A Tunnel in the Sky

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Vorkosigan Saga #5
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 28, 2020
Edits and Addenda on October 2, 11 & 20, & December 2, 2020

Dreamweaver's Dilemma / Ethan of Athos / Captain Vorpatril's Alliance / The Flowers of Vashnoi / Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

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This page will be devoted to what I consider to be Vorkosigan-adjacent books, looking at characters and events beyond the experiences of Cordelia, Aral, and Miles, although they may appear or be mentioned in passing. I can't be sure of any of that since I have not previously read any of them. First up is Dreamweaver's Dilemma, a collection of stories and essays published in 1996 (even though the copyright is '95) by NESFA Press, the Northeast Science Fiction Association's publishing arm. It was in recognition of Bujold's Guest of Honor appearance at Boskone in '96. The original hardcover was a limited edition of just 1200 signed and numbered copies. I recently bought a used paperback, the fourth printing from 2002. There are two stories within the Vorkosigan milieu, the title story in its publishing debut, along with the oft-reprinted Hugo and Nebula winning novella, "The Mountains of Mourning." There are also several essays that reference the series, as well as a chart, up to date at that point, showing the chronology of events in all the books. It's not exclusively Vorkosigan though; several other stories, previously published and not, round out the collection. Other than for the introduction, I won't follow the table of contents order with my comments.

The introduction is by Lois's longtime friend, Lillian Stewart Carl, who earlier this year presented the Grand Master Award during the virtual Nebula ceremonies. She relates how they met in junior high school, in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. They were both voracious readers, Lillian mostly of histories and romance, Lois of science fiction and fantasy, but they influenced each other to broaden their reading tastes. They also began writing their own stories, both together and separately, and later into the '60s produced one issue of a Star Trek fanzine. Life got in the way though, and Lillian moved to Texas, although they kept up frequent correspondence. Both married and had children, then when Lillian made her first story sale it inspired Lois to try her hand at fiction again. Stealing precious moments in the early mornings and late evenings, occasionally scraping up enough money for a babysitter so she could write at the library, Lois began her first serious attempt at becoming an author. The result was the novelette "Dreamweaver's Dilemma," unpublished until this book, although it shows a polish even more established writers could envy. It's set on Earth, but Beta Colony is mentioned. Ramjet ships approaching the speed of light enabled several extra-solar expeditions, Beta Colony being the first one that was successful. Shortly after the colony was settled, events on Earth cut off communications, and Earth was without space capabilities for a while. Beta Colony mounts a return expedition to discover what has happened back home, and due to time dilation from near light speed travel, by the time Chalmys DuBauer arrives Earth's recovery has begun. When he returns to Beta Colony he finds it thriving with continued technological progress, but his youngest child is now a great-grandmother, and no one else he knew is still alive.

He decides to go back to Earth permanently. It's not detailed, but I assume he made his fortune through selling his life story, and possibly patenting advanced tech he brought back with him. He lives an isolated life somewhere in Ohio. He's not the main character of the story though. Anias Ruey, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is the dreamweaver, a composer of "feelie-dreams," accessible through neural implants. She has been living off royalties from her latest production, has even spent the advance for another, but she is behind schedule, her producer hounding her to fulfill her contract or suffer the consequences. Something else gets in the way though. Out of the blue she gets a commssion for a private, exclusive dream, for a very large sum of money. It turns out to be more nightmare than the pleasant dreams she is used to creating, and because of another event I won't spoil, she begins to suspect the intention might be to harm someone else. Anias had become a friend, and occasional lover, of Chalmys, and asks his help in dealing with the person she now thinks wants to kill her. When that person tracks her down, Chalmys is able to use tech at his command to apprehend him, and to discover the person actually responsible for the commission. This is the fifth story in the table of contents, followed by "The Mountains of Mourning," which I did not re-read. I'm sure I will sometime in the future.

