Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga #8) (1994) by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Hey! It’s Richard Branson, everybody!

With clones and diplomatic intrigue muddling up the Vorkosigan lifestyle, yet again, another adventure takes Miles out of the picture. Instead of our normal Vorkosigan friends, Mirror Dance offers a unique point-of-view, that of an intruder, giving fans, and detractors, a new perspective on this wealthy Barrayaran family

A series with character, as in strictly character driven, with things happening and things to be accomplished, Mirror Dance belongs somewhere in the early middle of this lengthy series that revolves around members of the same noble family. The Vorkosigan series reminds me of a dollhouse where the fashionable and wealthy characters leave their mansions each day, and drive their expensive, powerful cars (or starships), to run errands and have adventures. Maybe someone gets kidnapped, or deals with a bad guy, or sinks into quicksand… I’m pretty sure I played out these plots with my dolls as a little girl. (Though my dolls did more dressing up than hijacking of rocket ships, but they were pretty adventurous.)

In this episode, Miles’ doppelgänger, Mark, the genetic clone brother who was originally created for the infiltration and destruction of the Vorkosigan family, tricks Miles’ mercenaries into aiding in the rescue of other clones held on Jackson’s Whole. Miles finds out, but before he can put a stop to the violent conflict that follows, he is killed by a grenade. His body is cryogenically frozen for future medical attention, but then lost in space in the chaos of battle. Despite this, the Vorkosigans accept Mark into their home, but Mark feels responsible for the loss of his hated clone/brother/enemy, and his investigative actions result in his own imprisonment and subsequent torture.

But, like the adventures of Barbie and Ken, it’s always going to work out for Miles and his lot, and there is always the same root, the same hearth, the same heart to which they return. But unlike Barbie and Ken, the Vorkosigan charisma and fortitude might be entertaining and inspiring enough to distract from the aristocratic glaze of this elite Barrayaran family.

Mirror Dance is the most enjoyable of the four to five Vorkosigans I’ve read so far. It may be that I am finally indoctrinated into the series, though I suspect Mark’s outsider perspective has more to do with it. (And, let’s get real, a 100% audio run might have helped, too.) Like me, Mark is critical of this family of rich privilege, (although he acclimates quickly enough), and his observations better match my own suspicion of this self-righteous-but-not-enough-to-really-upset-the-status-quo family. Is Mark’s POV just a byproduct of his circumstance, or a hint of Bujold’s self-awareness?

MirrorDance2Although Mark (and I) might be critical of this family, it’s clear that fans of this series find comfort in this kind of steadiness. But don’t get too comfortable, comfort readers. Mark’s creation story, which might be covered at more length in a different installment, involves manipulation, programming, torture, and rape. (The thing is, it seems like every Vorkosigan character of importance is raped, or very close to it. It is a primary factor for plot and/or character development in this series. Personality hinges, or perhaps, unhinges, on rape, particularly among the male characters.)

To demonstrate Mark’s consequential developmental and intimacy disorders, Bujold has him sexually assault a ten-year-old clone girl with breast implants, with no consequence because, after all, she’s just a clone. (Not Bujold’s thinking, of course, but a demonstration of the inhumanity of this future space culture—although we don’t really need such a drastic lesson since the narrative tells us as much because, in this series, so much is told.) During his imprisonment after Miles’ death and disappearance, Mark is raped, force fed, raped some more, manipulated to rape, maim, and kill. He copes by splitting his psyche into separate personalities who enjoy each vice: Grunt, Gorge, Howl, Killer. These are not graphic scenes, merely hinted at, but unpleasant all the same. But Mark survives, the bad guys are defeated, and Mark goes home and shakes it off like a wet dog.

This is common with the Vorkosigans. While there is struggle, change, even development, there is no depth, no transformation, no real threat. Change happens, sometimes hard change (loss, dementia, aging, death), but character revolution won’t. I’ve seen these folks at the beginning and at their most recent, and they are always recognizable, familiar—the most likely explanation for this series’ oft-criticized success. Readers come to this series to embrace their old friends, and fill in narrative gaps.

