Things I Like: Miles and Ekaterine

There is an author. Lois McMaster Bujold. And she has written, among other things, a series of multiply-award-winning books about the Vorkosigan family. The books are science fiction.

On the surface, these books are space opera. If I recite the plots to you, they include space-ship hijacking, interstellar wars, galactic empires, and a band of space mercenaries. Yet these books are so very much more. They are books about people, and how people relate to each other. More than any other thing, though, these books are about the process by which we as human beings chose to become ourselves.

All of the books are like this. Cordelia’s two books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, are about honor, and living with the choices you have made, and parenting, and grief, and living with the choices you make again. The earlier Miles books are about clawing your way out of what you think you should be and into what you can become. The later Miles books, particularly the three I think of as a trilogy — Memory, Komarr, and A Civil Campaign — are about realizing you never actually can get away from yourself, and how do you live with who you are?

These are books about choice. They are books about making decisions and then living with the fact that you are the person who made those decisions. They are books about how to live with responsibility and guilt without wallowing in those things. They are books about the very hard truths of adulthood, the ones I never realized until I was standing in the disaster of my life, wondering how the hell I’d gotten here. Miles and Ekaterine showed me how I got there. And they showed me what to do next.

The tag-line for Memory is “Miles hits 30, and 30 hits back.” That’s flippant, and does nothing to explain or sell the fact the the book is about the process of grieving. Not grieving for the death of a loved one, but grieving for the staggering loss of who you had thought you were going to be by this time. On some level I think that’s all a mid-life crisis is — grief. Or, more accurately, the denial phase of grief. But one thing I never heard when I was a kid was “your life will not follow your plan.”

I was not a kid with a big plan, I should note here. My plan, if I had one at all, was to dotingly follow my friends, and later, girlfriends, as they implemented their plans. Sidekick, that was my goal. Yet not even that plan unfolded the way I’d expected. Miles Vorkosigan goes through this, in the spectacular way that fictional characters do. Bang, not whimper. He makes a mistake, and makes a series of mistakes to cover up the first mistake, and ends up destroying everything of value in his life. As he sees it. All this happens in the first thirty pages or so. The rest of Memory is the grindingly painful process of figuring out what do to since he is inconveniently not dead.

I’ll give you the answer. You just go on. You take the day. And then the next day. And then the day after that. And you make something of your life that redeems, as best you can, what you screwed all to hell. If you have truly sinned, you owe it to the people you hurt and to your own self.

In Komarr we meet Ekaterine. And in this book we have two intertwining plots of ambition and the failure of ambitions. In both plots, the goals were not reached as intended and the persons involved must decide what to do about that. Go on, pretending that everything is fine? Give in and adjust to this new state of failure? Give up, break your word and walk away from everything you promised?

What does an honorable person do, when given no honorable choices?

At some point, decent human beings have to figure out how much they need to care about other people and how much about themselves. Ekaterine has historically erred on caring too little for herself. Komarr is about the pain of that. It’s about the pain of grabbing the tattered shreds of the you you once thought you could be and … taking them back. Taking back your selfhood.

A Civil Campaign is the story of how very hard it is to truly see people as they are. To see past ourselves. It’s the story of living with the mistakes you’ve made and learning to make mistakes again. Life isn’t safety, it’s risk. We try to look at the risks and decide if we want to take them, of course. But what do you do when the danger is not from outside, but from within? How do you take a chance when your greatest fear is that you will once again fail?

You know, I could have titled this post, “My Issues, Let Me Show Them To You.” But a), this is my blog, and it is intended to be somewhat revealing. Also, b), it’s clear that these are not merely my issues. I did not write these books. I did not single-handedly give them Hugo and Nebula awards. I think many people relate to the questions Miles and Ekaterine raise. I hope that many people understand the answers.

As for me, I’m still working on it. I tell people that Miles Vorkosigan taught me how to apologize. He did, but I didn’t learn it until about six years ago. Maybe eight, if I’m being generous with myself.

Dear Madam Vorsoisson, I am sorry.

This is the eleventh draft of this letter. They’ve all started with those three words, even the horrible version in rhyme, so I guess they stay.

You once asked me never to lie to you. All right, so. I’ll tell you the truth now even if it isn’t the best or cleverest thing, and not abject enough either.

I tried to be the thief of you, to ambush and take prisoner what I thought I could never earn or be given. You were not a ship to be hijacked, but I couldn’t think of any other plan but subterfuge and surprise. Though not as much of a surprise as what happened at dinner. The revolution started prematurely because the idiot conspirator blew up his secret ammo dump and lit the sky with his intentions. Sometimes these accidents end in new nations, but more often they end badly, in hangings and beheadings. And people running into the night. I can’t be sorry that I asked you to marry me, because that was the one true part in all the smoke and rubble, but I’m sick as hell that I asked you so badly.

Even though I’d kept my counsel from you, I should have at least had the courtesy to keep it from others as well, till you’d had the year of grace and rest you’d asked for. But I became terrified that you’d choose another first. So I used the garden as a ploy to get near you. I deliberately and consciously shaped your heart’s desire into a trap. For this I am more than sorry, I am ashamed.

You’d earned every chance to grow. I’d like to pretend I didn’t see it would be a conflict of interest for me to be the one to give you some of those chances, but that would be another lie. But it made me crazy to watch you constrained to tiny steps, when you could be outrunning time. There is only a brief moment of apogee to do that, in most lives.

I love you. But I lust after and covet so much more than your body. I wanted to possess the power of your eyes, the way they see form and beauty that isn’t even there yet and draw it up out of nothing into the solid world. I wanted to own the honor of your heart, unbowed in the vilest horrors of Komarr. I wanted your courage and your will, your caution and your serenity. I wanted, I suppose, your soul, and that was too much to want.

I wanted to give you a victory. But by their essential nature triumphs can’t be given. They must be taken, and the worse the odds and the fiercer the resistance, the greater the honor. Victories can’t be gifts.

But gifts can be victories, can’t they. It’s what you said. The garden could have been your gift, a dowry of talent, skill, and vision.

I know it’s too late now, but I just wanted to say, it would have been a victory most worthy of our House.

Yours to command,

Miles Vorkosigan

There is much there that I aspire to. I want to be the sort of person who can see others that clearly, without my self getting in the way. I want to be honest enough with myself to be able to see what I am doing, what I do to others whether I intend it or not. I want to be brave enough to acknowledge my mistakes and the harm I do. And I want to have the basic human decency, the honor, to apologize in a way that is about the other person and the harm they did, and not what I want.

I’m not there yet. Honestly, neither are Miles and Ekaterine. They are flawed, they are human, they struggle with themselves and who they mean to be. That’s what I value. That’s what I respect. That’s what I hope to be.

One Response

  1. Yes! This is why I love these books, too.

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