Saturday, 4 March 2017

Shards of Honour - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Through 2017 and 2018 Tsana and Katharine are reading The Vorkosigan Saga (in more or less chronological order), starting with Shards of Honor all the way through to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, including novellas. Tsana is re-reading, and Katharine is brand new to the series and together they’ll be discussing themes, characters, worldbuilding, and anything else that sparks their interest.

The first book up for discussion is Shards of Honour, first published in 1986. You can read Katharine's review here and Tsana's review here.

Katharine: So I have to confess, I have read one other thing by Bujold and that was “Dreamweaver’s Dilemma”… back when I was serious about reading everything and then got overwhelmed by it all.

Tsana: I read that one too, but not close to when I read most of the other books. I felt a bit meh about it, from memory. I originally read all the books that existed at the time in 2011, starting from Warrior’s Apprentice and ending with the Cordelia books we decided to start with. Let me tell you, reading Shards of Honour first instead of second last was a very different (and superior) experience. Starting from Shards of Honour (and yes, I’m going to keep writing it with a u) gave me a better appreciation for both Cordelia and Aral as characters, unlike the first time around when I couldn’t get out of the mindset of seeing them primarily as Miles’s parents and through his eyes. It was easier to relate to them this way and I’m interested to see how that will effect my re-reading of the later books.

Katharine: I want to write it with a ‘u’! American spelling looks so mispronounced. I’m glad I’m getting the superior experience — usually I’m a hard and fast ‘publication’ order reader, but Alex had some strong feelings on the subject. Coming the series brand new, I’m loving starting off with main characters who aren’t spring chickens — Aral and Cordelia are excellent at what they do, and it’s believable because of their rank and experience.

Tsana: So we’ve discussed the characters a little bit. Before we get into some of the meatier topics, let’s chat about the setting. What did you think of Sergyar? Apparently I didn’t take it in at all the first time I read it. Gentleman Jole is set on the same planet and I noticed a lot more setting when I was reading that one. Coming back to Shards of Honour and discovering that actually the weird wildlife had been there from the start was a bit of a surprise.

Katharine: I haven’t taken in much, somehow, other than to picture a type of FernGully style planet — I liked that it seemed rough and wild, desperate and dangerous. So keep this time mind for the end of the series as the ferociousness will play a part later on?

Tsana: Something like that. I don’t want to spoil anything. ;-p

Katharine: Excellent :p I did really like the differences they showed between the ships — the idea of courier ships, and the technology they all had even though this isn’t exactly a new series. I especially liked Cordelia’s marking of time based on how many rations she’s consumed upon delivery — imagine not having a natural light source to have any clue of what’s going on.

Tsana: The only thing that amused me about the technology — and this is a product of having been written in the 80s — was how static and monolithic the computers were. I gather no one really saw iPhones coming from that far away, but more modernly conceived science fiction tends to have, er, more modern views of the future. Which is maybe obvious. But I didn’t really notice that the Vorkosigan universe was a little dated until I was really paying close attention, so that’s a point in its favour.

Katharine: I did like how they had tablets and laser stylus’ though - that actually seemed like a good attempt for the time, but then I guess I’m not sure what was really available back then anyway in certain circles. Like how email was ‘available’ in the 70s but wasn’t really used (here, at least) until, what… very late 90s?

Tsana: I had email from the mid-90s at school, and I think my mum did too at work from around then or earlier. The first personal computers like we think of them now (except bigger, slower, and uglier) are from the mid-80s. But veering back from that side track, let’s move on to another topic: rape. Although I noticed Bujold didn’t use the word very much at first, she certainly didn’t shy away from discussing the topic, mostly in the context of some Barrayaran soldiers being very steeped in rape culture and setting Aral up as opposed to that culture.

Katharine: It was certainly very present. I think I would have liked to see other characters struggling with it… At times it seemed as though only Aral was morally against it, and that was mainly to show how he’s really not The Butcher as everyone assumes.

