REVIEW: ‘Cryoburn (A Miles Vorkosigan Novel)’ by Lois McMaster Bujold
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In his role as Imperial Auditor, Miles is dispatched to the planet Kibou-daini, where he is kidnapped by a splinter political group that is protesting against the corporations who control the government by casting votes for dead people and other nefarious means. Miles unravels a web of business deceit to understand the political implications for the Barrayaran Empire.
PROS: Miles is back! And we love Miles and all things Barrayaran!
CONS: Miles has little personal investment in the main problem, a subtle business conundrum that Gregor could undo by fiat.
BOTTOM LINE: A minor novel in the Vorkosigan Saga. If you’ve read Bujold’s science fiction, you will of course read it and love it, as I did. There’s very little forward motion in the overall series arc in the novel, except for the last 503 words.
Cryoburn is the twentieth installment in Lois McMaster Bujold’s quadruple-Hugo- and double-Nebula-winning Vorkosigan Saga. This series has been through three epic arcs with at least two possible ends, and yet it continues to be one of the best book series out there.
With all that as a build-up, you’re probably expecting me to either squeee or trash the novel.
Cryoburn is far too complex for either a squee or a hatchet job. The novel is a slow, solemn meditation on death and aging, some wry social commentary, and a pants-kicking epilogue.
The basic premise is that Miles Vorkosigan, the short-stack hero for most of the series, goes to the planet of Kibou-daini to investigate a corporation that’s trying to open a cryogenic franchise on Komarr, one of the planets in Barrayar’s Empire. Miles is still an Imperial Auditor, which sounds stultifying, but his job description in previous books was more akin to that of Her Majesty’s Secret Service than the IRS. Miles represents the Emperor, his childhood friend Gregor Vorbarra, in whatever needs investigating. When the Empress’s Kobarran relatives had a funny feeling about WhiteChrys, a cryogenic corporation, and their business dealings, Miles was dispatched to investigate. In Cryoburn, Miles’s job feels more like an IRS auditor. On Barrayar, Miles has essentially unlimited authority; however, Kibou-daini is outside his jurisdiction.
The novel opens with Miles disoriented and drugged after being kidnapped. He stumbles upon Jin, a local free-range semi-orphaned kid, who helps Miles survive the night and becomes his sidekick and pet project. Miles has no real investment (pardon the pun) in the outcome of the novel and is just doing his job.
Jin is the one with some skin in the game. Jin’s mother was illegally cryofrozen for political activities against the cryocorps. If he can’t have her back, he wishes for at least an adoptive family to take him away from his lonely, sad life where he struggles to steal enough food for himself and his pets. This is every parent’s nightmare: to die and leave one’s child homeless, impoverished, and alone.
Plotwise, the novel becomes an interlock of multiple spider-webs, and each tug alerts yet another spider of Miles’s inquiries. Character-wise, Miles is at his most mature and carefully sorts through the webs, knowing that if a bad guy is trying to pull strings, you can follow that string back to the bad guy.
Miles has been cryo-frozen before (in Mirror Dance) under more exigent circumstances than the mass freezing occurring on Kibou-daini. Kibou-daini’s culture is dedicated to cheating death by cryopreservation until such time as a cure for one’s fatal disease or old age itself has been invented. At the time of the novel, corpsicles outnumber people with corpuscles.
Here’s where the social commentary gets interesting: on Kibou-daini, like in Chicago, dead people can vote. Unlike in Chicago, the Kibou-daini cryo-corporation that is tending your frozen, dead body gets to decide how you will vote. Cryocorps thus become enormous voting blocs that control the government.
Surely Bujold wasn’t thinking about social commentary, you say? Consider the following exchanges:
Miles shrugged. “I’ve seen a fair number of worlds, met a lot of people. Encountered a variety of systems. I’ve seen worse. Granted, Jackson’s Whole, which is run by what are in effect high-tech warlords and their thugs, has a certain refreshing straightforwardness about its corruption. They don’t have to pretend their evil is good in order to sell it to voters.”
“Let me tell you, young man-the dirty little secret of democracy is that just because you get a vote, doesn’t mean you get your choice…. Nowadays, it’s down to half a dozen big corps that control most of everything, plus a few scattered handouts too small to matter.”
And surely Bujold didn’t comment on recent events, you say? Well, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September, 2008, and this novel was first published in November, 2010. It’s quite possible that she had time to allow it to influence her thinking. Here’s another excerpt from a WhiteChrys cryocorp executive about the cryocorps’ practices concerning their “clients:”
…”[S]ome interesting work has been done in the past year with commodifying contracts….[A] secondary market in individual contracts [of frozen dead people] could provide considerable opportunity, either for profit-taking or to raise operating capital.”
Miles felt his brow corrugating. “You’re buying and selling the dead?”
Why, yes, they are. “The dead” in this case could represent many different things in today’s world, from moribound mortgages to stock in dead companies to demographic voting blocs.
The way that the cryocorps buy votes, rig elections, and silence the opposition is a commentary on recent politics and business.
I don’t want to spoil it. If you’ve read any interviews with Lois McMaster Bujold, you know what is in it. It consists of five “drabbles,” short flash fictions of exactly 100 words each, from the viewpoints of Mark, Miles, Cordelia, Ivan, and Gregor.
If your heart doesn’t break, you don’t have one.
(The last three words of the novel proper set up the epilogue, which is how I got 503 words.)
