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Book Review: Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Cryoburn is the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running space opera series, The Vorkosigan Saga. With a current tally of some 14 or so entries, and three Hugo wins for her trouble (not to mention a fourth Hugo for her fantasy foray, Paladin of Souls), Bujold certainly knows whereof she writes with this series.

In fact, Cryoburn has already been nominated for this year’s Hugo award, which puts her within striking distance of the record set by Heinlein (five wins, counting the Retro Hugo), and there’s no sign either she, or her hero, Miles Vorkosigan, will be stopping soon. Certainly by now any science fiction fan worth his or her salt will be wondering what all the fuss is about.

I might as well make my own confession: I was eager to review this book because I hadn’t, to my shame, managed to read Bujold previous to this. Certainly she was not the only big name that remained on my to-read list a little too long, but she may have been one of the more decorated authors I’ve neglected. It was an omission happily remedied.

The larger setting of Miles Vorkosigan’s universe is some centuries or perhaps millenia hence, wherein humanity has spread to the stars. Or, at least, our far-future descendants have managed to occupy a fairly modest selection of far-flung habitable planets, loosely connected through a patchwork wormhole network. In this most-recent novel, Miles, as an Imperial Auditor for the tri-planetary Empire of Barrayar, is on a sort of trade/fact-finding mission on a planet whose cryonics corporations have taken over, and want to do business with the Empire.

Miles knows little more about this planet going in than the reader, which makes the story work well as a stand-alone adventure. Although Bujold is maintaining a continuity in this series, she obviously understands that one of the strengths of science fiction is the big idea. One technological change may allow a cascade of societal shifts, as extrapolated by the author who imagines it.

In the society of this planet, the technology to stave off death by freezing changes everything. However, though an elderly patron may be frozen indefinitely, the technology to reverse their aging does not exist, so the result is a society of dreamers, hoping to one day awaken to immortality. But this is an imagined future, and right now, corpses of the rich and powerful dominate the planet, still owning everything, while the living feel disenfranchised. And the corporations rule all by proxy.

It’s a very interesting idea, though I feel that the actual execution in the novel was slightly mundane for such a far-reaching concept. It seemed like a very big idea to set up a fairly pedestrian (though large-scale) legal scam. The consequences of no one every dying really ought to have been more Earth-shattering than they ended up being.

But did I enjoy the book? Certainly. There was some action, some mystery, sympathetic characters, and the sort of unconventional, follows-his-own-rules protagonist who always seems to get into trouble, but gets back out again since he always gets the job done. Since birth, he has also suffered from some daunting physical impairments, making him a bit more relateable than the quintessential indestructible action hero, though this serves less a defining character feature in the more politically-oriented Cryoburn.

Miles is in his late 30s in this novel, while he first appeared as a character at 17. Bujold has been allowing him to age in approximately real-time as she’s written each new book. The early series has been described as military fiction, because, amongst other things, Miles was a military officer. He has since retired and taken on the high-level political/governmental post of Imperial Auditor, much as top brass in our world find their jobs have become less about wartime strategy and more about the battlefield of international politics and diplomacy, even if they don’t literally retire and take on explicitly political positions.

The changing genres of the novels mirror the natural progression of a man’s career and the changes in his life as he gets older and makes those family and work transitions. Miles still has adventures, but of a different kind than may have been seen in earlier books. Whether one prefers the ratio of political intrigue to overt action of the earlier novels or the later ones will depend on one’s tastes.

Still, there’s at least one good reason that anyone interested in Miles’ adventures, old and new alike, should pick up this novel — and spring for the hardcover, to boot. As a very cool Baen Books promotion, it comes with a CD-ROM containing the complete Vorkosigan collection, up to and including this one. That’s including three (and possibly soon to be four) Hugo winners, not to mention other bonus material like interviews with Bujold herself (this material is also available for free here). You can bet I’ll be catching up on some of Miles’ earlier adventures. I’d love to see what it was like for this spunky little guy with the fragile bones in military service.

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About J.J.S. Boyce