Discussion Post: Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

vorkosigan

Cetaganda is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. In it, we see Miles and Ivan sent on a diplomatic mission to attend the Empress of Cetaganda’s funeral. Of course, knowing Miles the trouble-magnet, he could never just attend a funeral.
You can read Katharine’s review of Cetaganda here, and Tsana’s review here.

 

Katharine: So here we are again. We know Miles is going to find trouble (or it’ll find him), but it must be a record for it to have found him before their ship even manages to dock properly.

Tsana: Yes! But you know, if it didn’t, it would have been a much more boring story. I actually really liked how it opened with something weird happening and then it was a while before anything related popped up again. All while Miles in angsting about “WTF, it must be a trap somehow!” etc. But you know what my absolute favourite part of this book was? Ivan’s childhood reminiscences about Miles’s hijinx.

Katharine: Aha he’s still so outraged about it all – and hell, who isn’t, we’re always bringing things like this at work or school reunions. I’m loving that we get to see more of Ivan and therefore, their past and a slightly more relaxed version of Miles as he’s able to rely on Ivan for everything he’s too embarrassed about with everyone else. And that we see Ivan’s intelligence, and how it differs from Miles.

Tsana: Ivan’s intelligence seems to mostly be centred on trying to stay out of the trouble Miles is generating…

Katharine: And excelling at social occasions where Miles likes to trip over his own curiosity. Like, he’s good with the ladies but he can also handle polite conversation and cues so much better.

Tsana: Ah, I loved the bit where he was drugged but came through it fine in a way Miles probably wouldn’t have been able to (also wouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with). But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

This is the first book where we get to see the Cetagandan home world and in which the Cetagandans aren’t just enemies to be fought or outwitted or avert a war with. What did you think of the planet?

Katharine: I thought it sounded spectacular, like everything would be pristine gardens (and that’s why the slightly dilapidated house would be of particular note) and buildings like the Taj Mahal everywhere. I keep wondering whether Bujold very slightly bases each planet or race on a different culture on earth – not that she doesn’t have the imagination to come up with something totally different of course – just to be, I don’t know, clever?

Tsana: I thought there were a few vague overtones of Japanese culture in Cetaganda. Not overtly, but based on, for example, the idea of flower-arranging taken to the extreme with genetic engineering. (I’m still a bit traumatised by that kitten tree.) But then the bubbles the haut ladies use put me a little bit in mind of burkas etc but with very different cultural ramifications and origins.

Katharine: Oh god the kitten tree. To hell with that! For some reason parts had me thinking of India but I have utterly no idea why. What did you think of the Ba?

Tsana: I’m not sure. They’re similar to the betan hermaphrodites we met earlier (like Bel Thorne) but I got the impression the Betans existed by choice, whereas the Ba were engineered to be servants (which seems an awful lot like slavery, for all that they seemed relatively happy) and used as test subjects both before and after their births. (Well, uterine replicator decantings, presumably.) The Ba are also only a part of the Cetagandan hierarchy. I actually found the differences between the Ghem and Haut more interesting.

Katharine: And at least the Ba seemed to have some level of power above that of general guards, thanks to who they report to… but yeah, sounded pretty much like slavery.

I have to admit I’m not strictly sure I understand the full differences between the Ghem and Haut… (I’d certainly fail in their social scene!)

Tsana: Well the haut are precisely genetically engineered the ruling class — so the Emperor and other “noble families” are all haut — whereas the ghem are less precisely engineered and are like the warrior class. I thought the way that people kept comparing them with the Vor helped me keep that straight. So ghem generals are who the Barrayarans come up against in conflict (and obviously the lower ranks of ghem doing the actual fighting). Then it got a bit confusing when we got to the part about who was ruling the other Cetagandan planets. Each planet has a male haut governor and then a female consort. They’re sort of married but don’t hold direct allegiance to each other, as we learn in the course of this book. Then there is the possibility of exceptional male ghem being awarded female haut for services to their empire or whatever. Which is a bit icky. And it’s all a bit complicated. I actually thought reading it a second time probably helped all the details stick into my head.

Katharine: I think it was at the other rulers part where I got a bit lost – but mostly it was easy to follow probably because they don’t all outwardly show their emotions. They’re all ‘everyone else is scum’ the end, which helped! Oh, should we raise the spoiler shield?

Tsana: Now sounds like a good time!

 

<spoilers ahead!>

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