Tsana: The whole chunk of story where Cordelia is being held prisoner and then interacting with other prisoners paints a very different picture to her experiences with Aral. Most of the other prisoners assume that all Barrayarans are rapists and don’t believe that Cordelia could’ve met a few that aren’t. But Cordelia’s been shielded by Aral a lot of the time, and by other honourable people (hey, maybe that’s where the title comes from, there are only a few shards/people with honour among the Barrayarans) that are basically Aral’s friends like Koudelka and Illyan. I felt like the story was partly making a point that soldiers are pretty rapey but then had Aral and friends there to say “well, not ALL soldiers”. But I’m partly saying that because I always felt like the Barrayaran army is the most analogous to present Earth armies (especially US, I suppose?) compared with some of the other planet-countries like Beta which is supposed to be more enlightened.

Katharine: This is probably true - those with Aral do seem pretty relieved when he puts things to rights across the war in general. What do we think of the Emperor then? And his son.

<spoilers start here - hover to read on desktop or highlight on mobile>

Tsana: I assume you mean Prince Serg when you say his son? The Emperor was another character I didn’t have a very strong memory of from my first read through, but I found his scheming interesting on the second read through. I had completely forgotten about the plot with Aral during the war, but it’s much harder to forget the part where Aral becomes Regent since that has far-reaching and long-running consequences (for 16 years, as the Emperor points out in Shards of Honour). But the plot to get rid of his scumbag son, golly! Even though I had forgotten about it before re-reading, I feel like it sets the stage for a lot of schemes to come in later books.

Katharine: It was certainly pretty ruthless. I also liked how when Aral is set up to become Regent that he has several suggestions for other people - it makes it seem more realistic that there are technically other people who aren’t insane around - but for various reasons it’ll still need to be him.

Tsana: I was amused that the fact that he had just gotten married to some random Betan was a point in his favour.

Katharine: Especially with how weird that must really be in their culture. Do we ever learn any more about his first wife? I thought it was interesting how he shares that story with Cordelia, and how she is so perceptive but knows to let it go. That part was pretty messed up.

Tsana: I don’t remember. If so, I don’t think we learn more than like, who she was family-wise. But speaking of Aral’s past, what did you think about the hints Vorrutyer keeps dropping to Cordelia about his past with Aral?

Katharine: God I hope they were lovers at some point. The sketches of ‘Ges’ laughing? It would certainly be progressive for its time.

Tsana: I thought by the end it was pretty definite that they were? It’s re-emphasised in later books and maybe I was projecting that, but wasn’t it made clear to Cordelia, who didn’t care?

Katharine: I’m pretty slow when it comes to these things, and often hope for too much :p If so, that’s so excellent, high five, Bujold! As far as characters go I did like the variety and care they had for their people. They do seem like pretty lonely people as individuals — Aral and Cordelia — but I did like how we see that she’s been comfortably unmarried and that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with her — literally and only a case of not meeting the right person as of yet. As someone in their 30s, that was such a relief to see.

Tsana: Well, there was that bit where her previous boyfriend lied to her about wanting kids or something. That was a bit sad, but filled out her backstory nicely. The section of the book where Cordelia is on the way home after the war and once she gets home to Beta probably showed us the most about non-Barrayaran culture. I, for one, found the gaslighting by the psychiatrists/psychologists really horrifying. More so than when I first read it — I think I found it funnier then. :-/

Katharine: It was so messed up — you really feel as though Cordelia has no chance at all because no matter what she says or does they’re not going to actually listen to her making sense. Thank god for Tailor at least… And what about the Uterine replicators?

Tsana: Those are awesome. And I love that the “more civilised” planets of Escobar and Beta have this technology to not only deal with unwanted rape babies but that can be used by women generally instead of being pregnant. I like that, although Barrayar is a bit backwards (and we do learn about why in later books, but it was only mentioned in passing in Shards of Honour), the rest of the galaxy is just getting on with progressive and feminist medical technology. As for dumping a bunch of rape babies on Barrayar, I would love to see a story about whoever came up with that idea — or was it a standard matter of policy? It’s another one of those events that casts a long shadow over the rest of the series, starting with the very next book (but no spoilers!)

Katharine: I read it as Aral’s order because it was something he could have jurisdiction over?

Tsana: It was Aral’s order to keep them alive instead of disposing of them. But someone from Escobar, I think, delivered them all to Aral/Barrayar.

