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Cryoburn, the latest in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ongoing saga of the Vorkosigan clan, begins with an interesting situation: a planet, Kibou-daini, that has backed itself into an economic corner by putting more and more of its power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands. In this case, these hands happen to belong to de facto if not actually dead people, frozen due to illness or encroaching (or actual) death. None of these states get you counted as dead on Kibou-daini. And, since you aren’t legally dead, your heirs don’t inherit, and you can still vote—or rather, someone holding your proxy can vote. These proxy holders turn out to be those who own the cryocrypts; with huge blocks of votes and trust funds at their command, they wield significant power, not to mention lawyers. No one else on Kibou-daini wields much at all.

Well, that’s interesting. (And positions Bujold for some scathing criticism of a certain country’s plutocratic political system.) Add to this situation a cute, animal-loving point-of-view character, eleven-year-old Jin, whose mother has been disappeared by one of the cryocorps in question (frozen because she knew too much); a romantic subplot between mom and a Vor ambassador; one of Bujold’s trademark complicated plots; the hyperactive wisecracking Miles Vorkosigan to power the book’s engine; not to mention an appearance by Lord Mark—how could Bujold go wrong?

Partly, I think, by focusing on the cute kid and the cute animals and the sweet romantic subplot. Cryoburn should have been a lot darker. As I was reading it the third time, trying to figure out why, with everything it has going for it, the book wasn’t working as well as it ought to, it occurred to me that nothing really felt at risk. As the book opens Miles is apparently in peril, blinded and confused by a bad reaction to the drugs his kidnappers have given him, stumbling through the dark. And so are we, since we don’t know where he is, why he was kidnapped, how he escaped, what he is not seeing, or why he has come to this planet. Not until most of the way through the book is any light shed on this part of the story. What will be revealed is quasi-interesting: Miles, in his role as Lord Auditor, will uncover a plot by a dominant member of the cryocorps to conquer one of Emperor Gregory’s troika of planets, not by military force but by bookkeeping, a bit of corporate intrigue which, it develops, is what Miles has been sent to Kibou-daini to investigate. While this is interesting enough, we have, by the time the knot untangles, almost forgotten to notice; because Bujold has kept very little tension on this plotline.

Bujold has written a wacky romantic comedy set on a planet, we are told, an inch away from revolution and economic shutdown. Further, while in frequent scenes she does show the problems attendant on such disastrous economic systems, she also offers simplistic solutions to these problems. One of the most affecting scenes in the book occurs when cryo-orphan Jin, who has become Miles Vorkosigan’s guide and informant, is discussing with his little sister Mina the fantasy of Miles adopting them. Maybe, they speculate, this magic elf will take them home with him, maybe he will adopt them, maybe he has enough money to buy them a pony? Then, when Miles shows up, Mina makes the mistake of asking him—not if he’ll adopt them, she doesn’t go quite that far. What she asks is, “Lord Vorkosigan, if you had children, you’d give them ponies, wouldn’t you?” (p. 226).

At which point, Miles whips out his holocube and begins showing these two children, raised on frozen pizzas in a tiny walk-up with their impoverished relatives, his four children and Vorkosigan Surleau, complete with ponies, lake, and boats.

And all belonging to those other children. Children who had a live mother and father, too. What was that line of Uncle Hikaru’s? Them what has, gets. And those that didn’t have, didn’t get, Jin supposed was the unspoken half of that lesson. He looked at those other children, and at Miles-san, so obviously pleased and proud, and didn’t doubt that Mina probably felt like crying. His own throat was tight with envy and ridiculous anger. (p. 227)

Directly following this scene, Bujold is careful to add another in which Jin, after a local employee of the consulate, Matson, offers to help him escape Miles’s clutches, remonstrates with Matson, and indignantly insists that Miles is “trying to” help them (p. 228). Since Matson has no reason to think that Jin and Mina are prisoners, this scene seems to exist merely so that Bujold can reassure us about Miles’s character after exposing his indifference to Jin and Mina’s plight.