Series like this are, in essence, just like a dollhouse: the flexible, resilient framework combined with foundational permanence, the character stability, the episodic nature, and the a la carte entry points (you can sample the series at any point, a revolving narrative, whereas space opera tends to recommend strict linearity), not to mention the family focus, the extravagant wealth, and the relative ease for characters (even in the face of tragedy), brings to mind this analogy, and I think that’s why this series appeals to so many fans. Once you know the characters and the open floor plan, you can walk up to this structure at any time, get out the characters, and start a new adventure. Both a strength and a weakness, depending on what kind of reader you are.

For a series reader wanting comfort, welcome home.

For me, it just isn’t my bag, and a few other nagging things don’t help. The torture and tragedy never grip me. I wince at the words, but they form sentences, not experiences. Also, Bujold likes to rely on old clichés (“with friends like these” and “gut feeling like a bad case of indigestion” are two that come to mind) rather than delight us with fresh writerly quips. And, as usual, “bemused,” gets abused, both in rate of use and definitional misuse. (I understand “bemused” as “baffled and confused,” though she tends to use it as “slightly amused,” though it’s sometimes difficult to choose through context clues, which is why it is so frustrating because the difference between the two can screw with a character’s point-of-view. Boo.)

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Ugh, these guys again. (The audiobook art I had to look at every day for a week.)

But what I like, and what I think really captures the fans, is the motivational-spoiler effect that happens when publication order does not synchronize with narrative order. Lots of foreshadowing, lots of aft-shadowing—it fosters curiosity about the future and past of these characters, no matter what order you decide to read. And for a series that is strictly character driven, that seems to be the key.

Coming tomorrow: The Peace War (1984) by Vernor Vinge

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20 thoughts on “Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga #8) (1994) by Lois McMaster Bujold

  1. So the Hugo ‘5s are leading to a lot of meh-sounding books, at least recently (this one, Mother of Storms, ’94 must have been a bad year…) I haven’t read any of Bujold’s books yet, though I have a few friends who raved about them, and I do like the sound of character-driven fiction… But I haven’t been drawn to them, in part for reasons you mention (episodic bemused rape etc.).

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      One: “episodic bemused rape” is officially a new legal codification… or should be. And the jury will be expected to answer the question: Was the perp baffled or amused? to determine sentencing.

      Two: “So the Hugo ‘5s are leading to a lot of meh-sounding books…”

      OMG are you reading over my shoulder? Because I JUST wrote that for my opening line in my July Review post.

      It’s not just the Hugo ‘5s. The HUGOs in general are meh, as I’m sure you and everybody else already knows, and I just figured this out about, oh, two years ago. But here I am, reading along anyway because I. am. committed.

      Actually, the ‘5s are a good mix of excellence and commercial meh. I just didn’t balance my reading order very well. And the ’80s and ’90s leave something to be desired on any reading list, and that’s mostly what I’m blasting through right now. (What went wrong with genre publishing those decades? I was having a blast with She-Ra at the time andohIthinkIjustansweredmyquestion: sci-fi commercialized. Thanks Star Wars.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • What Chris said. And also, “episodic bemused rape”. It’s a whole genre!

        Now I feel compelled to think of something published during that time period that was awesome. Simon Ings, Simon Ings! (For the 90s at least.) Let’s all ignore everything else and read Simon Ings. Of course his fiction didn’t get nominated for any of the “meaningful” awards… COUGH

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          “It’s a whole genre!” It very well is. It’s funny but it’s not.

          The ’80s and ’90s gave us William Gibson, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Gene Wolfe, so there’s that. I’m sure there are others I haven’t discovered yet. But all four of those authors have transcended genre in their own way, and it’s definitely not like the ’60s and ’70s, when it seemed creativity was growing on trees.

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          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            And I should add, all four of those authors were already gaining attention in the ’70s, though I don’t think any of them had what we would call a “writing career” until later.

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      • It’s a whole genre!
        True dat. It’d be funny if it wasn’t kind of depressing. “Ugh another cheap use of rape as a backstory, put another quarter in the jar.”

