Monthly Archives: June 2011

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Further adventures with Miles

“The Mountains of Mourning”
My omnibus editions of the Vorkosigan saga continue with “The Mountains of Mourning”, which catches up with Miles shortly after he leaves the Imperial Academy. I was surprised that there wasn’t going to be a whole book of Miles’s exploits at officer training camp, but the final chapter of The Warrior’s Apprentice covers that quite neatly, and “The Mountains of Mourning” is an entirely different beast. Miles is sent to solve a local dispute in his role as Lord Vorkosigan, and we see another side of Barrayar away from the officers and nobles of the previous book – the isolated villages where the peasants of this barely-past-feudal society live. Miles has to investigate the death of a child, one born with a genetic defects that makes it feared and hated by the people, and it’s the first time we hear the rationale for that hatred – that Barrayar was cut off from the rest of the galaxy when their wormhole closed, and the limited genetic diversity of the colonists led to a fear of inbred mutants. Including Miles himself, even though, as he is happy to recount at every opportunity, his physical defects do not extend to his germline. Anyway, it’s a reasonably done mystery, which expands the characterization of Miles and the worldbuilding of Barrayar, and it’s better written than the previous novel, with a much more sombre tone.

The Vor Game
“The Mountains of Mourning” convinced me that the series could rise above entertaining space opera into something even better, and The Vor Game continues the trend. The first section covers Miles’s first assignment as Ensign Vorkosigan, and instead of the ship duty he longs for, he gets sent off to a backwater base to learn how to be subordinate to his superiors. He promptly mutinies (for good reason, but not the best way to prove he can obey orders), and to deal with the inconvenience this causes, he’s sent off to be Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries again, where he investigates, gets kidnapped, discovers a multitude of hidden and double-crossing plots, and wins an enormous space battle that he can never tell anyone about. Again it hinges on convenience, as Miles just happens to get locked up at the same time as Emperor Gregor of Barrayar, who has fled his duties in a moment of personal crisis. I like Gregor, who has to juggle the pressure of ruling three planets with the fear that power will turn him mad, and that something of his mad ancestors is lurking within his genes. He’s not as smart as Miles, although practically no one is, but he’s not incompetent or stupid, just human, and he and Miles have the sort of slightly awkward friend you get when you grew up together and one of you became supreme ruler.

I wasn’t as excited by Cavilo, the sexy yet ruthless lady mercenary, because she doesn’t get to do much beyond being a sexy lady mercenary of unknown motives, and there’s not enough of Elena, the mercenary commander of the previous books. I’m slightly surprised this won a Hugo, although admittedly I haven’t read the rest of the nominees – it’s pretty good, but it’s a similar sort of thing to The Warrior’s Apprentice, only better executed.

Onwards to the “Miles, Mystery and Mayhem” omnibus (who names these things, anyway?), and thanks to reading these in book-chronological order, we’re now at a book written in 1995, combined with a novel written in 1986, and a novella from 1989. And it shows – Cetaganda is by far the best of the three. Miles, along with stupid cousin Ivan, is sent to Cetaganda to represent Barrayar at a noblewoman’s funeral, and gets embroiled in a conspiracy literally from the moment they dock. Cetagandan society and gender roles are complex and opaque to outsiders, and tied up with their genetics and the control of the Cetagandan gene pool, and I found it all fascinating as Miles gets slowly sucked in and realises how wrong many of his early assumptions were. I could do without all the passages about how mesmerisingly attractive the high-ranking Cetagandan ladies are, but Miles does get over it and work with them, and the local security chief who helps Miles’s investigation is nicely sympathetic.

