Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Chapters 14 and 15

Chapter 14 of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen opens with Miles and Jole in a field of misdelivered plascrete. Earlier in the book, Jole compared Aral falling in love to being hit by a falling building—not a building falling over, but a building falling from a great height. I haven’t personally laid eyes upon Jole’s collection of plascrete—and indeed, I cannot imagine a reason to see it other than that it offers an opportunity for private conversation with Jole—but today it strikes me as a metaphor for the remains of the falling building.

Miles is spending his week running wargames with Kaya Vorinnis, but he is apparently too much in charge for Vorinnis to run him enough to distract him from his informal investigation of his mother’s personal affairs. The conversation with Jole is an interrogation in Miles’s classic style. Since Jole is also a military officer of significant experience, it is a little more two-sided than it could be. Miles has yet to expand his line of inquiry beyond the relatively simple idea that Cordelia and Jole are an item and Cordelia is having more children. Jole is exploring his own goals and motivations; I think he learns a lot more from this conversation than Miles does. A combination of further investigation and luck brings Miles into the loop on the promotion Jole has been offered and his plan to have a son. This is certainly an educational week for Miles. It’s also educational for Fyodor Haines, who learns that Jole and Cordelia are dating.

The central decisions in this book are Jole’s: Will he have children? Will he take over as Head of Ops? Cordelia’s decisions are made, and Jole’s decisions will affect how she carries them out, but not whether or not she does. Cordelia is a force of nature. The mystery for her is Miles. This situation is going to shake him. Which way will he jump? But he won’t change her decisions either. He doesn’t have to approve of what she does. It would be nice if he did, but he lives on a different planet from his mother: If he doesn’t like it, his disapproval will be very far away. So in some senses, the stakes are a little low—by which I mean, Miles is going to have to realize he doesn’t have much leverage here. In this he is not unlike those citizens of Kareenburg who are dismayed at the suggestion that the planetary capital might move away from the active volcano. Even though the city is on a historically important site!

This is where affairs stand at the beginning of Admiral Oliver Jole’s very large, very elaborate fiftieth birthday party. There’s a boot polo tournament (the ISWA team wins). There’s a menagerie. There’s booze and cake. Ghem lord Soren has put together a simplified Cetagandan sensory garden, with the help of Lon ghem Navitt and a collection of his school friends who include Freddie Haines and who thus also include Cordelia’s oldest grandchildren, Alex and Helen. Jole gets a transparent boat hull.

Kaya Vorinnis’s committee put a lot of work into finding out what Jole would like, and then they fabricated it on the printers in one of the workshops on the base.

It is the perfect present. It’s perfect for looking at aquatic wildlife. It’s a perfect memento of all the time Jole has spent on the water with Aral and Cordelia. It’s a symbol of the value of transparency in Jole’s personal life. And on a scale where 0 is Barrayaran psychological reprogramming and 10 is a commercially produced Cetagandan mini-unicorn, it rates a solid “I want that.” I would see so many fish. And probably a bunch of muskrats, but maybe also some otters. A little digging suggests that 3D-printed transparent kayaks are possible with contemporary Earth technology; they just haven’t hit the mass market yet.

Soren’s sensory garden initially struck me as a reminder that Cetagandans are weird. There are discernment challenges for all five senses and it ends with a work of art that participants are supposed to use all five senses to evaluate. Jole is grateful that he doesn’t have to lick it. Later in the evening, one of the defeated boot polo teams is going to make trouble by knocking it down.

That’s a pretty serious incident.

It’s made more serious by the presence of Alex and Helen Vorkosigan. They’re upset by the wanton destruction of work that they helped to create. Alex urges prudence: “I told her we were too outnumbered to mix in!” What kinds of family bonding rituals has Miles been leading? I don’t think they’re limited to baking cakes. We will never know if Alex’s advice was good, because one of the marauding boot polo players grabs Helen and then—despite a lackadaisical response to the early stages of the incident from local authorities—ImpSec is involved. So is Cordelia. Oh, AND, Freddie Haines was there. She’s fine, not really bothered by anything that doesn’t involve serious injury. Da’s Cadette! Fyodor Haines is going to be much more upset than his daughter is.

The immediate result of all this is that Jole is with Alex and Helen when—in an apparently natural phenomenon never before encountered by human observers—the radials swarm. And then someone shoots the swarm of radials with a plasma arc. And then, Jole’s world turns into a pelting rain of flaming snot.

Over the last three years, I have come to appreciate a great many things about Lois McMaster Bujold. It has sometimes been intimidating having her read and comment on the blog, but I think it’s okay for reread bloggers to be a little intimidated by authors, and it’s made this blog more exciting. Bujold is a master of her craft, and combing through the series has been an education in the many ways the pieces of a story can connect. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen has two important, evocative moments about things falling. One is, of course, the way Jole describes Aral falling in love. And the other is this: the very different fall of a swarm of the burning acidic bug-things that Aral discovered shortly after meeting Cordelia. By peeing on them. It’s not a romantic image, but if you think about it, the first one wasn’t either. On his fiftieth birthday, Jole isn’t leading the kind of life that makes him feel like he’s being attacked by flaming radials. He just needs to make a lot of decisions. He’s under some pressure. And “pelting rain of flaming snot” is a really fun description. Tune in next week to see where the radials leave Jole!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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