Discussion Post: Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

vorkosigan

Borders of Infinity is the latest novella we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It falls after Labyrinth, and before Brothers in Arms. It’s another example of Miles being very clever, but is a lot bleaker than most of the stories that came before it, without as much humour, dark or otherwise.

You can read Katharine’s review of Borders of Infinity here, and Tsana’s review here.

 

Tsana: So this was pretty much the most memorable of the Miles novellas for me. What I specifically remembered was slightly wrong though. What stuck in my head most was how clever Miles was at his rescue scheme, going into an ice-moon prison. Turns out it wasn’t quite an ice-moon prison, though, (just a normal, slightly-crappy-planet prison) and the second reading of it left me with a different impression, probably because I stopped to think about it a bit more.

 

Katharine: It was certainly able to get my attention fairly quickly. Basically from the first page Miles is thrown into a prison for prisoners of war, barely has any belongings to his name (what he’s wearing, a sleep mat, and a single cup) and is promptly beaten and robbed of everything. Including his clothes.

 

Tsana: I don’t think he’d really thought through how crappy a PoW camp would be until he found himself in out, either. Miles is very smart, but I think he sometimes walks into beatings a little too easily, especially given how fragile his bones are. (Interesting to note that by this story his leg bones have been replaced with stronger artificial ones, although the same cannot be said for his arms or wrists.

 

Katharine: Agreed, I think he is very much ‘eye on the prize’ and kind of flails his way through the beginning and middle of the plans until he gets what he wants. Mostly through perseverance. He IS super clever with getting people to do what he wants, but my goodness just how many beatings does he experience in this short novella?!

 

Tsana: A lot! And that’s before he even gets a chance to start putting his plan into motion. It’s a very clever plan too, but it should probably go under the spoiler shield…

 

<spoilers ahoy!>

Katharine: Also we should mention that Miles immediately befriends the only person in the camp less popular than himself – some guy who reckons he’s the chosen one, and has bored the rest of the prisoners into trying to kill him with his inane ramblings. He’s one of the only other prisoners to also be naked and robbed of everything, although he knows how everything in the camp works, who is who, and what to expect. Basically he is the information hub that Miles needs, and it’s with his help that Miles is able to track down his initial mission – a military expert that Miles has been sent to rescue.

 

Tsana: But unfortunately Colonel Tremont is in no fit state to feed himself, let alone lead a rebellion against the Cetagandans. So Miles has to improvise. But to deviate from our summary for a moment, I found it really interesting, politically, that in this story with have the Barrayarans secretly paying the Dendarii (through Imperial orders to Miles that almost none of the Dendarii know about) to interfere in a war that doesn’t directly concern them. Except that it does involve the Cetagandans, their long-standing enemies, invading a place we have previously only heard of in passing: Marilac. (And I didn’t even remember the earlier mentions of Marilac in the books, I actually just double-checked the Vorkosigan Wiki, which is full of all sorts of spoilers.) I kind of like the extent of the background political machinations that lead to this story. It shows depth of worldbuilding.

 

Katharine: I must admit I don’t remember any previous mentions either… What do you think drives them? Was it Gregor’s idea?

 

Tsana: Marilac was just mentioned in passing as a potential Cetagandan target. I think the Barrayaran motivation is pretty straightforward: they don’t want Cetaganda to get too powerful. If they help Marilac set up an effective resistance/rebellion, that will keep Cetaganda occupied and reduce the risk of them trying to invade Barrayar again. The last Cetagandan invasion of Barrayar was in Miles’s grandfather’s memory, so not so long ago. And bits of Barrayar are still radioactive, so they’re unlikely to forget even when the actual war passes out of living memory.

 

Katharine: Ah yes, including the piece of land Miles has used in a previous novel as a bargaining technique.

So this is really where we get to see Simon/Gregor start to really use the Dendarii to their own gain – in the best way possible. Miles gets to run with his crew, and his crew have slightly steadier pay incoming.

 

Tsana: And by this book, it’s been around seven years since Miles first took control of the Dendarii. After a bit of a false start, which we discussed in our The Vor Game post, Miles has been leading them for a while now, albeit sometimes from afar. In Borders of Infinity we see that Miles now trusts the Dendarii enough to rely on them to get him out of a hellish prison camp. Admittedly part of that trust comes from his being the source of the paycheck, but we also know that there are several members of the Dendarii who would go out on a limb to save Miles just because he’s Miles. People like Elena, Baz, Ellie and Bel definitely would, anyway.