Ethan of Athos
This book feels like a backward step after Cetaganda – the premise is intriguing but the other parts are somewhat lacking. Athos is an all-male society, and Bujold has thought about how reproduction would work, and the plot centres around Ethan, a doctor who is sent to locate more ovarian cultures to enable their society to continue. Inevitably he gets sucked into another conspiracy, and there’s another book of running around finding clues and working out what’s going on, except this time we’re following Ethan, who is not nearly as interesting as Miles, and Elli Quinn, a minor character from The Warrior’s Apprentice who gets to take the lead. Elli is pretty great, as she’s got a huge crush on Miles and uses him as inspiration to get herself out of trouble, but is still resourceful and determined and generally pretty cool. Ethan, predictably, discovers during his time with Elli that not all women are terrifying, and goes back to Athos where he will spark off a revolution. But not the one I expected – instead it’s tied up with the other component of the conspiracy, a genetically-engineered Cetagandan telepath trying to escape what the Cetagandans have planned for him. Together they implant the genes for telepathy in all the ovarian tissue Ethan takes back to Athos, as the limited maternal gene pool of the Athosians ensures that telepaths will slowly become a majority on Athos, rather than a persecuted minority anywhere else. But it’s all a bit cavalier – the telepath, Terrance, was planning to sneak the genes into the gene pool without telling anyone, and in the end Ethan does the same, and for a plan which will forcibly change an entire world, there’s surprisingly little discussion. One telepath was a valuable military resource, and a whole peaceful, barely defended planet of them will surely be of interest to the stronger Cetagandan empire, but the decision is justified because, as Ethan says, “Someone had to make it”, and the planetary authorities will never make a decision. And Athos doesn’t quite make sense – how and why did it come to exist in the first place? Is everyone on Athos comfortably homosexual? There’s mention of parenting roles being shared between relatives and friends, but also hints that Terrance might “grow accustomed to our ways” while he lives on Athos. It’s a case of a book not doing what I want it to do, and in the end that’s my problem; but it also seems strange to set up this whole culture, and use it as the backdrop to more running around a space station.

And back to Miles Vorkosigan for this last novella. And it’s an odd one. Miles is ostensibly buying weapons on Jackson’s Whole, the planet of dodgy weapons dealers. He’s really there to pick up a doctor who wishes to defect to Barrayar, and they are in need of a good geneticist, since they’ve just had a sample of telepath DNA dumped in their lap. Of course it gets more complicated – the doctor has for some reason lodged some previous genetic samples in the calf muscle of a mutant super-soldier, and Miles has to get them back before he’ll leave.

The mutant super-soldier, it turns out, is not just sentient but human, an intelligent teenage werewolf mutant female super-soldier, and Miles does rescue her. Once they’ve had sex. It’s … odd. She initiates it, wanting him to prove to her that she’s human by finding her attractive, and so Miles is forced to comply but turns out to be quite keen on it, and Nine (the aforementioned werewolf mutant super-soldier etc) goes from feral roaring to sex-starved to insecure and needy within about five pages, and we’ve only just met her. I don’t know if there is a good way to do a scene in which the hero deflowers a teenage werewolf, but there are probably worse ways than how it plays out.

The rest is a romp to the finish, as Miles pisses off several powerful houses on Jackson’s Whole but manages to get away unscathed. Unfortunately a key plot point is the destruction of the genetic library of one of these houses, by warming up their freezers, but if you were a powerful businessman whose work depended on your extensive genetic library, would you have one copy? No, you’d have half a dozen independent backup freezers at a minimum, with a copy of all your viral vectors. And a dozen hard-drives with all the sequences so you can synthesize them from scratch, although I’ll forgive that one for a work written in 1989.

Despite the iffiness of the last two works, I’m still enjoying it, and Bujold definitely knows how to write a pacy, twisty plotline and memorable characters. I get the sense that there is a really cracking novel waiting to come out of this series, even if if I haven’t found it yet, and hopefully I won’t be proved wrong. There’s only nine more novels to go…

In which I join the 21st century

I have a traditional method of buying expensive new technology: I think vaguely about it for a few months, then I think seriously about it for a couple of weeks and do a whole bunch of reading, then I dither for another couple of weeks while I decide whether to buy it. This is an excellent habit which saves me from enormous credit card bills, and means I don’t pay the early adopter tax.

