Lois McMaster Bujold: Memory and Komarr

This review was written in 1998 for Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction, the academic journal of the Science Fiction Foundation. It was first published  in #74, Autumn 1998. Along with the review of two novels by Lois McMaster Bujold it was my first foray into book reviewing. I’d hoped then to write more, but my PhD studies in Shandeism had to take precedence.

Covers of Lois McMaster Bujold's Memory and KomarrLois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Miles Vorkosigan’ series of novels used to fit into a long line of naval sagas quite neatly. The primary template is Forester’s Hornblower: a series whose individual novels can be read out of sequence (and are often written out of sequence) and are complete in themselves, but read together provide the continuing soap opera adventures of the titular hero. Of the major recent sf variants of this form, Bujold’s is the most interesting. The first of David Feintuch’s ‘Seafort’ saga (Midshipman’s Hope) leaves a bad taste in the mouth through its evocation of nineteenth century militaria, particularly in the use of capital punishment to maintain ‘order’ on board a starship. David Weber’s ‘Honor Harrington’ saga suggests that a futuristic military organisation would develop technology which parallels ninteenth-century naval practice: the ships are all powered by ‘keels’. Bujold is not slavishly adherent to the source: there is little faux-militaria here: she is borrowing the narrative form of separate, but related adventures of the same character. A better analogue might perhaps be the charming and witty ‘Flashman’ stories by George MacDonald Fraser, rather than sf rivals like Weber and Feintuch.

These two latest novels should be devoured by the faithful as quickly as possible. Komarr I should note is a paperback first edition by the new Simon and Schuster sf line, Earthlight, and it is considerably cheaper than the US hardback. Earthlight have a difficult task on their hands. They have chosen, for whatever contractual reasons, to begin publication with the tenth and eleventh books in the sequence. Earlier books in the sequence were more basic space opera and the new reader would probably work out the background quite easily, but latterly the sequence has come to depend upon knowledge of the prior books. [2014 finds Earthlight long gone, though I did prefer their cover designs to those used in the USA by Baen]

So what of that setting? Apart from two books which detail the courtship and early marriage of his parents, the main books are about Lord Miles Vorkosigan of the planet Barrayar. Barrayar is an empire in a limited group of different political systems clustered around hyperspace routes. Barrayar is a backward empire, freed from the tyranny of a stereotypically mad emperor in one of the books about Miles’ parents. Young Miles is poisoned while in the womb, and is born disabled. The old empire is traditional about disability(they should be put to death!), and Miles fights prejudice at every turn. He eventually finds his way into the military, due to his father’s rank and status as regent, yet even here he is pushed into covert operations to gain acceptance. This is just the beginning. Miles becomes almost Batman-esque in the distinction between his public life as the privileged upper class twit, and his private life as a secret agent and Admiral of a mercenary fleet. Oh yes, the mercenary fleet: Miles’ most exciting adventures derive from his time in the mercenary fleet where his extraordinary charm and intelligence seduce both the enemy fleet into working for him, and the readers into liking him. The fleet is then co-opted as a secret arm of the progressive young (and so far, sane) emperor’s army.

The best of the books has been Mirror Dance which displays a quite sophisticated system of parallel images in the intriguing figure of Mile’s clone brother Mark, whose quest for identity stole the book from Miles. Since then, Bujold has alternated a lightweight novel and a heavy, more serious novel. Thus, the rather light Cetaganda set when Miles was young followed Mirror Dance, which was succeeded by the more serious Memory in which Bujold seems to be cutting the ties with the Dendarii mercenary fleet, and returning Miles to his homeworld. Komarr is a lighter affair, but continues the theme of Miles’ attempts to reconcile his life with his home.

This move back into the Empire does not really mark a thematic shift for the novels. They have always made up the backdrop for all of Miles’s actions. One of the constant limitations to his character is his desire to be the good imperial subject, and the upstanding member of the upper classes. The Empire itself, and its ruling class of Counts has never been described as inherently bad or wrong: merely dominated by insane, corrupt or ambitious people. Yet the shift is away from the likeable supporting class of intergalactic misfits who make up the mercenary army. While this reviewer is sure that they will return, it is a worrying sign that Miles may be on the verge of becoming respectable.

