Cryoburn (The Vorkosigan Saga) - Lois McMaster Bujold

~~Moved from GR~~

 

Cryoburn (Vorkosigan Saga)

by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

It sometimes seems as though fantasy is all about new and inventive ways to die. Scifi, its inverse, always--always, in the end-- involves the extension of life to a point where it begins to exceed reason and rationality. What happens when life is no longer a brief blaze of experience lodged between two eternal unknowns? Is the extension of life past the norm inevitably selfish, either through the selfishness of the individual who seeks to forestall the unexplored, or the selfishness of the family and loved ones who cannot be detached from a soul that is ready to move beyond? How much can the average lifespan grow before it is too long? Surely infinity is too dreary to slog through, but surely there must be someone to regret one's passing, or life would not be worth living in the first place. Should life be extended until the only one to regret its loss is oneself? Thus far, Bujold has delicately skirted these thorny issues, even while investigating her cryonic technology, for it has been used only to restore those whose lives have been violently cut short. While the genetically engineered Betans and Cetagandans count their years in hundreds, a panacea for old age is a new and untested invention, and one that could potentially upset the delicate balance of society. For at some point, must there not be some sort of natural order, a point at which the old gives way to the new? Cryoburn is a story about death--both the journey to, and escape from, that ultimate destination.

Kibou-daini is a city of the dead, a planet of corpses neatly packed away in thousands and millions of cryochambers, suspended in death until the moment their lives are restarted. But there's something off about the whole political situation, and it's not just the esprit de corpse[1]. Miles Vorkosigan, Imperial Auditor, is selected by his emperor as the current expert on the mechanics and politics of death and is sent to investigate. Aided by his loyal manservant Roic, it isn't long before they're neck-deep in conspiracies--but since this is Miles Vorkosigan, neck-deep for anyone else means Miles is up to his eyeballs in trouble.

After over a dozen adventures, there is a sense that Miles' journey is complete; unlike some of his previous adventures, Miles acts mainly as facilitator and catalyst for the antics of a new set of characters. The sense that Miles has stabilised into a background character is accentuated by the narrative style. Bujold continues the trend of the last few books, switching rapidly, often paragraph to paragraph, through a multitude of perspectives In this case, our narrators include the young animal-loving boy Jin, Miles' stolid armsman Roic, and occasionally, Miles himself. Since the introduction of the roving narrator technique a few books ago, I've been trying to figure out why it bothers me. I suppose it feels rather lazy to me; removing the complexities and creative indirectness required by a single point-of-view focus makes plot exposition (too?) simple.

[This issue was clearest for me in the "drabbles" of "Aftermath": I thought the ending had the perfect touch of bittersweet completion; each character's perfect articulation of their reaction rather diminished the effect.]

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More problematically, I think it also lends itself to rather lazy character development, since it allows the author to directly present each character's innermost thoughts. Yet for me, this invasiveness actually decreased my empathy and understanding for the characters. I was often unable to determine who was narrating, and given that Bujold took to using irritating character tags (e.g. references to Miles as "Miles-san" from Jin and "M'Lord" from Roic), I suspect this was a common reaction. However, despite all this, the prose, is, as always, effortless and elegant, and the story is compulsively readable.

The narrative swapping does, however, highlight a general pattern in Bujold's books. Whether in Chalion or Barrayar, Bujold tends to focus narrowly on the aristocracy of the world. It therefore becomes, if not reasonable, at least logical that there is a sense of separation from the "lower" elements of society. However, with these added perspectives, the problem becomes more severe. Jin, a child of the streets who supposedly has had to grasp and scrape for every morsel to survive, seems relatively untouched by circumstance. This distance from the raw emotions of desperation and fear and resentment were perhaps one reason that Roic and Jin felt so artificial to me. The world of the poor Kibou-daini seems too utopian, rather like Doctorow's rosy portrait of life on the streets. It's all a bit too simplistic, a bit too twee; the bad guys are too straightforwardly bad; the answers to the difficult questions about society and justice are just too easy and convenient. All the problems can be solved by an injection of money from those already swimming in it,; everything is the fault of the Big Bad Corporations who suck away life like malevolent vampires; everything can be solved by placing control back in the hands of The People--or, at least, their beneficent overlords.

Although the world perhaps feels too much like a fairy tale, where the evil is vanquished and the good triumphs, Bujold, as always, inserts a few brilliantly-worded insights. For example, as he muses over the lack of control that the cryo-corpses have over their fate, Miles wonders,

"Had Snow White in her glass coffin ever had a vote? Or a voice?"

[And yet what voice does she end up with? Miles decides her fate and uses her as ruthlessly as anyone else. In the end, she is left in an untenable situation unless she accepts the hand of the new Prince Charming thrust at her.  

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Bujold's comments on the politics of voting are witty and insightful, and take the Arrow's Theorem-style problems in voting systems to a whole new level:

"The dirty little secret of democracy is that just because you get a vote doesn't mean you get your choice."

When votes can't be directly bought and sold, to what lengths will groups go to gain the bodies that go with the voting power? Despite its themes of death and taxes, Cryoburn manages to stay light and entertaining. Miles, of course, is there "Pissing off bad guys for the greater glory of Barrayar" to comic effect, and Bujold is extremely good at capturing the entertaining antics of children. We also get mentions of past characters, as well as cameo appearances of Mark and Kareen.

Overall, this is a story about endings, and it is therefore perhaps a fitting completion to Miles Vorkosigan's saga. In this book, I truly got the sense that Miles' life has stabilised and his role as main protagonist is complete. The events of the last few books, starting with Mirror Dance, have forced him to leave his prolonged childhood and enter adulthood. In this book, I felt that Miles, despite his trademark manic hyperactivity, has finally entered his maturity, becoming stable enough that the narrative no longer focuses on his character growth. This is, in some sense, a death; the swan song of one of the most vibrant characters in the genre. While Cryoburn does not make for a good starting place (I suggest The Warrior's Apprentice or perhaps Brothers in Arms), I found it a satisfying endpoint to a wonderful series.

 

[1] I know, I know.  But if you only knew how many times I resist the urge to pun...