Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Chapter 16

At the end of chapter 15 of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Admiral Oliver Jole found himself underneath an unexpected swarm of radials that had also been set on fire. Where did this leave him?

For starters, it left him shirtless. He removed his shirt to throw it over Alex and Helen, who he was also protecting with his own body. I thought about calling the shirt thing implausible, but I decided against it. I think we have all, at some time in our lives, been in a situation where our desperate need to remove our shirts has caused us to defy the laws of physics. Plus also, take that, ImpSec! Does your training course cover swarming radials? What about emergency shirt removal? Suddenly I realize that I forgot to mention Miles’ childhood reminiscences about shooting fish in a barrel last week. He got caught before he could try the plasma arc. He had a dustbin lid to use as a shield. No mention of the lake fishing trick with the stunner battery.

And what happens when a man removes his shirt and throws himself on top of two children in a burning swarm of stinging alien bugs? Half of Sergyar whips out their cell phones and starts filming, apparently. Sergyarans have skipped right over an intrusive and celebrity-obsessed press and gone straight to viral videos on YouTube. They are a self-sufficient lot. Cordelia’s secretary, Ivy, has plenty of material from which to assemble a highlights reel for Cordelia to peruse at her leisure. Does anyone know how Sergyaran radials fly? Because I am wondering about that tonight. Do they have wings? Or is this kind of a bumblebee-type situation where my feelings about the physics don’t matter because the radials fly anyway, and swarm where they will? Are they usually like very tiny hydrogen balloons?

Being landed on by a swarm of burning acid bugs isn’t good for your health. Cordelia diagnoses Jole’s shock, and his next stop is the med tent. They have a team to remove the burning remnants of radials and treat the burns. Thank goodness they didn’t have to pick shirt fibers out off Jole’s back. It’s plausible that there are some components of Imperial military uniforms that provide reasonable protection against burning projectiles in this size range, but Jole’s casual daywear wasn’t it. Burn treatment involves a lot of drugs. There are enough drugs to get Jole through a public appearance at his birthday fireworks display. This is sort of the male equivalent of the Duchess of Cambridge posing for reporters on the steps of the Lindo Wing within hours of giving birth. I’m impressed with both Jole and the drugs. In the aftermath, the birthday party medical team sends Jole home with Cordelia to convalesce. The Viceregal Palace has a lot of guest rooms. And, more crucially, a lot of staff.

But Jole has things to do before he succumbs to the shock/drug/exhaustion trifecta that his birthday party has subjected him to: He has to talk to Miles. Miles is a good person to have around when you’re suffering from a serious injury. He has experience with that. And he’s very sympathetic—not at all inclined to compare your injuries to his or suggest that you should buck up and power through. He’s brought Jole some of the lovely local cider to go with his medically recommended electrolytes.

Miles is under the impression that Cordelia has offered Jole some eggs for his future offspring. Miles is, at this point, not in the loop on most of the story. Jole is very frank and forthright about filling him in. On everything. There is nothing left out here: Jole starts with Aral, and he does not hold back anything on Cordelia. But the more striking part of this conversation is how gracious both men are. Jole talks about how much he admires Miles as a father. Miles apologizes for not noticing Jole, and for failing to acknowledge the deep and personal nature of Jole’s loss at Aral’s funeral. This book makes a really powerful argument for putting things in the open, and I feel like this is the key piece. When a relationship is unacknowledged, its survivors mourn alone, and that’s incredibly cruel. The thing that makes Miles such a great character—despite all of his many flaws—is what he gives to the people he cares about, in most cases by saying “Why not?” Miles has a lot to process here, but he cares about Cordelia and Jole, so his response to this—both at the end and at a collection of intermediary points—is why not?

Jole can have this conversation with Miles now because he has solid information about his own decisions. He’s turning down Desplaines’ offer to take over at Ops. He’s retiring and having his sons. Miles suggests that the pelting rain of flaming snot did Cordelia a favor: If my mother had known that was all it would take, I’m sure she would have been willing to, I don’t know, set marshmallows on fire and fling them at you before now. Miles assumes a lot about his mother. But yeah, she might have.

Tune in next week when Cordelia resolves some of her other problems! With a bonus appearance from ghem Lord Soren.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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