Well, the weather outside is frightful, at least where I am, but now there’s another installment of The Vorkosigan Saga Reread to keep you warm. This week I start The Vor Game, the next novel chronologically in the epic science fiction saga of Miles Vorkosigan (and his friends and family). It was actually written somewhat later, after Brothers In Arms, Borders of Infinity, Falling Free, and Ethan of Athos, so the first time through the series I read it a little out of order.
Without further ado, let’s take a break from winter’s cold (*offer valid in Northern Hemisphere only) and travel with Miles to…a remote Arctic island?
Miles and his cousin Ivan wait in line to find out the first duty assignment he will be given. Ahead of him, one ensign is assigned to ship duty on the Commodore Vorhalas; the next, Ensign Plause, is assigned to language school, to learn even more languages than the four native Barrayarans ones he already knows, which Miles tells him means ImpSec will likely send him offworld. Ensign Lubachik is assigned to what Ivan calls “palace guard school”, Security and Counter-assassination, which he finds somewhat daunting.
Ivan is next, and he is assigned to Operations, as aide-de-camp to Commodore Jollif. He exults in how he will get to maintain a near-civilian lifestyle in the capital, almost hiding his disappointment in not getting ship duty. Miles also hopes for ship duty, and is paralyzed with disbelief when he is assigned as a meteorologist instead. After confirming with Ivan that they never took a meteorology course, Miles discovers that his assignment, Lazkowski Base, a.k.a. “Camp Permafrost”, is on an isolated arctic island, Kyril Island, used for winter training of infantry soldiers. He wonders why the Imperial Service is sending him to an infantry base when he is patently more qualified for better things, and after a brief deliberation, heads off to talk to Major Cecil, the man in charge of the assignments.
When Miles arrives at Major Cecil’s office, Major Cecil collects a one-mark note from his clerk for predicting that Miles would be there in less than ten minutes. After the clerk leaves, Miles asks Cecil to explain his orders. Major Cecil tells him that Miles’s school career has been very closely watched, and one of Miles’s problems seemed to be in his treatment of his superior officers, as “cattle” to be herded to his will. He tells Miles that he will have to learn to cope with regular officers who will resent him if he tries to show them up, as opposed to classmates who all want him on their team. He then tells Miles that in six months or so, the new warship the Prince Serg will be commissioned; with its greater range, they are paying close attention to psychological profiles. If Miles can prove that he can last that long at Camp Permafrost without getting into trouble, then Cecil will personally approve his transfer to the Prince Serg. He assures Miles that as Meteorology Officer he won’t be expected to actually perform as an infantryman. Miles leaves to download as much meterology information as he can.
He has plenty of time to read up on weather on the long flight to Kyril Island, with its numerous hours-long delays, before his final arrival on an automated freight shuttle. The only people who arrive to meet the shuttle are the crew arrived to unload the supplies. When they see Miles, they begin talking to each other in Barrayaran Greek, which Miles pretends not to understand, joking of course about his size. He shows them his officer’s tabs and asks where he can report in to Lieutenant Ahn, the current Meteorology Officer, who will train him before departing. The men are taken aback, but direct him to the administration building, where Ahn will likely be found. After briefly considering asking for a lift on the loader vehicle and rejecting it as being undignified, he elects to walk instead.
Miles finds the administration building almost deserted, and the map out of order, and gets directions from a distracted accountant. After he founds the meteorology office, he prepares himself carefully to meet his first commanding officer before opening to door. Therein, he finds an overheated room full of electronic equipment, and Lt. Ahn just about to drink himself into unconsciousness on the floor. After Ahn passes out, Miles examines the equipment before deciding he will need a fair bit of instruction. He checks up on Ahn’s record and finds that he is weeks from retirement, after being stuck for fifteen years at Camp Permafrost. He decides that he’ll hope that Ahn sobers up, or take steps to sober him up if need be. He goes exploring the base, looking for someone who is in charge, whether an officer or even a competent corporal.
In the downstairs foyer a human form approached Miles, silhouetted at first against the light from the front doors. Jogging in precise double time, the shape resolved into a tall, hard-bodied man in sweat pants, T-shirt, and running shoes. He had clearly just come in off some condition-maintaining five-kilometer run, with maybe a few hundred push-ups thrown in for dessert. Iron-grey hair, iron-hard eyes; he might have been a particularly dyspeptic drill sergeant. He stopped short to stare down at Miles, startlement compressing to a thin-lipped frown.
Miles stood with his legs slightly apart, threw back his head, and stared up with equal force. The man seemed totally oblivious to Miles’s collar tabs. Exasperated, Miles snapped, “Are all the keepers on vacation, or is anybody actually running this bloody zoo?”
