Friday, January 14, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 345 (1/14) -- Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

One of the most difficult jobs in fiction is to show a really smart character, and to do so honestly: not to cheat by making everyone else in the story remarkably dumb, and to play as fair with the reader as possible. Miles Vorkosigan isn't inhumanly smart at the same level as an Odd John or a Culture ship, but he is ridiculously quick-thinking and legendarily always on top of any situation, which makes him a Sherlock Holmes-level problem for a writer; he has to be ahead of the action all the time. Add to that the accumulated accolades and powers that he's acquired during a busy career in SF novels, and I can easily understand why Lois McMaster Bujold has rested the "hyperactive little git" for eight years, since Diplomatic Immunity; it's got to be difficult to think up suitably knotty plots for him to bull his way through.

Cryoburn is a late book is a well-established series, and a fairly sedate one at that; there's danger and adventure here, but Miles is mostly not in danger, though just being around him is an adventure, as always. It's officially set seven years after Diplomatic Immunity, and Miles's growing family -- never seen on the page, always back at home on Barrayar -- signposts that. But Miles doesn't seem seven years older, or as if he's had seven years' more experience -- though, come to think of it, Miles hasn't changed much at all since reaching adulthood.

He's still an Imperial Auditor, sent to rummage around and solve problems on behalf of his Emperor Gregor, and this time he's off to the vaguely Japanese-descended planet Kibou-daini to poke around a scheme by one of their core-industry cryogenic-preservation firms [1] to expand onto one of Barrayar's subject worlds. There's a crafty scheme there, of course, but it's not the main scheme in Cryoburn, which begins with Miles, hallucinating wildly from a sedative he's violently allergic to, escaping from an attempted kidnapping by running a vast distance through underground cryogenic storage. Miles is saved by a runaway boy, Jin, shelters at an illegal sqautter's settlement/cryogenic-freezing group, and finds himself on the trail of a different scheme, from another one of Kibou's cryocorps, which of course are all fiendishly evil, bureaucratic, and dismissive of the lives of the "little people."

Cryoburn continues on, with a remarkably large number of scenes of people traveling from one place to another, or dealing with transportation. Miles also struggles with not having enough minions on hand -- there's his ever-present Armsman Roic, and special guest star Dr. Raven Durona (a doctor specializing in cryo-revival and an old contact of Miles's), but the local consulate has but Consul Vorlynkin himself and a Lieutenant Johannes available to take over. (Miles's brother Mark does show up, very late, but that's just part of the flurry of added complications at the climax of the novel.) Cryoburn isn't quite flabby, but it's not heavily muscled, either -- it gets where it needs to go, and is just on this side of gasping when it arrives, and then digs its toe into the sand for a couple dozen pages while Bujold vamps for a bit to present a big not-a-surprise at the end. [2]

It's entertaining and satisfying, but bears no serious comparison with Bujold's best books in this world, such as Memory: it's entirely smaller than her stronger work, and unconnected to the core concerns of her main characters. Miles functions here like a cozy-mystery detective, wandering into the corrupt little village and setting everything right with no consequences to himself. One could wish that Bujold had written the novel implied by Cryoburn's last line -- but, then again, she could still do that next. Perhaps she will; we can hope so, at least.

[1] As Bujold presents it, Kibou's primary industry is freezing its dead citizens and (only very occasionally) reviving and fixing them up. This is plausible as long as one is willing to take "primary industry" as meaning "what it's known for, three planets away." It also comes across as quite unsubtle when combined with Kibou's occasional Japonais bits of culture. (But there's a much less subtle Kibou-as-allegory-for-modern-capitalist-America that goes by quickly in a middle chapter, complete with Tea Party analogs and an implied political slant that is not at all what one would expect from Baen Books.)

[2] It's an event she and others have speculated about for quite some time, and, by being placed at the very end of Cryoburn, turns it into a stunt. (Particularly if, as seems likely, she doesn't write another Vorkosigan book for a while.)

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index


Melita K said...

I heard that she's writing a Ivan-centered book and it's far enough long that she's reading from it at conventions. Otherwise, Cryoburn isn't my favorite Vorkosigan book, but it's still fun.

Kaz Augustin said...

The Miles books always had an air of "throw money at a problem and it'll go away", but we also had Miles' wit and the engaging eccentricities of his various entourages. This book was just meh! to me because I thought the characters were just too ordinary, esp. in comparison to other past characters, and she Really went overboard with the throwing money at things strategy. Really.

And when I think that she spent an entire book on an event in Cetaganda and here.... Well, I feel short-changed.

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