I recently sat down to reread Lois McMaster Bujold’s Borders of Infinity, her three novellas set during Miles Vorkosigan’s younger years (the years prior to his visit on Earth) with the Dendarii Mercenaries. Anyone who knows me wouldn’t question me rereading a Bujold—her Memory and A Civil Campaign are probably two of the books I most frequently reread. But I rarely pick up these three novellas for another go. I’m not a huge fan of short fiction, even longer short fiction, as a rule, so I just don’t read these over and over the way I do the Vorkosigan novels.
I really need to stop being so stubborn about short fiction. Each one of these is really a small gem of a story, and each one gives a glimpse of a Miles that is only hinted at in the earlier books. Of course, as a confirmed rereader, I can see seeds that are sown in these stories that don’t bloom until much later in the series—themes that are enlarged on, or characters who become more important, or character traits.
“The Mountains of Mourning” is the first of the stories. In terms of the Vorkosiverse internal chronology, it takes place directly after The Warrior’s Apprentice. Miles has completed his time at the Imperial Military Academy and is on home leave awaiting his first assignment. He’s spending his time at his parents’ country estate with them, and a woman appears at the gate, demanding to see Miles’ father, Aral, Count Vorkosigan. Miles, intrigued by her determination, takes the woman to see his father, where she demands an investigation into the murder of her child. The Count assigns the task to Miles. This is not the first time Miles’ impulsive behavior gets him into a situation he wishes he weren’t in, but it’s one that has long-reaching consequences for him and for his homeland, Barrayar. The child who was murdered was born with a cleft palate, and murdered because of her mutation.
Miles, for those unfamiliar with the series, is deformed– short with brittle, easily breakable bones– the result of damage incurred in utero when an attack was launched against his father. On Barrayar, any physical deformity is seen as a weakness, and in the backcountry districts, infants born with genetic mutations are considered “unclean” and summarily murdered to stem the mutation. It’s a practice his own parents fought against in his own case; Aral sending his damaged son in to represent his Voice in the matter of Raina Csurik is a bold stroke against the practice, but for all that, it’s vital that Miles uncover the truth and deliver a clear message to the people of the district: if he fails to find the perpetrator, or to pronounce a sentence that delivers justice, the message he’ll be delivering will be one that serves to strengthen the ignorance of the people of Silvy Vale.
At its core, this story is a murder mystery, with Miles as detective (and ably seconded by his father’s Armsman, Pym, as his Watson), but its overall importance in Miles’ story cannot be underestimated. Miles is a genius, but he has to work twice as hard as everyone just to keep up physically. Having long ago learned that he literally can’t outrun his combatants, he has learned he has to outsmart them. The people of Silvy Vale are fighting him now—there are secrets being kept and threats made against Miles. He knows he has something to prove here to these people, and while he could do it with the considerable resources his father commands, he also knows that he’ll be sending the wrong message if he does so. He is, after all, one of them, and in their eyes, he’s “unclean”—a mutant. So he not only has to find out who killed the infant Raina, he needs to do so using good old-fashioned legwork and brain power to demonstrate to his people that it’s not the packaging that matters—it’s what you do with it. If he can find Raina’s killer, he can give her and her family justice, and that justice will include showing those who still practice infanticide that by never looking past an easily corrected genetic flaw they are destroying their potential future. It’s a powerful message, and a theme that appears over and over in the series—Miles must continually seek to validate his own existence, and he also has to live up to his own expectations to do so. Raina’s death becomes symbolic to Miles for the rest of his life: every move he makes, he makes with her death at his feet, a reminder that there but for the grace of his more enlightened, and more powerful, parents he might be, and every opportunity he has to bring enlightenment and progressive thinking to her people is a means of avenging her death and, in another way, justifying his own existence.
It is worth noting that “Mountains of Mourning” won both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award, and with good reason–it’s a compelling story that is nearly perfect in its structure.
Miles is a bit of a knight errant—and no story does more justice to that title than “Labyrinth”, where Miles and the Dendarii set out to pick up a deserting scientist from unsavory Jackson’s Whole and end up rescuing one of his genetic modifications as well: a super soldier named Nine who is 8 feet tall, has fangs, and eats live rats. Originally charged with killing what Dr. Canaba describes as a monster, Miles gets caught by guards at the genetics lab and tossed in with this creature as his fate. There he discovers that Nine may look like a monster, but she’s also, underneath the genetic modifications, a 16 year old girl with self-esteem issues.
