Alexandra's Reviews > Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem

Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem by Lois McMaster Bujold
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Jul 04, 11

bookshelves: read-in-2011
Read from June 27 to 30, 2011

** spoiler alert ** Tehani and I continue our very enjoyable review series of the Miles Vorkosigan saga with the first story from the third Miles omnibus - the novel Cetaganda.

ALEX:

I really enjoyed this story! Miles - and Ivan - are sent on what ought to be a relatively boring diplomatic mission to bear witness to the Cetagandan Empress' funeral, and of course things go haywire from the first moment. Mischief certainly seems to dog Miles' footsteps. There's an attempt to frame him as part of a conspiracy against Cetaganda (Barrayar's longstanding rival) and several attempts to wound and/or assassinate him - as a result of which Miles ends up investigating a potentially enormous Cetagandan conspiracy, involving the genetic inheritance of that race. Miles falls in love (well, in lust), goes to parties, gets hurt, and meets the Emperor... pretty much a standard fortnight, as far as I can tell, for him. There were a goodly number of twists and mysteries and surprises to keep me guessing and intrigued - it was much more a detective story than a space opera. It just happens to be set on an alien planet with a whole lot of genetic engineering going on (those kitteh plants are just weird). I allowed myself to be carried away by the story and didn't spend too much time trying to outthink Miles (or Bujold), so the ultimate revelation - that it was a haut woman married to a ghem man, conspiring with a planetary governor - was a surprise, albeit one that made perfect sense.

TEHANI:

I was certain I remembered this as one of my least favourite Miles books, but on rereading, I found it really enjoyable. I think I know the source of my mistaken assumption though - it is very much, as you say, a detective story, with barely any space opera-ish events! Nothing wrong with that, but when read in the wrong order (ie: after a bunch of action-packed Miles adventures), it was a little tamer by comparison…

ALEX:

I can understand that coming at it from a more adventurous story would be weird. For me, it worked - The Vor Game isn't exactly packed with space battles.

On the gender politics: I though the revelation and discussion of the intricate power balances within Cetagandan society were really interesting from a gender point of view. Miles' surprise at the power that the haut women had, and the way in which it manifested, was perfectly appropriate: he wasn't surprised they had it, but the way they had it, I think. The very idea that they have power over the development of the ghem and haut genetic development is a neat twist on the idea of maternal responsibility for children, I think. I'm not sure what to make of the ending, in light of this - the Emperor 'marrying' the Handmaiden, attempting to gain control over it? Will Rian give up control, or is the power structure too embedded?

TEHANI:

That's a good point and I hadn't really picked it up! I think that Miles, for all that he has grown up in a male dominated society, is pretty damn accepting of women in powerful roles (mainly thanks to his mother, no doubt). So you're right, that was expressed well here, and it was mostly Miles trying to adjust his own notions of what an imperial society looks like, and who has the power.

To me, it seemed that Rian cemented her power base by "marrying" the Emperor, and I really couldn't see how it would benefit him more than her. However, it was a smart move by the Emperor, at the same time!

ALEX:

hmm, perhaps you are right about Rian. Perhaps it's both being pragmatic about how best to deal with a dangerous situation, and do what is best for the haut, which seems to be the overriding concern for both anyway.

On Cetagandan society: there have been references to the ghem and haut in other novels, if briefly, so it was good to get some greater understanding about what the heck is going on in this society. I still can't say that I entirely understand it! It's a fascinating way of thinking about genetic engineering as a way for society to express itself, and as a way of bettering itself too. Miles has some interesting insights into their collective attitude towards expansion which I still need to think about; there's certainly an assumption - on Miles' part as well as the Cetagandans - that expansion must happen, but quite why this is so imperative is opaque to me. One of the unfortunate things about the name choices is Bujold's habit of saying "the haut Rian," because I couldn't help but read that as "the hawwwt Rian"...

TEHANI:

It is a really interesting way to consider genetic engineering. Expansion I think is a theme right from the beginning of the saga though - after all, Cetaganda invaded Barrayar when it was rediscovered; Cordelia and Aral met on opposites sides of a planetary claiming of Sergyar. It's almost like the Wild West - who can claim the most planets, even when (like Komarr and the Betan colony), they are barely livable! But expansion is the reason Earth went a-colonising in the first place I guess, and despite all other advancements, humans are STILL overpopulating their habitats.

