06 Jun 2004
Miles, Mystery and Mayhem - Lois McMaster Bujold - Baen 2003
* * * * *
This is the third compendium of books from the Miles Vorkosigan series and consists of "Cetaganda", "Ethan of Athos" and the novella "Labyrinth". Although the books are included because they occur consecutively in the Vorkosigan timeline (while Miles is 22 and 23), they happen to share a common and increasingly relevant theme, which is human genetic engineering and reproductive technology. Bujold has speculated on possible developments, and in the two novels creates dazzling if rather implausible societies based on them which she uses as the backdrops for her plots, much in the style of Jack Vance. Her characterisation and plotting are rather better than Vance's (though Vance wins on prose style).
As the first book's name implies, the first society explored is that of Cetaganda, the bad guys in previous Vorkosigan books. Cetaganda has a social structure clearly based on Plato's republic, with an aristocracy of haut-lords and -ladies, a military caste of ghem-lords and (presumably) a mass of ordinary people for them to rule over. There is also a race of genetically engineered genderless humans called ba which the haut-lords use as servants.
Into this social set-up come two Barryarans guaranteed to mess it up - Miles Vorkosigan, the dwarfish, brittle-boned but brilliant son of Cordelia Naismith, and his handsome but dim cousin Ivan. They have been sent as their planet's representatives to the state funeral of the Dowager Empress (surprisingly, the Cetagandans are not offended by the fact that the Barryarans saw fit to send only their ex-regent's son and his cousin). The action starts as soon as they arrive, for, mysteriously misdirected to the wrong docking bay, they enounter an elderly ba who draws a gun on them. In the ensuing fight Miles ends up with an artefact which certain haut-ladies are very keen to get back...
I can't say much more without giving away the plot, but suffice to say that the apparently powerless haut-ladies are engaged in a massive eugenic programme which they call the "star creche". To them, creating a human genome is a work of art (thus there is no human cloning, not because it is morally wrong but because it is artistically dull). Bujold has a lot of fun working out the ramifications of this on Cetagandan society, and in particular showing that the haut resulting from their machinations, though physically extremely beautiful, are distinctly less than perfect, particularly in the brains department. In fact the plot is predicated on a tradition which is obviously idiotic but which has been followed for centuries. No wonder the less-than-handsome but smart Miles has little difficulty running rings round them.
There is the usual mixture of witty dialogue, exciting action and well-described locations (appropriately with a distinctly Gernsbachian feel). It's a shame that the plot depends on such a contrived social setup, but I did like the way that the Cetagandans, who in the other Vorkosigan novels are generic baddies, come across as understandable and almost sympathetic in this one.
The Cetagandans revert to their usual role of villains in "Ethan of Athos" which, unusually, does not feature Miles except as an off-stage character. The hero is the eponymous Ethan, a mild-mannered doctor from a remote planet whose human inhabitants are entirely male. This is another Vancean construction and its origins are, perhaps wisely, left vague - the implication is that it was founded as a pseudo-monastic order by a nutty religious cult based around the idea of "God the Father".
The problem of reproduction without female involvement is solved by use of uterine replicators (a technology Bujold introduced in the Cordelia books). Eggs are still required, however, and are produced by culturing ovarian tissue. When the ovarian cultures start to fail and the replacement shipment turns out to be (literally) rubbish, Ethan is sent to find out what happened.
Bujold answers the other obvious question about an all-male society that comes to mind - what would they do for relationships? - by making Athosians either celibate or gay (including - rather bravely for 1986 when the book was written - the lead character). This is a very interesting concept - if people were brought up in a society where gay relationships were normal and there was no other option, would they be gay? Or is there a genetic component that means that at least some people would be obligately heterosexual and therefore (presumably) deeply unhappy in such a society? I suspect that the latter would be the case and would lead to instability within Athos, but Bujold dodges the issue (perhaps the Athosians regard heterosexuality as a genetic defect and screen it out).
Ethan's adventures on the space station where the rest of the book is set are very much those of an innocent abroad and Bujold exploits the both the comic and more serious possibilities of a man utterly unused to women and heterosexual men to the full. He gets beaten up, first by some homophobic stationers and then more sinisterly by Cetagandans who are after stolen genetic material from a highly secret military experiment. In both situations Ethan is rescued, to his considerable embarrassment, by a woman. She is Elly Quinn, a Dendarii mercenary who is on a mission from Miles Vorkosigan. The wonderfully subversive influence of C.J. Cherryh is clearly at work here, with the decisive, clever woman protecting the relatively helpless and passive men (another character, whose identity I won't give away, joins them later in the story) from the nasty Cetagandans. The story is funny, fast-paced and exciting, and the guy does get the guy in the end.
"Labyrinth" is the weakest of the three, and is clearly based on the classic tale alluded to in the title. As part of a deal to "turn" a top research geneticist, Miles has to venture into an industrial base and terminate a failed experiment. The experiment, of course, turns out to be a genetically modified human being with severe self-esteem problems (she's called Taura). Miles, predictably enough, rescues her rather than killing her. It's enjoyable enough but not up to the standards of the other two .
What I like about these stories is Bujold's utter refusal to pass judgement on the technology and the strange societies that it creates. A lesser writer would have presented Athos as a nightmarish dystopia, populated by male caricatures (see pretty much any book by Sheri S. Tepper). Instead, it sounds a like a pleasant and civilised if rather odd place that I personally would not mind visiting (though not living in - I enjoy the company of women too much). Even the eugenicists of Cetaganda come across as sympathetic to a degree, and certainly as human and foolish as the rest of us, despite their "perfect" genes. In fact, I think Bujold rather looks forward to the transformations that will be wrought on human society by genetic and reproductive technologies. As she puts it in her afterword: "We need not fear our technology if we do not mistake the real springs of our humanity. It's not how we get here that counts, it's what we do after we arrive."