Miles Vorkosigan: A Review

So she said to me, “I’m going to let you read these books. And you have to read two full books before you even get to the fun ones.  And then you have to read at least two of the fun ones before you’re allowed to make a judgment about them.  You need to know that I love these books. Love them. They’re really important to me. If you don’t like them, and especially if you say snarky things about them, our marriage is over. So, no pressure, but here they are.”

Turns out, I like ’em as much as she does. Whew.

Lois McMaster Bujold: author of the Vorkorsigan saga.  Four time Hugo award winner.  Sci-fi, in other words, a whole series of books,  six of which I’ve now read, mostly in a huge, skip-meals-don’t-shave-please-don’t-bother-me-can’t-you-see-I’m-reading kind of rush.

There are currently four ways in science fiction to solve the intractable problem of inter-planetary travel: Worm holes, Warp drive or hyperspace travel, Cryogenic sleep, or Something Else.  None of which mankind can currently do. Anyway, Bujold’s solution is worm holes, but she uses them ingeniously.  If the only way to travel between planetary systems is via worm holes, then that kind of travel would have political and military implications.  To blockade a planet, blockade the wormholes that enable access to that planet.  And see how the politics play out.

So it’s the future, and mankind has spread out from earth to a number of other planets and planetary systems, each with its own distinctive culture and area of expertise.  Beta, for example, is the center for engineering, science, invention, exploration–as the series begins, a survey ship, under the command of Cordelia Naismith, is exploring a new world.  And she and her team are attacked by Barrayarans.  Barrayar is quite the military planet, with an entrenched military aristocracy called the Vor.  The commander of the Barrayaran ship, Lord Aral Vorkosigan, has been the victim of mutiny, leaving him trapped on the same planet as Cordelia.  And as they fight together for survival in a hostile environment, Cordelia and Aral also fall in love.

Eventually, Aral wins his ship back, and Cordelia makes it back to her ship, which is promptly captured.  After numerous vicissitudes (including Cordelia nearly being raped by the creepazoid Crown Prince of Barrayar), a Barrayaran invasion of another planet (which Aral had opposed politically), is defeated, and the Crown Prince dies; Aral takes command of the fleet’s retreat, and returns home a national hero, sort of.  Cordelia returns to Beta, where’s she’s unfairly viewed as a traitor.  So she books it to Barrayar, marries Aral, and tries to sort out how to accommodate herself to the (quite fascinating), Barrayaran culture, so foreign to her own.  The Emperor of Barrayar dies; his heir is his grandson, who is four years old.  And Aral Vorkorsigan is named Regent to this very young Emperor.  And a conservative faction, outraged by (among other things), that someone that high up is married to a furriner, tries to assassinate him.  Both Aral and Cordelia survive, but the child she’s carrying is poisoned in utero.  On Barrayar, a damaged fetus is an aborted fetus, but she’s no Barrayaran; she fights like a tigress for the life of her son. And succeeds in carrying him to term.  And that’s the first two books of the series.

And Miles Vorkorsigan is born.  The rest of the series–thirteen books in all, only four of which I’ve read–is about Miles.  And Miles Naismith Vorkorsigan is the most fascinating, interesting, dimensional, completely compelling character I’ve ever read in any series of novels ever.  Ever.

Miles is . . . heck, I don’t know what word to use.  Handicapped? Damaged?  Crippled?  Okay, he’s very short, less than five feet tall, though in a culture that worships physical prowess.  His bones are brittle, and break easily.  His neck is short, and his head is large.  But he’s pretty fit; he’s sneaky clever as a fighter.  And he’s completely brilliant and charismatic, basically able to talk anyone into anything.  He’s a military officer in the Barrayaran armed forces, though his interest in obeying orders is minimal.  Above all, he’s an astonishing improviser: his personal motto would seem to be “I’ll think of something.”

For example: he goes on a visit to Beta (his mother’s problems with her home planet having subsided).  While there, he happens upon a situation–an old, still functional merchant ship, scheduled for demolition, with a drunken captain who won’t get off.  Miles buys the ship, using land he owns on Barrayar (remember, he’s part of the Barrayar aristocracy, and has land inherited from his grandfather) as collateral. He finds a cargo, which he contracts to deliver, to a planet besieged by an invading neighbor.  Off he goes, with a crew consisting of his bodyguard, a disgraced Barrayaran engineering officer, and the drunken pilot. He meets with various enemy vessels, which he somehow manages to conquer–often without shots being fired. By the time he’s finished, he’s captured several mercenary ships, and is admiral of a navy of 6000 mercenary fighters and their vessels.  Just through charm, persuasion, and an intuitive grasp of tactics.  And here’s the thing; I bought it all.  It’s completely plausible, absolutely convincing.  The characters are so well-written, you believe even sort of preposterous plot twists.  And you can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next.

A lot of the fun has to do with the various planets and planetary systems we encounter through Miles.  Like Cetaganda, a planet devoted to genetic experimentation, with a complex, three tiered caste system, all convincingly real and superbly rendered.  Or Jackson’s Whole, a very wealthy planet where really rich and disgusting folk can clone themselves, then transplant their brain into the skulls of their clones.  In fact, Bujold’s powers of invention are part of what keep you going; there have been fascinating hints of the idiosyncrasies of other worlds, which I assume I’ll get to know better as I read more of the books. Which–hint–I’m hoping we get for Christmas.

They’d make great movies.  And I know who I want to play Miles. (This was actually my wife’s suggestion, but she’s right).  My old friend Kevin Rahm (you know him from Judging Amy, Desperate Housewives, Mad Men) has the charisma, the intelligence, and the acting chops.  He’s too tall, but hey, CGI.  Miles Vorkosigan is the most remarkable character I know of in science fiction.  And loving the books in which he appears has (apparently) saved my marriage.  Can’t ask for more than that.


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