The various articles primarily reference Bujold's writing regimen, how she approaches character development, letting that dictate the plot and style rather than the other way around. In "My First Novel" I learned something that leads to a needed edit on one of my previous reviews. Shards of Honor was the first she completed, although it took several edits before it was accepted. The Warrior's Apprentice was the one that sealed the deal with Baen Books, and they bought those two plus Ethan of Athos, the next book I'll review on this page. All three were completed before the sale, and all three were published in 1986 within a span of just six months. She also mentions how she backtracked to create a new end point for Shards, saving passages for Barrayar, which she didn't get back to for almost five years, while publishing four other books in the meantime. She realized early on that her strengths were at novel length. After ten years as a published author, she had produced ten novels, and only four novellas and four short stories, one each of which were later incorporated into a novel. In "The Unsung Collaborator" she explains how fiction (and it would apply to all art) is not complete until it is consumed. The reader makes the story live in their own mind, in many cases beyond what the author had envisioned. That definitely applies to another story in this book, also previously unpublished, but I'll get to that in a bit. There is repetition in the articles, and echoes of comments Carl had made in her introduction, and that continues in the longest of the articles, "Answers," which are her responses to questions posed by this book's editor, Suford Lewis. There is also a bibliography, a list of awards won up to that point, a character pronunciation guide, and speculation about the geneology of the Vorkosigans and other Vor families.

Three of the non-Vorkosigan stories had previously seen print, two of them in The Twilight Zone Magazine. She describes them as her "Putnam" stories, as in Putnam, Ohio, a fictional stand-in for where she lived at the time. "Barter" was her first professional sale. It's entertaining, but slight, wherein an overworked and underappreciated housewife gets relief through a purchase from a most unusual door-to-door salesman. Putnam is home to weird people and weird events, even in the non-sf "Garage Sale." A fastidious woman harasses her unemployed neighbor, demanding he clean up his act, to take care of his property, some elements of which she claims impinge on her meticulously maintained existence. He gets revenge. "The Hole Truth" revolves around the poorly maintained streets of Putnam, with pot-holes a frequent occurrence, some of which are bad enough to do damage to vehicles. One particular hole seems to be bottomless, and the residents take advantage of it to discard quite a bit of their accumulated storage items and garbage. There is a limit of course.

The first story is the last to mention. Other than "The Mountains of Mourning" it is also the best, even though it was also unpublished until this book. What I said above, what Bujold said about a story not being complete until it is read, and what the reader creates in their own mind beyond the writer's vision, applies here. Just as Star Trek became more than the televised adventures through the thoughts and actions of its fans, an even earlier creation grew beyond its creator. "The Adventure of the Lady on the Embankment" is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I haven't read all of Doyle's stories, but probably more than half, so I can say with assurance this reads very much as if it came from the pen of Dr. Watson himself. A woman is discovered on the banks of the Thames early one foggy morning, in a daze, evidently suffering from amnesia. She is wrapped in a blood-soaked sheet, with one cut on her arm, and old scars on the other arm and one leg. Inspector Lestrade calls on Holmes for consultation. It's an intricate mystery, slowly revealed through Holmes's deductions, which also help the woman regain a few memories, but not her name unfortunately…not until the very end. Her name? Cordelia Naismith. Bujold says the original manuscript had been lost, and the carbon copy she gave the editor was missing a page or two at the end, and she couldn't recall the conclusion. The major mystery is solved, so it's a satisfying read, although I was still puzzled about one thing.

In summation, this is a worthy entry to the Bujold canon. Anyone who has enjoyed her books, either the science fiction of the Vorkosigan stories, or her fantasies, would do well to seek out this book. The fiction is good to great, the articles give insight into the mind of one of our most talented authors.


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Posted October 2, 2020
Ethan of Athos was Bujold's third novel, published in December 1986, just a few months after Shards of Honor and The Warrior's Apprentice. Eighteen years later it would get its only award nomination, a Seiun for its Japanese translation. It seems evident she already had a good idea how expansive the series would become, even if specific incidents weren't clear until later. She also didn't seem concerned about writing stories out of order. It's the third book published, but the ninth (or tenth?) story in the series continuity. The first book introduced Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, ending with them married and expecting a child. The second was set when their son Miles was seventeen, but the events surrounding his birth would not be revealed for five more years, in Barrayar. The second book had him taking over a mercenary group and renaming it the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. One of the officers he inherited was Elli Quinn, who was injured in battle, suffering massive burns and disfigurement. Miles took her back to Beta Colony and paid for her recovery, which included plastic surgery, giving her a completely new face.