In this case I realised that my dream ereader, which has a large colour screen, reads all formats including PDF, and has a battery life of several months, does not exist and is not about to pop into existence. So I bought a Kindle instead.

It is, mostly, made of awesome. It is thin and light, the screen is excellent, the controls are fine and I can read it one-handed while standing up, I can’t tell you how good the battery life is because I haven’t managed to run it down yet. Take two books onto the train? Not any more! I should have bought one ages ago, except it would have been more expensive and not as good, but you get the point. I think I would quite happily read all books from my Kindle.

Now I have an ereader, I have to navigate the murky world of ebooks, formats, and DRM. A few recommendations:

  • Calibre is a piece of software for organising your ebook library. There may be others; I do not know, because everyone recommends Calibre, and that is because it is great. I got it to manage my library, and also because it converts epub to mobi – the Kindle does not read epub, and while most books are available as mobi because otherwise you cut out a big swathe of your audience, the ability to convert is handy.
  • Wizard’s Tower Press is where I bought my first ebook, Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique. I bought it because the paperback would cost me £7, the DRM-ed Kindle version is £3.50, and this copy was £2.99 for a DRM-free version. No contest.
  • Webscriptions sell a lot of books by Baen, but also books by Night Shade Press, all of which are $6 and DRM-free. This is how I bought God’s War, like everyone else who follows Niall on Twitter, but I also picked up Strahan’s Year’s Best 5, and have my eye on a couple more. Baen have also made the entire Vorkosigan saga available for free, because they think that will increase sales – readers will buy the hardbacks, buy copies for their friends, buy future books in the series and other Baen works. I’d be interested to know if this has worked – I think I am more likely to buy future Vorkosigan books, but I have another fourteen to get through before I get to that point, and if they’d made only two or three of them available for free, they might have sold me the other twelve. It’s an interesting strategy, anyway.
  • I haven’t actually bought any books from Fictionwise yet, because I am dithering over whether to get Asimov’s from here, or as a Kindle sub. Fictionwise has the advantage of being DRM-free, but the Kindle sub would automatically send it to my Kindle. What I find fascinating about Fictionwise is that looking at the charts, for multi-format (ie, DRM-free) books, the top sellers have tons and tons of SF&F romance and erotica, and most of it very short. (And also they overestimate reading time, or else I read very fast.) It’s a market I was basically not aware of, but is clearly doing okay.
  • Angry Robot Books have their own online store, where I can buy DRM-free epub. Do any of the other UK imprints have an equivalent?
  • Ebook pricing and availability is obviously a big thing right now. I’m probably more informed than the average book buyer – I know that ebooks have 20% VAT, and I know that not a great deal of the price of a book is the paper it’s printed on – but I still find some ebook pricing confusing.

    Take A Dance with Dragons, which I would like to read as soon as it comes out, and is only out as a hardback sure to be about the size and weight of a brick. Reading it on my Kindle would be a whole lot easier. The ebook is currently more expensive than the hardback, and I realise the book is being heavily discounted, but I don’t want to pay more for the privilege of an electronic copy I can’t lend out. (Or stun a burglar with, but I already have a copy of The Wise Man’s Fear for that.)

    Which brings me to DRM. Books from the Kindle store have DRM on them. I realise that most books I buy and read once, and for a few quid for a paperback, it’s not worth worrying about what happens in the future if I decided to replace my Kindle with another device – I don’t reread that many books, and I might have ditched the physical copy anyway. Still, it bothers me, and I am less inclined to buy books from the Kindle store because of it, and I resent paying the same for an ebook as a physical book when I don’t get all the rights I get with the physical book, namely the right to tell my friends it is brilliant and lend them my copy. I have bought one book from the Kindle store, to give it a spin, and it was absolutely painless, but I am always aware that I am buying a license, and not really buying the book. I know I could strip the DRM pretty painlessly, but I don’t want to do that, and I don’t want to feel like a cheeky pirate for wanting to buy a book and not the right to read it for a while until the servers go down, or they block my account.