Rather than kill her, Miles woos her, persuading her to join his mercenary army as a recruit after they spend a passionate few hours together. If the idea of the under five foot tall Miles and the eight feet tall super soldier locked together in a carnal embrace seems ludicrous, it isn’t. It’s one of the sweetest love scenes ever written, and Miles isn’t just saving his own skin here—he’s literally saving her from her own self-loathing. Together they make a formidable team—she provides the brawn where his is lacking—and, with Nine rechristened Taura, the two of them go on to have many other adventures together, making “Labyrinth” a very satisfying story indeed, especially when Miles confronts Dr. Canaba with what he created and what he asked him to do to that creation—his loathing is something to behold.
“Labyrinth” is more than just a romantic adventure tale, though—its setting, Jackson’s Whole, is a truly horrific place, one where laissez-faire capitalism runs amok, where the only rule is business, and where nothing is sacred except The Deal. Power is held by Houses, each with its own business interests—weaponry, genetics, etc.—and if it exists, it exists there. And if it doesn’t, someone there can make it for you. Genetic modifications, cloning for the purposes of clone-brain transplants, weapons of mass destruction—any horror you can imagine can be had. For a price. Jackson’s Whole is a cautionary tale of what happens when no one applies the brakes, when ethics are dead, and when those in power are so corrupt they’ll do anything to hold onto their position. Bujold often uses her various settings to point out flaws in our own world by running them to the extremest point she can realistically get away with. Jackson’s Whole is one such case.
Of the three stories here, “Labyrinth” is the weakest. There’s just way too much going on–Taura’s rescue, Jacksonian politics and infighting, and a few other plot points that I’ll leave for you to discover. It’s hard to process it all at once, and I remembered during this reading that I felt very overwhelmed by all of this the first time I read the story. Even so, it remains, now, my favorite of the three stories here, despite its flaws. Part of that is undoubtedly my familiarity with the Vorkosiverse. Mostly, though, it’s my fascination with Jackson’s Whole, a world I wish she would revisit more often in the series than she does.
The final story in the trilogy is “Borders of Infinity”, which is set in a prisoner of war camp known as Dagoola IV. Miles and his mercenaries are charged with smuggling one Marilican POW out of the camp, which is located inside a domed force field that is home to 30,000 POWs, mostly Marilicans, who are Barrayarian allies. Dagoola is operated by the Cetagandans, Barrayar’s enemy, and is structured in such a way that no guards are necessary to maintain it. When Miles arrives, having allowed himself to be captured, the scene is something out of Lord of the Flies—those who are stronger quickly strip the weak of their possessions and deny them access to the limited food. The prisoners have become animals to the point where they travel in packs, preying on those who are too weak to resist. Miles realizes immediately that he needs an ally here, but he’s got to charm one first. And when he discovers that his targeted rescue is nearly dead, his whole game plan changes.
“Borders of Infinity” is a really fascinating story of what happens to people when they lose hope, and what they can accomplish once hope is restored to them. As a key to understanding Miles’ character, it’s critical—this is manic Miles at his best, a man who once captured a mercenary ship with only four troops and who is like a military Pied Piper—he can tap dance so fast people will follow him anywhere. By the same token, it’s easy to understand, after reading this, why people DO follow him anywhere: Miles has a sense of honor. He makes outlandish promises, then bends over backwards so he can keep them. He’s so confident in his own abilities that it oozes out of him and into those who lack confidence at all. And he talks a good game—he’s outlandish, witty, and so very clever. As a person, he’d probably drive me insane in about 20 minutes. As a character, he’s hard to resist—even the most reluctant reader will likely follow him down a rabbit hole willingly.
If there’s an issue with this collection, it’s the rather weak internal storyline that Bujold uses to tie them together—Miles, who is slowly replacing his fragile bones with synthetics, is recuperating from more surgery when the Imperial Chief of Security—and his boss (his mercenaries are really a front for the Emperor’s private security task force) Simon Illyan stops by to demand an accounting for the outrageous expenses the Dendarii have run up. It seems some of the Counts are asking questions about the drain on the budget and trying to lay the blame at Aral Vorkosigan’s feet. It makes very little sense as an interleaving story because not enough time is devoted to it—readers who know little about Aral’s position with the Emperor or his backstory are going to be confused about why he’s such a target for this kind of thing, and even those who do know the whole story may be puzzled about why these enemies are using Miles’ cost overruns to get to Aral—Miles is supposed to be a deep cover operative. They shouldn’t even know about his role in the Dendarii. It’s a small oversight on Bujold’s part, but it bugs. More important, though, it’s just not needed. The three stories stand on their own just fine—there’s no need to somehow try and connect them.
That said, it’s easy enough to ignore the connecting story part and just concentrate on the actual novellas. They’re delicious little bites of the especially tart apple that is Miles Naismith Vorkosigan.