Mirror Dance - Lois McMaster Bujold

~~Moved from GR~~


Mirror Dance

by Lois McMaster Bujold


"Anybody can do a mirror dance. It's not hard. You just copy everything your partner does."

When Mark Vorkosigan looks in a mirror, he doesn't quite know what stares back. Mark was created a clone, trained as an assassin, intended to replace his progenitor, Miles Vorkosigan, as part of an attack against the infamous Lord Vorkosigan of Barrayar. But Mark failed spectacularly in carrying out his task, partially because of the discovery that Miles himself has constructed an artificial identity as Admiral Miles Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. Now Mark again plans to step out of the mirror to assume the identity of his clone brother, this time as his Naismith persona. For Mark to regain his sense of self, he wants to go back to his birthplace, the ruthless and ruleless Jackson's Whole, to rescue the other clones from their dismal fates. But Mark is merely a doppelganger; he lacks Miles' addiction to adrenaline and furious thinking in the face of adversity. When that desperate moment comes, can Mark carry out Miles' dance in his place?

Mirror Dance is one of my favourite books in the Vorkosigan Saga. Sure, it's a rip-roaring adventure involving at least three heists--I rather lost count--but it also touches upon the profound. Much of the narration is from Mark's point of view, and it is the story of his attempt to construct an identity, to see himself as himself rather than a dim and two-dimensional reflection of Miles, to accept and embrace his flaws. It explores how Mark sees himself in the other clones of Jackson's Whole, how Miles and Mark see themselves as reflections, how both try to handle the shadow of their father. It is a story of characters.

One of Bujold's greatest gifts is to create characters who breathe. They are gloriously imperfect people; she makes me love and hate each of them in turn, my fury and frustration always tempered with unwilling empathy. At one point, Bujold commented that she constructs her plots by imagining her characters in their worst nightmare--for, as Miles comments, "Don't you find a certain obsessive fascination of looking in the face of what you most fear?" While this isn't great advice in general--it can lead to a laundry list of trials and tribulations that a Mary Sue protagonist triumphantly shines her way through--Bujold makes it work. For her characters are and always remain imperfect, even when faced with the refining fires of conflict.

Though much of the story is Mark's exploration of self, we also see a new facet to Miles by seeing his reflection via the impact he has on those around him. This tiny man whose inferiority complex overshadows all of his peers casts a shadow that only becomes apparent when he is removed. Miles' persona, stemming from his own vast pit of self-doubt, is so much larger than life that its removal leaves a gaping hole behind him that Mark cannot fill; as Cordelia notes,

"'We are discussing a young man upon whom Barrayar laid so much unbearable stress, so much pain, he created an entire other personality to escape into. He then persuaded several thousand galactic mercenaries to support his psychosis, and on top of that, conned the Barrayaran Imperium into paying for it all...I grant you he's a genius, but don't you dare try to tell me he's sane.' She paused. 'No. That's not fair. Miles' safety valve works. I won't really begin to fear for his sanity till he's cut off from the little admiral. It's an extraordinary balancing act, in all...a nearly impossible act to follow, I should think.'"

In the end, the truest reflection of ourselves is our effects on others. Cordelia, again, puts it succinctly:

"It's important that someone celebrate our existence... People are the only mirror we have to see ourselves in. The domain of all meaning. All virtue, all evil, are contained only in people. There is none in the universe at large."

Miles is by no means a perfect man; his effects on others do not always raise them up. He brings out ruthlessness in Quinn, and all the deepest-seated feelings of inadequacy in Mark. Yet in the end, he became the template upon which Mark built himself; to borrow Cordelia's words again, "And so, Marc, when you were finally forced to choose between two palpable evils and a lunatic, you ran after the lunatic."

But despite Miles' shadow, the book's core belongs to Mark. He must wrestle his own demons, no matter what the world sees in him:

'I do think, half of what we call madness is just some poor slob dealing with pain by a strategy that annoys the people around him.'
'How is it dealing with pain to give yourself more pain?' she asked plaintively.
He half-smiled, hands on knees, staring at the floor. 'There is a kind of riveting fascination to it. Takes your mind off the real thing.'"

He must descend into madness before he can piece himself back together. (As a sidenote, Bujold creates such an authentic personality for Mark that the section recently ended up as a chapter introduction in a psychology text.) In better understanding himself, he begins to see the humanity in others, begins to see them as three-dimensional people rather than flat projections of ill intent:

"You're not as smart as I thought you were, either, Illyan. You are not...perfect. That was disturbing. He had expected ImpSec to be perfect, somehow; it had anchored his world to think so. And Miles, perfect. And the Count and Countess. All perfect, all unkillable. All made out of rubber. The only real pain, his own."

The book glides effortlessly from the comedic ("Some people have an evil twin. I am not so lucky. What I have is an idiot twin"), to the profound ("Lives did not add as integers. They added as infinities.") In the end, even in a mirror dance, copying is insufficient; one must be able to glimpse one's own reflection in the face of one's partner.