Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 2010, 345 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4391-3394-1

Was Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn one of the most eagerly expected Science Fiction novels of 2010?  As far as its publisher is concerned, the only clue you need is the triumphant cover that heralds “A New Miles Vorkosigan Novel!”  The enormously popular series had, after all, lain dormant for much of the past decade, ever since Bujold followed up 2002’s Diplomatic Immunity with six fantasy novels set in an entirely different universe.

After such a lengthy real-world pause, Cryoburn fittingly picks up seven years after the events of Diplomatic Immunity: Miles has grown into a respected imperial auditor, a devoted husband and a father to several kids.  Not that the domestic aspects of his personality get much play here, as he spends most of the book on Kibou-daini, a planet noteworthy for the extent to which it has invested in cryogenic preservation techniques.  The catacombs under the city are filled with frozen people, and that’s where the novel confidently begins in media res, with Miles blindly stumbling about after a failed kidnapping attempt.

Once the dust settles down after an initial volley of typically Vorkosiganian adventures, the shape of the plot becomes clearer: Miles is investigating various corporate shenanigans on behalf of the Emperor, and solving the one he’s been sent to settle doesn’t preclude taking on another more interesting conspiracy when it comes to his attention.  Miles is nothing but a hyperactive problem-solver, and dangling further corporate malfeasance in front of him is an excellent way to get an adventure.  He is fortunate to be accompanied by his faithful armsman Roic, who gets his share of the narrative viewpoint while suffering through Miles’ elaborate schemes; and Jin, a Kibou-daini kid with a missing mother and a refreshing perspective on familiar characters.

Cryoburn is a minor Vorkosigan novel more or less in the mould of Diplomatic Immunity, with enough hard science to justify a background for Miles’ adventures but without series-changing developments until its sucker-punch conclusion.  Kibou-daini’s fascination for cryogenic preservation is a solid excuse to explore the stranger social consequences of that scientific innovation—the best one being the logical consequence of proxy voting rights transfer from the frozen many to their holding corporations.  We also get to see the thawing process in two tense sequences, with enough plausible technical details to make it feel satisfying to the harder-minded SF fans.

This being said, most readers coming back to the Vorkosigan series with Cryoburn will read it for the characters, not the fictional science.  Miles is thankfully back in full form, plunged in the kind of complex power-play that allows him to be as devious as he likes.  Roic’s viewpoint is most useful in feeling the impact that Miles can have on people who know him best, whereas Jin’s viewpoint is played for the emotional impact of characters who aren’t necessarily indestructible by virtue of being series protagonists.

Yet notions of invulnerability inevitably lead us to the abrupt epilogue of the book, in which an amiable but minor Vorkosigan adventure suddenly becomes something else.  It’s not an entirely unexpected development: Thematically, Cryoburn is about death… and Vorkosigan fans will be able to piece together the upcoming revelation solely on the basis of what a series protagonist of Miles’s age should experience.  But while the development is intriguing, it still makes Cryoburn feel unbalanced, far more so that previous adventures in the series.  This isn’t a major entry in the Vorkosigan series, but the ending suggests that the next novel will be.  Until the next Bujold novel shows up in bookstores, there’s no avoiding the wait and assorted speculations.

Fannish expectations will vary enormously: Those who care deeply about the Vorkosigan series may find that Cryoburn feels like light throat-clearing before another major entry.  People without that much attachment to Miles and company will find it to be an entertaining adventure with intriguing elements and an accomplished writer’s deft touch with plotting and characterization.  It may have been one of the SF’s most eagerly-awaited novels of 2010, but it’s not likely to remain one of the year’s major works (although, knowing Bujold fans, a few award nominations are definitely possible.)  One thing’s for sure: I can’t imagine any fan of the series not wanting to read the next novel as soon as they’re done with Cryoburn.

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