Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Cryoburn, Chapters 19 and 20

In Esad Ribic’s cover of Cryoburn, Miles is looking for something.

I came to Cryoburn looking for something, and one of the things about blogging a reread is that the things I thought I was doing never go away, they stay where I wrote them. My recollection of the book, before I started rereading it, was that it had a lot to do with unwanted people. It has some unwanted people in it. Lisa Sato was very inconvenient. Yani was inconvenient. Jin’s father hadn’t bought a cryofreezing contract. Suze offered a refuge for people waiting to be frozen in her underground cryofreezing commune in the building she didn’t own—people whose needs weren’t drawing public attention. But that’s not what Cryoburn is about; it’s about what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead. One of those is something you decide for yourself, and the other is something other people make decisions about for you.

Chapter 18 of Cryoburn is about the business of being alive. It puts the things that have been shaken out of their places back where they belong. The criminal corporate executive goes to jail. He didn’t need to be on hand when his agents set fire to Suze’s building, but he was. Kind of an unforced error there. Vorlynkin is appropriately Barrayaran and got into a fight. Jin recovers from being stunned. Bad guys make decisions about turning state’s evidence. Mark offers Leiber a job as a favor to Miles. Chapter 19 features families. Lisa Sato’s sister visits the embassy to meet everyone and hear all the stories. Jin and Mina’s spider has babies. Jin considers the possibility of keeping Vorlynkin around and bringing him up to speed on zoology. The air is heavy with the possibility of the Sato family’s happily-ever-after. It’s not like what Miles has with his children—lots of siblings, ponies, names so rich with inherited historical meaning that it takes a kid a while to settle on which one he should use—but it has a lot of the essentials.

It also has one person missing. Jin reflects that he will never know what it’s like to be an adult with a father who is also an adult. Jin gets to decide what that means. He already knows that it’s better to have one parent than none, and this despite having had an indisputably incredible roof farm. That’s gonna make one heck of an application essay one day, when Jin is applying to Kibou’s ag school, or a commune in a recently terraformed area, or whatever people do on Kibou when they’re done with their secondary education. Whatever the reason he tells it, the story of Jin and his roof farm will always be the story of a boy who lost his father when he was seven.

 

Any family who are reading should click away at this point.

 

I often doubt that anyone wants to know about the lives of reread bloggers. I have a dog, and a cat, and two children who would probably rather be left out of this, and a few hundred students and former students who are most likely not reading this but who could find it if they felt like it. I hate Christmas and love Valentine’s Day and I listen to country music on long drives. I’m picky about art and even pickier about poetry and I can’t be in a room with people who are eating egg salad. I’m interesting sometimes and boring when I’m not, and either way I’m not what you came for.

So I’m sorry if this is too much for you. You can click away too—I’ll talk about the Epilogue next week, and I’m planning to focus that blog post on fictional characters.

When I was seven, I played a game with my father. The game didn’t have a name then, but later I called it “Everyone Dies.” It went like this: Everyone dies. So everyone who has ever eaten broccoli either has died or will die. It could be the broccoli. Or maybe it’s homework, or getting up before eight in the morning, or having to clean your room. Hard to prove, but it could be, because everyone dies.

I have been told—by my own children—that this game is creepy. I was not a creepy child, and I did not like scary things; I couldn’t read all the way through Hansel and Gretel until I was thirteen. It was just a game I played with my father. It was a silly way to complain about things that bothered me when I couldn’t sleep when I was seven. And it was true: Everyone dies.

Far away from the Barrayaran consulate on Kibou, Miles and Mark are sitting in a cafe on the Escobaran orbital transfer station, drinking terrible coffee. Miles is eager to be reunited with Ekaterin and his children, and full of thoughts about family. He’s curious about his father’s older brother. Piotr studied war so that Aral could eventually, in the fullness of time, follow his own study of war with the study of politics, because Aral’s brother was killed in Yuri’s massacre. When Miles composed his Auditor’s report to Gregor, he thought of a vaguely remembered quotation from the Epic of Gilgamesh: “I will break the door of hell and smash the bolts; I will summon the dead to take food with the living, and the living shall be outnumbered by the host of them.” The numerical part is one of life’s truths—the living are outnumbered by the dead. I recall there being sort of a lot of dead people in Escobaran space, once, also associated with Miles’s father, but at this moment, Miles is thinking of Aral’s familial losses instead of his galactic ones. He’s also thinking about protecting himself: Miles wants his father to consider the Durona’s life extension therapy. He feels good—he’s confident about the outcome of his case on Kibou, and looking forward to going home. But I’m reminded of what he thought about Piotr’s death. What if the great tree hadn’t fallen to let Barrayar’s new growth come? In this moment, Miles is looking for a better understanding of the growth that followed Piotr. He’s not ready to see the next great tree fall.

Shortly after I started this reread three years ago, I learned that my father was dying. I had always known that he would. The news was not so much that he would die, but that he would die of an extraordinarily rare cancer, and that he would die soon.

There is no agreed-upon medical definition of the term “soon.”

As I blogged my way through Shards of Honor, I hoped that my father would make it to the end of Cryoburn, which at the time, I thought would be about a year and a half. He didn’t make it to the end of Cryoburn, and he didn’t make it a year and a half. It was about six weeks—as it turned out, the day after I submitted the blog post about Ezar’s death in Barrayar. In the afterword to the Cordelia’s Honor omnibus, Lois wrote about losing her father shortly after the first books in the series were published, and it was a tremendous comfort to be reminded that other people had lost their fathers too, that my sisters and I were not the only people ever to lose a father. Because everyone dies.

Even when you know that all trees fall, no one is ever ready for their trees to fall. Miles hears about his father the same way he heard about his grandfather just after he failed the Academy entrance exams when he was seventeen; Colonel Vorventa calls him by his new name. The Count is dead, long live the Count.

One of my aunts once told me that everyone gets one pure loss. All later losses are shaped by the losses that came before. When she said it, she was talking about my grandmother. My aunt is a potter—she threw most of the bowls and mugs I use in my house. They’re beautiful. I think about what she said every time I use something she made, which is every day, usually more than once. The bowls are all different shapes and sizes. My kitchen cabinets are a jumble because they don’t stack. And while what she said was a comfort, I think my aunt was wrong. I don’t think the first loss is a pure one. You just don’t know all the shapes and sizes your losses will take, so for a while you believe that everything will fit together neatly.

Science fiction lets us see our lives reflected in other, future lives. And it lets us see our losses in other, future losses. Aral saved Barrayar, more than once. He was a madman, a murderer, a genius, a drunk, a commander, a conqueror, a politician, and a lover. He defied his father when he needed to. He raised a son. He served his emperor. In the ordinariness of many of these things, he made many extraordinary choices. And he died, like everyone does. His death didn’t feel like it fit with the rest of the story. That’s kind of what death is like.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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