Vorkosigan Saga #13: Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 18 February, 2018

I recommend reading the third novella, “Borders of Infinity”, before reading Brothers in Arms, as the events in the novella come up quite a bit in that book.

There isn’t too much to the framing device – Miles is back on Barrayar, getting interviewed by security chief Simon Illyan about some recent missions (and the expenses they accrued). As far as I can recall, there’s nothing that gives away key plot points of Brothers in Arms (spoiler: Miles survives), so this book could be read first, even though it comes next chronologically.

It was nice to see Cordelia again, however briefly. Since Barrayar, she’s often been a presence, though usually only off-screen. That said, I can understand Bujold’s choice. Both Cordelia and Aral are rather larger-than-life characters in Miles’s mind, so it makes sense to keep them hidden from the reader to preserve Miles’s perspective.

The Mountains of Mourning

I reviewed this in more detail in Dreaweaver’s Dilemma. It’s still a heart-wrenching novella, in addition to being a really good exploration of Miles in his home environment. It does a lot to show us the tension between the old ways and the new world that Aral (and, to a lesser extent, Miles) is trying to create.

Labyrinth

Despite the questionable romance between a 20-some year old and a sheltered sixteen year old (somewhat mitigated along other power axes), I really dug this story. I loved the exploration of humanity that Bujold did so well in Ethan of Athos, and the way it kept coming up to hammer at Miles, smoothing out his prejudices. I enjoyed seeing more of Bel Thorne, particularly the exploration of its gender fluidity. It reminded me of the romance in LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, where a gender fluid individual shifts presentation to accommodate the preferences of a heterosexual.

I also liked the theme of accessibility. It’s always around when Miles is present, of course, due to his brittle bones, but here we also see someone who requires a mobility aid. It’s just not something that many authors think to include in their stories – even in science fiction, where technology could remove so many barriers to public participation for people with disabilities or physical differences.

Mostly, though, I loved getting to see a quaddie again. I’ve been dying to find out how they’ve been getting on ever since Falling Free, and here we see one – two hundred years later, a product of an ongoing colony. I wish we could have spent more time with her, but it was lovely to get that much.

The Borders of Infinity

I just didn’t click with this one so much. Some of it is just the setting, which I don’t think would have ever worked for me. I didn’t like it in Riddick, I don’t like it here. But, also, because there’s a sort-of-twist ending, Bujold chose to hide a lot of Miles’s thinking from the reader. The joy of reading the Vorkosigan stories is in getting to see all the strategies and counter strategies that Miles comes up with – and if we don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, it just isn’t nearly as fun.

This wasn’t a bad story, by any means, but I do think it’s the weakest of the Vorkosigan stories that I’ve read so far.

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Vorkosigan Saga #9: Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 22 January, 2018

Like Falling Free, this book is set within the Vorkosigan universe, but isn’t about either Miles or his mother, Cordelia.

I really enjoyed this one. Feminist science fiction tends break with genre conventions in interesting ways, but Ethan of Athos managed even to break with those breaks – first by centring the story on a man, then by using one patriarchal society as the backdrop for exploring an entirely different patriarchy. And, while there are only two important female characters in the book (a minority by a fairly wide margin), and while those women break rather significantly from what North American culture would see as “women’s” roles, the book manages to have a lot to say about how women (and women’s labour) get valued.

One of the most ding-ding moments in the book is when Ethan is talking about the tremendous labour cost of raising an army, and is surprised to find out that – in the outside universe – all that labour is simply unaccounted for. It belongs primarily to women, and is therefore not “productive” labour. On his own world, where there are no women and therefore where parenting is handled exclusively by men, that labour is recognised as such. This fit in beautifully with what feminist economists like Nancy Folbre argue.

I loved Bujold’s vision of human adaptability. While North American culture still disproportionately offloads the labour of parenting onto women, and while so many will straight-facedly argue that it is simply a matter of biology, Bujold presents us with an all-male society where men – absent any other choices – simply step up and become parents. Some, like the main character, Ethan, go well beyond that to be downright nurturing. From the very beginning, Ethan is preoccupied with babies. His whole career is devoted to their creation, his long term goal throughout the novel is to have children of his own, and it is the threat to babies that incites his actions again and again.