Considering I've read all the Vorkosigan books within the last nine months my memory should be sharper, but I think the only mentions of Cetaganda in the first two books were in reference to their invasion and occupation of Barrayar, and their defeat during Miles's grandfather Piotr's generation. We didn't get a glimpse of their governmental/social agenda until 1995's Cetaganda, so mentions of that in this book published nine years earlier are not as specific. The Ghem-Lords, the military/diplomatic side of Cetaganda are featured here, but not the Haut-Lords, who control the genetic design of future generations. Miles does not appear, but is mentioned a couple of times, but only as his alternate persona Admiral Naismith. He has sent Commander Quinn on an assignment that takes her from Jackson's Whole, then to Kline Station, tracking the actions of a contingent of Cetagandan security forces. According to the chronology presented on Bujold's website, this takes place after the events in Cetaganda and before the novella "Labyrinth." But Elli makes a comment about House Bharaputra genetically designing eight foot tall warriors, which seems to be a reference to Taura, introduced in "Labyrinth." Hopefully all of that is not too confusing for anyone who hasn't read any of the books yet.

The title character is Dr. Ethan Urquhart, Chief of Biology at the Sevarin District Reproduction Center on the planet of Athos, which is populated exclusively by men. They are a fanatical religious/social group, who seem to have taken the notion of Eve being an evil and manipulative seducer to the conclusion that all women are evil and to be avoided. Athosians reproduce through the use of ovum procured from other sources, impregnated with sperm from their own citizens, and gestated in uterine replicators. No women are allowed on the planet, and any immigrant has to abandon contact with any female family or friend after arrival. Their nearly 200 year old ovarian cultures are deteriorating, losing their vitality. A new shipment of cultures purchased from House Bharaputra has been compromised, either no longer viable, or replaced by animal tissue. Ethan, being the most knowledgeable and trustworthy, as well as the only ranking member of the Population Council who is not yet a father, is assigned the task to go to Jackson's Whole to find out what happened to the original shipment, or to purchase another. The first leg of his trip takes him to Kline Station, where he encounters Elli Quinn. She is the first woman he has ever seen in real life, before he had only seen pictures or video. Athosian indoctrination against women is so strong he is repelled, almost sick to even talk to one, so he quickly distances himself from her to go find information on accomodations, and to search for clues about what happened to the cultures they had ordered.

Elli seems to have anticipated his arrival, and knew he was from Athos. She claims she is on home leave (she was born and raised on the station), but we eventually learn why she is there, how her mission ties into his. Her assignment was commissioned by House Bharaputra to track the Cetagandans who stole from them and burned their facilities. The Cetagandans think Ethan is more than he seems, an agent working with someone they are looking for. The Cetagandans capture and interrogate Ethan, and Elli comes to his rescue. He eventually realizes it is not so bad just to talk to a woman, and Elli might be a key to help with his quest. She thinks her mission involves discovering something called Terran-C, but Ethan gathered from the interrogation by the Cetagandans it's actually a person named Terrence Cee. The latter was correct.

Another short novel, only about 220 pages when you subtract the blank or near-blank pages between chapters, but it is still packed with lots of action and exposition. Some of that action is repetitive, some events are puzzling. Granted, the Cetagandans are trained espionage agents, but Kline Station is contained and well monitored. How do they continue to evade detection, or easily slip out of detention or quarantine when they do run afoul of station security? And if they are so efficient, how can Elli escape their attention and subvert their actions for so long? In other books we learned about the liberal upbringing Cordelia had on Beta Colony, how she was cool with learning Aral was probably bisexual, and the hermaphrodite Bel Thorne was (mostly) presented in a compassionate and empathetic way. Therefore, the way the majority of people thought of Athosians, including the use of common slurs, was off-putting. Perhaps it wasn't their sexual orientation that was the problem, but their religious fanaticism, but if that was the case the slurs would have been different. Both that reaction to Athosians, and the comments against women made by Athosians, made me a little uncomfortable. This bumps Cryoburn up a notch, and lands at the bottom of the list, my least favorite Vorkosigan book so far. Three more to go to complete this page, and the saga as a whole, unless she publishes another before I get to all of them.


