Memory: Why Bujold is Secretly Revolutionary

Science fiction book reviews Lois McMaster Bujold Miles Vorkosigan The Vor Game, Mirror Dance, Cetaganda, Memory, Komarr, A Civil CampaignMemory by Lois McMaster Bujold science fiction book reviewsMemory by Lois McMaster Bujold

My copy of Memory looks like it was reread several dozen times and then shoved in the bottom of a backpack and schlepped a few hundred thousand miles (it was). It’s my favorite book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN SAGA, which is a series made up of some of my favorite books. But it isn’t high literature or uber-intellectual science fiction or the kind of book that people call “genre bending.” The plot is pure, fast-paced, crime-solving fun, like the rest of the series. It’s just a cheap paperback.

But it moved me, and continues to move me. This review is my attempt to understand how and why. After some thought and another rereading, I’ve come to suspect that it’s a book built on tiny, imperfectly perfect human interactions. The meat of Memory isn’t in the plasma arcs or crime-solving; it’s in Miles’ rambling, sarcastic inner voices, the stilted and wrought conversations with his father, and the rocky finding of self at the late age of thirty.

For those who are new to Bujold, and might dismiss Memory out of hand for the mystery-space-opera aspects — or its atrocious back-cover summary — I advise you firmly to march nine books backwards in the series and begin at the beginning with Shards of Honor. However, in brief: Miles is a physical wreck. Miles is a genius. Miles is also obsessively competitive, hyperactive, conceited, and unstoppable. He is a moving target. In Memory, the double life that absorbed most of his excess energy is abruptly cut off, and he’s sent home to mope. Then his old boss (a beloved character named Simon Illyan) falls catastrophically ill, and an exciting whodunit ensues. During the process, Miles renegotiates his own identity and grows the hell up.

That process of growing up is probably why Memory wins out against other volumes in the Saga. Other books have more adventurous and inventive aspects, and certainly much more on the line than the main character’s retired boss. But, by the end of Memory, Miles himself has fundamentally changed in a way that informs the rest of the series. It’s the rare coming-of-age novel which doesn’t act as though all your coming-of-age happens at eighteen, whereupon you’ve Found Yourself and become an Adult (for example, every book ever). It’s weirdly comforting to read as a teenager.

As it turns out, it’s impossible for me to write about any of the Vorkosigan books without writing about my Mom. She gave the books to me when I was fourteen or fifteen, neck-deep in epic fantasy and turned off by back covers that mentioned cryorevival, space, or military ranks. Then I read Cordelia’s Honor, and every other book Lois McMaster Bujold ever wrote, and then I reread them all.

Over time, Miles and his world have become a strange and permanent part of the way my Mom and I speak to each other. It is a rare book in any genre that can infiltrate the special language between a mother and daughter, but the VORKOSIGAN SAGA slunk into our private emotional territory and established a permanent base. Even tiny combinations of words have become significant to us: “alarmingly fey,” “biological empire,” “forward momentum.” When I called home during grad school to tearfully hyperventilate about a rejected article, Mom said, “Vertigo at apogee, dear?” If for no other reason, read Bujold for her ability to reduce vast emotional tangles into neatly-packaged phrases.

And this, I think, is the core of Memory: Its emotion. Its humor. Its humanity. The real magic happens in the scene when Miles realizes the difference between the desire to win and the refusal to surrender. It’s when his lovable but moronic cousin offers him sage advice and Miles says, “Out of the mouths of… Ivans.” It’s in the wrenching moment that Miles refuses a bribe which would give him back his entire double-life as a brilliant and devious admiral riding the high seas of space. “What stopped you?” the Emperor asks him, and he answers, “Some prices are just too high, no matter how much you may want the prize. The one thing you can’t trade for your heart’s desire is your heart.” “Oh,” says the Emperor.

I’ve chosen to see Memory and the Vorkosigan books as genre-bending in a subtler and rarer way. There are no aliens, but only many kinds of humans. There are no world-ending technologies, but only a slow evolution of technologies that generationally change cultures and planets. There are no hyperbolically totalitarian governments to topple, but just a few medium-corrupt aristocracies somehow limping along from crisis to crisis. It’s science fiction where human relationships are vastly more important than gadgetry or gimmicks. It might not be the kind of revolution that wins Serious Literary Notice (although Bujold wins Hugos with astonishing regularity), but it’s the kind of revolution that sneaks into a teenager’s brain and rides along with her for the rest of her life.


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ALIX E. HARROW recently got her MA in History at the University of Vermont, and has circled back to her Old Kentucky Home with her partner Nick Stiner. She spends her time desperately repairing their newly-purchased home, reading fantasy books, throwing a frisbee for their neurotic border collie, and trying to cook authentic Mexican food. She makes a hilariously small amount of money writing high school history curriculum. Alix is dipping her toes into the blogosphere at The Other Side of the Rain, in an attempt to sharpen her writing skills and also not-incidentally talk about the books she loves. Some of her favorite authors include Neil Gaiman, Ursula LeGuin, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Susanna Clarke.

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20 comments

  1. Kelly Lasiter /

    What a great review. I always love reading about the story behind people’s experiences with a particular book.

  2. I think this was my favorite Vorkosigan book.

  3. Hélène /

    My favorite too. In The Warrior Apprentice (?), Miles broke his legs falling from a wall when he tried entering the army school. In Memory, he’s facing the wall again and he passes. For all the trials he endured in his adventures, I never felt him threatened to death (which is rather strange, as he did die!)but , in Memory, he is truly at stake (loosing his mind, loosing Naismith). That’s what makes this book precious to me.

  4. This is a great review! (almost makes me want to come out of my reviewer retirement)

    This series has been on my TBR list for a long time. I think you just convinced me that I need to move it up close to the front of the line. Thank you.

