Friday, February 10, 2006

Books (Science Fiction): Borders of Infinity [SPOILERS]

Since my last post on the Miles Vorkosigan books, I've finished three more -- I'm way behind in my writeups. So I'm going to try to catch up over the weekend.

The first book I read after Ethan of Athos was Borders of Infinity. Normally, I follow Ethan with Brothers in Arms, but I decided to change things around this time.

Borders is sold as a novel, but it's actually three short stories wrapped in a very thin excuse for flashbacks -- Miles has to explain his expense report to Simon Illyan, his commanding officer, while hospitalized after the events in Brothers in Arms. All of the flashbacks take place before Brothers, but since the framework is set after, I usually read Brothers first. However, the events in the third story in Borders lead directly tothe opening of Brothers, so I decided to read them chronologically this time.

The first story, The Mountains of Mourning, is not part of Miles's report. Rather he thinks back to his investigation of an infanticide in his district shortly before The Vor Game took place. Miles's world, Barrayar, was cut off from galactic civilization for centuries, resulting in the development of a feudal, largely aggrarian society with (among other things) a pathological fear of mutations. Physical deformities in infants usually result in infanticide, though Miles's father, the Prime Minister of Barrayar, has been working hard to change that. Miles, with his (non-genetic) deformities, is often on the receiving end of the anti-mutant prejudice that plagues his homeworld, and The Mountains of Mourning gives Bujold a chance to dig a little deeper into the backwoods of Barrayaran society.

Mountains was reprinted between The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game in the omnibus Young Miles collection, which includes an essay by Bujold about the creation of Miles as a character and the beginning of the series.

The next two stories, Labyrinth and Borders of Infinity, start a chain of events which tie the next several Miles books together. The first few novels are fairly independent -- while each depends on the previous for context, there are few specific incidents in any that directly cause any events in the subsequent ones the way things start snowballing with Borders of Infinity.

Up until now, I've avoided spoilers, but at this point I'm so deep in the series that I can't talk about it coherently without giving away some details of what went before. So here's a recap:

The first Miles book, Warrior's Apprentice, sets the context for everything that follows. By the end of the novel, Miles, who has not yet completed his military training on Barrayar, has (rather accidentally) conned his way into the command of a mercenary fleet under the name "Admiral Miles Naismith" (Naismith is his mother's maiden name). Driven by a desperate need to prove his worth in spite of his deformities -- and a rather bipolar personality -- he convinces Imperial Security and the Emperor to turn his Dendarii Mercenaries into a covert force, secretly operating in Barrayar's interest while appearing as an independent mercenary fleet to everyone else -- and most of the people in the fleet. Only a handful of people anywhere know that Admiral Naismith is Miles Vorkosigan. Most of the members of the Dendarii wouldn't even know that Miles Vorkosigan exists, as Barrayar's a bit of a backwater. Naismith becomes a safety valve for Miles, to keep Barrayar, with its rather oppressive society and prejudices, from driving him mad. Or madder -- he's not exactly the most stable fellow.

Labyrinth gives us our first detailed look at the planet of Jackson's Whole, a former space-pirate base that has evolved into a free-market capitalist's fantasy world. The only law is what you can buy, and you can buy just about anything. The planet is run by "Houses", each specializing in various products -- House Fell sells weapons of any sort, House Ryoval specializes in prostitution and genetics, and House Bharaputra in cloning -- especially growing clones for brain transplants, a practice condemned everywhere outside Jackson's Whole It involves growing the clone as an awake and aware human to the age of ten years (though accellerating the body's development to twice that), then killing the ten-year-old child's brain to replace it with the clone's progenitor's brain. Jackson's Whole plays a major role in the next few books.

In Labyrinth, the Dendarii are commissioned to help a geneticist escape employment from Jackson's Whole (contracts are pretty tough there). Naturally, complications set in, and by the end ofthe story they're leaving Jacksonian space with the geneticist, a quaddie musician, and a 16-year-old genetically engineered super-soldier experiment whom Miles has convinced to join the Dendarii. In the process Miles managed to infuriate Baron Ryoval to the point that the Baron puts a significant price on his head.

Borders of Infinity relates another Dendarii mission, but a very different one from Labyrinth. The Cetagandans are trying to annex the planet Merilac, and Miles has been comissioned to rescue a rebel commander from the Cetagandan war prison on Dagoola IV. Though the Cetagandans are strictly follownig the letter of interstellar law, the prison is a nightmare. It consists of a circular area several hundred meters across encased in a force-field, containing ten thousand prisoners. The law requires a certain amount of space per prisoner -- no problem, the dome is made larger by exactly the right amount every time someone new is added. Prisoners must get 8 hours of light a day -- so the dome glows day-bright all the time. Each prisoner must have so many calories of food a day, so the Cetagandans dump ten thousand nutrition bars through the force field every feeding time, and let the prisoners fight it out.

The story starts with Miles's arrival in the dome as a prisoner. Within moments he's assaulted and stripped. The officer he was to rescue went catatonic long before Miles arrived, so he works out a nwe plan -- rescue everyone, starting with nothing (though we know that the Dendarii must be out there somewhere, figuring into things). The scenario gives Bujold a good chance to play with Miles's manic charisma as he tries to convince the prisoners, some of whom have been in this nightmare for years, to follow him.

By the end of the story, Miles successfully rescues the prisoners, but not without some losses both among the prisoners and his Dendarii.

As I mentioned before, the events in Borders of Infinity lead directly to the opening of the next novel, Brothers in Arms. You don't need to know the story of the Dagoola IV raid to follow Brothers, though -- enough is covered in the opening of the novel to set the scene.

I don't have much to complain about concerning the cover art this time -- it actually does depict a scene from the book (near the end of the Borders of Infinity short story) with reasonable accuracy. Though Miles's hand was quite specifically described as being broken, numb, and bandaged in the story and looks quite healthy on the cover.

That's a lot of typing for first thing in the morning, and it's cold in my office (my fingers are stiff), so I'm going to put off Brothers in Arms for a bit.

No comments: