Sunday, 15 October 2017

Brothers in Arms - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Brothers in Arms is the latest novella we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It falls after Borders of Infinity (the novella), and before Mirror Dance. In this one we get to see what Earth is like in the far future when Miles and his Dendarii mercenaries stop off there for repairs.

You can read Katharine’s review of Brothers in Arms here, and Tsana’s review here.

Katharine: And so we get to see London up close and personal, pretty much from the word go. I would have loved to see more stuff, really. At the end I still only have a Futurama-style twist for the city and that’s about it. Does it still rain all the time there? It didn’t seem to!

Tsana: Yeah, they were in London for the whole book and it didn’t rain. Very unrealistic! And there can’t have been a climate apocalypse because the Thames barriers seem to be in more or less the same place as they are now. And yet we have passing mentions of Lake Los Angeles, and great dykes in New York. Very confusing!

Katharine: For the rest of it, Miles is on his ship as he splits his time down to the wire as Admiral Naismith. When we meet up with him he’s just finished his stint with the Dendarii and needs to cover their funds… something that turns into a bit of a drama.

Tsana: I was surprised at how closely Brothers in Arms followed on from Borders of Infinity. The repairs Miles is commissioning are the direct result of the prison escape in Borders of Infinity. And he’s still upset about those very recent events.

Katharine: He has to report in as his regular Miles self in order to get the approval for funds as part of the secret Denarii-are-really-working-for-Barrayar, and this means reporting to Galeni. Only Galeni is Komarran. Which means…

Tsana: It’s a complicated political situation for Miles on top of the usual complications of juggling his Vorkosigan and Naismith personae. All he wants is to get his Dendarii paid (and pay for the repairs) but because Earth isn’t a hugely important outpost for Barrayar (except for one aspect which we’ll get to later), Captain Duv Galeni, who is the senior military attaché for the Barrayaran Embassy, hasn’t ever been briefed on Miles’s two identities. And, to make things even more awkward, he greets Miles very coldly because of Miles’s father and Aral’s reputation as the Butcher of Komarr and his role in the invasion/annexation of Komarr. Which is one side of it, but since the trouble in Komarr was a while ago now, things have mostly settled down and Komarrans like Duv Galeni are allowed to enter the Imperial Service. But that calm was won through a lot of very careful balancing and politicking by Aral in his Prime Ministerial role. Since Duv Galeni is now suddenly in charge of Miles, if something bad happens to Miles then not only will he be blamed in the usual way for losing a Vor lordling, but it will be assumed that he had Komarran political motivations as well, which could restart conflict with and hence political unrest on Komarr. Phew, that wasn’t straightforward to explain!

Katharine: You did an excellent job! Galeni handles it all pretty well, considering the history of their fathers. He’s quite weary about the seemingly gold spoon life Miles has - thinking that the Dendarii are a little play thing for the little Vorling (as it sure does seem odd), but if anything he’s only a little bitter. He performs his job as dictated, and takes Miles’ instructions (that are certainly above his station) without much grumbling. That is, until the requested funds never seem to come, despite two requests, and ten days of waiting each time (due to the time the messages take to reach across space). Which I found quite interesting, really. As you’re the astrophysicist, do you want to explain to the people who it all works?

Tsana: It’s kind of interesting how the long-distance messaging works in the Vorkosigan universe. Since, in the normal course of events, radio waves and hence messages can’t travel faster than the speed of light, communicating without using wormholes world be very slow. All the planets that are mentioned in the Vorkosigan series are light years apart and so can only be reached using wormholes, which seem to be naturally occurring phenomena (not, as far as we know, in real life, however). Messages can’t be sent directly through wormholes, however, and must be sent to a ship, which jumps through the wormhole with the messages and then sends them on to the next ship/wormhole interchange until their reach their destinations. So messages can travel a bit faster than ships, because they cover the distance between wormholes at the speed of light, but they still have to wait for the ships doing the wormhole jumps, which presumably follow some sort of regular schedule.

Katharine: So, as Miles does happen to be in hiding for his life after all, he starts to suspect Galeni may be up to something. If only hiding the funds for himself, but then what could he be doing with the money? It’s not like he’s run off to their equivalent of the Bahamas… (or I guess it could be the real Bahamas considering they’re on Earth…)

Tsana: Haha, yeah. Well, Miles has a lot of pressures on him, as per usual (though not quite the usual set of pressures). The Cetagandans are angry about the events of Borders of Infinity and have put a hit on Miles. The Dendarii need to not go bankrupt and some of them manage to get into trouble while on R&R. The fact that the pay from Barrayar is late or has been stolen is an additional complication Miles really doesn’t need. He doesn’t want to suspect Duv Galeni, partly because of the political ramifications, but being suspicious in this situation is kind of necessary for his survival. On the other hand, his suspicions of Galeni don’t really fit together…

We should probably engage the spoiler shields now…

Katharine: Until Galeni does actually disappear. They go through his personal effects and files to see if it turns up anything that happens to show him spending all the Dendarii funds (for example), however in these Miles can see that he leaves almost a frugal lifestyle.

