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Some Science Fiction Mysteries

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Diplomatic Immunity is the most recent (2002) volume of the ongoing Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. The series now covers somewhere between 10 and 14 books, depending on how you’re counting, and has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards.

In Diplomatic Immunity, Miles is taking a honeymoon with his wife Ekaterin, whom he met in Komarr and wooed in A Civil Campaign, when he recieves an urgent message from Gregor, the Barrayaran Emperor, sending him to deal with a problem on Graf station. A Komarran trade fleet with a Barrayaran military escort has had conflicts with station authorities and is now being held while several Barrayaran military personnel are under arrest. Miles is soon working with working with his hermaphroditic old friend Bel Thorne (Bel Thorne hasn’t appeared in the series since it was fired by Miles as a mercenary captain in Mirror Dance, and is now working at Graf Station.) to investigate the incident that began the whole problem, the mysterious disappearance of a security officer from a Komarran ship. As often happens when there is trouble in the Vorkosigan adventures, a Cetagandan angle soon shows up, but just how Cetaganda is related to the mystery is one of the problems miles must solve.

As even this cursory description shows, Bujold has by this time worked a lot of background into her series and draws on it freely for new stories. Graf Station is named for one of the main charcters in the earlier novel Falling Free, and is controlled by quaddies, the subspecies from that novel who are genetically engineered to have four arms and no legs, and can only prosper in a zero gravity environment. Several allusions to the events of that novel are made. This story also has links, as it develops, to Cetaganda, Miles’s previous encounter with the strange genetic manipulation program of the rival Cetagandan Empire, and perhaps the weakest entry in the series. And references to other prior Bujold novels are slipped in. You could probably follow Diplomatic Immunity with no prior knowledge of the Vorkosigan universe, but you would lose a lot of the details, and a lot of the pleasure. One of the strongest parts of Bujold’s work is her detailed and varied worldbuilding, and a full appreciation of the future societies she has created requires extensive reading of her novels. The best place to begin reading the series is still at the beginning, with one of the early novels Shards of Honor (first in the series), Barrayar, or The Warrior’s Apprentice, the first novel featuring Miles.

Early Vorkosigan books were loaded with action, space and ground battles, and narrow escapes. Since Memory, Bujold has given us a more mature Miles, less reckless and rarely in physical danger. The books often blend the genres of mystery and science fiction. Bujold is adept at such combinations – her first published novel, Shards of Honor, was a superb blend of SF and romance, and her most recent novel, A Civil Campaign, was a nearly unique combination of SF and adventure with a comedy of manners. Her novella “The Mountains of Mourning” from Borders of Infinity, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, was the finest blend of SF and mystery I have ever read. The current novel is in some ways the most successful yet. It combines the strongest elements both of Bujold’s early novels and her more recent work. It works well as a mystery, and although the plot develops slowly, it ultimately builds to a conclusion as harrowing as anything Bujold has written, when Miles plays a desperate game against a resourceful bioterrorist to save himself, the population of Graf Station, and ultimately to prevent an interstellar war which could kill millions.

Diplomatic Immunity is clearly influenced by recent events, with bioterrorism as a major plot element. It’s also quietly a novel about putting the past behind you. Miles and Bel unite for a final adventure much like their many earlier ones, but both are more interested in getting through it in one piece and returning to their families than in regaining the old excitement. In a conversation about old friends from Miles’s Free Dendarii mercenary force, Miles asks Bel, “Haven’t you heard? We’re all getting to be history.” “There’s a deal of sanity to be saved in letting the past go, and moving on”, Bel replies.

Science fiction and mystery chops are combined less successfully in another recent novel, The Consciousness Plague by Paul Levinson. This is a sequel to The Silk Code, an earlier novel which I have not read featuring detective Phil D’Amato, as well as several D’Amato stories previously published in Analog.

D’Amato is a homicide detective in contemporary New York City. In The Consciouness Plague, he is on the track of a serial killer who has dumped the bodies of several nude young women in a park. While his investigation hits false suspects, solid alibis, and the usual obstacles of a murder mystery, it also is slowed down by a less routine difficulty: D’Amato and several other characters find that their memories of certain recent events have inexplicably disappeared. D’Amato is soon searching for other possible historical instances of memory loss.

The novel is written in the traditional prose style of the police procedural, but this detective, instead of meeting fences for information in seedy Harlem bars, is flying out to UCLA to discuss the bicameral mind theories of Julian Jaynes with an anthropologist. The odd combination leads to some awkward prose:

I loved the way this guy talked and thought. It was almost poetry. But it was hard to pin down the meaning

D’Amato ultimately concludes that the memory losses are caused by a popular new antibiotic, Omnin, that he speculates damages some type of organism or symbiote in the brain, thereby disrupting short term memory. For no very convincing reason, he decides that the invention of the alphabet by the Phoenicians may well have been a defense against a similar memory loss. He brings in as well as the societal amnesia that caused the trips to North America by the Vikings, and perhaps other explorers who may have included those same Phoenicians, to be forgotten for centuries.

D’Amato ultimately does solve his serial killings. The two mysteries are brought together in the end, by devices that feel more like authorial trickery than logical plot development.

Levinson has a good SF premise and creates interesting characters. But weaknesses in the writing and plotting lead to a novel that is less than the sum of its parts.

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  • There are differing opinions as to starting points. On a Bujold list that I subscribed to a while back, there seemed to be a general consensus that Ethan of Athos was an unsuccessful book for hard-core fans only, but I would consider it one of the best starting points. Because Miles doesn’t actually appear as a character, it requires less background knowledge than some of the other books, I think it works very well on its own, and the descriptions of Athos and Klein Station show Bujold’s skill in developing logical and well-considered societies, which is one of her great strengths.

    My preference in approaching a new series is generally to read it in chronological sequence, even with authors such as Bradley or Lackey who wrote in some very different order – Bradley wrote the Darkover books frequently, but not exactly, in reverse chronological order.

  • I just finished Diplomatic Immunity two nights ago, and you beat me to reviewing it.

    The only thing I might disagree with you on is a good starting point for reading Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. I’ve recommended Borders Of Infinity several times as a starting point, as it gives a bit of several different flavors and draws Miles’ character well.

    Great review of a great book!