Thursday, 6 April 2017

Barrayar - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Barrayar is the second book we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially follows on from Shards of Honour, but was actually not published until 1991, five years and several other books later. It follows Cordelia as she grapples with having moved to Barrayar and the external events which make that even more difficult than it might have originally seemed.

Tsana: This was an interesting book to come back to. Certain events that happen later in the book are kind of burned into my brain from my first readthrough and I spent the entire first half or so (maybe it was less than that) anticipating the oncoming storm. I had forgotten how staid the opening was!

Katharine: From a new reader the first part of the book was quite nice - almost a little domestic, having the side-character’s romance as the biggest worry of our main characters… and then it starts having minor instances of things to worry about - which also made it even more realistic - they have all the intelligence and spies and such, in some books the action would just Happen Without Warning to be ‘dramatic’ whereas in this half the worry is because they know what is about to happen.

Tsana: Yep. And really, given Aral’s critical position in running the planet, it would have been really silly for there not to be any warning of things to come. But before we get to the really spoilery bits that we’re going to have to put behind a cut, let’s talk about some of the other elements, especially in the early parts of the book. When Cordelia came to Barrayar, she knew Aral was probably going to eventually become a Count but, as we saw at the end of Shards of Honour, he actually has a much larger role to play in Barrayaran politics, even before he was made Regent. I think Cordelia did a reasonable job of taking this in her stride. What do you think?

Katharine: I think she had her suspicions that neither of them were going to happily retire, and as we see in Shards of Honour she may not like it, but she also understands and is quite passionate about the fact he’s the best one for the job. Though at the same time, I was a little surprised at the instances she tells him regardless, he has to put his family first - which is interesting. Noble, of course, and good on her … just, not expected.

Tsana: I think she starts off seeing Barrayaran politics as a bit of a joke. Except also not since she was there for the war in the previous book and knows more about it than most. But the war is over, everything is fine and she can focus on being a Barrayaran Vor lady, even if there’s also suddenly this whole Regent Consort thing to deal with. Basically, no very high demands are placed on her near the start and she’s more or less left to focus on her pregnancy and impending motherhood. I think motherhood/pregnancy and the differences between Beta Colony and Barrayar are one of the key ways Bujold uses “backwards” Barrayar to shine a light on some of our real-world society’s faults, along with many other instances of misogyny/gender inequality and heteronormativity depicted in the book.

Katharine: Agreed, and yet Bujold is careful to not go over-the-top as I expect some others would do - it still feels quite accurate and believable. Although Barrayar feels quite advanced as far as weapons technology is and so on, it certainly doesn’t care about its people. I’d love to see more about Beta Colony and their tech - it all sounds fascinating! I also think it’s interesting that we see the majority of Barrayar’s way of thinking via Aral’s father, Piotr.

Tsana: Yes, and the animosity from Piotr towards Cordelia’s way of life pretty much only grows, despite all the good Cordelia manages to accomplish. Especially once baby Miles comes into the picture. I liked how certain ideas gradually become more prominent in the text. For example, we had some hints about ableism in Barrayaran culture in Shards of Honour, and in Barrayar we see Koudelka with his walking stick not coping too well with his new disability. But then we witness Cordelia sitting behind some chaps who call Koudelka “spastic” which is the first really blatant piece of ableism we are slapped with in the series. This foreshadows the ableist attitudes from Piotr and others towards baby Miles.

Katharine: At least they have the ability to seem abashed when Cordelia confronts them on it. I was actually really impressed with how charming Piotr could be when he was happy with the idea of getting a grandson, and then how instantly he turns all hackles raised and all. BUT, then, when the trouble really starts he does count his family first, and does good by Cordelia. Should we activate the spoiler shield now to get into the nitty gritty?

<spoilers start here>

Tsana: Spoiler shields raised! I found it a bit hard to read his complete dismissal of Miles as a viable future person. In large part because I’ve “met” adult Miles in the later books. I wasn’t paying as much attention to ableism when I first read the books, but it’s a pretty strong theme that’s hard to miss, even so. Also, I think no one told Piotr that Aral might have become sterile in the same attack that damaged Miles, which seemed a bit odd to me. Given how important having an heir is, I thought that might be used to win him over.

Katharine: Even as someone who has no clue about Miles at all, Cordelia really helps with that instinctual care and connection that even if you wanted to get into the debate of when do cells and blood change to be considered a human being - you don’t care - you want their child to exist. Though I have to admit, I didn’t understand with all their resources why they couldn’t sweep in and steal her mum to come out for the birth. And with that, some tech to check that everything will be okay…

Tsana: She didn’t really leave on the best of terms with her mum, though. And it’s a few weeks to travel, I think? With the chemical attack things were a bit more urgent than that. Lucky they had those uterine replicators from the war, eh? And it’s a good thing that Cordelia had a) the life experience and b) the determination to make them do the placental transplant operation. Baby Miles becomes the baby that it took a lot of technology to save and keep. The contrast with this is Baby Ivan, Miles’s cousin, who was carried the natural way and whose poor mother, Alys, ends up giving birth to practically in an alley during a war. But he’s the big, strong, healthy baby and Miles is the little sickly one whose bones were first broken minutes after birth. And that comparison between the two is always going to be there for Cordelia.

