Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
Reviewed by Kelly Jennings
18 February 2011
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.