Cryoburn is purportedly a book about economic injustice. The scene with Jin, Mina, and Miles, and others like it—one in which we’re told that losing everything to medical bankruptcy is common on Kibou-daini; another in which the two thugs who killed Mom’s friends turn out to be simple security guards, lured in over their heads by having, for the first times in their lives, enough in their pay packets to support their families; another in which Jin’s aunt is driven to near-cruelty not because she is a wicked villain but because she can’t fit another child’s desk into an already cramped apartment—these elements of the book work. But Bujold doesn’t seriously engage with the situation she’s created, and no solution, or even any real critique, is given for either the economic problems of Kibou-daini or for the philosophical failings regarding death which have caused this economic disaster. The “solution” to Jin’s family’s economic situation is that they’ll marry into Vorlynkin’s fortune and be just fine; while the “solution” to the poverty of every other character we’ve met is, basically, that they’ll be lab rats in Lord Mark’s medical experiment. Neither of these deal with the economic situation on Kibou-daini. Jin’s Mom might get to marry the Prince, but what about the kingdom? Or, as one of the characters objects to Lord Mark as he stalks about creating a future where the rich in the Bujoldoverse can buy 800 years of life, “What about the poor?”

It may be significant that these details of economic injustice are the sort missing from the books Bujold has written about that lovely world, Barrayar, where counts and emperors rule so well that industrious serfs are happy to serve. Bujold might, that is, be refusing to follow through on her realistic economic creation of Kibou-daini because of its inherent implications for Barrayar, rather than because she isn’t interested in writing a dark novel. Certainly she has written dark novels before—I am thinking specifically of Memory and The Curse of Chalion. Whatever the reason, the unwillingness to tell a dark story in Cryoburn damages the novel. Consider what a very different text we would have had, for instance, if Cryoburn (like Memory), had been allowed to engage its material fully: if rather than distracting us at every turn with cute spiders and Sphinx clones, and witty observations about the differences between little-girl-behavior and little-boy-behavior, Cryoburn had, rather, started where it ends: with Count Aral Vorkosigan suffering a cerebral stroke, from which his recovery is not certain. A very much darker Miles would have then landed on Kibou-daini; and a very much darker book would have resulted.

Bujold seems to hold to a common trope among those who read and write science fiction: the genetic theory of dominance. It may take a while to notice this, since she has, after all, Miles Vorkosigan as her hero, warped runt that he is. But notice how many times throughout the series Miles is careful to say that he is not genetically damaged; that it is only his phenotype that is damaged. In Bujold’s universe, certain sorts of people just are genetically meant to rule. Take Lord Mark, Miles’s clone, for instance. He has been raised by a sadist and a child rapist, and Bujold admits in this very text (p. 266) that his home culture, Jackson’s Whole, is a disaster. And yet unlike the failed revolutionary we meet in the early pages of Cryoburn, a skinny purple-haired kid who is a whiner and a loser, Mark not only escaped Jackson’s Whole but dominates every situation he falls into. It must be his superior genetic stock that makes the difference. Certainly he needs others trailing after him to translate and clear up the details; but luckily his sort always (in the Bujoldverse) has an entourage.

On Barrayar, as Bujold has written it, this works very well. Even in her mercenary navy, we can believe it. As with her fantasy novels, in the fantasy world, it works. But when she makes the leap to a world where people eat frozen pizza and live in tiny flats and worry about health insurance and daycare—our world—it’s a lot harder to buy the argument that we should trust the Liege Lord, since he knows what’s best. This is especially true when we see Miles treating Jin like a tool he’s going to use and leave behind; or when Roic and Lord Mark, characters we are meant to like and identify with, mock the impoverished and the ignorant for no crime other than being impoverished and ignorant. Bujold does present characters, such as Jin’s mother, Suze-san, and Kareen, who speak up for the poor and ignorant, but very little page space or attention is given to them or their efforts or goals; and, as I said above, at the end of the book, the economic situation is not resolved in any significant way.

With a little more attention to the darker themes inherent to Cryoburn‘s premise, and some attempt to deal with the political significance of what she was saying, Bujold might have produced another powerhouse of a novel. As it is, well, it’s a Miles Vorkosigan book. We’ll all read it anyway.

Kelly Jennings teaches writing and English in Northwest Arkansas. She is an assistant editor at Crossed Genres.

Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings teaches and writes in Northwest Arkansas.  She is a member of SFWA and an editor for Crossed Genres Magazine. Email her at
8 comments on “Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold”

A correction of fact:Count Aral is not in a coma at the end of the book, he is dead, buried and euologized. At least that is so in the kindle edition; did the reviewer have an earlier version?

Pat Mathews

I mentioned this review on the Bujold fans list and gave the link. You might be pleased to know it sparked a long, thoughtful discussion on many things.

Given the point this review makes about the hereditary nature of success for the characters in the series, I suppose it’s not surprising that many readers of the series have similar thinking about the books themselves. That said, it is such a relief to read a review of Cryoburn that doesn’t immediately hold it up as being entitled to award nominations simply because it’s the first Miles book in a decade, but that instead actually engages with the story told. My critical, book-loving soul thanks you, Kelly Jennings.
A correction of fact:Count Aral is not in a coma at the end of the book, he is dead, buried and euologized.
That line in the review puzzled me as well: Aral certainly seemed to be presented as inarguably dead, and it would be a low move indeed for the next book to have him otherwise. In a sense the whole point of Cryoburn seemed to be to present a light face as Miles dealt with a problem that was rather beneath his deductive skills and political power, but that kept getting extended to allow him to think “gee, my aging father might be interested in these life-extension treatments” over and over, only to have an ending that reminds us that as clever and powerful as Miles is, nature is not a system you can outwit. To her credit that’s something Bujold hasn’t shied away from in these books. But in this one it seemed inelegantly done, a too-simple structure overly drawn out in order to make the ending feel more dramatic–which is help that ending didn’t need. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the more emotionally powerful works in this series have been the novellas: this story might have worked better as one.)
Was Memory really that dark? I don’t remember it that way (ha). It had more of an internal struggle, of self-definition. But Bujold’s tendency to reward her male characters for years of good service with spunky wives/girlfriends was in full force even then. These things are relative, I suppose, and Bujold has been good about changing story templates, settings, and registers between books, so that stories anchored by similar qualities can still feel very different. That’s part of what bothered me with Cryoburn, I think: the previous book, Diplomatic Immunity, was an off-Barrayar action-mystery where in the course of doing a smaller duty Miles stumbled into a larger problem, with an ending that opened into new possibility but with a foreboding sense of mortality. Cryoburn skips over those new possibilities completely and instead offers all that the previous book did, all over again, except with disconnected bits of Japanese culture for “exotic” flavor rather than the quaddies (and with added political relevance in terms of the US healthcare debate in the face of an aging Baby Boomer population).
While of course you can only review the novel that was written, it is interesting to consider the choice of what stories get told in an extended series like this. It’s a question Bujold had her characters address directly in A Civil Campaign: I believe it’s Kareen who notes that traditional stories always seem to end with marriage, a notion firmly rejected by the married folks. But I do begin to wonder whether Bujold’s stories end with children. Aral and Cordelia faded from the story soon after Miles entered the scene; and in this book Ekaterin has all but faded from the story in the wake of her children with Miles, while Miles is fading, too, now sharing POV duties with the younger Roic and the much younger Jin. It will be interesting to see if that fade continues in the next book and a new cycle begins, or if Bujold will find a way to tell more stories of adulthood. There’s a scene somewhere in Cryoburn where Miles mentions that he’s spent the past few years in a political struggle to overhaul Barrayar’s reproductive laws, and my reaction was, wait, why wasn’t that story worth telling? It certainly sounded just as important and interesting as the story told in Cryoburn, if not more so.

Yes, Aral is dead at the end of Cryoburn — sorry for the clumsy phrasing! I think what I meant to suggest was some alternate version of the text where Aral has a stroke and lingers while Miles travels to Kibou-daini; but that is not at all what I said.


” I think what I meant to suggest was some alternate version of the text where Aral has a stroke and lingers while Miles travels to Kibou-daini; but that is not at all what I said. ”
Your alternate version would have been a more intense and more moving story, I believe.