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Posted October 11, 2020
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is another example of Bujold writing this series out of order. It was published two years after Cryoburn, but is set about four years prior to that story. Ivan Vorpatril is Miles Vorkosigan's cousin several times removed, their grandmothers (or is it great-grandmothers?) being sisters. Because of that connection, and because of other family relationships among the High Vor, both Miles and Ivan are in line to inherit the throne of the Barrayaran Empire under certain conditions. Neither want that position, although it's possible that might happen if Bujold extends the series out that far. Ivan is a good officer, but not as ambitious as Miles. One difference is that Miles had several generations of Vorkosigan soldiers to live up to, as well as needing to prove himself in spite of his handicaps. Ivan never even knew his father, who was killed shortly before he was born during the early days of the failed coup that became known as the Vordarian Pretendership. His mother, the Lady Alys Vorpatril, never remarried, so he didn't even have a step-father for guidance, although his Uncle Aral filled that niche in a very limited way. He's a few months older than Miles, but about the only thing they have in common is they are both only children. Ivan is physically the opposite: tall, fit, handsome, popular with the ladies and a known womanizer, but also a gentleman, cognizant of the need for consent.

As this story begins, Ivan is 35, in a high-ranking position in ImpOps. That means Operations, not 'covert ops.' Budgets, planning, logistics. He's the aide-de-camp of Admiral Deshanes, head of the division. They are on Komarr for a conference of some sort, and even though they won't be there very long, Ivan's position warrants a rental apartment, not just a hotel suite. His evenings are free, but before he has the opportunity to check out Komarran nightlife, he gets a surprise visit from Byerly Vorryuter, with whom he worked in A Civil Campaign. By is undercover with ImpSec, and asks Ivan's help in surveilling a woman he has been tracking. Long story short, it's both a hazardous and a rewarding experience for Ivan. The woman in question is from Jackson's Whole, fleeing from a hostile takeover of her family's House. Tej (I'm not bothering with her full, very long, name) is traveling with another woman, Rish, who has been gengineered for soft, blue fur. They're actually step-sisters of a sort. They fear the majority of their family are dead, although there is a brother on Escobar they hope to rendezvous with, and possibly other family on Earth. Without going into details, Ivan's last minute, desperate attempt to protect them is to marry Tej, giving her the rights of a Barrayaran citizen. They return to Barrayar, thinking they will seek a divorce once the danger has passed, but that is a long time coming.

Some of the plot is exciting, some is tedious. Interspersed between the action is a lot of dialog and exposition that relates back to earlier historical events. So much that I got the impression Bujold was wrapping up loose ends, giving details that could have been incorporated into another book, but probably won't. This is the fifteenth novel in the series, along with four novellas and one novelette. There's one novella and one novel left to read, both of which take place after this one. Up to this point, Ivan had provided a bit of comic relief, always in Miles' shadow, and I got the impression he preferred it that way. He may not have Miles' brilliant tactical mind, but he is intelligent and resourceful, and heroic when the time comes. He makes a few mistakes along the way, but he's not the only one, and he's not the only one given a reprimand by Emperor Gregor. One of the few things I felt was telegraphed way before the end, Tej decides to stay with Ivan. He gets a slight demotion, and a post on a remote planet as aide to the consul, but that's probably temporary, and he thinks he might end up an ambassador somewhere else. Or Emperor? Weirder things have happened in this series.

