Memory, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 1997 mass-market paperback reprint of 1996 original, 462 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-671-87845-0

Given how much I like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Science-Fiction novels, I was recently surprised to realize that I hadn’t read all of them.  I was particularly embarrassed to remember that I hadn’t even read Memory, often considered by fans to be one of the major books in Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series.  I had read most of what came before and all of what followed, but never that particular novel.

It’s a mystery as to why I waited this long to finally read it.  Much of Bujold’s SF writing is set in a single universe, revolving around the character of Miles Vorkosigan and his extended family.  Not every Vorkosigan story is told in the same mode or has the same importance: They range from military SF to romance, and they can go from simple entertainment to gut-wrenching drama.  Memory is one of the key texts in the Vorkosigan saga: Deceptively summarized by the publisher as “Miles hits thirty: thirty hits back”, it’s a major novel that marks a definitive transition in Vorkosigan’s life and in the makeup of the series.  There’s definitely a pre- and post-Memory era in the Vorkosigan saga.

As Memory begins, Miles is still having fun as his alter-ego “Admiral Naismith”, leading his own fleet of mercenaries through dangerous adventures. For him, it’s definitely a more interesting life than being stuck at home as Lord Vorkosigan in a rigid aristocracy.  But things aren’t necessarily going well: Miles is feeling the consequences of a major medical trauma, and is liable to suffer unpredictable debilitating seizures.  This has serious consequences during a hostage rescue mission, and Miles finds himself temporarily grounded as superiors and colleagues review his actions.  Throughout Memory, Miles has to confront the end of his boyhood fantasies, liquidate his invented alter-ego and finally face his future as himself.

Coming-of-age novels usually feature younger characters breaking out of childhood into something like adult maturity, and the Science Fiction genre certainly has its share of such stories.  But growing up isn’t a binary condition: Kids don’t suddenly turn into adults until the end of their lives: Even adulthood has its stages, and Memory squarely confronts a tricky transition.  It’s a difficult assignment made even more so by the dramatic demands of an action-adventure SF series: Having Miles run around the galaxy blowing stuff up is certainly more exciting than seeing him confront his obligations as part of the aristocracy.  Bujold took huge risks in removing the exciting half of Miles’ identity and definitely scrapping those plotting avenues.

It also forces Memory to take place largely within Miles’ head.  Oh, there’s a mystery for him to solve in trying to piece together who’s trying to sabotage Imperial Security’s leadership –but that’s thematic underpinning for Miles’ own personal reintegration.  The novel’s most satisfying moments are in seeing Miles come to grip with his life, deciding to get rid of a crutch he had created to fulfill outdated needs, and joining a more challenging society of peers.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Memory is how Bujold is able to create a gripping novel out of self-contemplation.  This isn’t a surprise, of course: Bujold has long been one of SF’s most gifted writers, and the depth of the characterisation she brings to Memory, even through its tangle of subplots, is what fans can expect from her –but the result is satisfying to such a degree that it still feels like a minor achievement.   The self-awareness of the central character is scathing (rare enough in a sixth book in a series) and the process through which he comes to realize how best to live his seemingly diminished life is a crucible that feels just as real to the reader.

I’m not in a position to suggest how accessible Memory can be to those who haven’t read the rest of the series.  It surely means most to those who care about Miles and his adventures, but my own memories of the series were dated and fuzzy, and the first few chapters of Memory do a fine job at re-establishing the important relationships required to understand the shifting that occurs later in the novel.

While the mystery aspect of Memory isn’t much of a mystery, the rest of the book’s subplots and central dilemma easily make this one of the important entries in the Vorkosigan series.  Everything clicks, from the plotting to the characters to the prose to the impact of individual scenes.  It ends not with a sense of closing options, but with new opportunities and revitalized characters.  More series should go through this type of premise-defying shakeups.

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