In addition to loving books – and you know I do – I also love me a good short story. Short stories, especially in science fiction and fantasy, seem to be where some of the most innovative, interesting stuff comes from. They’re also a great way to find out about new and upcoming authors, or to try out an author you’re not familiar with to see if you want to invest your time in their novels. Lucky for me, and for you, there are huge numbers of really excellent short stories being published for free online, and I’ve decided to run a weekly feature, Saturday Shorts, highlighting some of the short fiction I’ve found.
For my first Saturday Short, I’ll be highlighting Lois McMaster Bujold’s “The Mountains of Mourning,” available from the Baen Free Library. I had a sudden desire to read some Miles last week, and since I had too many other books going to start a reread of the whole series, I turned to this novella.
If you’re not familiar with Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, and would like to see what all the fuss is about (books in the series have won four Hugo awards), “The Mountains of Mourning” is a great place to start. Although the content of the plot is not very much like the rest of the series, in many ways this story represents the emotional core of the books.
Ensign Miles Vorkosigan has just graduated – improbably – from the Imperial Military Academy. Born with severe physical deformities in a world so scarred by nuclear attack that physical perfection is idolized and “mutie” is the worst insult that can be thrown at someone, young Miles was nonetheless determined to carry on his family’s tradition of military service to the empire, and prove to his judgmental (and deceased) grandfather that he could take his place as one of the Vor military caste. (Not to mention he has to stand up somehow to his father, Count Aral Vorkosigan, one of the most powerful and respected men on the planet.)
Miles is taking his home leave with his parents at their country estate before heading back to the city for his first assignment when a woman comes down from the impoverished hill country, demanding her legal right to present her case before the Count. Her husband has murdered her baby girl, she says, because the baby was a mutie. No one in her village will listen to her, but she has a right to take her grievance before her Count. She wants justice for little Raina. Count Vorkosigan agrees – and he sends Miles to be his representative, to determine what happened to baby Raina, and to mete out justice as necessary.
This is a story about justice and family, about tradition and modernity, about truth and perception. Mostly, it’s a story about responsibility, bearing it and choosing it and refusing to ignore it. Miles is a wonderful character, and more than that, a wonderful person, and this is a great way to get to know him.
Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy
Prothero’s basic argument is that Americans, although they profess to be extremely religious, actually know very little about religions — their own or anyone else’s — and that this is an extraordinarily dangerous way to walk around in the world and pretend you know something about what’s going on. I certainly wouldn’t argue with him on any of those points, but the book annoyed me a little anyway. He opens with a history of how Americans stopped learning about religion, and in doing so he presents the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a kind of golden age of religious literacy, mentioning only once that the religious literacy in question was a specifically Protestant literacy involving no knowledge at all of even Judaism or Islam, and a pretty warped knowledge of Catholicism. (And when he does offer this caveat, he gives it only a clause — not even a full sentence, never mind a paragraph.) I was a little bit filled with rage when he mentioned that “even blacks and Native Americans” were learning their Bible, with nary a mention of the fact that both African slaves and Native Americans had their own damn religions before they were forced to learn the Bible instead.
I’m not sure about his proposed solutions, either — that all high school students should have a mandatory religious literacy course and an elective Bible studies course, and that all college students should fulfil a religious studies requirement before graduation. At the college level, that’s fine, but I don’t have any faith that high school religious studies classes would be worth the time spent in them, or that Bible studies classes would be at all nonsectarian. (I do not speak wholly in a vaccum; I grew up in a pretty religious area, and when I took a religious studies class in high school, we spent two class periods dealing with students who didn’t believe in the Council of Nicea.) I wholly applaud his basic principle — we need to stop pretending that all religions are somehow the same, and learn about what makes them different — but I’m not sure American culture is ready for that at the high school level. But there will be more on that subject when I finish his other book, God is Not One, which I have from the library right now.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Microbes and Mayhem
Including Falling Free and Diplomatic Immunity. Well, and Labyrinth, but that’s been in two anthologies already, I just ignored it. I’ve been reading these books in chronological order for the most part, but Falling Free is an exception, set a full hundred years or more before the beginning of the main series. It details the origin of the quaddies, genetically engineered humans with four arms instead of the usual two arms/two legs arrangement, designed to live and work in zero-gee environments, who have suddenly been made obsolete by the development of artificial gravity. The corporation that developed them — that owns them — wants to just get rid of them somehow, but Leo Graff, an engineer hired to teach the quaddies the trade, and a handful of the quaddies band together in a truly epic escape attempt which eventually (this is not a spoiler if you’ve read any Vorkosiverse books at all) results in the founding of Quaddiespace, a network of zero-gee space stations inhabited almost entirely by quaddies. Diplomatic Immunity takes place in Quaddiespace, hence the logic of putting the two books together, and features Miles’s old friend Bel Thorne, a former Dendarii Mercenary; the politically incorrect shenanigans of the Barryaran military; a quaddie ballet based on the romance of Leo Graf and Silver; and the kind of elaborate genetic treason that could only be committed by a Cetagandan. It’s surprisingly reminiscent of the early Naismith books, considering that it’s also the book where Miles’s first children are born. Maybe it’s a last hurrah for the little admiral? (Or Miles is just terminally immature. Also possible.)