        OMG are you reading over my shoulder?
        Well I did see your rating for that Stross book on Goodreads and had to assume you’re finishing up the dregs of the Hugo ‘5s, having already read Inverted World the other,better books.

        In hindsight, there’s a good reason I’m not as interested in most ’80s or ’90s SF. There’s some gems in there—to the list of authors I’d add a half-dozen more, including Joan Vinge’s Snow Queen and Atwood’s Handmaiden’s Tale. But wow there was a lot of crap and filler-thrillers in there… I blame Crichton? I remember in the ’90s, the ’90s were the future and the future was now… but now we’re actually in the future and the ’90s have aged so poorly. Stupid ’90s.

        Liked by 1 person

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Yes, Crichton could be to blame. I saw a book blurb the other day that said, “This author is the new Crichton!” Good job PR person for directing me elsewhere.

          2 more Hugo ‘5s to go. Kress, then Heinlein.

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          • Wow, if you hadn’t already gave the nod to Kress’ Beggars in Spain I’d say you really were saving the dregs for last. Curious to see how you like that one. Which Heinlein is it, though?

            *checks*

            I’m sorry.

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          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            I really liked Beggars in Spain, but the sequel is not nearly as well-liked, so I’m expecting a stretched effort. I am curious to where she takes this evolution of her protagonist, though.

            I’m expecting Job to be a job.

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  2. Steph says:

    I’m glad your dolls were adventurous. Mine were too:) I’m concerned a with the frequency of rape. Don’t get me wrong it teaches and mold but the frequency at which you mentioned does concern me. I do not think every main character needs to go through it. At that level I question the authors reasoning. It does build and year someone down but other experiences do that too. It feels too…convenient.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I hate rape in fiction. Hate it. I used to quit books the moment the story went into that territory. It’s a mental assault. And some (male) writers are a little too “good” at writing those scenes.

      I’m more forgiving if it comes from an author from a non-privileged background, IF it seems like genuine commentary, a personal exorcism, and/or is presented in an unsexy, unsensationalized way. Unfortunately, Bujold doesn’t fit the first two criteria. I think she just revolves three main tragedies to develop characters and move the plot along: death, rape, memory loss. Plus, the rape is often done to men by men, so, even though Vorkosigan Sr. is bisexual (in theory), it seems like an unfair but consistent pattern for gay men to be violent perverts.

      But, according to so much fiction, most men are violent perverts. Why is our culture working so hard to normalize this behavior? Unacceptable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Steph says:

        That it’s a very good question. I do think, sometimes, it’s a way to say it happens and it doesn’t have to cause someone shame. More frequently, it just feels like it is used for shock value or an overused plot device at this point – as you eloquently pointed out

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  3. Love the dollhouse metaphor, really seems to describe this perfectly. Also, this was my favorite sentence in your review: “I wince at the words, but they form sentences, not experiences.”

    Still planning on staying away from this series I think, though I have been very interested to read your thoughts on it since so many people have recommended it to me. Though not people whose taste I trust, so there you go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      It’s a hard series to wrap my sensibilities around because, while it certainly seems progressive in some ways regarding gender politics, sexuality, and ability, it’s still about a filthy rich family and the aristocracy from which they benefit and work. And while Cordelia may roll her eyes and sigh at the backwards Barrayaran politics, and open hospitals and such, I don’t see her going out of her way to challenge things… unless it comes to her reproductive rights. She will move mountains to save her baby, we know that.

      I read things like this and I just wonder, where is the lower class? What’s it like for them? I had the same reaction with The Goblin Emperor, actually.

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  4. libbycole007 says:

    That’s so interesting about Mark’s outsider perspective. I think I’d also need a character like that to get me into this book!

    http://libbycole.wordpress.com

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] ponderings, and its problematic nature makes analysis even more worthwhile. Bujold’s Mirror Dance is the “Give your sociopathic clone son a starship” edition of […]

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  6. […] This review originally appeared on From couch to moon. […]

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