Katharine: Ah yes, his order was to take a courier to Vorbarr Sultana and the Imperial Military Hospital. Later, when they (or some) are ready to be born, we see Aral and Cordelia there for the birth. At this stage Bothari is still with Aral and we see him get to take guardianship of one of the little ones, who we then find out is one of the results from his awful orders from Vorrutyer. He’s mentally ill and smitten, which is certainly full of discussion. Thoughts?

Tsana: It was weird seeing Bothari (and Koudelka) at the very start of the story. His was a name I remembered from later books but had completely forgotten his origin story (probably because it’s so depressing). The Bothari we first meet on Sergyar was someone I more-or-less recognised, but by the time we run into him again on the Barrayaran warship he’s been transformed into a rape-puppet by Vorrutyer. That was very hard to read, even though I knew Cordelia wasn’t going to die or anything. It’s hard to cheer for someone who has lost himself so completely.

Katharine: It’s a bit worrying that while Bothari tries to care for one of the victims, and knows what to request from Aral to be able to do so… that they don’t save her from him and everyone else at this stage. Although he ‘cares’ for her, after his ‘care’ it’s still rape.

Tsana: That is… tricky. By the time Cordelia comes along that girl has already been “freed” — Cordelia meets her in the normal brig — but I’m not sure whether Aral knew what Bothari was doing while it was happening. He was off-ship a lot and kind of had a lot on his mind with the whole plot to assassinate a startlingly large number of senior Vor. Of course, it shouldn’t be a matter of whether Aral knew at the time, but I think it’s well established that other than Aral, most of the people Bothari interacted with during that period of time were pretty terrible. I don’t think any normal soldiers hung out with him on breaks or anything.

Katharine: That is one thing they do really well - show how much work Aral tries to get done, and how the stress affects both him and Cordelia - to the point of her stutter and his alcoholism, and both of them willing to throw everything away (only to of course be dragged back so we get another book…)

Tsana: I was shocked at how far Aral had slipped when Cordelia finally makes it to Barrayar. I had (again!) forgotten how badly he took the events of the war. And it was kind of surprising how important Cordelia had become to him in such a short period of time. We spend the book inside Cordelia’s head, so Aral’s reactions are often a bit unexpected. Like when he decided he loved her when he saw her vomiting on Sergyar, having only just met her. At least he didn’t tell her straight away!

Katharine: Yes, the insta-love. In any recent book it would have been thrown aside in disgust, and yet in this book it somehow works — maybe because both of them still guard their feelings and focus on their jobs for a while. And maybe because we see them matching morally. Do you think it works, and if so, what makes it work?

Tsana: Maybe it works because they don’t actually announce it straight away. And from the inside of Cordelia’s head it’s less sudden and she does spend a while kind of denying it. Also, I think a modern YA book wouldn’t have the characters getting on with their lives so blithely. Especially when Cordelia’s Betan shipmates come back to save her from the “evil Barrayarans” when she’s pretty safely ensconced on the ship and after Aral has proposed. In a modern YA book she would never have left with them back to Beta.

Katharine: Cordelia doesn’t throw everything away (in fact, improves her rank to captain) while they’re separated, and months pass. So this brings us on to feminism. When Cordelia arrives back home the media adore her, the President meets her immediately and she’s given the highest attention… though she is also dismissed in part as being seen as Aral’s plaything. But back before this, we see that her subordinates adore her, and she’s viewed as a hero to those in the PoW camp and they want to give her special privileges. What else do we witness?

Tsana: Well all that gaslighting which we mentioned above. The official narrative is that Cordelia is a Hero who went through Trauma and must be treated as such. We, the reader, know that what trauma she went through wasn’t what the Betans think, but she isn’t allowed to self-advocate and the Betans refuse to budge from their set narrative of the Escobaran war. Even though they’re supposed to be an enlightened and equal society, when confronted by the un-feminist Barrayarans they seem to fall very quickly back into assuming women can’t be trusted to make decisions for themselves. As if merely encountering misogyny and rape is enough to un-equalise a woman in society. I mean, that’s maybe a bit unfair since the Barrayarans (and everyone else) do have mind-altering medical technology, but stringently refusing to believe any other explanations is not a point in the Betans’ favour. And neither is secretly drugging Cordelia!