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn
And now I am caught up! Huzzah. This was a fairly lightweight book, as the Vorkosigan series goes — more on the level of Cetaganda than Memory, but delightful for all that. (Except for the last three words. Oh god, the last three words.) In addition to Miles’s point of view, we get the POV of Jin, a street kid on Kibou-daini, where Miles has been sent to poke at the local economy and figure out what kind of game they’re trying to pull. You see, on Kibou-daini, when people are close to death, rather than just dying they’re cryo-frozen for a length of time, until someone comes up with a cure for whatever they have or their contract runs out, whichever comes first, and White Chrysalis, one of the major cryocorps on Kibou-daini, wants to expand into the Barryaran Empire. There’s a lot of poking around, and political protestors, and shady corporate dealings, but Miles doesn’t really have a lot at stake for most of the book. Until those last three words. Oh my god, those last three words. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried.
Rumor has it that the next one is an Ivan book. (More than rumor, really, since there are a couple of scenes that Bujold has been doing readings of floating around the interwebs.) I cannot wait.
Carole G. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples
This was one of those delightful coincidences — just as I was thinking about starting to work again on that faerie novel I had begun a couple of years ago, someone recommended this book in a blog I read. It’s a history of Victorian attitudes toward and uses of fairies in literature, folklore, and analysis, and it was enthralling. Fairies were a big part of what was basically Victorian pop culture, and Silver cites examples in everything from folklorists’ writings (which were also pretty big at the time) to Dickens to Blake. Plus there were a lot of references to the works of the Romantics which the Victorians were riffing off of, which will be wonderful for my novel.
Borders of Infinity, Miles Errant, Memory, No Plot? No Problem!, The Leper of Saint Giles, Miles in Love
At last, the final list of books from 2010. And a happy new year to you all! May 2011 be an improvement in all ways.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Borders of Infinity
Three novellas in the Vorkosiverse, “Labyrinth,” “The Mountains of Mourning,” (both of which I read in their earlier omnibus volumes) and the titular “Borders of Infinity,” in which Miles really does start out with not so much as the clothes on his back and end up performing the most dramatic prison break in history. All with the frame story I always love, the “you’re running drastically over budget, what the hell” complaint. What, someone has to foot the bill for all these shenanigans.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Errant
MARK! Er, I may be very fond of the new character introduced in this set, Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance (with “Borders of Infinity” again). Basically, a crazy Komarran terrorist made a clone of Miles to use to assassinate his father. But remember, Miles is somewhat physically deformed due to a prenatal assassination attempt, so in order to make them interchangeable, Mark had to undergo a whole lot of fairly unnecessary surgery. While being lectured on all of Miles’s amazing achievements. Talk about sibling rivalry. Mirror Dance is basically the book in which Mark becomes a human being, and I love it deeply, as strange and traumatizing as it is. I may have read most of it at work simply because I couldn’t bear to leave it alone for eight hours at a time. *shifty eyes*
Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory
Now this is a work of staggering genius. I didn’t find the mystery all that mysterious — or maybe I’m just more paranoid than Miles — but I adored the character development in this book. It’s Simon Illyan’s book, really; he’s been lurking in the background since the beginning of the series, but here he becomes a person. A fragile, failing person in a lot of pain. The general consensus online is that the most tragic line in the book is, “Ivan, you idiot, what are you doing here?” And I might have to agree.
Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!
And then in the middle of all this I read the NaNoWriMo book. Yes, in December. It was checked out of the library all through November. I actually came out of this liking the whole concept of NaNoWriMo much more than I did by the end of November, when I’d barely scratched 35,000 words and had completely lost the thread of my novel. The book is very big on finishing something by the end of the month, where I had just set my goal as having the word count. I think next time I’ll shoot for actually finishing the story in a month, even if that means having to write whole chapters in two-sentence paragraphs. (After all, the original point of NaNo is to become a Novelist, so you can go to swanky parties and impress people by talking about your manuscript.)