    And finally, Cryptonomicon. My copy has literally fallen apart, and an ebook would be perfect. I can only find ebook versions in German. Sort it out.

The Warrior’s Apprentice

The problem with the Vorkosigan saga is that I had no idea where to start. The series has, I think, fifteen books and a handful of novellas and shorter works, and thanks to the Baen Free Library I had most of them, confusingly bundled as omnibus editions. Chronologically seemed a good bet, but do I want chronologically in order of publication, or in order of the internal chronology of the books?

I consulted the internet, which suggested The Warrior’s Apprentice, the beginning of Miles Vorkosigan’s story, was a good place to begin. Miles is the scion of an aristocratic family on the planet of Barrayar, and the book opens with his failure to enter the military academy there. In true heroic fashion, Miles is daunted by this setback, but recovers to go and visit his grandmother on Beta Colony, where he accidentally acquires a ship, and goes on to acquire a crew of mercenaries, retake an asteroid mining factory from invaders, gather an entire mercenary fleet, break a military blockade, and go on to beat charges of treason and uncover corruption among the ruling class of Barrayar.

Did I mention he’s seventeen?

Written down like that, it sounds faintly ludicrous, but as you’ve guessed given these books are hugely successful award-winners and there are many of them, Bujold carries it off. It’s mainly because of Miles, whose point of view we follow for the whole book. He might be a priveleged child of the upper classes, he’s also disabled, and fails to enter the academy when he breaks both legs due to his own physical shortcomings but also out of frustration and pride. He’s in love with Elena, the daughter of his faithful bodyguard Bothari, and the early chapters are filled with his flowery descriptions of her shining hair, long-legged beauty, etc, etc, to an extent which might be annoying if it didn’t remind us of Miles’s youth, and it if weren’t neatly subverted by the way it doesn’t all work out in the end. Elena herself is also well-drawn, with her own story and agency, and gets to escape her social standing and become the brave warrior and leader that Barrayan society would never let her be (albeit as second-in-command to a man).

It rattles along just on the right side of ludicrous for a while. Miles just happens to turn up in the right place to end up with a ship and a pilot, but since that sets the rest of the plot in motion, it can be forgiven. While there’s a lot of luck involved in Miles’s success, it’s backed up by audacity and nerves, and since we always see Miles’s side of events, we can see exactly how close it is to all falling apart. Miles grows into his new role as “Admiral” Naismith of a mercenary fleet without becoming instantly self-assured and able to cope, and suffers moments of doubt and black depression. While his aristocratic upbringing helps, he couldn’t bluff his way through his adventures without his own intelligence and knowledge of human nature, and the help of Elena, Bothari, and a host of other characters he picks up along the way.

Still, I might have written it off as merely an entertaining bit of military space opera, except for the turn it takes about two-thirds of the way through, when a dangling plot thread about the identity of Elena’s mother pays off in an unpleasant and gruesome way, and hints at a deeper story involving Miles’s father, a past war, and the whole Barrayaran military. The last third of the book returns to Barrayar and the complex political state of the empire, and it’s far more intriguing than the mercenary plot of the middle of the book. It comes close to info-dumping when Miles’s cousin turns up, as Ivan is quite dim compared to Miles and therefore good for Miles to explain the working of the plot to, but the ending is just about saved from being too neatly wrapped up by what Miles’s father has to do to save him from charges of treason, and by the interesting glimpses into the workings of the court and the Emperor himself.

It’s not a brilliant work – the writing is often clumsy, and too many lines are said adverb-ly. I got stuck on lines like “He came to a species of attention, querying his bodyguard with puzzled eyes”, and a character exclaims at a pivotal moment, “I love you as I love breath […] but I can’t be your annex”. Yes. Still, I know there’s an awful lot of love for these books, I hear the prose gets better, and even if the rest of them don’t bring interstellar political and military intrigue, they may work on a Sharpe-in-space level, and that’s not such a bad thing to be.