The same is the case for Bujold’s concept of sexuality. Absent choices, many people will content themselves with homosexuality regardless of what they would choose if choices were available – as we see in gender-segregated environments like prisons and the military. History has many examples of societies with different conceptions of sexuality – Ancient Greece being the most well-known example. And, of course, Bujold allows for those individuals whose sexuality is less flexible, which on Athos would mean the celibate orders. It’s a vision of sexual fluidity that doesn’t get mentioned much in a culture where homosexuality is always on the defensive.

I’ve been hoping for a glimpse of the Quaddies ever since Falling Free. Now, I guess I’ll be hoping to see what the future holds for Athos.

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Vorkosigan Saga #8: Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 2 January, 2018

The Cetagandans have lurked in the shadows of this series since the beginning, but – other than a brief glimpse in Warrior’s Apprentice – this is the first time we’ve gotten to meet any of them.

The stakes don’t feel quite as high in this book, for some reason, but the worldbuilding is incredible. It reminded me a bit of A Door Into Ocean and Dune, in the sense that women are in charge of bio-engineering. And, in all three books, it’s through the monopoly of bio-engineering that these women secure their power/freedom.

I liked the way the female and male spheres were separated, yet also intertwined and interdependent – mirrored by the relationship between the haut and the ghem classes.

Mostly, though, I liked that all of this was just a glimpse. Miles is permitted a peek at the inner lives of the haut, but no more than that. I can’t wait to see both how Miles’s actions in this book will affect the Cetagandans of the future, as well as how his experiences with them will affect his own responses to their future conflicts.

I love seeing how much Miles seems to be maturing as the series progresses. He seems more self-aware now, with a greater understanding of why he does the things he does (like keep problems secret from his superiors until he can solve them himself).

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Vorkosigan Saga #7: The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 21 December, 2017

Miles is at it again!

Freshly graduated from the academy, Miles’s first posting is in an isolated polar base where they send people they’d rather just forget about

This book reminded me somewhat of Shards of Honor, at least in its structure. Both books can be divided neatly into two – each portion having its own separate plot, its own resolutions, its own setting. But, at the same time, the events of the first come back to become integral to the events of the second. So in both books, we get two distinct novellas that complement each other. In this case, we get Miles at the polar base, and then Miles in space and far, far away from home.

Warrior’s Apprentice came with something of a wakeup call. It’s all fun and games as Miles gallivants around the universe having adventures, until responsibility starts hitting him in waves – first the danger to himself, then the danger to his friends and crew, and then the danger to the entire political system of Barrayar.

In The Vor Game, we get a somewhat wiser, more jaded Miles. He’s not much older, but he has a better understanding of his responsibilities, and of how badly his actions can harm others. Even better, we get to watch, from his perspective, as the Emperor Gregor goes through the same lesson.

It’s this negotiation of danger (especially as the spheres of danger come into conflict with each other) that makes this book so interesting.

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Vorkosigan Saga #5: The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 20 October, 2017

I’ve seen Miles before (not counting his time as a fetus and small child in Barrayar) in “The Mountains of Mourning”. As a short story set in a very fleshed-out universe, “Mountains” didn’t give me too much to go on about Miles, except for his odd relationship to his people – as a mutant, as a half-foreigner, as a lord…

Apprentice didn’t give me too much more to go on in understanding his relationships with his family members (Aral gets about as much page time here as he did in “Mountains”), but I did get to see a lot more of Miles himself. Much of the book is spent off-world, which was an interesting contrast to “Mountains” as it gave me a glimpse into how Miles is Barrayaran, as opposed to how he is not.

A big focus of the story is on his relationship with Bothari. In fact, Bothari’s been fairly central to all three of the books I’ve read so far, with Escobar as the linchpin to many of the central events in all three. Miles’s relationship with Bothari is, of course, very different from Aral’s or Cordelia’s, and that added an interesting dynamic.

Mostly, though, this book is funny. Bujold is great at this deadpan absurdism – in this case as Miles accidentally builds an army. Throughout the first 2/3rds of the book, Miles just goes from situation to situation, snowballing his successes well beyond what he’s able to handle. It’s like the Chosen One trope, but self-aware.

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Vorkosigan Saga #4: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 12 October, 2017

Shards of Honour gave us the Cordelia and Aral’s ‘meet cute’, and now Barrayar gives us Miles’s origin story. But, of course, there’s so much more.

