“Within the last few months,” [Miles went on,] “as the flagship facility we saw in Wing’s vid was nearing completion, WhiteChrys began collecting contracts on future customers. Not unnaturally, they targeted Solstice upper-class elderly women’s clubs. At the same time, another sales team made some limited strategic stock offerings to certain wealthy and influential Komarrans, to give the local powers-that-be a stake in the future success of their operations. I expect the two sales teams didn’t compare hit lists, nor realize that some wealthy old ladies are retired Komarran traders who can read a balance sheet to a gnat’s eyebrow.
“And one of those little old ladies looked at the two proposals before her and said, ‘This smells, but I don’t see how,’ so she took it to her beloved great-niece, who said, ‘You’re right, Auntie, this smells, but I don’t see how,’ who took the problem in turn to her devoted husband, better known as Emperor Gregor Vorbarra. Who handed it to his loyal Imperial Auditor, saying, and I quote here, ‘Here, Miles, you’re better at diving into the privy and coming up with the gold ring than anyone I know. Have a go.’ And I said, ‘Thank you, Sire,’ and took ship for Kibou-daini.”
Cryoburn, the latest installment in Lois McMaster Bujold’s brilliant Vorkosigan saga, has Barrayaran Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan investigating possible shady dealings in the cryonics industry on Kibou-daini, a world heretofore unexplored in the series. The story, which opens with a drugged and hallucinating Miles wandering through a warren of underground cryocombs – a storage facility holding thousands of cryonically frozen bodies – after escaping a botched kidnapping attempt, unfolds through the eyes of three narrators: Miles, his bodyguard Roic, and Jin Sato, a young Kibou boy with a personal stake in cryonics.
When I heard that Bujold was working on a new Vorkosigan novel, it was like Christmas and birthday rolled into one. It’s been a long dry spell for Vorkosigan fans; the previous installment, Diplomatic Immunity, came out in 2002, with the short story “Winterfair Gifts” in 2004. Cryoburn was thus, for me, easily the most eagerly-anticipated book of the year.
It doesn’t disappoint (not that I ever had any doubts). As is the case with several of the later installments in the Vorkosigan series, Cryoburn is essentially a mystery novel, with Miles playing the part of the intrepid detective. In some ways it’s like Komarr, in which unraveling one mystery only leads to another, more complex one – I suspect it’s not by chance that the cryocorps’ efforts to establish a foothold on Komarr are what lands the case in Miles’ lap in the first place. Pursuing a tip from Barrayar’s Komarran-born empress, Miles travels to Kibou-daini purportedly to attend a conference on cryonics. Because adventure is drawn to Miles like a moth to a flame, it’s not long before he’s the recipient of an intriguing bribe and then nearly kidnapped by the New Hope Legacy Liberators, a grassroots organization hoping to break the stranglehold the cryocorps have on Kibou society. Throw in the cover-up of botched cryo-preservations, a growing underclass forced to resort to black-market cryonics, the silencing of dissenting voices, and an extremely far-sighted attempt to conquer Komarr, and stir.
One of the aspects I enjoy most about the Vorkosigan series is the way Bujold explores advances in science that have potentially real impact on the way we live our lives – in fact, much of the science in the Vorkosigan novels deals with the nature of life itself. Uterine replicators are probably the advanced tech fans of the series are most familiar with, particularly their critical role in Miles’ early life and their effect on Barrayaran society. Bujold has also used the series to explore end-of-life issues, first in Mirror Dance with clone-brain transplants on Jackson’s Whole and Miles’ traumatic encounter with cryo-preservation, and in Cryoburn she return to that theme, even bringing back Raven Durona (a minor character in Mirror Dance) to provide an update on the Durona Group’s life-extension research in addition to his expertise as a cryo-revival surgeon.
With Bujold, fortunately, scientific advances are not ends in themselves, but rather tools for an examination of humanity and relationships. In the case of Cryoburn, the possibility of extending life beyond current limitations or putting death on the back burner sets the stage for a couple of very poignant conversations between Miles and his clone-twin Mark about their aging father.
(It occurred to me while reading Cryoburn that it kind of tweaks the zombie trope that’s so popular these days. I don’t know if that was deliberate on Bujold’s part, but it still made me chuckle.)
As any Vorkosigan devotee knows, however, it’s not the plot that matters so much – except perhaps as it impinges directly on Barrayar – but rather the lives of the characters inhabiting the Vorkosiverse. While Cryoburn does not allow for many familiar faces to make an appearance, their presence is nonetheless felt. Bujold knows how much we care about people like Ivan and Mark and Ekaterin, and so she goes to the trouble to update us on events of the past seven years, since those in Diplomatic Immunity.
We learn, for example, that Miles and Ekaterin now have four children, and that Miles’ nickname for his eldest daughter is “Hellion” (yes, I laughed – out loud); that Gregor and Laisa have several children of their own; that Roic is courting Armsman Pym’s daughter (I’d just like to say that I called this one while reading Diplomatic Immunity; I couldn’t help thinking that those long months spent on Miles and Ekaterin’s honeymoon trip to Earth, with a side trip to the Betan Orb, might have been conducive to sparking a little romance between their respective attendants); that Ekaterin’s garden design business is doing well and that she’s in charge of terraforming projects in Vorkosigan’s District. We also learn of the final days of the brave and beautiful Taura and that – a detail that made me cry – Roic was able to be with her at the end. Mark and Kareen make an appearance (memorably, of course), and while we don’t learn the fate of the infamous bug-butter business from A Civil Campaign it is clear that Mark is a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Alas, there’s little mention of Ivan, his mother, or Simon Illyan, but reports coming out from Bujold’s West Coast book tour indicate there’s a new book on the horizon, and that it will be Ivan-centric.
And then, finally, there is the revelation at the end of the book. Rather than spoil anyone, I’ll say only that those were probably the most dreaded and anticipated three words in the entire series, and the fact that they still came as a bombshell attests to Bujold’s extraordinary skill in creating a universe and characters I care so deeply about.
This review was originally written for Buried Under Books. If you comment there (they forgot to provide a deadline, but I’ll guess by 11/24/10) you can have your name entered into a drawing for a free copy of Cryoburn, including the CD-ROM only available in the first hardcover printing.