This was a finalist for Hugo and Locus awards, and came in second in the last (unless it's revived) SF Site Reader's Poll in 2013. I liked it, but with reservations. I rated it four stars on Goodreads, but that is rounded up a bit. It's a bit longer than average, about 420 pages, but could have been more tightly edited. Miles did make an appearance, but it was about mid-way and he wasn't around long, leaving to visit his parents on Sergyar. Can we expect another Miles-centric story, or another with Ivan? How about Byerly's adventures after he is sent to Jackson's Whole? There are many other possibilities. Quite a few of Miles' early adventures with the Dendarii are just briefly mentioned in passing, and while she may not want to go back that far, there could be other cases in his position as Imperial Auditor. What I'd most like to see is Miles as husband and father. The final novel (so far), which I'll get to soon, caps off one story line, but could be a springboard into others. We shall see.


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Posted October 20, 2020
The Flowers of Vashnoi only appeared in print in a limited edition from Subterranean Press, now very expensive even if you can find a copy. The only listing at Bookshop is for audio CDs that are on backorder, possibly out of production. It's a short novella, only about 70 pages. It is the last Vorkosigan story published so far, although the second from last based on internal chronology, set prior to the novel Cryoburn. The main character is Lady Ekaterin Vorkosigan, Miles' wife. Miles does appear in several scenes, but the focus is on Ekaterin as she assists scientists and rangers with their observations of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, which had been the district's capital until it was destroyed by nuclear strikes by the Cetagandans at the tail end of their occupation. A new capital was built at Hassadar, about 100 kilometers to the south. Miles' grandfather Piotr retained ownership of parts of Vashnoi, and purchased plots from others, both to compensate them for their loss, as well as give them the opportunity to start over somewhere else, even if it was to emigrate off-planet. The ownership transferred to Miles on Piotr's death, and he even used it as collateral to obtain a ship in The Warrior's Apprentice, withholding the information that it was a wasteland.

I've tried my best to avoid spoilers for stories left to read, so I had a misperception of what this one would be about. Ekaterin was interested in botany, agronomy, and garden design. The title led me to believe she would be successful in bringing the region back to life. However, the "flowers" are something else entirely. Vashnoi was cordoned off, with warning signs posted every ten meters around the perimeter, although that did not stop some from reentering, especially in the early years after the war. People returned to their homes to search for cherished items, up to the time Piotr ordered all remaining buildings burned to the ground. Now rangers try to keep everyone out, as well as monitor radioactive levels, and observe flora and fauna in the contaminated zone. Enter Dr. Enrique Borgos of Escobar, whom we first met in A Civil Campaign. He has now gengineered bugs to consume contaminated plants to isolate and counteract the radioactives. Ekaterin helped in the design, making the bugs easier to track in the wild. Unfortunately, many of the bugs go missing, and Enrique is worried they may have been eaten by wild animals, which are next to impossible to keep out of the zone. If those animals leave the zone, and then are caught, killed, eaten by humans, will that carry the contamination further? What is actually happening turns out to be something even more disturbing. It is similar to previous stories that highlight earlier events, in this case a decision Piotr made before Miles was born.

The story is entirely too short. I hope this is not the last we see of Ekaterin, whom I don't think Bujold has utilized as well as she could have. Her strongest scenes occurred in her first appearance in Komarr. The last novel left to read caps off one character's arc, but could be a springboard for others. Since she has written out of continuity throughout the series, it's possible she could return to earlier times in Miles and Ekaterin's relationship, or produce another novel or shorter work featuring future adventures. It's mentioned here that Miles's hyperactivity is due to his multiple medical issues making him fear he will die young. He is not yet 40, but I can't recall how close to him in age Ekaterin is. Can she succeed in slowing him down in order to savor their marriage, and their children? Even if that happens, she should still be allowed her own growth, for she has much to offer Barrayar in both science and social issues. A follow-up to characters she encounters in Vashnoi would be welcome.


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Posted December 2, 2020
Based on internal chronology, 2016's Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the last (so far) of the Vorkosigan Saga, although the previous novella was published later. Six years separated it from the publication of Cryoburn, although only three have passed in the lives of Miles and Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. Those three years have been hard on everyone, Cordelia most of all. I have to spoil an event from a previous book, otherwise Cordelia's actions in this one might be misconstrued. At the end of Cryoburn Miles received word that his father, Aral Vorkosigan, had passed away.

