Borders of Inifinity, by Lois McMaster Bujold

borders-of-inifinity-by-lois-mcmaster-bujold coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Baen
Published: 1999
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by Aaron M. Renn

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Many years ago I saw a martial arts film called “The Five Deadly Venoms”, which was named after five characters who each practiced some unique and deadly skill. One of them–the Toad, if I recall correctly–had an iron skin. Almost nothing could break it. However, if ever anything did manage to pierce it, he was through. One of the other “venoms” managed to get him with a special dart, after which he was put in an iron maiden, then subjected to a red hot iron coat, then suffocated back in his prison cell.

That story was in the back of my mind as I read this book. I’ve had a sort of iron skin that has protected me against all things Bujold. I’m not sure why I’ve so resisted reading these books. Just sheer perversity I guess. But when I went to the bookstore the other day, that wily Jim Baen hit me with his own special dart: a $1.99 special edition of Borders of Infinity. Talk about hitting a guy in his weak spot. Though I have the money these days to buy as many books as I want, I still can’t resist a deal. Especially this one, which made me drift back to my earliest days as an SF fan when all paperbacks were just $1.95. Sigh. Luckily, I don’t think I’m going to share the same fate as the Toad.

Quite honestly, I was underwhelmed by this book. As insanely popular as this Vorkosigan series is, and as many awards as it has received, I was expecting a lot more. First off, this is an anthology, not a novel, a fact the publisher neglected to tell us anywhere on the cover. That was a strike against it right away. It contains three stories, one of which–The Mountains of Mourning–won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novella. So I’m assuming that I wasn’t getting the bottom of the barrel here. But only one of them really clicked with me, and interestingly it wasn’t the award winner.

I must be the only person on the planet who hasn’t read this book by now, so my synopsis will be brief. Miles Vorkosigan is the son of a powerful count from the planet of Barrayar. An attempt to assassinate his parents by poison while he was still in the womb caused a birth defect that left him stunted and with brittle bones. However he more than makes up for this as an unassuming but extremely competent general purpose hero.

It’s interesting that I read this book soon after the recently published Rhapsody. Miles reminds me very much of a male version of the title character in that novel. Rhapsody is the perfect woman: multi-talented, beautiful, and above all blessed with an extremely high moral sense that leads her to make impulsive and foolish, but always ultimately successful, stands of principle. With the exception of his physical appearance, Miles is exactly the same. Each of these stories is a type of morality play, and well, a bit preachy. A bit too preachy for my taste. When Miles risks all to recuse the mutated damsel in distress, I had the same reaction as when Rhapsody ran into the street to rescue the kid being beaten by his father. I pretty much wanted to vomit. It’s not that displays straight out of Profiles in Courage are a bad thing, but when they come one right after the other, it begins to grate on the nerves. Nobody can possibly be so amazingly wonderful all of the time. At least Miles, unlike Rhapsody, occasionally has to put up with some suffering for his heroism.

I must admit though, the title story from this book did leave me with a bit of a lump in my throat. In “The Borders of Infinity”, Miles infiltrates a POW camp filled with people living in a pit of despair. A Christ-like figure descending to earth, Miles offers himself up as a living sacrifice and symbol of hope to those who are hopeless in this classic tale of redemption. I think I liked this one the best because it was a straight ahead spiritual story. Just as I don’t mind a character like Rhapsody in a romance, one like Miles is just fine with me in an inspirational. However, I can deal with both story types in only limited doses.

If the rest of the Vorkosigan books are as full of cloying moralisms as this one, I think I’ll have to spread them out in order to get them all down. But at least now that my iron skin is broken, it will be legal for me to go back and read the Hugo winners I’ve missed.

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