Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Chapter 2

This week, Oliver Jole goes to a reproductive clinic and a garden party.

While the Vorkosigan Saga as a whole is very much a space opera, a number of the stories within it are very much romance novels. This one is a love story about a love story. Bujold has called it a meditation on grief and loss, and she has said that it is for adults. In the last weeks, I have reread chapters two and three several times and I can confirm: It is meditative and it is for adults.

Oliver’s trip to the reproductive clinic is… boring. That’s fair. Reproductive medicine is simultaneously all about sex and the least sexy thing imaginable. The combination of a sense of clinical discomfort, a vague sense of impropriety, and a heightened emotional state can easily add up to a sense of alienation and uncertainty that the human brain converts to boredom as a means of self-defense. I think that many visitors to reproductive clinics might have stronger feelings than Jole, because in the twentieth century, they’ve generally made up their minds about what they want and don’t know if the technology can facilitate it. Jole is confident that the available technology can deliver what he wants, and undecided about exactly what that is. Does he want children, or doesn’t he? Should he have children who are also Aral’s children? If he does, how will it affect the rest of his life? And if he doesn’t, how will that affect the rest of his life?

In the sample collection room, an aphrodisiac nasal spray brings Jole into a gentle confrontation with his further desires. If he has been divided about whether or not he wants a relationship with Cordelia, this moment ends his indecision. If he hasn’t been divided, this moment reminds him of his business. Oliver Jole is a man who knows what he likes. He liked Aral. He likes boats. He likes Cordelia. He likes her attitude, her frankness, her body and her short hair.

I didn’t find room for Cordelia’s hair last week. It was long during her marriage to Aral, but she cut it all off at his funeral and burned it as an offering. All of it. This is not traditional. Barrayarans usually burn a single dignified lock. Cordelia went further. I like this. It’s evocative.

I’m in danger of over-using the word evocative.

Cordelia’s decision to go further with her mourner’s offering is a reminder of all the times she went further. She left Beta Colony. She rescued Miles. She killed the Pretender—with her Armsman, not with her own two hands, but she killed him all the same. Her decision to keep her hair short seems to me to be about setting aside burdens. And also, of course, about giving no fucks at all. She’s not a nihilist; she’s just very clear about what she cares about these days.

Jole goes straight from the reproductive clinic to a diplomatic reception in Cordelia’s garden. The garden was designed for Cordelia by Ekaterin, as virtually all gardens are these days. If one is going to have a garden, it should be one of hers. That’s basically why I didn’t plant bulbs last fall.

The garden party is simultaneously on its last legs and dragging on for what seems like ever. And since Cordelia is the hostess, she can’t take Jole and ghost. They have to be their diplomatic selves through an agonizing series of conversations about politics. It’s a slow and frustrating crawl towards the conversation Jole wants to be having.

At least, it’s slow and frustrating for Jole. I’m having a great time. Jole’s conversation with a bevy of Kareenburg’s mayoral candidates about the possibility of building a second shuttleport at an as-yet-unnamed location is a treat for anyone who enjoys local politics. For one thing, it demonstrates that Sergyar’s settlers have taken to local democracy like ducks to water. Is it the Komarran influence, or are they mostly Barrayarans excited to explore the potential of political engagement? They care deeply about their community and its long-term economic welfare, and they’re concerned about the possibility that significant development elsewhere on the planet will lead to the demise of the city they’ve come to know and love—a city that occupies a historically significant site dangerously close to an active volcano.

I also enjoyed Jole and Vorinnis’s meeting with the Cetagandan ambassador.

In case anyone missed it last week, Lt. Vorinnis’s early career (and at “almost 23” an early career is the only kind she has) has followed a trajectory remarkably similar to Ivan’s early career, minus some Miles-related incidents and reprimands. She’s sharp.

I’m inclined to see the Cetagandan as less sharp. Mikos ghem Soren is cultural attache to the Cetagandan consul, and his full, formal facepaint is out of place at a Barrayaran garden party where his boss has opted for a more subtle face decal. Jole is quite the Barrayaran patriot when presented with a Cetagandan. He’s also a diplomat. He is a very model of passive-aggressive diplomatic tactics learned from his former lover.  Jole greets Soren and the consul politely, deflects his effort to suggest that ImpMil might have been weakened by Aral’s death, and finally tells Soren that his face paint has gotten smudged.

While the consul wanders off to talk with Cordelia and ghem Soren heads to the lav to fix his makeup, Jole gives Vorinnis a crash course in parrying veiled Cetagandan insults. “Small, helpful criticisms” are useful, as are praise for the wisdom of the haut (when dealing with one of the ghem). Vorinnis inquires about the efficacy of references to Barrayaran military victories over Cetagadans. Jole confirms this one, and notes that Aral Vorkosigan’s presence often served that function.

At long last, Cordelia and Jole get to have their serious conversation. At this point, the pace of this romance is almost glacial. I love it, not because it’s a long, slow burn—it takes a while to be certain that anything is burning at all—but because it feels so true to adult life. Cordelia and Jole have important careers. If they want to spend hours kissing and staring into each other’s eyes, they have to do a lot of planning first. No matter what they want, things take time. There are wonderful intimate moments in relationships of long standing. Some of them are the moments when you FINALLY after a long week (or several) find time to talk about the shared mundane concerns that make up most of your lives.

I know that many of you are looking forward to a discussion of Jole’s pockets, several tons of plascrete, and scented letters from Cetagandans. Chapter 3 has a lot to offer. I will be covering it next week.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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