Escape Velocity

The Vor GameThat singularly awesome part of the science fiction universe known as “space opera” is currently enjoying something of a renaissance, thanks to the extravagantly imaginative novels of writers like Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, and Peter F. Hamilton. Adding morally ambiguous verisimilitude to their widescreen-worthy concepts and imagery, these writers have made it once more acceptable (and profitable) to tell sweeping tales of empires that span star systems and the nifty ships that traverse the countless light-years between them.

But while those works have been pushing space opera in increasingly massive (and occasionally incomprehensible) directions, Lois McMaster Bujold has co-opted the forms and flavors of the genre for her long-running Vorkosigan Saga, which manages to retain the epic grandiosity and exciting adventure of its science-fiction roots while keeping the focus of its storytelling on a much more human scale. The end product is a series that has stayed consistently, addictively readable through fifteen novels (so far) and six shorter works.

When I tell you that the series is centered around a manic depressive dwarf named Miles Vorkosigan, you might wonder, “What kind of hero is that?” Trust me when I tell you that Miles is one of the most appealing creations in all of science fiction, and his sizeable supporting cast isn’t far behind.

While Miles is the putative main character of the series, starring in ten of the fifteen novels and appearing in most of the others, the series actually begins in Shards of Honor (first published in 1986) with the love story of Miles’ parents.

Shards of HonorCordelia Naismith is captaining a survey ship from the egalitarian Beta Colony when an attack on her exploration party maroons her with Lord Aral Vorkosigan, an infamous military leader from the feudal, socially stratified planet Barrayar. While their respective homeworlds have gone to war with each other, the experiences Cordelia and Aral share will affect that war greatly, and the two supposed enemies wind up marrying.

But their life as Lord and Lady Vorkosigan on Barrayar is disrupted again by war when the death of the Barrayaran emperor leads to a free-for-all scramble for the throne. In the course of that conflict, a very pregnant Cordelia is caught in a chemical attack, and as a result Miles Naismith Vorkosigan is born with physical defects (brittle bones and stunted growth) that will shape his eventful life.

Regarded (erroneously) as a mutant by the virulently purist Barrayarans, who are generally horrified that the scion of one of Barrayar’s most important families is not a strapping portrait of manly manhood, Miles encounters a lot of obstacles merely growing up. Despite everything, he believes that his gifted intellect will allow him to follow in his father’s footsteps and earn glory in the Barrayaran military. Needless to say, the Barrayaran military has other ideas.

His mother’s side isn’t much help—being raised largely within Barrayar’s militaristic, tradition-heavy culture has left Miles equally incompatible with the liberal, open society of Beta Colony.

The Warrior's ApprenticeSo Miles has little choice but to make his own place in the universe. In the process, he’s going to make and lose many friends and many enemies, get into insane amounts of trouble with alarming (and entertaining) regularity, and find himself in over his head in more than one history-making event.

One of the nice things about the Vorkosigan Saga is that, while it certainly doesn’t skimp on the storytelling popcorn, it also manages to have Something To Say, mostly about duty and one’s relationship with where one comes from. Each novel slips plenty of food for thought in with the zip and zing. It doesn’t say anything facile or cliché on those topics either—Miles is, wonderfully, a fully-realized character whose feelings about his heritage and his future are complicated, utterly believable and, as presented by the very talented Bujold, easy for the reader to connect with. He’s given to bouts of morose introspection, savage sarcasm, and acts of huge self-sacrifice. Repeatedly, Miles weighs how easy it would be to leave “doing the right thing” to other people, against the list of existential strikes against him already, and we the readers get pulled inexorably along on his moral, psychological and social journeys.

Like I said, though, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that this is all mopey, college-professor character study. It’s not. All that lovely character development and human insight is woven deftly into solidly entertaining stories full of space battles, political intrigue and skulduggery, crazy plans that just might work, romantic entanglements aplenty, and big ol’ space opera set pieces. A tense mystery involving a dead baby in a Barrayaran backwoods village? Check. Miles impersonating a mercenary leader, getting himself and his friends neck-deep in a weapon smuggling operation in a war zone? Sure. Three different empires staring each other down over a lucrative wormhole nexus, while a criminal conspiracy seeks to exploit the conflict for filthy lucre? You bet!

The books have been consistently successful. Four have been on the New York Times bestseller list, with Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance debuting at #16 this past November. And the series’ success isn’t just commercial—three of the Vorkosigan novels have the Hugo award—The Vor Game in 1991, Barrayar in 1992, and Mirror Dance in 1995—and Falling Free won the equally prestigious Nebula award in 1988, with even more of them landing on nomination short lists.

So give yourself the gift of spaceships, high adventure, and human drama: read the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold.

The Mountains of MourningAn important note on the reading order, based on my own experience:

The Vorkosigan novels were written and published out of order with regards to their internal chronology. Many sources, including Bujold herself, advise newcomers to the series to read them in order of their internal chronology, rather than the order of their publication. I’d agree with that advice, with one caveat: Technically, the short story “Dreamweaver’s Dilemma” and the novel Falling Free come first, since both are set centuries before the events of Miles Vorkosigan’s life, but I personally think it’s much better to get involved with our main cast of characters before diverting to the deep past. So, click that link and follow that order, but start with Shards of Honor and save Falling Free for later on. Or better yet, get Baen Books’ recent omnibus editions, which place the books in what I’d consider an almost ideal order:

  • Cordelia’s Honor — collects Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1991)
  • Young Miles — collects The Warrior’s Apprentice (1986), The Vor Game (1990) and the novella “The Mountains of Mourning” (Analog, May 1989)
  • Miles, Mystery & Mayhem — collects Cetaganda (1996), Ethan of Athos (1986), and the novella “Labyrinth” (Analog, August 1989)
  • Miles Errant — collects Brothers in Arms (1989), Mirror Dance (1994), and the novella “Borders of Infinity” (Free Lancers, Baen Books 1987)
  • Miles in Love — collects Komarr (1998), A Civil Campaign (1999), and the novella “Winterfair Gifts” (Irresistible Forces, New American Library 2004)
  • Miles, Mutants & Microbes — collects Falling Free (1988) and Diplomatic Immunity (2002), and for some reason reprints “Labyrinth”

Memory—inexplicably excluded from the omnibus editions despite being terrific—fits nicely between Miles Errant and Miles in Love, with two newer novels—Cryoburn and Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance—being the most recent of Miles’ adventures.