Saturday 21 July 2018

The later Vorkosigan novels (from Memory onwards), by Lois McMaster Bujold

A return to the world of Miles Vorkosigan, my tenth post on this long series. Until recently I had read these somewhat intermittently, my first review being posted here over ten years ago. I decided that I really ought to get a move on and read the rest of the series, so what follows is the lot – so far, at least. Whether there will be any more is unclear.

I won't run through the background to the series again (it's available in the earlier posts if you need it – scroll down to the index in the column on the left). Memory follows on from Mirror Dance, at the end of which Miles was in rather less than pristine condition, needing a great deal of repair before revival. In Memory it becomes clear that his injuries had lingering consequences which compel his grounding while they are sorted out. The story accordingly almost entirely takes place on his homeworld of Barrayar. This does not mean that it is boring, however; Bujold's writing is always highly entertaining, being both exciting and amusing, and there is plenty for Miles to do – and to worry about. I commented last time that her writing was acquiring new depths in characterisation, and this is just as true this time. Not to be missed, and a strong candidate for the best story of the series.

The next two novels are combined in one volume: Miles in Love. In Komarr, Miles is getting used to his new role as Imperial Auditor, and has been sent to Komarr along with Auditor Vorthys to investigate how a vast reflective mirror used to boost insolation to help the cold world has been damaged. Was it an accident, or sabotage? Not everyone in Komarr was reconciled to being part of the Barrayaran Empire, so nothing could be ruled out. Miles stays with Vorsoisson, the Imperial Administrator, his wife Ekaterin  and their son Nikolai, as he and Vorthys attempt to penetrate the fog of confusion surrounding the case. But Miles becomes distracted by personal considerations… This is a well-written story with credible characters (flaws and all) in which even the bad guys are not evil, just too blinded by their beliefs to take sensible decisions.

A Civil Campaign follows on straight after Komarr. Miles is back on Barrayar, earnestly if clumsily wooing his new love; the whole story is a romance (in fact, there are several romances going on) with the introduction of a strong comedy element in the "butterbugs". In terms of plot and action, this is one of the weaker stories in the series, but the author's story-telling skills, aided by lots of humour, carry the reader along.

There is a kind of extended epilogue to A Civil Campaign, in the form of the novella Winterfair Gifts, also in Miles in Love. This is focused on Miles's wedding, but his enemies have not finished with him yet…

Diplomatic Immunity takes place while Miles and his bride are on honeymoon. He is diverted to Graf Station in Quaddiespace (whose inhabitants are genetically modified to adapt them to living in zero gravity, including having two extra hands instead of feet) in order to sort out a diplomatic row. This concerns a Komarran trading fleet, escorted by Barrayan warships, which had docked there – but one of the officers had gone missing and the search for him had resulted in fighting with the Quaddies. Events become ever more complicated and dangerous, involving deadly poisons, assassination attempts, and the enigmatic rulers of Cetaganda.

In Captain Vorpatril's Alliance the focus is on Miles's cousin Ivan Vorpatril, who becomes entangled in a web of conspiracies on Komarr and Barrayar involving characters from Jackson's Whole and Cetaganda. Oh, and the long-standing bachelor gets married rather suddenly along the way. For its combination of intrigue and fun this is possibly my favourite story in the series, and frequently had me laughing out loud.

Cryoburn is set on the planet of Kibou-daini which is entirely dominated by organisations providing cryonic storage facilities which encourage people to be frozen when terminally ill or towards the end of their lives, to await cures for disease or aging. Such people retain their voting rights but transfer them to the companies which are storing them, giving those companies immense political power.  The planet is outside the Empire but Miles is sent there to see what the companies are up to, as one of them is planning to expand into the Empire. As usual, he becomes involved in problems of ever-increasing complexity. This story is relatively thin but still entertaining in the usual Bujold fashion.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the most recent Vorkosigan book, first published in 2015. It is rather different from the others in that the focus is on Miles's mother Cordelia and Admiral Jole, former ADC to Miles's father Admiral Lord Aral. Miles himself has a cameo role late in the story. The action is set entirely on the world of Sergyar, which was the newly-discovered planet (then unnamed), where Cordelia and Aral first met, and takes place a few years after the events in Cryoburn. This story takes the author's increasing focus on character development to its logical conclusion: it is plainly and simply a romance, with hardly anything else going on. Furthermore, the revelations which emerge put some earlier events into an entirely different context. As a result, this is probably the most controversial story of the series; I know that some Vorkosigan fans dislike it. While this is not one of my favourites, I still found it enjoyable. 