The man’s eyes sparked, as if their iron had struck flint; they ignited a little warning light in Miles’s brain, one mouthy moment too late. Hi, there, sir! cried the hysterical commenter in the back of Miles’s mind, with a skip, bow, and flourish. I’m your newest exhibit! Miles suppressed the voice ruthlessly. There wasn’t a trace of humor in any line of that seamed countenance looming over him.
With a cold flare of his carved nostril, the Base Commander glared down at Miles and growled, “I run it, Ensign.”
This chapter is apparently easier to summarize and harder to find good quotes from than many of the ones I’ve done. I considered and rejected many from the very nice scene at the beginning where they get their orders, mostly because we never see Plause or Lubachik again, as far as I recall. There was also one offhand reference to “The Mountains of Mourning” as Miles contemplates the anti-mutant attitudes of the Greek stevedores. I remember the opening of this book very well, though at some point I got confused and thought it was from The Warrior’s Apprentice instead. I’m all straightened out now.
The first part of the book is apparently based on the novella “The Weatherman”, which was published separately and was nominated for a Nebula Award (while The Vor Game itself went on to win a Hugo, which I still don’t entirely think it deserved). To some degree this gives the novel a bit of an awkward structure, with the first third of it being an essentially separate story; though there are some elements and characters that carry on and turn up later, the transition isn’t as smooth as it could be. But I’ll cover that later, I suppose.
“The Weatherman” is similar to “The Mountains of Mourning” in some ways, showing a less space-operatic and more down-to-Barrayar side of Miles Vorkosigan’s adventures. As such, it’s more of a character than plot story, with a large dollop of setting too. It’s also, similarly, a little slower-paced.
Miles finds Ahn awake and sober when he arrives at the office the next morning, and reintroduces himself.
“I’m your replacement, sir. Didn’t anyone tell you I was coming?”
“Oh, yes!” Ahn brightened right up. “Very good, come in.” Miles, already in, smiled briefly instead. “I meant to meet you on the shuttlepad,” Ahn went on. “You’re early. But you seem to have found your way all right.”
“I came in yesterday, sir.”
“Oh. You should have reported in.”
“I did, sir.”
“Oh.” Ahn squinted at Miles in worry. “You did?”
Miles seizes the opportunity to claim that Ahn promised him a full technical orientation. Ahn proceeds to introduce Miles to the various machines, which all have women’s names, and he seems stable enough as long as Miles keeps him on the topic, and they find the procedures disks that Miles had been unable to locate the day before. He also takes Miles up to the roof to show him the data collection equipment up there and then look out over the railing at the barren landscape. Miles takes a look at Kyril Island, with most of its buildings dug in and covered with turf, and what little life there is pure unterraformed Barrayaran.
Ahn asks Miles if he’s related to Aral Vorkosigan, and Miles tells him that Aral’s his father. Ahn asks Miles what he’s like.
What an impossible question, Miles thought in exasperation. Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan. The colossus of Barrayaran history in this half-century. Conqueror of Komarr, hero of the ghastly retreat from Escobar. For sixteen years Lord Regent of Barrayar during Emperor Gregor’s troubled minority; the Emperor’s trusted Prime Minister in the four years since. Destroyer of Vordarian’s Pretendership, engineer of the peculiar victory of the third Cetagandan war, unshaken tiger-rider of Barrayar’s murderous internecine politics for the past two decades. The Vorkosigan.
I have seen him laugh in pure delight, standing on the dock at Vorkosigan Surleau and yelling instructions over the water, the morning I first sailed, dumped, and righted the skimmer by myself. I have seen him weep till his nose ran, more dead drunk than you were yesterday, Ahn, the night we got the word Major Duvallier was executed for espionage. I have seen him rage, so brick-red we feared for his heart, when the reports came in fully detailing the stupidities that led to the last riots in Solstice. I have seen him wandering around Vorkosigan House at dawn in his underwear, yawning and prodding my sleepy mother into helping him find two matching socks. He’s not like anything, Ahn. He’s the original.
“He cares about Barrayar,” Miles said aloud at last, as the silence grew awkward. “He’s . . . a hard act to follow.”
