Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: A Civil Campaign, Chapter 2

On Barrayar, you come home, you get flowers, and you make plans. This week, it’s Kareen Koudelka’s turn. Kareen is returning from a school year on Beta Colony. This situation is somewhat more complicated than she had anticipated when she left. Beta Colony is very open about sexual matters. Barrayar, by contrast, is a place where it is very difficult to say things like, “I spent a large part of the year knocking boots with your old friends’ recently discovered clone son.”

I would love for Kareen’s family not to care who she knocked boots with, as long as everyone involved was having a good time, but they DO care. It’s not initially clear whether they care because of Barrayaran cultural mores, or if they just want the hot gossip.

Kareen’s sisters just want the hot gossip. Kou and Drou seem like, you know, parents. They just want to be informed. Kou actually asks if he should be expecting a Baba from the Vorkosigans. He’s such a dad. In other Kou and Drou news, Drou is teaching martial arts classes—the career Aral considered falling back on if he had to emigrate to Beta Colony—and Kou is not Aral’s secretary anymore but is still working in ImpMil. Kareen would like to go back to Beta Colony, partly for the educational opportunities, partly for the continued easy access to Mark. Kou and Drou can’t afford to send her. Kareen is on a quest to find her way back, and her parents are concerned about losing her.

While Kareen is considering her options, Miles is at a meeting about Gregor’s wedding. The meeting is in a green silk room. The last time we saw a green silk room at the Palace, it was being used to plan the invasion of Escobar. There has been a large fire at the Palace since then. It destroyed a large part of the Residence, and I’d like to think that this is a different green silk room, perhaps one that reflects Gregor’s modernist aesthetics. I don’t really know, though. Barrayar has been both an oppressed colony and an imperialist power. Its history of domination by the Cetagandans is the driving force behind its foreign relations most of the time. Looking at it carefully now, I think that both Ezar’s decision to kill Serg and his methods were unusually Cetagandan in nature, for a Barrayaran political leader. And whether it’s the same green silk room, or it’s just been done up in the same colors, this green silk room is an example of Barrayar’s complicated past being repurposed for what Barrayar’s leaders hope will be a happier future.

Bujold’s description of the meeting is deliciously lighthearted, but I find I’m taking it very seriously this week. Alys is running this show because the wedding is serious Lady Alys business. Ivan is present because he has been seconded to his mother for the duration. You can read this as an inconvenience for Ivan, or as a sign of Ivan’s abilities; This is far too important an occasion for Alys to take on her son as ADC if anyone better is available. Gregor and Laisa are there because they’re getting married. Duv is present as ImpSec’s chief of Komarran Affairs. Miles is there because he’s Gregor’s Second, and he couldn’t get out of it. Since he’s not courting Ekaterin as such, Miles is daydreaming about planning his own wedding. They could have it in Hassadar. Or at the lake house at Vorkosigan Surleau. But what about the weather! And then Laisa flips a page and Miles realizes that we’re on page twelve of the meeting agenda.

Why do Gregor and Laisa need Lady Alys when Barrayar almost certainly has a thriving wedding industry with many, many people fully qualified to plan and coordinate weddings who would love to make their careers and reputations by handling Gregor’s? Because someone has to have this Very Important conversation with Gregor and Laisa about Barrayar’s cultural obsession with genetics and the traditions that cater to that obsession. It used to be traditional for Barrayaran couples to strip naked at their weddings, to prove that they weren’t mutants. Most people don’t do it anymore, but the idea that Gregor isn’t marrying a mutant is still important to some Barrayaran conservatives, and Alys wants to come up with an updated version because it’s important to cater to the conservatives. The miracle of this book is that, in the end, Gregor and Laisa actually get married.

I’m just a very distant observer of Barrayaran culture but I am somewhat familiar with medieval European cultural history, so I cannot take seriously the idea that the purpose of stripping the bride and groom naked was intended to check for mutations. In Earth’s history, when people got naked at weddings, that has never been the reason they did it. Ever. Nor do I take seriously the idea that Barrayaran conservatives would try to assert an interest in maintaining the tradition for that purpose. What on earth would the lay witnesses be looking for? Scales? Third testicle? This seems to me like a blatant attempt to intimidate and humiliate Laisa, which I have a much easier time seeing as a goal of Barrayaran conservatives. I suppose coming up with a super-modern, medical response—as Alys does—is a way to show that Laisa won’t be intimidated by assertions about Barrayaran tradition. I would rather Alys was less concerned about the feelings of Barrayar’s conservatives, but I wouldn’t get a vote on Barrayar even if I lived there.

With that decision made, Lady Alys strays from the agenda to approach Barrayar’s history as an oppressed planet by way of the Vorbretten case—it turns out that Rene Vorbretten’s gene scan shows that his grandfather was Cetagandan. This situation is particularly difficult as an alternate claimant to the Vorbretten lands and Council Seat—Sigur Vorbretten—is contesting Rene’s lands and title. This tussle—with all its deeply personal consequences for those directly involved—is an attempted vote grab by the conservatives in the Council of Counts. Those seats don’t turn over a lot. Sigur is being supported and encouraged by his father-in-law, Count Boriz Vormoncrief. What’s next? Fireworks! This wedding is going to have fireworks. They’re more Barrayaran than naked brides, and very much in keeping with Gregor’s modernist personal aesthetics.

It wasn’t my intention to do this book one chapter at a time, but these chapters are HUGE. Tune in next week for Miles’s encounter with more of House Vormoncrief and his next (completely non-romantic) visit with Ekaterin.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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