Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 2010
Series: Book 14 of the Vorkosigan Saga
Nominated: Hugo, Locus SF Award

The Book:

“Miles Vorkosigan is back!

Kibou-daini is a planet obsessed with cheating death. Barrayaran Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan can hardly disapprove--he’s been cheating death his whole life, on the theory that turnabout is fair play. But when a Kibou-daini cryocorp--an immortal company whose job it is to shepherd its all-too-mortal frozen patrons into an unknown future--attempts to expand its franchise into the Barrayaran Empire, Emperor Gregor dispatches his top troubleshooter Miles to check it out.

On Kibou-daini, Miles discovers generational conflict over money and resources is heating up, even as refugees displaced in time skew the meaning of generation past repair. Here he finds a young boy with a passion for pets and a dangerous secret, a Snow White trapped in an icy coffin who burns to re-write her own tale, and a mysterious crone who is the very embodiment of the warning, “Don’t mess with the secretary”. Bribery, corruption, conspiracy, kidnapping--something is rotten on Kibou-daini, and it isn’t due to power outages in the Cryocombs. And Miles is in the middle--of trouble!” –

I read Cryoburn as a part of my plan to read all of the 2011 Hugo Award nominees.  I had not yet read any of the “Vorkosigan Saga” novels, but I decided to go ahead with this one. Since it was nominated for the Hugo & Locus SF Awards based on its merits as a single novel, I figured that it would not be unreasonable to review it out of its place in the series.

The main story of Cryoburn does stand on its own, but I don’t think I would recommend reading this without reading the rest of the series.  The novel was full of references to places I’d never been introduced to, and there were many cameos or mentions of characters I didn’t know.  These were all explained well enough to follow, but I feel like I was lacking the expected emotional connection to this universe and the Vorkosigan family. 

My Thoughts:

While the book does contain a fair amount of action and humor, Cryoburn is mostly a mystery involving politics and economics.  In Kibou-daini, many people choose cryogenic preservation over death, hoping to awake to a future that has discovered the cure for aging.  They leave their political power as citizens in the hands of their chosen cryocorp, giving these massive corporations power over huge blocks of votes. Miles begins his investigation into the cryocorps of Kibou-daini through an official cryogenics conference, but, thanks to the lovable pseudo-orphan boy Jin, he quickly finds his way to part of the planet’s disenfranchised segment of society.  As he learns more about the motivations and history of the powerful cryogenics corporations, he begins to piece together the truth of their elaborate cover-ups and chilling future plans. I enjoyed the story as an exploration of how easy access to cryogenics might change the balance of power in a society, and of what forms of corruption would suddenly become possible and profitable.

Fear of mortality is a major theme explored in Cryoburn, mostly through examination of the Kibou-daini cryogenics program. At what point is a person ready, if ever, to die?  While some citizens might turn to the technology as a last resort, many people on Kibou-daini simply count it as a part of their life plan.  They opt for an earlier, possibly impermanent, death, instead of accepting their own aging and eventual decline. Bujold also discusses the plight of the ones who have been revived, only to find themselves still aging in a society that has become foreign to them.  We may not have the same medical options as the people of Kibou-daini, but the transience of life is something everyone has to face. Bujold’s portrayal of the many ways people react to the inevitable fact of death felt very genuine to me, and relevant to both the events of the novel and to all of us mortals.

Aside from the plot and the discussions of mortality, I also rather enjoyed the characters. Miles, the Imperial Auditor, is a thoroughly entertaining and sympathetic protagonist. I liked that he was not truly disrespectful of anyone around him, whether they were high government officials or street kids.  He sometimes operates ‘outside the rules’, but not in the irresponsible, shortsighted method of most action heroes.  For Miles, I got the feeling that he was simply much more interested in accomplishing things than he was in observing etiquette or maintaining appearances.  His energy and enthusiasm made the book even more engaging for me.

The local Kibou-daini main character was Jin Sato. Jin is a kid who was essentially orphaned when his mother was frozen under mysterious circumstances.  Having run away from his aunt and uncle, he lives in a kind-of-illegal community with other discarded people of Kibou-daini.  He has an essentially nurturing nature, and he cares for a large menagerie of animals.  Jin provides Miles with a link into the parts of Kibou-daini society that the government would prefer for him not to see.  Jin was an endearing character, if a little too much of a ‘cute kid’, but he sometimes seemed a little too convenient for the plot.  The many other characters, such as Jin’s little sister, Miles’ armsman Roic, Vorlynken of the Barrayan consulate, and Raven Durona, weren’t very deeply characterized, but they were certainly interesting enough to add to my enjoyment of the novel.

My Rating: 3.5/5

I think that Cryoburn is a novel that will work best in the context of the rest of the series. It’s certainly enjoyable on its own, but there are parts of the book that won’t be emotionally effective unless the reader is already familiar with the universe and the Vorkosigan family. The story of the corrupt Kibou-daini crycorps is interesting enough to carry the book, though, and the society of Kibou-daini is an interesting exploration of how the impermanent death of freezing would affect the balance of power in the society.  I enjoyed Miles as a protagonist, and Jin was an interesting character, if a little overly adorable and convenient.  I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point for the series (my mistake), but it was fairly interesting as a mystery and as a discussion of mortality.  I’m going to start reading the “Vorkosigan Saga” from the beginning starting sometime in the next few weeks!  

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