 

Katharine: Miles certainly does inspire a strange kind of something in the majority of the people he meets – as we see in this. Miles soon realises that there’s no way he can achieve his current task (well, even if the guy were to survive) due to the hell hole it’s turned out to be. Armed only with the craziest other person in the camp, he somehow takes what he’s got and starts to make something of it.

 

Tsana: Mainly by saying sensible things to the right people. Forcing them to see that he has a point as soon as they stop to listen to him. Lucky for him that he’s not only smart enough to have a good point, but also to articulate it well.

 

Katharine: Or just show his resilience. By letting the women beat him up over and over and over (seriously, how does he have any bones left?) until they’re mildly impressed enough to listen to him.

 

Can we talk about the women in this story? Because I found that idea to be pretty incredible. Not so unheard of – I’m sure it happens often in these types of scenarios – but the way it was handled by Bujold was excellent.

 

Tsana: Which specific idea do you mean?

 

Katharine: All of the women have taken their own area of the camp, haven’t they? (I mean like, literally every single woman). They take it in shifts to patrol their borders, they’re fair to one another as far as food and limited care go. They know who in their group has which skills, such as medic (however pointless this is with no supplies…) and they’re almost the only decent ones in the whole camp – other than perhaps the small bands of platoons. We do see the leader of the group Miles’ target is in try to care for the dying man, but other than that… the bullies rule, and rape and other violent acts are rife.

 

Tsana: Well yeah. In that situation it seems pretty logical that all the women would band together. Some of them have been there a long time, remember. Even if they started out with some women thinking they should stick with their male friends (for example), they wouldn’t’ve been unharmed for very long, even if their friends were decent non-rapists. How else would you survive if not through strength in numbers? It seems like the only way in the absence of Miles coming in and setting up a larger organisation with the food rationing. Which, incidentally, probably would not have been sustainable. It was already starting to fray while Miles was waiting for their rescue, so things probably would’ve devolved to the more stable women vs everyone else system eventually. It is interesting that this is just a casual part of the story though.

 

Katharine: I think it’s interesting that it’s literally every woman – I’m not sure how many would have been part of other platoons or if they all vaguely knew each other (did they all fight for the same side, or is the prisoner of war camp made up of many factions?) and that it’s their gender (or weakness, sadly) that unites them above everything else. You hear of similar things happening when there’s a natural disaster and a large group of people are moved to a shelter – though I think after Hurricane Katrina it was Australians in general who mobbed together, kept the women on the inside, and the men stood around them on the outside.

 

Tsana: (Well I don’t think any of us wants to be in the US come the apocalypse… )

 

But any woman that wasn’t part of their large group would not have survived intact for long. I assume they also would’ve mounted rescues of women being attacked as the faction was forming. Also, they come from different armies, I think. This is a camp of people who were fighting against the Cetagandans. So they were probably allies but didn’t necessarily meet before being thrown in the PoW camp.

 

Katharine: At least there’s a little bit of hope even in awful conditions.

 

So Miles talks his way into the women’s camp, and using their numbers (along with a few of the other smarter prisoners) he manages to start to control the conditions of the camp. Before, when food was delivered only the strong would manage to get some – and they’d take and hoard as much as they could manage, which meant a hefty number of people would miss out. With Miles in control this changes significantly, but as you say, it is all falling apart a little by the time they’re rescued. As it seems all this time our favourite Elena and others have been working busily behind the scenes, and luckily weren’t killed doing whatever they were doing.

 

Tsana: Yes, I love how Elena and Ellie were actually watching Miles on the security feeds the entire time, and were tasked with translating his oblique statements into Dendarii orders without alerting the Cetagandans who were also watching and working alongside the two Dendarii spies. What a job!

 

Katharine: I’d love to see the same novella from their POV though – infiltrating and general spywork? Way more badass than Miles’ usually ‘get beaten up until it all works out in the end’ mantra.

 

Tsana: That’s true. We have not, so far, seen those two interacting with each other very much, although we know that they are separately very close to Miles. HMM. If only Bujold were planning more Vorkosigan books in the near future.

 

Katharine: We can only hope Bujold is reading this, and goes ‘oh that’s right, here’s something saved in some folder on my computer somewhere – here you go!’

 

Tsana: Haha, one can dream. But new stories or not, we have plenty to go in this ongoing reread. I, for one, am excited to get started on the next book!

 

Next up we’ll be discussing the novel Brothers in Arms. Tune back in about a month from now.

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