Ahn pushes himself away from the railing and begins entering data, saying that at least there’s no “wah-wah” warning. Miles asks what that is, wondering if it’s some kind of obscure joke, and Ahn tells him it’s a sudden and powerful wind that comes up from time to time. There are ropes strung between buildings to hold onto, and they’ll get about twenty minutes’ warning from the coastal stations. Miles asks Ahn where he got the figures he just entered, and Ahn has trouble answering at first, settling on the answer that that’s just how it smells. He tells Miles that they do have computerized projections, but he never uses them because they’re not accurate enough. Miles realizes that Ahn has internalized his weather prediction to the point where he’s better than the computers–about 95%, compared to the computers’ 75-85%, and that once he’s gone, Miles will be stuck with the computers.
The day after taking Miles on a maintenance patrol to the five nearest remote stations, Ahn was scheduled to take Miles to the outlying six, but instead Miles found him drunk in his quarters. Miles decides to go on his own, and heads over to the motor pool to sign out an all-terrain “scat-cat” (guaranteed not to blow away in a wah-wah). The tech who helps him retrieve it, Pattas, is one of the Greeks from his arrival the first day. After Miles goes through its checklist–painfully slowly to the watching techs–Pattas tells him that if he goes up to Station Nine, he should park the scat-cat in a hollow below the station, out of the wind. Miles isn’t sure why, because the scat-cat won’t blow away, but Pattas says they sometimes blow over.
He drives away feeling self-conscious about having to prove himself yet again, but by the time he reaches Station Six he’s more relaxed, and performs the scheduled maintenance smoothly enough. In Station Eight, though, he has to repair a piece of equipment, and by the time he reached Station Nine he realizes that even the long summer arctic day is beginning to fade. He decides to stay at Nine for the four-hour night, and reports that in to the base.
He parks in the recommended hollow and set up a bubble-tent to camp in, chaining it to the scat-cat in case of wah-wah. He sets up a heater, has some rations, better grade than some, and reads a book-disc until he dozes off.
When he wakes up, it’s still dark, but according to his wrist chrono it should be daylight. The sides of the tent are indented slightly, and he’s having some trouble breathing, as if there was an excess of CO2 and a shortage of oxygen. The floor of the tent turns out to be slanted. He realizes that his tent has sunk into some kind of mud-pool, and the scat-cat is apparently what’s pulling it down. He pulls loose one of the tent’s ribs, unzips one corner slightly, and pokes the rib through, trying to figure out how deep he is.
Finally, he loosens his boots and pants and starts digging his way up through the mud. His chest is bursting by the time he breaks through to the air. Unable to push himself any further off of the tent, he tries pulling himself out with clumps of bracken, and eventually manages it, leaving half of his clothes behind in the mud. Up above, it’s sleeting.
They found him hours later, curled around the dimming heat-tube, crammed into an eviscerated equipment bay in the automated weather station. His eye-sockets were hollow in his black-streaked face, his toes and ears white. His numb purple fingers jerked two wires across each other in a steady, hypnotic tattoo, the Service emergency code. To be read out in bursts of static in the barometric pressure meter in base’s weather room. If and when anybody bothered to look at the suddenly defective reading from this station, or noticed the pattern in the white noise.
His fingers kept twitching in this rhythm for minutes after they pulled him free of his little box. Ice cracked off the back of his uniform jacket as they tried to straighten his body. For a long time they could get no words from him at all, only a shivering hiss. Only his eyes burned.
As my city of residence sinks into sudden cold winter, at least a month and a half later than we might have expected, I can’t help but empathize with Miles living in this frozen wasteland. I don’t think I read “The Weatherman” in the magazines, but I sometimes get elements of this story confused with Maureen F. McHugh’s “Baffin Island”, which I did, so I keep thinking that Kyril Island is much larger than it is. (Apparently it’s about the size of Jamaica, but somewhat remoter.)
In Miles’s mental description of his father, I was a little startled to see the mention of the Third Cetagandan War. When was that? During Miles’s childhood? A space war only, as opposed to the invasions of the Cetagandan War that Count Piotr fought in (the first)? Not sure if the author’s ever shared much more than that, but maybe in Cetaganda or Brothers In Arms or even Ethan of Athos there’s something.
The sinking scat-cat and tent is the first bit of actual tension we get in the book, and it’s pretty effective, claustrophobic and chilling (literally). That Greek guy isn’t too friendly, apparently, but more about that in the next chapter, as I recall. But really, “The Weatherman” is just warming up (so to speak).
Now you have to wait another week to find out what happens in the aftermath of Miles’s scat-cat sinking. Who’s going to take the blame, Miles or the suspiciously helpful Pattas? Can Miles get along with his commander, and without Lt. Ahn? Will the wah-wah come? It looks like “The Weatherman” proper lasts into at least Chapter Five, if not Six, so it’s not going to be resolved for another couple of weeks, so sit tight…