Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Hugo Project: Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold (1992 Winner)

Plot Synopsis:

Chronologically the fourth installment in Bujold’s multiple-award-winning space opera series, the Vorkosigan Saga, Barrayar opens with Betan Captain Cordelia Naismith (at times uneasily) adjusting to her new life as wife of Lord Aral Vorkosigan, who is called to assume the office of Regent to Barrayar’s boy emperor, five-year-old Prince Gregor Vorbarra. As one might expect, court intrigue ensues. One night, conspirators attempt to assassinate Lord Vorkosigan by lobbing a poison gas grenade into his bedroom; the attack endangers the lives of Vorkosigan, Cordelia, and their unborn child, Miles, whose bones are severely damaged by the poison’s violently teratogenic antidote. Upon Cordelia’s insistence, Miles is transplanted into a uterine replicator to undergo an experimental treatment in an attempt to salvage his skeleton and save his life.

Meanwhile, Count Vidal Vordarian launches a full-fledged coup. Prince Gregor is rescued by his security chief, Captain Negri, who flies Gregor to the Vorkosigans before dying of his injuries. Cordelia must flee on horseback into the mountains with Gregor while her husband organizes his own forces. Once Gregor is secure, Cordelia reunites with her husband and shortly thereafter discovers that Vordarian has taken Miles’ uterine replicator hostage. Vorkosigan, worried about other more immediate concerns, is reluctant to organize a raid to rescue his son, so Cordelia takes matters into her own hands, assembling a team of household retainers and breaking into the palace, a plot that involves several complications, including a childbirth. Once there, they eventually overpower Vordarian, rescue Miles, and return home to present Vordarian’s head to a stunned Vorkosigan. In the denouement, Miles Vorkosigan is born to a life of disability.

The Ratings:

Overall: 9.3 – This book is almost perfect.

Characterization: 10

Characterization in Barrayar is bloody fantastic. Bujold’s talents in this arena may, in my opinion, be epitomized by her treatment of the mentally deranged Sergeant Bothari, armsman to Lord Vorkosigan. Bothari has been used in the past by various people for criminal and/or sadistic ends and consequently is beset with the urges of a sexual psychopath, urges that are imperfectly controlled by medication and, more interestingly, by his oath of fealty to Aral and Cordelia. And yet, astonishingly, Bothari is sympathetic. In chapter six, for example, we see the extent of his struggle in a scene with Cordelia in which he tries to recover memories that Barrayaran psychoengineering has rendered excruciatingly painful:

[Bothari’s] legs had drawn up, his long arms wrapped around them in a tight, tight ball. His breathing was fast and shallow, panting. His face was freezer-burn white, sheened with cold sweat.

“Do I have red rings around me now?” Cordelia asked curiously.

“It’s all… kind of pink.”

“And the last picture?”

“Oh, milady.” He swallowed. “Whatever it was… I know it must be very close to whatever it is they most don’t want me to remember.” He swallowed again. Cordelia began to understand why he hadn’t touched his lunch.

“Do you want to go on? Can you go on?”

“I must go on. Milady. Captain Naismith. Because I remember you. Remember seeing you. Stretched out on Vorrutyer’s bed, all your clothes cut away, naked. You were bleeding. I was looking up your... What I want to know. Must know.” His arms were wrapped around his head, now, tilted toward her on his knees, his face hollow, hungry.

His blood pressure must be fantastically high, to drive that monstrous migraine. If they went too far, pressed this through to the last truth, might he be in danger of a stroke? An incredible piece of psychoengineering, to program his own body to punish him for his forbidden thoughts…

“Did I rape you, milady?”

“Huh? No!” She sat bolt upright, fiercely indignant. They had taken that knowledge away from him? They’d dared take that away from him?

He began to cry, if that’s what that ragged breathing, tight-screwed face, and tears leaking from his eyes meant. Equal parts agony and joy. “Oh. Thank God.” And, “Are you sure…?”

“Vorrutyer ordered you to. You refused. Out of your own will, without hope of rescue or reward. It got you in a hell of a lot of trouble, for a little while.”

The concept of a psychopath who fears his own insanity (“Even Bothari fears Bothari”) and fights daily to keep it corked so that he may live up to his oath is utterly riveting reading. And characterization elsewhere in the novel is very near to this level of quality.

Plot/Pacing: 8

The first seven chapters of Barrayar focus principally on Cordelia’s adjustment to Barrayar, a planet which to her Betan mind seems frightening and barbaric. There are several interesting character moments within this set-up (see the discussion of Bothari above), but it may be a slow read for some readers. With the soltoxin attack in chapter eight, however, the pace immediately picks up. The remainder of the novel should be thoroughly engaging to any fan of space opera and court politics.

Concepts/Themes: 10

The infinite value of each human life, no matter its “deformities” or stage of development, is a theme that is very powerfully woven through this novel and the series in general. In Barrayar, this theme is of course best illustrated by the maternal determination with which Cordelia (and Aral Vorkosigan, too, in his role as father) defends her likely-to-be-crippled unborn son from court conspirators and intolerant relatives, but we can also see this sensibility in other conversations. One example that leaps readily to mind is the conversation between Cordelia and Koudelka, one of Vorkosigan’s officers (who was himself disabled by a weapons blast), regarding her bodyguard, Droushnakovi, whom Koudelka fancies. In the scene in question, Cordelia and company are tending to Lady Vorpatril, who has just given birth in rather less than ideal circumstances:

…Kou took food in to Lady Vorpatril and Drou. He returned with a very bleak expression on his face, and settled again beside Cordelia.

After a time he said, “I guess I understand now why Drou was so worried about being pregnant.”

“Do you?” said Cordelia.

“Lady Vorpatril’s troubles make mine look… pretty small. God, that looked painful.”

“Mm. But the pain only lasts a day.” She rubbed her scar. “Or a few weeks. I don’t think that’s it.”

“What is, then?”

“It’s… a transcendental act. Making life. I thought about that, when I was carrying Miles. ‘By this act, I bring one death into the world.’ One birth, one death, and all the pain and acts of will between. I didn’t understand certain Oriental mystic symbols like the Death-mother, Kali, till I realized it wasn’t mystic at all, just plain fact. A Barrayaran-style sexual ‘accident’ can start a chain of causality that doesn’t stop till the end of time. Our children change us… whether they live or not. Even though your child turned out to be chimerical this time, Drou was touched by that change. Weren’t you?”

The above was one of the most moving explications of the spiritual import of motherhood that I have ever read in science fiction or elsewhere. If you care about cultivating a culture of life, you will find much to love in this book.

Final Comment:

John Ringo, one of Baen’s prolific workhorses, related at Dragon*Con 2009 that when he first met Lois Bujold, he embarrassed himself rather completely by bowing to her – a full face-in-the-carpet kowtow – crying, “OH, GREAT LOIS!” I am coming at the Vorkosigan Saga rather haphazardly, but already, I am beginning to comprehend why Ringo could be reduced to such ridiculous displays of fanboyism.


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