Cryoburn (The Vorkosigan Saga, Chronological #15)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
First published in 2010
From Goodreads: 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!
It’s fitting that, as the Vorkosigan Saga winds it way toward its end, it devotes a book to the idea of mortality and the race to delay death, if not defeat it altogether. The characters are aging- Miles is 39, for example, and while they’re merely mentioned in Cryoburn, his parents’ advanced ages are on the Lord Auditor’s mind. Cordelia is in her seventies at this point, and his father Aral is in his mid-eighties. Add Mark’s ongoing quest to defeat the dastardly life-expansion techniques of the lawless barons of his homeworld of Jacksons Whole, and you can easily see that Life and Death are the major themes of this book.
The story begins in the midst of a hallucination. A radical group that wants to end the practice of cryonically freezing the dead for later revival kidnapped a group of diplomats attending a conference hosted by one of the major cryo-corporations on the planet of Kibou-Daini. Miles was among that group, but had one of his idiosyncratic reactions to a sedative and managed to escape in the confusion. After unknown hours stumbling around the incredibly creepy cryocombs (endless catacombs below the city where the dead aren’t left to rest, but to be cryonically frozen for decades- or perhaps centuries), he is rescued by a boy named Jin. Neither of them knows it, but their meeting has major implications for the culture of Kibou-Daini once Miles picks up on odd clues from Jin’s life story and fits them into the puzzle of the investigation that brought him to this strange world in the first place.
On its own, Cryoburn is an odd story. It features an investigation into a massive corporation that deals with a science fiction trope- cryonically freezing dead people so they may be revived later on once a cure to their ailment (or to old age itself) has been discovered in some indeterminate future- and almost feels like a story that would be told by someone like John Grisham, thanks to the myriad legal issues popping up throughout it, such as ‘can you kidnap a kidnapper?’ or ‘who had legal responsibility for thousands of people who have been illegally cryonically frozen, but who still have a legal voice thanks to their cryonic preservation?’ It’s all rather strange, and if you somehow did not notice that Bujold deals with major life topics like Identity and Mortality throughout her books, you might wonder what was going on with this story. So while I did not find Cryoburn to be as engaging as the other books of The Vorkosigan Saga, it certainly fits into the arc of the series and its themes.
There are several interesting conversations about the notion of aging, too, since it goes hand in hand with mortality. When a society begins to extend average lifespans to the century mark and more, what is considered old? And at what point does a person decide that they’ve lived long enough and don’t want drastic or strange measures taken to give them another year or ten of life?
There are two particularly poignant discussions on this topic in Cryoburn. One is a reminiscence: a secondary character from previous books is dying in hospice and adamantly refuses to be cryonically preserved. They don’t wish to end up in a future devoid of their friends for the sake of a few extra years of life. Miles can accept this, but has a harder time dealing with the second discussion, which hits even closer to home for him. In that discussion, told from an alternate point of view, the POV character realized long ago that death can be freeing for someone burdened with terrible secrets, especially after a long life spent keeping those secrets from nearly everyone. That was a scene that stuck with me long after I finished reading it.
While Cryoburn is not my favorite book of the Vorkosigan series, it has the sort of thought-provoking discussions that good science fiction is known for.