For the previous dozen years or so, Aral had served as Viceroy of Sergyar, Cordelia serving as Vicereine on an equal political footing. She has continued in that position, although she is considering resigning. Aral was eleven years older than Cordelia, 84 at the time of his death. She is now 76, but based on her genetic inheritance, and the fact Beta Colony had superior medical technologies, including life-extension treatments, her life expectancy is in the neighborhood of 120. She and Aral never had any other children, one of the possible reasons being they did not want a "normal" child to give Miles any more of an inferiorty complex than he already suffered. They had both stored frozen eggs and sperm, and Cordelia plans to have at least six of her eggs fertilized, gestating one at a time in uterine replicators. The only thing she's worried about is how Miles will take the news, as well as other news that has the potential to be even more disruptive to his concept of family.

In a secure tight-beam message to Emperor Gregor, Cordelia reveals her intention to have more children, and she gives him even more information than she does when she messages Miles. When Miles asks Gregor what he knows, he tells Miles it is up to him to find out more. Miles and Ekaterin, along with their six children, make a surprise visit to Sergyar. The title character is Oliver Jole, Admiral of Sergyar Fleet, who had served under Aral at various times and in different positions, going back as far as when Aral was Regent to the young emperor. He is the one who tells Cordelia that many have given her the nickname Red Queen. She's not sure if that refers to her red hair, or maybe the Queen from Lewis Carroll's Wonderland stories, because that would make sense too. I'm not spoiling the reason for that, but it relates back to an event in Barrayar. I'm also not spoiling Cordelia's previous relationship with Jole, but they now begin to act on a personal attraction towards the other. In secret at first, then slowly revealing their actions to a select few, they begin "dating." They take frequent weekend trips to a nearby lake to sail (and "date"), which leads to rumors that Cordelia is either thinking of a construction project in that area, or maybe there is some hazardous element to the lake that needs to be investigated. Apparently no one suspects a 76-year-old woman would have romantic feelings toward a man 26 years younger, especially a man suspected of being either gay or asexual. Gentleman Jole is said to be "the dog that does nothing in the nighttime."

It's possible I missed a reference to it when Aral first became Viceroy, but Sergyar is the planet on which he and Cordelia met in Shards of Honor, although it wasn't named until later. Sergyar has several predator species, and the flora is still poorly understood, with one scientist speculating it might take thousands of years to catalog everything, and even more to understand the data. This is just as much Jole's story as it is Cordelia's. The trips to the lake spark an interest that may lead to a future profession after the military, or at least a passionate avocation. Those more fond of Miles' previous military exploits will probably think it is too tame. Or too…something…but that would also involve spoilers. There is only one scene that is even close to action, and it's over quickly, but it's enough for Jole to be hailed a hero, and not just by Cordelia, Miles, and Ekaterin. Otherwise, it's a character drama, dealing with emotions, trauma, dreams once thought lost but now possibly rekindled.

So if it's action you're looking for, this isn't it. It's not anywhere near my favorite either, but still not a disappointment. As with a few of the other books, it wasn't what I was expecting, and I hope it doesn't turn out to be the last. There are many other directions Bujold could take the series if she chooses to return. If she skips seventeen years, as she did between Barryar and The Warrior's Apprentice, we could read about Cordelia's oldest daughter, Aurelia. She could follow Oliver Jole's new found obsession of learning as much about Sergyar's flora and fauna as possible. We already found out that Miles' oldest son Alex is not keen on following his father and grandfather into military service. Where will he end up? Even if it is the end, and even if this disappoints other readers, it is a fitting and symmetrical end. Nostalgia leads Cordelia to stay on Sergyar rather than return to Barrayar or Beta Colony. I think Aral would appreciate that too, and he would be happy that Cordelia is happy again.


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Lois McMaster Bujold


Detailed in Review

Amazon Links:
Ethan of Athos
Captain Vorpatril
Flowers of Vashnoi (Kindle)
Gentleman Jole

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Ethan of Athos
Captain Vorpatril
Gentleman Jole

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