  5. You know, I wouldn’t give any single Vorkosigan book 5 stars, but I’d give the SERIES 5 stars. The sum is greater than the parts.

    (This sounds like a good Thoughtful Thursday topic.)

    I might say the same for The Dresden Files, too.

    • I definitely know what you mean. Like…I wouldn’t give all of the Harry Potter books five stars, but the whole thing as an experience, sure. And then there are series that are the other way around; I was reading one where I enjoyed each individual book but then would later realize it hadn’t advanced the plot much since the last one.

    • I think that those are the best series, Kat. Dependable enough to commit to. Because face it, a awful lot of the series are a life-time commitment now.

  6. Brad Hawley /

    You’ve made me want to read this book, but can I read the book as a stand-alone?

    I know that one convention of crime fiction series requires writers to engage new readers, even if there were 9 books before the current one. The same is true in comics. They both must include enough info to invite the new reader into the world (sometimes to the annoyance of regular readers of a crime series or comic). I get the feeling that this requirement is not as common in fantasy series? Am I correct? I just haven’t read enough SFF series to know.

    Sorry to ask this double-question, but I’m eager to read Memory if I’m not taking on a series, and I’m always interested in larger questions dealing with genre, conventions, and audience.

    I look forward to what any/all of you experts have to say on this matter: I continue to learn much from your reviews and comments on this site. Thank you.

    -Brad

    • This is…a really interesting question. Here’s what I think about Memory in particular: I’ve talked to people who started here. It’s one of the more award-nominated of the series, and it’s nice and short, so. From what I gather, they could enjoy the mystery-fun and world-building parts of the book, but definitely didn’t get the depth of meaning and emotional history that the book builds on. It felt much lighter than it actually is. Jo Walton happens to think it’s the very worst place to start the series, and she might be right.

      Now, more generally–I’m biased towards linear must-be-read-in-order series. I’m usually not thrilled with series that are a bunch of super episodic books with main characters who do all the same stuff in different settings (Hard Boiled Detective and Femme Fatale Solve Crimes in Tibet!). I want them to build. I want complexity and serious plot-advancement, and I want everything that happened to these characters before to matter a LOT. So, Bujold suits me fine.

      P.S. You don’t necessarily have to start a generation back with Miles’ parents in Shards of Honor (totally worth it, btw). I think a lot of people happily start with The Warrior’s Apprentice, which only gives you…oh god, SIX books before Memory. If you skip the novellas. Or you could read three omnibus editions and hey! it doesn’t seem that crazy.

      • I agree that this is not a good place to start. The poignancy of the story depends on understanding what’s happened to them before and you can’t appreciate what Bujold does to her characters if you weren’t there to witness it. Brad, you won’t get out of it what we got out of it if you don’t read the previous books starting with Warrior’s Apprentice.

        • Brad Hawley /

          Thanks Alix and Kat: I’ll start with Warrior’s Apprentice!

          • Amazon quoted the author as saying I could start with W Apprentice, as you both mention. She then mentions only Vor, Brothers, and Mirror before Memory. Is this short path to Memory TOO short?

            From Amazon under Apprentice page:
            The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game

            After that: Brothers in Arms should be read before Mirror Dance, and both, ideally, before Memory.

  7. Your lovely review has made me wish I had discovered this series when I was much younger. I’ve tried to get others to read them too but so far I haven’t had any luck.

  8. I started Warrior’s Apprentice and am already hooked!

    Here’s a copy of the author’s discussion of writing stand alone novels within a series. She suggests that she tries to write stand alone, but like you all said, jumping straight to Memory means a reader will miss much:

    From the Author
    Author’s Note:

    The Vorkosigan Saga Reading Order Debate: The Chef Recommends

    Many pixels have been expended debating the ‘best’ order in which to read what have come to be known as the Vorkosigan Books, the Vorkosiverse, the Miles books, and other names, since I neglected to supply the series with a label myself. The debate now wrestles with some fourteen or so volumes and counting, and mainly revolves around publication order versus internal-chronological order. I favor internal chronological, with a few caveats.

    I have always resisted numbering my volumes; partly because, in the early days, I thought the books were distinct enough; latterly because if I ever decided to drop in a prequel somewhere (which in fact I did most lately with Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance) it would upwhack the numbering system. Nevertheless, the books and stories do have a chronological order, if not a strict one.

    It was always my intention to write each book as a stand-alone so that the reader could theoretically jump in anywhere, yes, with that book that’s in your hand right now, don’t put it back on the shelf! While still somewhat true, as the series developed it acquired a number of sub-arcs, closely related tales that were richer for each other. I will list the sub-arcs, and then the books, and then the caveats.

    • RedEyedGhost /

      I read all of them in internal chronological order, and I thought it worked well. But I can see how The Warrior’s Apprentice would be a fine starting point. Just don’t wait too long before going back and reading Shards of Honor and Barrayar! Free Falling though, eh, read that after you’re done with the rest and in need of a fix.

  9. RedEyedGhost /

    I’ve only read through the series once, and I was actually a bit disappointed with Memory. I think my expectations were too high after seeing too many comments ranking it the best in the series. I do think it’s a great book, and expect that it will rise in my rankings whenever I get around to rereading them. A Civil Campaign ended up being my favorite.

  10. Maddalena /

    Thank you for this wonderful review: your words have put into perspective my feeling for this series, one that I’ve re-read twice already and that is always close to my heart.

    Memory is indeed the best book of the saga, the one where Bujold’s writing and world-building get close to perfection: what always intrigued me here, is that Miles – broken as he is – finds a way to get out of his own despair by helping someone else who has been broken as well. There is a very definite sense of poetic justice that I find quite appealing…

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