Tsana: And eventually he digs deep enough to learn about his family history. At this point, I think I should mention the other function of the Barrayaran Embassy on Earth, which is to track a group of Komarran refugees and to make sure they’re not brewing trouble for the Barrayaran home world. Unfortunately, the Barrayarans missed one important Komarran, who faked his death during a political incident back on Komarr and just so happens to be Duv’s father.

Katharine: Which is all par for the course in Miles’ life, of course. They set to trying to track down Galen (Galeni’s father) and in doing so, walk very neatly into his trap. There’s a job out there seeking someone to kidnap Miles which they take (as the Dendarii), thinking that with Miles in Elli’s very capable hands that they’ll manage to handle things… However, it’s here that in a dilapidated house where they were supposed to meet, that the enemy does a swap instead. They gag him, drug him, and a literal clone of Miles steps up and takes his place. He’s divested of his ID and grandfather’s dagger, and his clone takes over, his every movement and twitch perfect to how Miles himself moves.  

Tsana: The big reveal is that the Komarrans have secretly cloned Miles and trained his clone to take over his life so that they can screw with Barrayar and Aral (they deludedly think they could make their Miles clone Emperor, although we know well that Barrayar would never accept a “mutant” Emperor. I think this is a good point to discuss some of Miles’s reactions to the existence of Mark, the clone. Of course he is upset at first because of the whole plot to replace him thing, but then he starts thinking of Mark as a person. He realises that poor Mark never had a say in anything and is just being used by the Komarrans, whose plan involves killing Mark when they’re done. Miles moves from outrage to pity when he thinks of what his mother would say — the Betan philosophy being that clones count as siblings. What did you think of that aspect of Miles’s thinking?

Katharine: It’s strange how we class someone is often down to legal terms. Miles has a clone who in some areas would barely be considered human, and yet as you say he is considered his brother under his/their mother’s law. It reminds me of the book My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, where a couple have a daughter who has acute leukemia. They then have another child for the sake of having a living and walking perfect match for their oldest daughter, and so although both children are constantly undergoing tests and surgeries only one of them is considered sick. The younger daughter eventually gets medically emancipated so at least she can then make her own decision to help her sister (which she still wants to do, just by her own choice).

In this case, Miles’ clone is of perfect health, and actually had to be broken down a little in order to match Miles. He (Miles) states he knows exactly why his parents never had another child - if they did, they would have been ‘encouraged’ for the younger son or daughter to inherit the vast Vorkosigan estate. Which is interesting in a world that’s so tied up in customs - they’ve got rules for everything right down to how the kids are named, and yet Miles is considered not worthy due to his back and legs and everything else.

So then it comes down to what does it mean to be human? Mark isn’t considered human because he wasn’t ‘born’, but then Miles wasn’t either, and no one is on Beta Colony. He’s otherwise young, fit and healthy (of which Miles is only one of the three. Is he fit? Debatable.)  

There’d be people out there who’ve had so much surgery and internal replacements/enhancements that surely they don’t have much left that they were born with, or was originally natural… so what of them?

What if you were a clone, but were brought up your whole life to think you were just a regular kid. Surely those experiences are what make you human?

Tsana: And I think that is more or less the reasoning behind Beta Colony’s laws. However, Mark was not raised like a normal human. Mark was raised to mimic Miles and not to have any independence. And, furthermore, in this book, Miles is twenty-four and Mark is only eighteen, which barely even makes him an adult. His whole life has basically just been indoctrination. Even if the Komarrans weren’t training him to hate the Vorkosigans, it would be perfectly natural for him to hate Miles after being forced to study him so carefully. I can see where Miles’s sympathy for him comes from.

Katharine: In that way they both had a slightly weird upbringing - though Miles was of course brought up given every chance of living, and Mark has been brought up like in My Sister’s Keeper - to perform a single purpose. Though then, that’s kind of like being born Emperor anyway, isn’t it? Just a single purpose… Anyway! When they have the chance here and there to chat they certainly seem to almost match each other’s intelligence, which must be refreshing. The main thing Miles has on Mark is years of experience out in the field, and he immediately coaches Mark on other things to consider - what drives people - things like how Barrayar would never, as you say, take a mutant to the throne. This is what I loved most about their interactions - Miles acting instinctively like a wiser, older brother. Even when Mark disappears on them more than once throughout the course of their attempts he just wishes him well, and hopes he comes back, and never pushes him.