We need to talk more about the portrayal of the Cetagandan society when we look at Ethan of Athos - this book was written nine years AFTER Ethan, even though it precedes it in the internal chronology, and I think it's one of the few places where Bujold mucks up her consistency with all the popping around. I like what she does with Cetaganda here better, for the record.

ALEX:

Ethan of Athos, up next!

On the characters: I so knew Maz was going to end up with the ambassador. Saw it a mile off. I enjoyed Lord Yenaro immensely - the idea of scent-work being a worthy art to pursue is delightful. Rian was... I was going to say impenetrable, but that gives all sorts of nasty implications. She was appropriately hard to fathom, I guess. I liked that she was mysterious and that it made sense for her character. Having Miles fall in love/lust with her makes sense, because of her great beauty and her untouchability. Miles continues to develop here, although it was hard to remember how young he was supposed to be - so much has happened to him! And Ivan isn't nearly so annoying as he threatened to be in earlier books.

TEHANI:

I loved Maz! And I loved that the Ambassador loved Maz. I think it's a very clever thing Bujold does with her minor characters - it's very subtle and I wonder if you'll notice it. Frequently there's some little side story or a throwaway characterisation that shows about how some Barrayaran person or other has taken a step outside the old-fashioned, quite restrictive societal norms of the planet. Look out for these! They are showing the progression and modernisation of the planet from a sideways view!

I also loved Ivan in this. You need to watch Ivan closely too, as the series progresses. I want to talk more about him, but I won't, til you've read some more books :)

ALEX:

ooooh you are giving me such teasers! I did wonder whether she was going to keep Ivan in a cute-Obelisk kinda role, or whether he would develop greater diplomatic insights as time went on. On Maz etc, t's so nice to see secondary characters actually having a life outside of their interactions with the principal cast.

Questions: will Miles indeed have more to do with the Emperor Giaja? Will Miles ever be allowed to leave the planet again? What are Elena Bothari and the Dendarii Mercs up to??

TEHANI:

You know, I can't remember if Miles runs across the Emperor (or Rian) again! Could they really STOP Miles from going space-side? :) As for the Dendarii, just wait... :)

ALEX:

ARGH. Mooooore Miles to come!

Ethan of Athos

ALEX:

This novel started enjoyably enough, if weirdly, what with the discussion of uterine replicators - it is an unusual enough thing to encounter in SF that imagining a roomful of the things with an attending physician is weirder for me than reading about FTL! Anyway, things then got even weirder, and for me way harder to read, when it's revealed that these replicators are being used because Athos is a world populated entirely by men.

TEHANI:

It's really clever, the way it starts out. We know about uterine replicators because of Cordelia's story (and Elena's too, in fact), and so we naturally assume these are simply gestating children for some parents of the "usual" type. It's quite a shock when we find out differently! It was a good introduction to the world though, setting us up to be fond of the main character.

ALEX:

The opening few chapters, those set on Athos, were quite a trial for me to read. The misogyny was so believably portrayed that, were this my first encounter with Bujold and/or I thought it was written by a man, I would probably have given up in disgust and never touched the series again. I swallowed my bile and continued because I figured a) Bujold deserved some trust after the characters of Cordelia and Elena, and b) neither Tehani and Tansy would have put up with that sort of crap. Turns out, thankfully, that this was a fair decision. Of course.

TEHANI:

Of course! Would we steer you wrong? I think (our friend) Alisa might have stumbled into that problem though - have a feeling it may be the books she tried to start with, which really isn't a good idea. Readers, be warned! Ethan of Athos is NOT the place to start reading this series!

ALEX:

Whoa, I cannot imagine starting with this book.

TEHANI:

Having said that, I didn't have the same reaction as you. For some reason, I wasn't offended that this was a lifestyle choice made by a group of men a couple of centuries earlier. I guess I read it as that while yes, some of the men making up the colony originally might have been women haters, others would have joined for different reasons. And many years later, there is that whole whisper game that's gone on about what women are like, causing both inaccuracies and naivity in the current generation. Ethan's own reaction probably demonstrates that best, when he reads the scientific journal and can't tell which articles are by men and by women! (Hilarious, by the way, in light of recent discussions on just that!). I was more cross that the children growing up on Athos weren't educated about the outside world, and women, in any sort of way other than to dismiss or demonise them. Hmm, maybe that's what you mean!

