A Civil Campaign - Lois McMaster Bujold

~~Moved from GR~~

 

A Civil Campaign (Vorkosigan Saga #12)

by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

Recommended to Carly by: the other dozen or so Bujold books I've read
Recommended for: Vorkosigan fans interested in a comedy of manners and romantic farce


Ever since I read The Warrior's Apprentice and fell in love with the Vorkosigan Saga, I've been told, "Just wait until you get to A Civil Campaign! Best Vorkosigan book ever...", etc.  In some ways, I can see why.A Civil Campaign is light and fun; a romantic comedy much in line with the dedication (Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, Dorothy), with the added joy of butter-bugs gone wild (don't ask). But as it turned out, it wasn't one of my favourite books in the series, and it's taken me a while to think about why. Part of the reason is the high baseline of Pure Vorkosigan Goodness; this book is competing with all-time favourites that dominate everything from Wodehouse-style comic misadventures (Brothers in Arms) to an intense examination of family and self (Mirror Dance) to my glorious starting point with Warrior's Apprentice.  Long story short, in nominations for "Best Vorkosigan Book Ever," A Civil Campaign was up against some seriously tough competition.  By the way, if you haven't encountered this series, put Warrior's Apprentice on your To-Read-ASAP list.  You'll thank me later.

 

The basic plot: Miles Vorkosigan has returned to his homeland for the upcoming wedding of Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar.  Love is in the air, and in the last book, Miles caught a bad case of it: he's determined to woo and win the recently widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson, a task made slightly more awkward by the fact that he's partly responsible for her newfound availability on the marriage market.  Being Miles, he decides to employ forward momentum and guile...yep, that'll end well.  At the same time, Miles' brother Mark has returned with a renegade scientist in tow and his own schemes in mind, which happen to involve the raising, rearing, and retailing of "butter bugs" for "butter bug butter", and besides noting that said "butter" comes out of one end of said bugs and is intended for human consumption, I'll leave the rest to the reader's imagination. Just in case there isn't enough chaos yet, Ivan has decided to sow a little mischief, Illyan's still having memory problems, court intrigue involving a politically-motivated sex-change is brewing, and Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan are expected back at any moment.  What a fun wedding this is gonna be....

 

A Civil Campaign definitely has its share of trademark Vorkosigan craziness, but for me, it fell a little flat. I'm not much for romantic comedies, especially when everybody but the womanizing-type comic-relief characters are paired up by the end, so maybe it's not all that surprising that A Civil Campaign failed to win the day. The plot of this book was not a perfect fit, but for me, the narration was a more serious issue. Whether in first person or third, I tend to prefer books to be told from the perspective of a single narrator. Our own life stories are told from this perspective; to me, it seems a bit like cheating to switch viewpoints every time you want to talk about a different character. It takes a great deal more ingenuity and dexterousness to explore a large set of characters from the eyes of a single narrator, and I think it leads to a much more genuine creation of a person. Bujold is a master of the single-narrator technique. Throughout most of the Vorkosigan Saga, we've had only two narrators, Cordelia and Miles, and yet Bujold has managed to develop a host of multidimensional personalities. However, in the last few books, Bujold has steadily added more and more third-person viewpoints in the narration, and in this story, it's POVs-Gone-Wild. We get the viewpoints of Miles, Mark, Ekaterin, Ivan, Kareen, etc, etc, etc, etc. Probably the only narrators we don't have are Cordelia, Aral, and the freaking butter-bugs.[1]

My other issue with the book is even weirder: I really don't like Barrayar.  I think it's a backwards, toxic, soul-numbing, heart-destroying place. I resent the place with a resentment that only Cordelia can match. To paraphrase Cordelia at some point[2]: Barrayar is a cannibal god; it requires the sacrifice of its sons, body and soul, and then grinds them up and swallows their corpses. All of these characters throughout seem motivated by this great sense that they do things "for Barrayar." But what, precisely, are they protecting? A backward, sexist culture where leaders rule absolutely, where it seems that over half the men are employed by the freaking government as spies and soldiers, often against their own? I wholeheartedly sympathise with the Komarrans; why not blast the bloody Barrayarans back into a time of isolation, back into this hell of their own making? Long story short, I find the place stifling. I don't want to watch Miles to settle down and serve it, to bring up his children in a world where women are subordinate to men and ordinary men are subordinate to Vor and Vor are subordinate to the emperor and the emperor has stripped himself of humanity and joy in subordination to his colony. I think Barrayar needs to change, and its tiny steps towards progress are simply not enough for me.

Well, enough of that. On the positive side, the plot, although more on the social/household-detail side, is quite entertaining; despite my dislike of the plethora of narrator viewpoints, it was interesting to see what the other characters think of Miles et al. Plus, with Cordelia on the scene, things are bound to get entertaining:

[Cordelia said] doubtfully, "Are we interrupting business, or pleasure?"

From thirty years of familiarity, Miles had no trouble unraveling this cryptic shorthand to be a serious query of, Have we walked in on, perhaps, an official Auditorial interrogation gone wrong, or is this one of your personal screw-ups again? 

[...]

"My dinner party," Miles grated. "It's just breaking up." And sinking. All souls feared lost.

Some of the characters behave in a somewhat out-of-character fashion, but it was still fun to see practically the entire cast again.

[What the hell, Koudelka??? You, who are well aware of what it is to be considered a mutant, when did you become such a jerk? Well, granted, you've always been a jerk, but have the intervening years done nothing for you?]

(show spoiler)

I've also grown to love Pym a little more each book; his narrative sections were fantastic:

“Pym!" The Countess spotted a new victim, and her voice went a little dangerous. "I seconded you to look after Miles. Would you care to explain this scene?"
There was a thoughtful pause. In a voice of simple honesty, Pym replied, "No, Milady.”

While I'm always happy to wile away a few hours with Miles et al, because of its overall themes and its Barrayaran setting, this wasn't the perfect fit for me. On those rare occasions I read scifi, I want to see something new and futuristic, and not all the butter-bugs in the world could really reconcile me to a story so deeply embedded in Barrayar. Visiting the cast was fun, but rather superficial; it is almost as though Miles, Mark, et al have undergone their full measure of character growth so that they have become cameos in their own stories. I won't say that they have nothing left to give-- the next book is one of my favourites-- but I think we're near to the end of Miles' saga, and I think this book is flavoured with that satisfying yet bittersweet flavour of completion. In any case, we're back in space soon-- onwards to Diplomatic Immunity!

 

[1]Actually, Ms. Bujold, could you write a short story from the perspective of the butter-bugs? I cannot express how amazing that would be. You would probably end up describing all of the characters and their personalities by their feet--what is Miles Standard Footwear, anyway? I am in love with this story and not only is it not yet written, but I know it will never be. Sigh.

 

[2]Someday I'll dig up the quote, but I don't even remember the book offhand