Genre: Science Fiction
Book Review by Richard R. Horton
The latest of Lois McMaster Bujold`s Miles Vorkosigan adventures, Cetaganda, is, by Bujold’s own testimony, a rather light-hearted romp, a bit of a step down in seriousness and apparent ambition from Barrayar and Mirror Dance, her most recent Vorkosigan novels.
This novel is set a few years prior to the action of Mirror Dance. Miles is 21. He and his amiably dim-witted (by Miles` standards) cousin, Ivan, are sent to the home planet of the Cetagandan empire to attend the funeral of the Cetagandan empress. (They are chosen to go on somewhat unconvincing grounds: when did Miles and Ivan get elected Vice-President anyway?) Naturally, no sooner have they arrived (indeed, slightly before their actual arrival) they encounter a mysterious character and come into possession of a mysterious object (in fact, a rather slimly disguised MacGuffin). Miles being Miles, he does not sensibly report the incident to the Barrayaran Ambassador, nor to the local Imperial Security agent (to be sure, conveniently for the purposes of the plot, this latter person is away on some vague assignment). Instead, Miles bamboozles Ivan into supporting him in an attempt to resolve what quickly becomes a very delicate situation, on his own.
The two face deadly dangers, encounter beautiful ladies of both of the Cetagandan upper classes, and eventually find themselves enmeshed in a plot which threatens Cetagandan internal stability (and thus Barrayaran security, as Cetaganda is a traditional enemy.) A number of the details of the plot and the Cetagandan custom upon which the plot turns are unconvincing, but the book is exciting and entertaining and reads very well. Romance is somewhat backgrounded, although Miles does fall in love (hopelessly) with the most beautiful woman he`s ever seen (why does such a clever individual as Miles seem consistently to rate female beauty so highly? Though to be sure, he is only 21, and I guess us guys are guys, huh?!), and there is an almost perfunctory romance between two minor characters. (Ivan, to be sure, is quite amusingly involved with some beautiful Cetagandan women, and Bujold does provide one quite funny incident involving him and an anti-aphrodisiac: another quite pointed and appropriate (I suppose) comment on male-female relationships results.)
The most serious side of the book is an exploration of Cetagandan culture, which is built around genetic engineering of themselves. This culture consists of the haut, who are the true rulers, and the most highly “engineered”, the ghem, who provide the military might, and who are less “engineered” and less controlled (partly to allow for the spontaneous generation of potentially useful traits), the ba, neuter servants who also serve as useful safe experimental objects for genetic changes (safe because they are neutered and couldn’t pass on harmful traits), and, presumably, large middle- and under-classes of mostly normal humans. This society is quite interesting, and Bujold makes some subtle and intriguing observations on the sources of power, and the different kinds of power, in particular the power divisions between the males and females of both the haut and the ghem. However, I think a proper exploration of this society would require a good deal more space, and I would quibble with some of the assumptions, in particular, the Cetagandans don`t seem different enough to me to be the result of centuries of genetic engineering. Also, they seem to be optimizing for feminine beauty (by “normal” standards, yet!), even while sex is completely divorced (no pun intended) from their procreation efforts. I find that hard to believe.
All in all, this is certainly an enjoyable book, though not her best. And yes, it does have closure!
Finally, I couldn’t leave without citing the one quotation in the book from my favorite Bujold character, Miles` mother Cordelia, on the subject of how a radical egalitarian (such as Cordelia) could adapt to life in an elitist, aristocratic society like Barrayar’s: “An egalitarian finds it easy to adapt to life in an aristocratic society, as long as she gets to be an aristocrat.” That`s not exact, but you get the point.