calling in ImpSec (Tuomonen is furious), and checking to see that the power plant hasn’t been rigged to self-destruct. Miles tells her what happened when Tien arrived back at the terraforming project offices and how it led to this. After securing the station and seeing to Miles’s safety, Tuomonen sends Miles and Ekaterin back to Serifosa with a security detail. The Komarran conspirators have broken into the Vorsoissons’ apartment. Damage is minimal, but it’s enough to give Ekaterin a diplomatic excuse to insist that Miles not leave; She needs the guard. An undiplomatic excuse would also have had merit. Miles is in rough shape: His futile efforts to escape injured his wrists, and after he returns to the Vorsoissons’ apartment he has a seizure. The grav bed has been returned to the rental agency. No longer concerned about offending the dignity of the Lord Auditor, Ekaterin puts Miles in Nikki’s room for the night.

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Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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