Borders of Infinity
Lois McMaster Bujold
From Goodreads: The popular adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, a clever and outlandish science fiction hero for the modern era, continue in these three tales. In “The Mountains of Mourning,” Miles is dispatched to a backcountry region of Barrayar, where he must act as detective, judge, and executioner in a controversial murder case. In “Labyrinth,” Miles adopts his alternate persona as Dendarii Mercenary Admiral Naismith for an undercover mission to rescue an important research geneticist from Jackson’s Whole. And in the title story, Miles infiltrates an escape-proof Cetagandan POW camp and plays hero to the most deeply distressed damsel of his colorful career.
Borders of Infinity contains three novellas that were published individually, and then as a collection that included a framing story that is set following the events of Brothers in Arms.
I often think of novellas as added stories within a given universe that help to flesh out a world or its characters without being critical to the main series or storyline. In the case of these three, they are quite important if you plan to read the second half of the Vorkosigan Saga. While the three stories are brilliant, they are different enough that it is difficult to review them all as one unit, so I’ll briefly review each of them.
The Mountains of Mourning
Thanks to extreme prejudices against people born with genetic mutations, infanticide is a common (if diminishing) crime, particularly among the back country mountain dwellers of the Vorkosigan district. When a distraught young mother arrives, claiming that her husband has killed their baby, Count Vorkosigan sends Miles, newly graduated from the military academy, to act as judge, jury, and executioner in the case.
Though Aral Vorkosigan was fully capable of going up into the hills to investigate the baby’s death, he decided that Miles would be the better choice thanks to Miles’s handicaps and pre-natal injuries. Had he been born a generation earlier, Miles likely would have been killed at birth to ‘preserve the genome’. Every prejudice and discriminatory act that he endures is perhaps one less that those who come after him will have to deal with. This is doubly true for the people up in the mountains, who are poor and often cut off from the technology the people in the cities use daily. They still rely on their old superstitions, and the old ideas die hard.
At first, Miles is irritated that he’s been sent on this little mission. He’s on a brief leave before his first assignment, and there are a hundred things he would rather do than deal with the hill people. As the story progresses, though, he can’t help but feel a certain kinship with the grieving mother and her child. The facts of the case interest him, too, because he soon realizes that the culprit is not the one everyone thinks it is.
This was my favorite story of the three, because of how much it focuses on both Miles’s disabilities and privileges. Sure, he deals with stares and abuse from the people of the upper class, but he is part of the upper class, and so has the money and security that the people of the mountain villages could never dream of. Though this is technically a science fiction universe, The Mountains of Mourning could almost read as a Western or general historical fiction. It is a story whose complex morals and images linger in the mind long after you’ve turned the last page.
In this story, Miles and his Dendarii Mercenaries are sent to the corrupt and lawless region of space known as Jackson’s Whole in order to extract a brilliant geneticist who is disgusted by his amoral employers and seeks asylum on Barrayar. The mission is supposed to be simple, until the geneticist refuses to leave until Miles and his team retrieve a tissue sample from the last of the super-soldiers that were bred in the Jacksonian facilities, and put the poor thing out of its misery.
Reluctantly, Miles agrees and they descend into the depths of enemy territory. Because no plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy, things go haywire in a hurry. Miles is separated from the team and ends up finding the super-soldier by chance.
She is not at all what Miles expects, and he finds that he cannot kill this young woman. Despite her terrifying appearance, she herself is frightened and lonely and has never been treated with kindness in her accelerated lifespan. Thanks to his own physical challenges, Miles is able to connect with her and finds that he cannot keep up his part of the bargain with the geneticist.
The premise behind Labyrinth is simple enough, but where most writers turn the super-soldiers into mindless psychopaths hellbent on destroying the enemy, Bujold asks, “what if the super-soldier was an intelligent young woman?” Though this was my least favorite of the three stories, it is still thought-provoking and makes me wish that more writers– of fiction, television, and movies– would give ides like this a little more thought, because there are a lot more stories, and much deeper ones, about ‘super-soldiers’ than are generally told in popular culture.
Borders of Infinity
In the third story, Miles infiltrates a Cetagandan prisoner of war camp in search of the one man who could reignite the Miralacans’ fight against the Cetagandans. Upon his arrival, however, Miles is brutally attacked and robbed of nearly everything the guards left him. He is befriended by a religious fanatic that everyone else in the camp avoids, and must find a way to find his target and escape the camp before he is murdered by the Cetagandans or his fellow prisoners.
Like the rest of Bujold’s stories, I can never predict what is going to happen, and that is definitely true of Borders of Infinity. Though I had stumbled across a very basic summary of the first part of the story, it was such a brief summation that even though I had the broad sketch, I will still surprised throughout. I should have known that events would end up being much larger than I expected. This is Miles Vorkosigan, after all, and he is a man of no half-measures. I do wish that certain parts had been fleshed out a little bit more, but my lack of detail retention could have more to do with the fact that I often read too fast and miss things. My confusion may be alleviated by a second reading.
One of the key events of this story happens near the very end. Something terrible happens that Miles is unable to prevent, and it haunts him for years afterwards. Indeed, his recollection of the event and new (more mature) perspective about it helps him to understand himself better.
Though I preferred Borders of Infinity to Labyrinth, it was not as haunting a story as The Mountains of Mourning was. While it gave Miles another chance to be a Big Hero, it did not provide the same insights into his own psyche, his relationship with his family, or answer the great question of “Who am I?” nearly as succinctly– or as beautifully– as The Mountains of Mourning.
Though each of the stories is relatively short as compared to the novels surrounding them, this collection is a vital part of the Vorkosigan Saga, so if you plan to take a deep dive into this amazing science fiction series, these stories are a must-read.