If you haven’t read the previous nineteen installments of the Vorkosigan Saga, you can start with Cryoburn, if you want to. You’ll miss a lot of the resonance, certainly in the epilogue, but the plot and characters will be perfectly understandable. It is, however, a minor plot point in the overall arc of the saga, and you probably won’t come to love the characters as you would if you started at the beginning.
That said, you don’t have to choose. Read the last paragraph of this review to find out how get all 20 books in the Vorkosigan Saga for the price of just Cryoburn.
Even though I do pick at the Cryoburn‘s frozen bones in this review, please realize that this book, and the nineteen other books, are worthy reading. Cryoburn still got four-and-a-half stars out of five because, while it isn’t as good as the best Vorkosigan books, it’s still one of the better-to-best novels published last year. The other Vorkosigan books are such stiff competition that even an excellent book pales by comparison.
I hesitate to write the last section of this review because it smacks of that terrible writer’s sin: imposing what you would have done upon someone else’s work. Writers should not say, even to themselves and certainly never to the author, “If I’d written this book, I would have done X.” Nevertheless, I should express some thoughts about Cryoburn and the Vorkosigan Saga in general.
The last few installments of the Vorkosigan Saga, including Cryoburn, have not been as compelling as, let’s say, the first fifteen installments. In those, death and destruction rained down on Barrayar and the Vorkosigan family. Rebellion, and civil war vied with smashed dreams, mercenaries, and treason. Those books had heft. They had substance. Lives and entire civilizations hung in the balance. All those books had deeply felt characters who strove to survive and succeed. They confronted their deepest fears and saved themselves and everyone else. They were heroes. The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, and Memory (the seventh, fourteenth, and fifteenth installments, respectively) are, I think, among the best science fiction novels ever written. They certainly won enough awards that other people probably think so, too.
In the last few books of the continuing Vorkosigan Saga, the stakes have not seemed as high. In Cryoburn, Miles puzzles out a business mystery. Without getting too spoilery, yes, the evil cryo-corporation WhiteChrys tries to buy a planet on the installment plan, but so what? As soon as the Barrayaran government saw the handwriting on the wall, they could change the wall because Barrayar is an empire, not a democracy. Even a democracy has an executive with the power of an executive order. Gregor could merely nationalize that cryocorp, break it up, sell pieces of it off, and hand it back, kind of like a White Chrysler.
The plot was a nice little intellectual puzzle, one for which the answer was broadcast from the first page, but watching it come together was enjoyable. I read Cyroburn for the first time as soon as my pre-ordered hardback hit my doorstep, and I reread it for this review. I loved it both times. Indeed, the second time, I took the time to admire Bujold’s plot and characterization, because both are admirable.
As I mentioned, one of the major flaws is that Miles is just doing his job in this book. Jin’s skin is the skin to be saved. Miles’s family is all safe on Barrayar, several wormholes away. They don’t even know he was missing for a few days and don’t seem too concerned when he checks in after being drugged and kidnapped. Miles is in little danger here. Barrayar and Gregor are in no danger. I liked Jin, but caring about the kid just wasn’t a substitute for caring about Miles, a character I’ve known for decades.
Also, in Bujold’s last few novels, she has dared to be cute. Between butter bugs and Miles-goes-a-courting in A Civil Campaign to the pet Sphinx in Cryoburn, there are too many precious little Ewoks around. Yes, Cetaganda had the cutie-pie kitten tree, but when you picked them, they bled out and died.
If I were writing the next book (and I’m not, so I’m right now committing the gravest of authorial sins, here,) I’d start a civil war on Barrayar, kill Gregor and his pretty little family, and put Miles on the run with his only surviving child (torch the other three and Ekaterin) from the rebels who want to kill him and the Imperialists who want to crown him. Kind of like The Road, but with Bujold’s much better writing, plot, and characters.
The next novel in the Vorkosigan Saga, temporarily bearing the working title Ivan, the Booke, is nearly finished. Ms. Bujold has finished the climax and has about two chapters of wrap-up to finish. The finished novel should be about 25 chapters and 140,000 words. While not under contract, it will probably be scheduled for release in 2013. Ms. Bujold describes the novel as “basically a bon-bon for series fans; its mode is romantic comedy with some adventure and complicating plots, and plotters.”
There may not be another Vorkosigan book after Ivan, the Booke. Sadly for all us Vor-heads out there, Ms. Bujold also states, “I have no current plans for more Vorkosigan books beyond the Ivan book.” So it appears that, if indeed Bujold does not change her plans, the Vorkosigan Saga may not end with a flash grenade’s bang, but with a romantic smile and a sigh.
Of course, I will pre-order it and devour the bon-bon as soon as it arrives, either in dead tree form or on my e-reader, and I’ll love every bite of that scifi confection.
The mass market paperback of Cryoburn will be released on September 27, 2011.
My hardcover edition came with a DRM-free CD-ROM that has Cryoburn and the previous nineteen installments of the Vorkosigan Saga in most ebook formats, including Sony Reader epub, Nook, iPad, and Kindle. It’s twenty books for the price of one.
If you are making the switch from paper to electronic reading, (and if you haven’t yet, you probably will in the next five years,) this is a fantastic opportunity to transfer all twenty Vorkosigan Saga episodes to your electronic library, all at once. I don’t know if the mass market paperback edition will have that CD. The CD-ROM is worth the price of the hardback. Get one while they still have them.
If you haven’t read the series and want to try it out, you can go to the Baen Free Library and download The Warrior’s Apprentice, the first Miles Vorkosigan book, for free, in most ebook formats. Fair Warning: once you fall in love with the twitchy little fellow, you can’t stop reading the series.
Filed under: Book Review
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