I agree with much of this, but wanted to say a few words about Mark. Mark’s successes are not due to his genetics, or at least this is not how Bujold tells his story. Mark fails spectacularly over and over until the second half of Mirror Dance. He stops failing when he becomes Lord Mark on Barrayar – and this is not because his genes are somehow reawakened, but because he has been accepted into the family; in the short time he was there, Cordelia provided Mark with a powerful role model – and so did Aral. It is not his genes, but rather his newfound identity that provides him with the strength to resist Ryoval. Demolishing Ryoval against all odds then becomes the cornerstone of his future successes. Mark’s journey is rather beautifully done, I think, and very true, imho, to how some survivors derive strength from overcoming their traumas.
Plus, despite his dismal upbringing, Mark is also a person of privilege, since he acquires a superb education; and as a child, he is not allowed to slack in acquiring that education. A person with a superb education can go far, regardless of genetics or childhood trauma.
*sigh* I am rather invested in Mark, as you can see, but I did not like what she did with any of them in Cryoburn.

Barrayar is, essentially, a feudal society; it would be very surprising indeed if people raised there didn’t mostly assume that aristocratic birth makes one fit to rule, or at least gives one a leg-up.
That’s one of the governing tropes of such a culture. It’s all through European (and other) legends and folk-tales, for exactly that reason.


I’m sorry for commenting this review only in mid-2012, but I’ve just read Cryoburn (at least its Italian version). I agree with your review. I’m also very sorry for my low-level English.
If I can agree with the remarks about the absence of economic comments in the novel, I have to say that I see the novel’s darkness in the Mark’s and Kareen’s attitude: the exchange “labrats-for-gold” is the very sign of a decadent society (both Kibou-Daini and Betan/Jacksonian/other), a post-industrial one. Also Miles wants to destroy two of some cryocorporations, and he doesn’t want to put in jeopardy the planetary economy.
On Barrayar the closed political system and the substantial closed economic wealth (Komarran and Barrayaran oligarchy, and some Vor aristocrats, like Mark and Vorsmythe) work because there is an huge economic growth: Komarran economy is on a middle ground with golden-ages City tenure and Rotterdam position; Sergyar is a whole planet to terraform and Barrayar is said more than once as having an industrial growth. Without economic growth, the “enlightened” modernization policies adopted by Gregor Vorbarra’s government would face a destroyed social texture… without social services almost at all, as we can read in Mirror Dance.
So, I have the impression that Bujold represents modern societies as precursors of Kibou-Daini (or Komarran) society: a disaggregated society, potentially explosive. This is the middle ground where the evolution (or degeneration, according to points of view) will bring us.
This “social rope”, while having our Komarran/Kibou-Daini future in middle ground, has two capes: the Betan and the Barrayaran ones.
The Betan society represents the first of them, with a fairly disaggregated and atomized society, but provided of all possible social care services and civil rights, paying the price of totalitarian governments, a direct individual-state relationship and absence of individual freedom, masked by democratic elections.
The other cape is represented by Barrayar. On Barrayar the government is heavily authoritarian, traditionalist and militaristic: however, social intermediate bodies (I have to sadly confess that I don’t know the English for “corpi sociali intermedi”) are not only present, but still quite influential: ranging from Dendarii Mountains veterans and feudal ties (for example the fact that Illyan is an Aral Vorkosigan’s liege-man) to city guilds which invite Gregor to wedding lunches and language minority groups who act as a lobby. On Barrayar an individual may face death penalty, and certainly cannot hope to avoid ImpSec attentions if he challenges political system, just as certainly doesn’t have to face mental re-education if (s)he falls in love with a foreign prominent person.
Last but not least, the Quaddiespace seems to be another “communitarian society”, with some elements from both Barrayar and Beta Colony, and even Athos retains some Barrayaran elements (a strict ideology quite xenofobic and an individual freedom)
What is my thesis? Not a very complicated one: I have the impression that Bujold’s nightmare is the Komarran/Kibou-Daini/perhaps Escobaran social model, followed by the Betan model in a negative decreasing order.
Certainly the Barrayaran feud is not hoped by Bujold, but she seems to hope and to wish a society where economic inequality is overwhelmed by social and moral ties capable to impose a certain degree of solidarity.

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