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!>

Katharine: Okay, let’s jump into the hard questions. Do you think Lord Yenaro got what he deserved?

Tsana: Since he was just a pawn and someone tried to assassinate him too, it seems more or less fair in the end. I have notice that Miles seems to improve the lives of the “common people” he interacts with and I feel like that applied to Yenaro as well, for all that he’s not the most conventional commoner ;-p Only common by Cetagandan standards.

Katharine: I’m glad he wasn’t killed or sent away or anything, but I don’t think I’d trust him too closely if he’s that obsessed with getting somewhere. It seems he could easily want more in future? But what I love about Bujold is the characters aren’t common and good or bad – they’re all so complex. From your earlier comment I take it we get to see Cetaganda again… do we see Yenaro again? Or, more importantly, Rian?

Tsana: I am pretty sure Yenaro doesn’t reappear, but we do hear from Rian again, I think. Rian was a very interesting character too. On the one hand, she gives us an insight into the very upper echelons of Cetagandan society — and the lesser known female side of the society too boot — but on the other hand, she’s willing to slum it by working with Miles which certainly shows that she isn’t stupid. The same goes for the other senior haut ladies.

Katharine: I really loved the ones we got to know towards the end – Pel and Nadina – who both had a bit of fight in them. Especially Pel who actually seems like she likes to have fun, what with the trip down the side of the building and letting Miles into her floating egg thing.

Tsana: Yes! I loved the mental image of elderly lady having fun in her float bubble. It was a nice antidote to the otherwise very reserved haut class. Also, the general haut uppityness is kind of interesting in the context of dealing with Miles and Ivan. On the one hand, they’re dirty foreigners and their Vor class is comparable to the ghem. But on the other hand, Miles is practically next in line for the Barrayaran throne, and Ivan isn’t too far behind, which puts them on a similar level to the Emperor. That can’t make the Cetagandans happy. I also really loved the cognitive dissonance of the bad guy who assumed Ivan had to be in charge because he was better looking!

Katharine: And I love when we get to see Miles’ hissy fits – what better distraction. Certainly plays into his role as only having his job through family connections. So let’s discuss the whole reason they’re there – diplomatic mission to further strengthen the very flimsy peace between Cetaganda and Barrayar. We know trouble finds Miles pretty quickly, but there’s several Barrayans already posted there for diplomatic reasons – yet he still decides to keep it under his hat despite Ivan not being entirely supportive of this. I would have loved to see the report he has to give Simon when he gets back… What do you think of his decision?

Tsana: I am so disappointed we didn’t get to see the scene with Illyan (and probably Aral and Gregor) getting the full explanation as to Miles’s most recent adventure. Their reactions would have been hilarious. :-( But overall, it was a very Miles thing to do. And like he says to one of the embassy people, he was the only one who was going to be court martialed for it if things went wrong. So at least he’s willing to take responsibility. That said, I also think it’s unrealistic of him to think he actually would be properly court martialled — let alone executed! — given who his father is and his close relationship with Gregor. Interesting then that Miles gets more stressed that necessary about that. Ivan’s reaction about not wanting to be yelled at by their relatives was probably more realistic.

Katharine: I agree – he’s very quick to take the blame because he knows he’s protected – probably more worried about having to live a boring experience hidden away somewhere so the public don’t know he hasn’t been told off.

What do you think about what I can only describe as the Veela experience – even though of course this book was published long before Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Similar because for a while I thought for some reason only Miles was effected (affected?) but then Ivan was too – even, perhaps, a little worse.

Tsana: Ahaha that’s a good way of putting it. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about it. I can’t really picture or relate to that experience. I have no idea how realistic it is given the perfect set of genetic circumstances. What did you think?

Katharine: I don’t understand how looks alone could create such a reaction – surely it would have to be pheromone related – but then it would all come down to how close you’d have to be to them, and, I don’t know – if a wind is blowing in the right direction? I’m a little worried that it seemed to be an excuse for Miles to find her attractive despite her age – doesn’t he comment he wanted to ask if she had a younger sister?

Tsana: Oh! Pheromones! That makes sense! But I don’t think they looked that old? I mean, Rian didn’t at least. She’s the granddaughter (or great-granddaughter?) of the Empress whose funeral it was. Or that level of generational relationship anyway. It’s also reminding us that Miles is human when it comes to matters of the flesh… Eh. Honestly I could take or leave that aspect.

Katharine: He seems a little obsessed with getting laid… like, I think he mentions it at least once a book. But eh, being one of his many faults is good when he’s otherwise a little hero.

You know what I’d love to see in the books? More about the food.

Tsana: I don’t think we get much about food except for a very memorable section several books away (A Civil Campaign — my favourite Miles book). I was a bit surprised there wasn’t more about the odd Cetagandan food. We’ve heard enough about Betans only wanting to eat vat-grown protein and Barrayarans eating farm animals. Hmm…

The other thing I liked was the background relationship between Maz, one of the diplomatic staff from Vervain, and the Barrayaran ambassador. Although it was very much in the background relative to what Miles was up to.

Katharine: Oh! Maz! I wanted to see more of her. I do like the little mention of the engagement right at the end. Do we get to see more of her? At the start with the mention of taking on an assistant it seemed like he was going to hook Elena up with her straight away…

Tsana: I don’t think so, but I’m not 100% sure. That seems to be the usual fate of side characters in the Vorkosiverse. But my favourite quote in the book related to her. After Maz asks Miles about how his mother coped moving to Barrayar, he replies:

“She says egalitarians adjust to aristocracies just fine, as long as they get to be the aristocrats.”

Katharine: Which only makes me miss her all the more. We need more books about Cordelia!

Tsana: Kind of a while to wait for that one… In fact, Miles isn’t even in the next book in our reading order! One awesome character does make a reappearance though. Ethan of Athos was the third published book set in this universe, and I suspect it came from Bujold not yet being sure which direction the future books would end up taking. It deals with some great concepts though!

Katharine: What, noooo, I don’t like change! *Vor hissy fit*

Tsana: It’s only brief change and it’s still a great read!

Katharine: Hrmm. Very well. I should go make a start on it, then.

Join us next month for our discussion of Ethan of Athos!

 

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