I loved this book. Cordelia and Aral mesh together so much better than they did in Shards, even though they spend so little time together. I loved Cordelia’s commitment to her son, in a society where he is seen as disposable at best. I loved the description of childbirth, which is hands down the most relatable labour scene I’ve ever read (and that includes descriptions in childbirthing non-fiction books). And I loved the ending, which resonated with Shards in an almost comical way.

The only weakness that I could see was Droushnakovi and Koudelka’s relationship – and then not for any literary reason. I just found Koudelka, who started off sympathetic, to be utterly aggravating.

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Vorkosigan Saga #3: Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 4 October, 2017

This is my first full-length Vorkosigan novel (Falling Free not counting as there are no character cross-overs, as far as I can tell), and it’s exactly what I was expecting: Great.

There’s an odd flippancy to Bujold’s characters. They don’t have that lofty, quasi-archaic, a little too serious speech that genre fiction characters have. Nor do they have the immature, overly casual speech that the other major portion of genre fiction characters have. Instead, they hit the sweet spot – sounding like the middle aged veterans that they are, but also capable of being casual when appropriate.

Having accidentally peeked ahead with “Mountains of Mourning”, it was interesting to return to some of the events and characters that had been alluded to – namely, Aral’s regency. I also got a very difference sense of Aral and Cordelia, who I had pictured as more the Leto and Jessica types. But while he is very stoic and she is incredibly clever, their tone and bond is much different from Herbert’s characters.

I go back and forth on how I feel about the speedy romance. On the one hand, I think we get far too much of that kind of romantic love in our media (even if it’s the kind I most identify with). On the other hand, it works for these characters. It’s clear what they are attracted to in each other, rather than simply being slaves to the author’s machinations.

The last thing I want to touch on is something I’ve noticed in Bujold’s other works – the care she takes with the reality of Big Events. The war for Escobar doesn’t just end when the action ends. Instead, the final scene of the book is given to a corpse recovery and identification team, combing over the wreckage of a ship and trying to construct a narrative for each of the people they find. It’s short, but it’s a loving tribute to the realities of the sorts of big conflicts with which we are so often entertained. It’s a fitting end, and a good way to ground a story that could have lent itself to misinterpretation.

I’m absolutely in love with this author, and endlessly grateful to the people who brought her up so much that I was compelled to give her a try.

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Vorkosigan Saga #2: Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 28 August, 2017

I am so grateful to the people who finally convinced me to give Bujold a read. Her short stories were fun, but Mountains of Mourning shook me rather deeply. And here, we have a full novel with that same intense emotional impact.

Right from the beginning, I fell in love with the Quaddies. Well, with Claire and Silver, anyway. Claire is a bit of a goodie-goodie, but I really connected with her through her interactions with Andy. And Silver… well, Silver is just wonderful.

And then Bujold started putting these two wonderful women through hell. Page after page, I had to read through a cringe as some of the worst things I can imagine happen to them. I’m fairly desensitised to violence, I don’t feel it when characters are shot, or hit, or fall. I just see it too often in media, and it doesn’t really mean much. But the things Bujold put these two poor characters through really twisted my stomach.

Leo Graf was a bit bland as a protagonist, but he worked well enough as a reader-insert. He struck that good balance between being the outsider through which the reader can experience the story, and being an active agent within the story. Even so, I liked that Bujold didn’t fall too deep in the “white guy saviour of the child-like natives” trope, despite how very strong the temptation clearly was.

Van Atta was a great moustache-twirling baddie. He made me squirm. Worse, I’ve known people like him, and Bujold wrote him perfectly to set off all my warning bells. I can understand complaints that he was fairly one-dimensional, and it’s true that he really was just irredeemably awful, but it worked. And even without complexity, he still rang very true – making him all the more frightening.

My only complaint about the book was the love story. It felt tacked on, and it really wasn’t necessary. I feel like the story, as well as the two characters involved, would have been quite a bit stronger if they could have just been friends. I would like to see a man and a woman work together to achieve a goal, suffer together, trust each other, respect each other, and not have to be lovers by the end. It’s just overdone.

But that was a very small part of the book. The rest was fantastic. And reading all these reviews declaring this book one of the weaker books in the Vorkosigan Saga is making me so very excited to read on!

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