I don't know if Bujold will write any more Vorkosigan books, but I would not be surprised if this one was the end of the series. There is a certain circularity in concluding the tale on the planet where it started over 40 years before, with the redoubtable heroine of the entire series still thriving.

To step back and take an overall view of the Vorkosigan series, readers of this blog who have stuck with it so far will realise that I have a high opinion of it. It has an unusual basic plot device (how many heroes in fiction have to deal with severe physical handicaps from birth onwards?) and combines a wide variety of stories involving battles, intrigues, politics, romance, and lots of humour, all spun together by one of the most entertaining story-tellers in the business. It is usually the case that long series sooner or later (usually sooner) run out of steam and ideas and become repetitive, so Bujold deserves great credit for maintaining the interest – and even increasing the quality – as the series develops. I am keeping them all to read again some day.

Wednesday 4 July 2018

TV – Can science make me perfect?

BBC4 recently screened a fascinating programme on the human body: Can Science Make Me Perfect?. Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham and an excellent presenter (her Wiki page calls her "an English anatomist, osteoarchaeologist, physical anthropologist, palaeopathologist, television presenter and author.") was given the challenge of redesigning the human body to avoid its weaknesses and add some strengths. So she identified some major weaknesses and looked for solutions elsewhere in the animal world, plus considered what else might usefully be adopted.

Some of the proposed improvements were very subtle and would not be noticeable to the naked eye: for instance, we get heart attacks because we only have one major artery for each side of the heart, and these can get blocked. Some animals (including dogs) have a network of interconnecting blood vessels in and around the heart, so if one gets blocked, there are always alternative routes. Also, some animals have small "secondary hearts" to help with circulation - one of those in each thigh would greatly help with common circulation problems causing varicose veins etc. Another subtle one is a redesign of the throat area to provide a better separation between swallowing and breathing, to minimise the risk of choking (and snoring!). Also, our lungs are very inefficient compared with birds, who have a much better air-handling system, so that can be added to the list.

Other suggested changes are more obvious - and controversial: back problems bother many of us, so a redesign of the lower back to strengthen and support that area would help. Pregnancy and childbirth are highly problematic for humans because of our huge head - but marsupials get over this by giving birth to jelly-bean sized babies which grow to full size in an external pouch, so add that in. Most striking of all are the legs: ours were originally developed for tree-climbing and moving about on all fours and are badly designed for walking and running, causing us all sorts of problems in our complicated joints and tendons. Bird legs like those of an ostrich or emu are more specialised and allow the birds to maintain a high running speed for long periods with minimal stress and energy expenditure.

Finally some minor improvements: larger, steerable ears to enable us to focus our attention on what we want to hear even against a noisy background, and more efficiently designed eyes so we can see more clearly - including in the dark. One very useful change – the addition of melanin chromatophores to our skin, so that it quickly becomes dark brown in strong sunlight to protect us from burning and skin cancer, but lightens up in other circumstances to allow the formation of vitamin D (not mentioned was that this might well help to solve some persistent social problems).

As these ideas were developed, an anatomical artist was working on the design, with model-makers from the film world making a full-sized model of what she would look like with all of these changes.  There is a a photo of the result (standing next to the original) here: taken from her website:

A thought-provoking programme, which was instructive in explaining how the human body has evolved rather imperfectly. On the other hand, there would also be downsides to some of the changes proposed (e.g. babies develop more slowly out of the womb, so a marsupial mum's pouch would be occupied for years).

I would add a couple of suggestions to her list: the ability that some dogs apparently have to identify illnesses in people, including cancers, just by smell. Now that would really be useful – think of the savings in screening programmes! Even more so would be to acquire the ability of the naked mole rat to be highly resistant to cancers.