(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #1.)
I still love the “Vorkosigan Saga” books, but recent events have caused me to reflect more on what is in them and I am finding some aspects uncomfortable. I had tried reading the “Ivan Book” once before and gave up halfway through, but this time I knew I had to power on and it was worth it, in the end. We have a fun, if meandering, science fiction adventure which ends with a literal bang. Ivan isn’t my favorite protagonist as he just lets things happen to him much of the time, but when he needs to be crafty, he is. Tej, the second viewpoint character, is craftier but she gets completely subsumed when her family reappears in the midpoint of the book. (I had given up just prior to that point, during a long section of continuity-porn as Ivan had to interact with as many of the established Vor Saga characters as possible.) That said, I love her love of languages and only wish that Ms. Bujold had gone deeper into how languages evolved on the planet… but maybe no one else wants that.
My problem with the story is twofold: first, there’s a cringy section towards the beginning where Ivan chases after his bride-to-be and he gets… stalkerish. It’s part of the story that he has to get close to her to help a security confidant, but it’s done in such a way that he would not take “no” from the lady for an answer. Fortunately, she had the good sense to stun him. This was followed by a sham-marriage with not-sham sex. Yes, all characters were adults and they could decide whether to sleep together or not, but there was a tremendous power differential. She felt that sleeping with him would increase the chance he would get attached to her and thus keep her safe from her pursuers, but I just found the whole sequence unsettling. Maybe “realistic”, but it bothers me that he would take advantage of her desperation in that way. It was voluntary, but the situation just felt wrong– both that she would use sex to manipulate him and that he would accept sex from someone that was doing it purely because she needed his money and connections. The fact that they fell in love later didn’t change that.
Secondly, I find Ms. Bujold in this book to be bordering on a totalitarianism fetish. Barrayar is a dictatorship where the people lack basic rights, have an absolute monarch as a emperor, a heavy dose of militaristic nationalism, and no rights to freedoms or privacy. ImpSec agents, particularly high-level ones, are judge, jury, and executioner. The emperor’s will goes and they can cover up any wrongdoing if the emperor wills it. The entire ending hinges on this. The government is run as a boys-club (with some women) of high-ranking castes and rich nobles, not unlike European governments of the 18th century. And yet, we are encouraged to forget all that. We are told how happy the people are even though they are “subjects”. The ImpSec agent who can read all your files at a whim with no due process needed is just “Cousin Miles”, and the emperor “Gregor” is practically on a first-name basis with the protagonists. It puts such a happy face on what should be a terrifying and oppressive world because the “good guys” happen to be in charge of everything. Make Donald Trump the emperor with the same power (or Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else), have them stock all the high-level positions with their family like Imperial Auditor Jared Kushner or Imperial Auditor Chelsea Clinton– both with powers of life or death, unlimited access to your home and files, and no oversight except their blood-related “emperor”. It’s terrifying. And Ms. Bujold paints it as a happy place where justice is served instead of a place where you should feel disquiet. Yes, there were “Mad Emperors” in the past, but that is behind us! We’re a friendly dictatorship now!
All in all, it was a nice book and a good start to the year and I am glad to have finished it. I’ll be reading “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen”, the next book, later in the year. My next selection was going to be a random friend-selected book, “A Horseman Riding By” by R. F. Delderfiield, but that will take some time to arrive from the library. (I am also uncertain whether that counts as one book; I’ll have to see when it arrives.) In the meantime, I’m reading “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan.