Monday, August 8, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novel - CRYOBURN by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is something like the twelfth or fourteenth Vorkosigan book (depending on how you count it). There have been four or five novellas in there as well. Three of those books (and a novella!) won Hugos in the 90s, but the last win was in 1995, and the last nomination in 2000. It’s a real challenge to keep a series going this long; I can’t say that I’ve ever read a book past the tenth in a series that still engaged me as much as the early volumes (though I can’t name many series I’ve read that far in). So, imagine my surprise when I found that one of my favorite books in the Vorkasigan series came in this later period.

Unfortuantely, that book was not Cryoburn, it was Komarr, which was not nominated for a Hugo when it was eligible in 1999. Yes, I did read the intervening books since Hugo-winner Mirror Dance, and I did get some enjoyment out of the experience. The books move star Miles Vorkosigan from his position as an undercover mercenary and into a position as a powerful diplomat, beginning with the bloated Memory. The plots remain on the pulpy side of the suspension of disbelief continuum (someone should count how many times Miles has escaped capture by his enemies), but the move away from military plotlines was a welcome change. Komarr and A Civil Campaign blend an off-beat love story with some espionage intrigue. Bujold avoids a lot of clich├ęs by making Miles’ love interest Ekatrin a single mother coming out of a disastrous failed marriage, and the relationship feels mature and believable (despite the fact, maybe because of the fact, that Miles frets like a lovesick fifteen-year-old during the courtship). Both books have nice, straightforward plots, though A Civil Campaign has some silly, lame hijinks with Miles’s clone Mark. I can barely tell you what Diplomatic Immunity was about, even though I read it a couple of weeks ago (I do remember that it featured the quaddies from Nebula winner Falling Free), which tells you more-or-less how I felt about that one.

Cryoburn seems to be in the same category as that previous entry, so I better write this out quickly while it’s still fresh. We begin in media res with a confused Miles escaping, as he so often does, from a kidnapping attempt. We soon learn that he’s on the world of Kibou, which is dominated by a small cohort of powerful cryonics corporations with eyes on the Barrayaran colony of Komarr. Miles investigates in typical Miles fashion, throwing his weight around, getting in over his head, breaking some local laws, befriending innocent children, scheming with his clone, and generally overcoming every obstacle in his way with supernatural ease. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before. Bujold usually does a good job of mixing in some biotech ethics questions in with her pulp space opera, and cyronics is an interesting topic, but we don’t get too far into the problems of life-extension, and the main problem seems to be simple corporate greed.

There is an event at the very end (on the very last two or three pages) that keeps the book from being completely forgettable and immaterial to Miles’s life. It’s a bit of a shock, despite some subtle foreshadowing, and Bujold relates it in a very interesting way. I can’t quite decide if Bujold made a mistake by sidelining the main event, or if it’s kind of brilliant, but I think those pages alone kept this book from getting a C+ from me. Either way, this is a weaker entry in a series that probably has more than its fair share of Hugos as it is.

Grade: B-

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