ALEX:

I think I find the very idea of men wanting to escape from women in this permanent way - since that's what the planet is all about - irrational and offensive, when they also want to ensure continuity of their genes. They're not giving their sons the chance to make the choice for themselves. There are some lines that really struck me - the "revolted silence" that greets the idea of growing female fetuses to harvest their ovaries, for example. It is a revolting idea, but the men are revolted by the idea of women being present in any real way on their planet. The way that some of the characters spoke of genetic choice I also found uncomfortable.

Anyway, the ovaries that Athos has been using for 200 years to develop their foetuses from are coming to the end of their productive lives. Ethan is an... obstetrician, I guess... who discovers that the replacements they've purchased are not what they thought. In turn, he gets sent on a mission off-world, to get some more. This of course means that he has to deal with that sin-inducing entity, Woman. His first encounter on the station where he disembarks is with just such a personage... who turns out to be Elli Quinn! Tehani, she is back in my life, just as you promised! Ethan ends up getting involved in a Cetagandan mess concerning genetic experiments with telepathy. He learns that women are not (necessarily) the enemy - although he does end up going home, to Athos, and mostly happily.

TEHANI:

Yep, it's an overdose of Elli! She's so awesome, and I think this book is fantastic because it really sets her up as an intelligent and resourceful person all on her own, not just as a sidekick to Miles. Well played Bujold!

ALEX:

Yeh, I am definitely an Elli fan.

Athos as a planet is a really interesting place. I'm very interested to hear, Tehani, what you think of it coming from a mother's perspective. Like I said I found the misogyny hard to deal with. As a society, though, I was fascinated. The idea of earning social credits so that you can become a Designated Alternate - and the idea that being a parent is actually, hugely, valued in society. Ethan's shock and horror that parenthood should be treated as unpaid labour was quite welcome coming from a male character! The idea also that celibacy is an accepted part of society was nice to see, as was the genuine love for children and Ethan's desire to have a large, connected family.

TEHANI:

I think the actual societal model is brilliant! There are some people who really shouldn't have kids, and parenthood is definitely undervalued in our society - to have both issues dealt with (in what I think is actually a very smart and sensible model) was a delight. Somebody make that world with women and I'll be there! :)

ALEX:

Cetaganda does not come off well in this story at all. Their genetic experiments are shown as just that, experiments, and the idea that they might just possibly be serving an admittedly somewhat dubious greater purpose - as demonstrated in Cetaganda - is barely alluded to. This is one of the disparities between the two stories.

TEHANI:

See, this is where it fell apart a bit for me. Terrence and his background simply don't fit the Cetagandan societal mould set up in Cetaganda! Here's a quote (from p 319 in the paperback omnibus) to demonstrate:

"Is Cetaganda - controlled by women or something?"

A laugh escaped her [Elli]. "Hardly. I'd call it a typical male-dominated totalitarian state, only slightly mitigated by their rather artistic cultural peculiarities…"

It goes on to talk about genetics projects headed by men, sponsored by the Cetagandan military. In Cetaganda though, genetics is the sole province of women, right? And telepathy is NEVER hinted at!

Later (p 373), this conversation takes place:

There was no talk at all of ever admitting him to the ghem-comrades, the tightly-knit society of men who controlled the officer corps and the military junta that in turn controlled the planet of Cetaganda, its conquests, and its client outposts.

It all just feels WRONG given what we know from Miles' adventures on Cetaganda - which surely Elli knows too!

Ethan of Athos was published about ten years before Cetaganda though, and therein lies the problem. Bujold obviously changed her mind about how she wanted Cetaganda to work between the two books, but reading them in close proximity makes the continuity issues very apparent. I like the Cetaganda version better (as I mentioned in the last review) and I think comparing the two, it's pretty easy to see why Bujold changed track there. Terrence's Cetaganda, what we see of it, seems just another male-dominated society, whereas the exploration of the society we see in the novel Cetaganda gives us a very different norm.

