Memory (Vorkosigan Saga, Chronological #10)
Lois McMaster Bujold
First published in 1996
From Goodreads: Forced to abandon his undercover role as leader of the Dendarii Mercenaries, Miles Vorkosigan persuades Emperor Gregor to appoint him Imperial Auditor so he can penetrate Barrayar’s intelligence and security operations (ImpSec). Simon Illyan, head of ImpSec and Miles’ former boss, is failing physically and mentally, and Miles sets out to find out why — and who, if anyone, is behind Illyan’s rapid decline. Library Journal calls Miles “one of the genre’s most enterprising and engaging heroes”. A Hugo and Nebula Award finalist.
(Warning: Spoilers for the Vorkosigan Saga ahead. It’s hard to leave them out when you’re this far into a series…)
When you’re in your twenties, turning 30 seems like this Big Deal. It feels like you should have accomplished a certain number of life events– get married, have a kid, be advanced in your career, etc. It feels like you’re about to get old overnight. That’s not how it actually is, of course, but even Miles Vorkosigan isn’t immune to feeling like he’s not quite where he should be in spite of everything he’s accomplished in his thirteen year military career. But age thirty looms no matter what Miles thinks about it, and as he hits thirty, thirty hits back.
Miles may have recovered from a slight case of death, thanks to cryo-revival, but death left its mark in the form of lingering and devastating health problems. Forced to confront them– and his mentor, the Imperial Security Chief Simon Ilyan– at last, and for all the wrong reasons, Miles finds himself in a place he never expected to be, both mentally and career-wise. While he’s metaphorically treading water as he figures out where to go from there, Ilyan becomes dreadfully ill. Is it a natural occurrence, or is there foul play involved? It’s hard to say, and spies are notoriously unforthcoming when it comes to information about their own organization and so the Emperor sends Miles in to investigate.
That’s the essential plot of Memory summed up in a couple of paragraphs, but it doesn’t contain the whole story of this excellent entry in the Vorkosigan Saga, where Bujold once again proves that she is a master of character development. In Memory, we really start to see how ten years as a covert ops agent has affected Miles’s health, career, and family life. These effects haven’t always been for the best and he has the uneasy feeling that his cover identity, Admiral Naismith, has stolen much of his identity. And despite everything he’s sacrificed for the Imperium, he still holds the rank of lieutenant, a fact that so rankles Miles that he can’t be happy for his cousin Ivan when Ivan is promoted to captain himself.
So there he is, at loose ends and rattling around the Vorkosigan family mansion all by himself, wondering just who Miles Vorkosigan is supposed to be and where is he supposed to go from here. It’s a question most people ask when they’re 29 and staring down 30. Some people get grouchy about it while others accept it with grace. Miles deals with it by heading to the countryside to face a ghost from his past and ends up remembering why he loves Barrayar and serves it so faithfully in spite of the pain he’s endured. It’s not for a soldier’s glory or medals or the adrenaline rush of yet another covert ops mission that he’s spent ten years on the ragged edge, it was for the people of his homeworld. The fact was there all along at the far back of his mind, but it takes an unexpected party with a village of ‘backwards’ hill folk to remind him of this.
Being duly reminded of his true obligations provides him with the backbone he needs to take on the leadership of ImpSec when Ilyan- who Miles called ‘Uncle Simon’ until he entered the military- falls ill and the acting head of ImpSec prevents anyone from seeing him because of ‘protocol’. Because Ilyan is practically family and because Miles accepts the responsibilities that go along with his privilege, he brushes the dust off of Lord Vorkosigan. With Emperor Gregor’s seal of approval, Miles all but storms the gates of ImpSec to untangle the mess of secrets surrounding Ilyan’s mysterious illness.
Throughout the course of Miles’s investigation, he finds himself coming closer to his own self as much as he is the answer to this massive riddle. At the beginning of the book, and indeed through much of the series so far, Miles has constantly been asking himself, ‘Who am I?’. Is he Admiral Naismith? Is he Lord Vorkosigan? In the end, he has to reconcile his two identities and acknowledge that he is both- not one or the other, as he has long thought.
We tend to think that a person has to go out into the wild blue yonder to ‘find themselves’, but I think the opposite may be more likely to yield results. We go out into the blue to find possibilities, but it’s when we come back and see our childhood home anew that we can truly start to see who we are as a person. We go out to see who we can be, and it is the contrast of There vs Here that helps us cut through the fog to see ourselves as we are.
I think Memory is the best book of the whole Vorkosigan Saga. It’s when Miles comes into himself as a person and grows to be the most comfortable in his own skin. This acceptance couldn’t have come without the choices he made earlier in his life, though. We have to go through the pain of making mistakes in order to grow up, and though it might hurt even more, we have to accept the fact that we’ve made those mistakes. Miles has made his fair share of them, and though they haunt him daily, he wouldn’t be the person he is without them.
“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.”– Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory