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.