Bujold's afterword in the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus which contains these stories is interesting for her discussion on the way she let the Cetagandans evolve in their own book, rather than just being the "rather all-purpose bad guys" they started out in the earliest stories. She also talks there about extra-uterine replication and genetic engineering, themes in all three books to one extent or another, making it a great wrap up to the sequence!

To be fair, I think the Cetagandan glitch one of the very few continuity problems with the Vorkosigan saga as a whole, so maybe I'll simmer down and just let it slide now :)

ALEX:

It is indeed an interesting look at lack of continuity. I'd be interested to know what sort of notes Bujold kept!

Miles does not feature in this story personally. He does get several mentions, though, as Quinn reflects on her ?love/admiration? for him, and the role that she is playing within the Dendarii Mercenaries as an information agent. It's a curious part of the Miles universe in that sense, and I can't help but wonder whether Bujold considered a series featuring Quinn in her own right....

TEHANI:

OOOH!! What a GREAT IDEA!! Let's write to her and ask her for that :)

I liked the ending of this book - I think Ethan shows tremendous but believable growth throughout the story, and his admiration of Elli is expressed in the most important way he can. Perhaps taking Terrence back with him and the little hopeful romance projected are a bit trite, but overall, it works pretty well.

ALEX:

I was shocked at first by Ethan's request/suggestion that he take one of Elli's ovaries, but came around to your point very quickly - that it's an expression of immense respect, actually. Terrence is the character we haven't spoken of much yet - he's quite the enigma, since Elli and Ethan have slightly different takes on him and the Cetagandan has a very different view. I actually wondered, towards the end, whether the Cetagandan was telling the truth and that Terrence would actually end up betraying Ethan, so I was pleased to discover that he was on the up and up. And I didn't think the romance was that trite, in the end.


"Labyrinth"

The Omnibus is complemented by the novella "Labyrinth" which rounds out quite nicely, I think, a discussion of genetic engineering in the Vorkosigan universe. Miles gets employed to pick up a disaffected geneticist from Jackson's Whole. Things (of course) go somewhat awry, and Miles ends up having to retrieve a genetic package... which is secreted in the leg of a genetic experiment... which is locked in a dungeon at the bottom of a very nasty man's research facility. The genetic experiment turns out to be a fanged, clawed and 8-foot-tall 16 year old girl.

TEHANI:

And isn't it fun how Miles' adventures ALWAYS go awry? One of my favourite things about the books.

ALEX:

SO MANY DISASTERS.

I enjoyed this story, and it was nice to get back to Miles relying on his wits to get things done - and, this time, actually finding that his lack of height is af advantage, when having to crawl through ducts. I will admit to being a bit uncomfortable about Miles' sexual encounter with Taura - no matter that she's huge, she's still young! And I'm not comfortable with the idea that sex can be used quite so (ahem) mercenarily - not and have both parties apparently enjoy it. Yes yes, perhaps I am confused in my attitude towards this bit; I'll be the first to admit it!

TEHANI:

Yep, I struggled with that too. So many reasons this is not cool. From one angle, if you squint, it could be said that Bujold is using Miles like women are often used in books - as a sacrifice on the altar of sex in order to get to a higher goal. But yeah, Taura is so young, and naive, and unsophisticated, that it's just icky. It also makes me wonder why, exactly, the character had to be this age? Miles is 23 in this story, and it's something that bothers me a lot - if there's no real reason the character couldn't be a year or two (or three) older, why not make them that? I mean, Taura has a shortened life span, so making her 16 means Bujold can get more years out of her I guess, but really? It's her own world building she's dealing with! And while we aren't going to read Falling Free in the reread (it's not a Vorkosigan book, it doesn't count I tell ya!), Bujold does the same thing with a character there too, which also squicked me (and is one of two main reasons I don't really like the book - the other being, it's not MILES!). So yeah, not cool, especially when it's avoidable. If Bujold ge
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Reading Progress

06/29/2011 page 250
50.0% "Finished Cetaganda!"
06/29/2011 page 400
79.0% "Finished Ethan of Athos last night, and wasn't THAT weird..."

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