Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: A Civil Campaign, Chapter 6

Chapter six of A Civil Campaign is one of those moments when the book takes a breath. We’re still meeting new characters—René and Tatya Vorbretten make their first appearance in this chapter—but we’re mostly being reminded of how our characters are changing and where they are.

The chapter opens with Ekaterin wandering Vorkosigan House unescorted. Some part of Miles’s household arrangements have broken down, because this is a direct contradiction to his orders about Madame Vorsoisson’s presence in the house. She is to be made comfortable and offered the finest hospitality the house and its staff have to offer to stall her so that Miles can be alerted and scrambled to her location. She is not supposed to be knocking on the door of Kareen’s Butter Bug Ranch asking if they would like some amelanchier bushes and what they’re using all of this earth-descended biological matter for. Miles would especially like her to not encounter any butter bugs and not be fed any samples of bug vomit. Miles’s days with the Dendarii are not so far gone that he should have forgotten that even the most competent hand-selected personnel sometimes experience mission failure. Miles swings through the hatch/lab door like the combat trooper he once was—yelling like the first time he went into combat, although it’s hard to evaluate his volume on the page—to escort Ekaterin and her newly acquired bag of bug guano back to work. It’s very nice bug guano, OK?

We have already established that Ekaterin is a genius, and that she does not have a non-diplomatic bone in her body. She has declared bug butter “not half bad,” though possibly in need of further product development before market. Her suggestion about running it through an ice cream freezer, coupled with her suggestion about consulting local experts, drives Kareen to the kitchen with several liters of bug butter in hand.

We don’t get to see Kareen consult with Ma Kosti. And my personal household arrangements have also broken down to the extent that I am writing this blog post without cheese and crackers. So please feel free to imagine that I am an extremely sad blogger, despite the high quality of the material that I am currently rereading. How are we going to remedy these problems? We’re going to speculate about workable substitutions for bug butter. We know that this substance is very nutritious and basically flavorless. It gets rubbery when cooked. I submit the following options, available locally on most of the planet, for those who are trying to keep up with Ma Kosti in their home kitchens:

Dairy: Butter bugs are a lot like very small, barfing cows. Cooks who are restricted to ingredients available on Earth may be able to replicate Ma Kosti’s sauces by using milk or cream. Butter might also be useful for these applications—honestly, what is butter not good for? Those who wish to expand their experimentation to non-sauce recipes should consider paneer. It is available in stores, but it’s also easy to make at home if you have some cheesecloth, a strainer, and the will to pour most of a liter of milk down the drain. Paneer, of course, should not be committed to anyone’s drains; That’s bad for the drains and a waste of paneer. (For paneer newbies: Yes, you really do need to use freshly squeezed lemon juice. Store-bought, pre-squeezed lemon juice will not curdle the milk. You can substitute vinegar if squeezing lemons doesn’t work for you.)

Tofu: Like bug butter, tofu is relatively tasteless. It takes on the flavors of the things around it. Like bug butter, it’s quite nutritious, containing all eight essential amino acids. And finally, a significant number of people harbor irrational and unscientific prejudices against tofu and refuse to eat it. Tofu is a perfectly unobjectionable plant product and you can do a lot of things with it. You can easily add sugar and flavoring and put it through an ice cream freezer. I have never noticed tofu getting rubbery when cooked, and I definitely would have noticed because I have a lot of issues with food texture, but I’m sure it’s possible to make it rubbery if you feel the need for a completely authentic bug butter substitute.

Potatoes: I have a lot of respect for potatoes. They’re not as nutritious as bug butter is alleged to be, and almost certainly much starchier, but if you peel them and boil them until they disintegrate, they can substitute for cream. I have not tried running them through an ice cream freezer, but it should work. Ice cream freezers are versatile.

With Ekaterin at work on the garden site, Miles heads to Vorbretten House to talk to René. The recent unauthorized publication of René’s gene scan has revealed that he is part Cetagandan, and not biologically related to the fifth Count Vorbretten, his putative grandfather. A motion to have René disinherited and stripped of his title in favor of another claimant is pending before the Council of Counts. Vorbretten House—recently rebuilt, thoroughly modern, and perfectly located, with unparalleled views—is a symbol of what they could lose if René doesn’t find a way to defend his claim. It’s like Miles losing Admiral Naismith, only René never knew he had a secret identity in the first place. René is a vote for Miles’s progressives, and a generally decent human being who gave up a promising career in the military to take on the Countship after his brother died. His wife, Tatya, is feeling the cattiness of the Vor social scene quite keenly. Miles offers to help and invites the Vorbrettens to his welcome-home dinner for Kareen. Martya Koudelka is visiting Tatya, so there’s someone on hand to explain Miles’s romantic situation to the Vorbrettens, and to point out how much Miles leaks.

Bujold uses this scene both to fill us in on the intensity of Vor politics and to remind us of the existence of Lady Donna Vorrutyer. Ivan’s interest in her is almost entirely sexual, but Miles and René are curious about her political plans. Donna could be doing almost anything on Beta Colony, but they can’t imagine it would make much difference unless she comes back with her brother Pierre’s biological son. They speculate that she might carry the child herself, to make it more difficult for her brother Richars to obtain legal guardianship and management of the Vorrutyer’s District. They also speculate that any such child would be unlikely to survive past reaching the age of majority under Richars’s care. Richars seems like an extraordinarily unpleasant person. Bujold also reminds us that under Barrayaran law, women can’t inherit titles or districts. This is good news from Miles’s perspective—it meant that Aral couldn’t inherit the Imperial Campstool, and neither can Miles—but there are other reasons it’s not great. Next week, Lady Donna comes home to wrestle with the shortcomings of Barrayaran legal tradition.

 Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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