Katharine: This is true, but as we see with Piotr family should always be family. Although Beta seems to be much more mental health friendly, she doesn’t seem to have as strong a connection with her mum? The chemical attacks were certainly more urgent, but she mentions often throughout the book how she misses certain things from Beta or her mum. But yes, it provides Cordelia the opportunity to be the stronger character all the way through.  

Tsana: Speaking of Beta being more mental health friendly, it’s nice to see Bothari doing better than in the first book, even if there are a few hiccups along the way. He seems like a character who wouldn’t have much of a chance if it weren’t for Cordelia and Aral, particularly given Barrayar’s approach to mental health (as well as actual events that might have happened differently without Cordelia there). How horrible were the scenes where he gets headaches from resurfacing memories? So cringe! :-/

Katharine: That certainly was quite confronting. I find it a little perplexing that they didn’t have some kind of follow-up treatment for him? Not that I was expecting anything - in Barrayar it certainly seems to be like if you can keep all your own limbs then it’s up to you to do everything else for your own survival.

Tsana: I suppose it’s reflective of some of the extremely poor mental health care in our world. And, now that I think about it, is actually another look at ableism from Bujold, looking at the mental illness side of things as well as the physical illness which is personified by Kou and to some degree Miles (more so in later books).

Katharine: Also true. So, should we discuss their rather harsh views on ‘kill the deformed one’ and Piotr in general?

Tsana: We don’t really see Piotr’s attitude change very much in this book. There’s a glimpse of him becoming more tolerant in the epilogue (while little Miles is trying very hard to impress him), but otherwise he allows his prejudice against his unhealthy grandson come between him and his son. That’s a very strong prejudice given how important family is. It’s also yet another way in which Aral is shown to be more progressive and understanding than his father.

Katharine: Do we see why Aral is more progressive than his father? If he’s surrounded by like-minded people then it must have been hard for him to come to his own decision on things…

Tsana: Well, Aral grew up with access to galactic culture from the outset, whereas Piotr was born near the end of the Time of Isolation, when Barrayar was cut off from everywhere else. The rediscovery of Barrayar brought an influx of technology and upheaval, so I can see why Piotr might have negative associations to new ideas. Although we’re also told he’s pretty progressive for his generation, so I suppose it could be worse. Also there is the whole thing with Aral being bi. I think we’re all supposed to be a bit amused by the scene where Vordarian tries to ruin Cordelia’s marriage by telling her Aral is bisexual. (Although separating monogamy and bisexuality in Cordelia’s response is problematic in today’s discourse, I think we must make allowances for the book being twenty-six years old.) Aral might have some residual issues around Vorhalas, but he seems to have adjusted better than Vorhalas did to his laterly unrequited love.

Katherine: Put like that it all makes much more sense - at the time of reading it all felt pretty natural, and only upon thinking back it was more of a ‘hey, how is Aral so well adjusted after all?!’ And he also has his own moments where Cordelia does have to gently nudge him into meditating on his own priorities. Well. Good! Another question for you then. Cordelia thinks nothing else matters as much as her child - something many people would agree with, of course. Though then someone (I think it’s Aral?) asks her how many people need to die to save their child - or something along those lines. It begs the question, how many lives are worth another? Do you think the book explores that topic?

Tsana: To a degree, but not quite as much as the previous book. I suppose it’s a response to Shards of Honour in which Emperor Ezar decided that it was worth losing five thousand lives to get rid of his horrible son. Aral is of course very torn up about that, and not many other people know about it (Cordelia and Illyan are the only surviving characters that know, I think?) but the question of how many lives are worth saving one is sort of the reverse of that situation. And it’s not just a question asked with respect to saving Miles — in the end Cordelia probably saves quite a few lives by killing Vordarian in a way that wouldn’t have worked for almost any other group of people — but also with respect to saving Gregor and keeping the little Emperor safe from Vordarian. Aral is faced with ultimata along the lines of “give us Gregor and we’ll end this war” but has to weigh up the inevitability of Vordarian being a much worse emperor or regent than Aral himself is. I think all our sympathetic characters are doing what they think is best for the country/planet, but to Cordelia putting her child first isn’t very detrimental the way she does it. I think Aral wasn’t surprised when she ran off to save Miles, but it wasn’t something that he could do himself, because sending in the army or a SWAT team would have much larger ramifications.

Katharine: To be fair, Ezar was spot on with his son. I’d almost call that a worthy death. Cordelia killing Vordarian is pretty epic. It felt realistic to get Cordelia to that place so she could be the only one to get away with it basically… Do you think Cordelia would have acted differently if Aral was there with them?

Tsana: We’ve seen Cordelia be pretty happy going off on her own as well as being happy working with Aral. But Aral’s presence would have surely changed the dynamic in their little team. Not to mention the fact that he would have had much more difficulty sneaking into the capital!

Katharine: Well now all I want to do is keep reading! Shall we?

Tsana: Absolutely!

The next book we’ll be reading is The Warrior's Apprentice, first published in 1986 and the first book (chronologically and in publication order) about Miles Vorkosigan. Join us in about a month for the discussion post.

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