Tsana: And I like how Miles comes to terms with Mark in that brotherly way, as you say, and in a way that he knows that he himself and his/their mother can be proud of. Also, a slight diversion, but I almost died laughing near the start when Miles made up the story about Admiral Naismith being a rogue clone of Lord Miles Vorkosigan to get himself out of an awkward situation. I realise that was mainly funny because I knew what was coming, but wow, great foreshadowing ;-p

The bit near the end when Miles realises that Mark, now free from his captors, can do anything (and Miles is facilitating that by giving him some money) and feels a pang of jealousy is interesting, even if it’s a common trope. Mark can go be anything now, but Miles has a lot of roles he has to keep on playing.

Katharine: Maybe back in 1989 it hadn’t been done to death as recently :p
What I also really loved in this was the playing around with Admiral Naismith/Lieutenant Vorkosigan, a clone, and so on. The amount Miles has to talk poorly of himself - it’s a wonder he keeps it all straight! I was sure towards the end there was going to be some type of slip up, if only with him doing the right voice at the right time (as each character has a specific accent) and yet he manages somehow to pull it all off.

Tsana: I think by this time he’s had enough practice at being Admiral Naismith that it’s second nature to him. The tricky part is that usually Lord Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith exist in very different contexts, so it’s easy to keep track. What complicates things in this book is that they’re both on Earth at the same time. But still, Miles has the cues of Elli and Ivan to variously remind him which persona he should play (and also the uniforms). But it does seem like things are getting increasingly tangled. It seems like a miracle that Miles managed to not get his Dendarii persona (and hence the entire mercenary fleet) burned. I did feel a bit sad for him when Elli commented that his Barrayaran accent was weird when he put it on, since it’s his more “real” accent.

Katharine: He does have that really good support in Elli and Ivan - whom we haven’t spoken about much yet and we’re getting a bit long. I want a side book about Ivan alone. He plays such a good straight man to Miles’ reckless plans. He’s such a simple man. Good looking, good with the ladies, and seemingly happy to work anywhere and everywhere and keep an eye on his haphazard cousin. Cover for him, be kidnapped for him, but always be there ready and waiting as reliable backup. I’m glad we get to see him be rational and have an opinion on things - it would be so easy, especially compared to Miles, to treat him as a dumb sidekick.

Tsana: Good news! There is an Ivan-centred book! It’s called Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance and it’s one of the last ones, chronologically, so you do have to wait a bit before we get to read it. And Ivan is definitely less stupid than he looks, although he does seem to keep getting the short end of the stick where Miles’s plans are involved.

On the topic of Elli, Miles’s constant worries about taking advantage of her and/or offending her contribute to both of their characterisations in an interesting way. We see them start a proper affair in this book, but it’s not an affair that can end the way Miles would like it to because Elli can’t really cope with his Barrayaran persona (which she would arguably be more married to than the Dendarii persona).

Katharine: I liked how this was handled much more than the uncomfortable whatever-that-was in a previous book. Elli is given much more consideration and options, and he doesn’t just think ‘oh this will all work out fine it’s what we want surely The End!!1’ as it came across… to me, anyway. She’s a smart cookie - who on earth would want that Barrayan life? I’m still a little confused as to why the rest of them put up with it. Aral has a sense of duty to Gregor, which I can understand. Do they all (his wife, Ivan, Ivan’s mother, etc) stay for the same reasons? It’s a massive universe out there…

(And I totally want to jump ahead now to Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance dammit.)

Tsana: You can’t jump ahead! Spoilers! So many spoilers!

But to answer your other question, we have seen Cordelia’s reasoning for staying on Barrayar — a combination of love and an increasingly hostile social environment back home. The others were all born into Barrayar and are Vor and I don’t think leaving is a serious consideration that ever enters their minds (except for when we see Aral promising to run away with Cordelia, which obviously doesn’t work out because Duty). Also, all of the characters you mentioned are from the upper class on Barrayar and actually have it better than Joe Average Barrayaran. And even for the middle classes who might have enough opportunity to leave, they still live in a very insular society and only the men get to go see the rest of the galaxy in the military.

Katharine: Just seems life such a rubbish life for Cordelia/Elli. Do we see who Miles marries in the end??

Tsana: Well, not Elli. Her rejection of that lifestyle is pretty final in this book. Miles is only twenty-four and there is plenty of time for him to find himself a wife who doesn’t mind being married to a future Count. And yes, we do see who that woman is.

Katharine: Eee! Can we go read more now, then?

Tsana: Sounds like a plan!

Join us next time (hopefully after a shorter gap) when we will be discussing Mirror Dance, the next novel chronologically.

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