A dominant figure in the early novels was Miles’ father, despite the fact that the viewpoint character is principally his mother. He represents the face of an empire that works: dedication to duty and putting the empire above personal ambition. A tale that recurrs in Komarr is the story of how Vorkosigan senior is popularly deemed responsible for a massacre during an imperial war which was actually the responsibility of the ‘political officer’. The massacre occurred on the planet to which Vorkosigan junior arrives to investigate a mysterious death. It was a shock to this reader to find that Komarr is in part a justification of empire: the planet Komarr is strategically important as it is the only place that allows access to the rest of the universe (via wormhole type jumpholes) for Barrayar. Its inhabitants, while likeable, are ultimately merchants. Thus, their weakness for cash above morality, led to them allowing an invasion force through to attack Barrayar in the past. In retaliation the Barrayarans annexed Komarr. Komarr the novel is set once assimilation has begun to take place, and features a group of nationalist terrorists who are strangely un-terrifying. The ultimate point is to show that the new imperial subjects are better off than before the arrival of the empire.

The real focus is the relationship between conquerer and conquered: Miles is constantly contrasted with the more traditionally Barrayaran Vorsoisson, and it is Miles that is shown to be the new, acceptable face of the empire. The whole plot ends rather bloodlessly as Miles displays his wit and ingenuity once again. Full marks for making a standard plot sparkle, but this means that both Komarr and Memory suffer in comparison to the earlier books because the resolution to their plots does not fully justify what has gone before.

Memory is dominated by the fear of destabilisation and coup d’etat. The plot is that the ultimate head of security, Simon Illyan, has become too reliant upon the memory implant he received when younger. It fails, and it looks like a conspiracy is behind the failure. In a similar parallel to that in Mirror Dance, Mile has begun experiencing black outs due to a bad experience with emergency medical cryogenics. His fear for his own competence and the arrival of new handicaps is ultimately resolved by his resignation from the military and his appointment as the ultimate investigative power: the ‘imperial auditor’ which allows him the rather neat plot solver of free and legal access to any pertinent information. The ultimate resolution reveals a much more limited attempt to adjust the status quo by a patriotic force, but the majority of the book is concerned with unravelling who would benefit from Illyan’s failure, who would be trying to destabilise the progressive emperor?

As the earlier books gradually rectified Miles’ birth defects through galactic surgery, so Memory restores his weaknesses: Miles’ black-outs are a mild form of epilepsy which cannot be cured. This appears to signal the end of his active career, but a medical stop-gap is found, one which limits his efficacity, yet allows him to continue being himself. Presumably a future book will cure this handicap just as a new one is introduced.

Another theme of these two novels is Miles’s attempts to find a mate, and his recognition of the limitations of his stunted body. There is a curious shortage of women of Miles’s age on Barrayar, and as Bujold points out, Barrayar is rather repressive about sex. Miles’s sex life is a recurring theme. Earlier loves, requited or not, have been Starship pilot, mercenary babe, and genetically engineered warrior woman. Yet none have been able to fit into the role Miles requires of a respectable Vor lord/lady. The latest candidates are, in Memory, a Komarran lady (of good family, naturally) who falls for Miles’s emperor/friend, and, in Komarr, a Vor lady trapped in a loveless marriage. By the end of the book the last one has been freed from the marriage, her son has been cured of his genetic disorder inheritance, and the stage is set for further appearances. Yet she is a curiously unengaging character. She is likeably feisty, but compared to Elli Quinn, the mercenary who has one of the early novels to herself – the subversive Ethan of Athos – she isn’t much of a character. Here we are also taunted by the figure of Miles’ mother, who no matter how much the storyline marginalised her, always remained interesting. In a great passage in Komarr, Miles realises that his mother’s youth as a jumpship pilot may not have been as staid and boring as he had imagined…

Despite everything, I still thoroughly enjoy these books – it is always great to find something in such a conservative genre that is so liberal. Admittedly, I have pointed out some of the flaws in this approach, but compared to the justifications of capital punishment in Midshipman’s Hope, I think I’ll stick with the benevolent empire, righting the wrongs of past imperial insanity, and happily assimilating the poor natives in the name of progress.

2014: Bujold’s A Civil Campaign seemed to resolve the deficiencies of Komarr, and considered as a diptych, the Ekaterina novels are a fitting endpoint to the Vorkosigan Saga.

Jonathan
43 year old wastrel and writer...