Ellis Peters, The Leper of Saint Giles
It took me forever to get through this Cadfael, what with all the Miles books I also had to get through. This is one of the ones, too, where I’d seen the adaptation, which was very true to the book, so there were no real surprises. I enjoyed it, even though it was a little boring what with knowing everything that was going to happen. More Cadfael on request from the library as we speak.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles in Love
Komarr and A Civil Campaign. I actually liked Komarr much better, possibly because I really like Ekaterin and enjoyed spending all that time in her PoV. One of the things that actually got me to read this series was the commenters at Making Light talking about how awful and awkward the dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign is to read, so I was expecting it to be horrible, but I found I actually enjoyed it. I usually don’t like embarrassment comedy, but I apparently have an exception for when the person being embarrassed really, really deserves it. And hey, at least Miles learns from his mistakes. Eventually.
Cordelia’s Honor, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, Young Miles, Miles, Mystery & Mayhem
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor
This is actually two books as an omnibus, those being Shards of Honor and Barrayar. (I am reading in chronological order, yes.) Really, though, they don’t seem like separate books at all, and according to the afterward, they almost weren’t. I love Cordelia; she’s a wonderful character, strong in her own right without being military, willing to go to unbelievable lengths for things she really cares about (like the life of her unborn son), and completely divorced from the politics of the society in which she finds herself living. Also, I grew so attached to Kou in his brief appearance in Shards that I absolutely cheered out loud when he showed up again in Barrayar.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin J. O’Neal
Yes, I bought this when it came out and it took me this long to finish it. I got bogged down in the beat poetry section (which was pretty terrible, and I say this as someone who actually enjoyed large portions of On the Road). You know, sometimes Alan Moore is brilliant, and sometimes he’s insane, and I suspect that this book is just exactly the wrong combination of the two. It feels like it’s trying to be much more important than it is. And it’s much less fun than the first two.
Anyway, back to Miles —
Lois McMaster Bujold, Young Miles
Being an omnibus of The Warrior’s Apprentice, the short story “Mountains of Mourning”, and The Vor Game. This is where we’re introduced to the main character of the series, Cordelia and Aral Vorkosigan’s son Miles. (Elli Quinn says to Ethan in a later book, “Look for a big pile of trouble with a squiggly-minded little man on top.” That’s a remarkably good description of Miles.) Warrior’s Apprentice is, of course, named after the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and it shows. It’s an insane amount of fun, one accident piling on top of another one, until Miles has accidentally acquired a mercenary navy. And then, in Vor, he acquires them all over again. And in the middle, in “Mountains of Mourning,” he’s back at home on his family’s land, working out the small (and yet simultaneously not-so-small) problems of a small hill village. I recommend the omnibus for this order as much as anything; it carries a wonderful impact.
Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Mystery & Mayhem
Being a compendium of Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos, and the short story “Labyrinth” (which I’m actually still reading as part of Borders of Infinity, shh). I adored Cetaganda for the old-fashioned sci-fi worldbuilding and the amazing political structure where women seem to have no power and yet also manage to control the empire, and also for Ivan. I’m becoming very fond of poor Ivan Vorpatril, prettier than Miles bot not as brilliant, and he knows it. Ethan is also spectacular for the worldbuilding, and I think the plot is stronger too, and boy is that laying some interesting ground for what’s going to happen in this universe in forty or fifty years. Athos is a planet without women — it’s clearly been founded on misogynistic principles, but it’s hard to call any of the men who live there misogynistic, because they have absolutely no experience with women whatsoever. I found it interesting that while the planet was founded in order to help men escape from the evils of women, in the wider universe it’s known (if it’s known at all) as Planet of the Gay, and Ethan gets beaten up over it.
One of the things I like about the Vorkosigan saga all together is it’s clearly very interested in the power and position of women in a society. There are no women at all on Athos, but there are donated ovarian cultures; on in the Cetagandan empire the highest-class women travel in opaque bubbles so they can never be seen, and are genetically engineered (by their own hands) for supreme beauty. On Barrayar women have very little power, but on Beta Colony they’re quite egalitarian (and Betan Cordelia is astounded when the Barrayan Emperor entrusts her with the education of his grandson and simultaneously tells her she’ll have no power; clearly she cannot believe that educating the future Emperor is a powerless position). Women serve in the Dendarii Mercenaries the same as men do (as well as one hermaphrodite). Miles has a tendency to want to be the Hero, rescuing the Damsel in Distress, but he’s very good at acknowledging when the Damsel no longer needs to be rescued. It’s not something I’m used to in science fiction, and I love it deeply.