Katharine: Absolutely not. (And also interesting that Aral says he drugged her to get that info when in reality he didn’t… I was hoping to find more positive elements of feminism in the book, though :p

Tsana: Well Cordelia being awesome is pretty feminist, isn’t it? She single-handedly quashes a mutiny on Aral’s ship leaving Sergyar (or still in orbit around Sergyar?) and, when she is captured during the war and almost raped, doesn’t actually need to be rescued by Aral. It’s not like there isn’t a reason everyone thinks she killed Vorrutyer.

Katharine: I love how she achieves this all by reading people well, knowing general pressure points, and just being such a force of nature many people just wave her on and wish her well. It’s excellent! I’m disappointed her mother didn’t come through for her more. What do we think about the gender parity?

Tsana: And I think having the guts to leave Beta at the end and go back to Barrayar is also an empowered move. When you say gender parity, do you mean in the sense of character counts? It probably wouldn’t’ve hurt to have more female characters, but part of the point of the Barrayaran army is that it is all male — and how weird that Aral doesn’t give this much thought when Cordelia brings it up near the start. We’re told that the Betans and Escobarans have mixed-gender armies, but the only real evidence we see of this is the other female PoWs. For example, none of the other people on Cordelia’s secret mission that takes her into the warzone were female. I suppose this is partly for plot-expediency reasons (Cordelia “needing” to be singled out by Vorrutyer) but more female characters would’ve been nice. At least all the shrinks on the way home are female?

Katharine: I guess the shrinks part is decent enough - not that they help, at all. As ever, through the majority of the story, Cordelia finds the majority of her support from men. The women in the PoW camp who treat her like a hero also don’t listen to her, and she doesn’t try to mingle with them much.

Tsana: Female shrinks for rape victims makes independent sense too. It is a pity that Cordelia doesn’t get much chance to make female friends in this book. Without spoiling, I will say that there are more female characters in later books, but I’m not sure they ever reach complete equality.

Katharine: There’s a part where Aral says ‘Women shouldn’t be in combat’, though he says it ‘grimly glum’ and it’s when they’re speaking of Elena - Bothari’s victim and mother of his child. In response, Cordelia says ‘Neither should men, in my opinion,’ which is probably one of the best lines in the book. Though it’s not like the robot wars in Star Wars are that great either :p

Tsana: Hahaha. Yes well. A military SF book speaking out against war is pretty out there, really.

Katharine: And then lastly we have an epilogue called "Aftermaths" which you told me was originally a short story, and written before Shards of Honor? Would you like to give a short recap of it, as I think people may have missed it, or forgotten all about it if they read these years ago.

Tsana: Yeah, I had completely forgotten about it. Apparently it was published shortly before the first two novels (but I imagine written at around the same time). To be honest, I’m not sure how it would have stood being read as an isolated short story. It takes a look at a couple of people employed to salvage bodies from space after the Escobaran war. There’s not a lot of plot, really, just a bit of post-war context and some strong “war is bad vibes”. What did you think of it?

Katharine: I loved the one quote, that I shared with you as I came across it. It showed Ferrell as a whiny little shit, and I did like how Boni views the dead. Other than that… it was a little blunt. The quote being: ‘Think of all the work he represents on somebody’s part. Nine months of pregnancy, childbirth, two years of diapering, and that’s just the beginning. Tens of thousands of meals, thousands of bedtime stories, years of school. Dozens of teachers. And all that military training, too. A lot of people went into making him.’ - and I do like how it’s said about the Prince, who is a pretty terrible person.

Tsana: That’s true. That quote was probably my favourite part of "Aftermaths". Very poignant.

Katharine: And I think that’s me done, really! I can’t wait to pick up the next book. I look forward to more female characters, meeting their son, and more excellent banter - Bujold really is excellent with banter. Any last comments?

Tsana: Love the banter! And with that I think we’ve said pretty much everything there is to say.

The next book we will be reading is Barrayar, originally published in 1991 and included in the Cordelia’s Honour Omnibus.

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