Komarr – Lois McMaster Bujold

(Baen 2008, originally published 1998)

Komarr is another of Bujold’s series of SF books featuring Miles Vorkosigan, set at a time in Miles’ life when he has had to give up his military career in ImpSec (Imperial Security). Newly appointed as an Imperial Auditor, Miles arrives on the planet Komarr, along with fellow auditor, Professor Vorthys, to oversee the investigation into the accident which caused the destruction of the solar mirror which was helping the colonisers terra-form the planet, and the killing of several people as a result. It’s not known at the start whether the accident was that, or due to sabotage – for Komarr was conquered by Barrayar some thirty years earlier, and resentments still linger. Miles also suffers from being known to be the son of Aral Vorkosigan, called the ‘Butcher of Komarr’ due to having been (thought to be) the instigator of an infamous massacre at the time of the Barrayaran conquest. Komarr is an important strategic location (even if its current inhabitants have to live inside giant domes, because there is currently insufficient air to breathe at the surface), due to its location close to a wormhole nexus, one of which is the only gateway to Barrayar.

The two auditors stay with Vorthys’s niece, Ekaterin Vorsoisson, her husband Etienne and son Nikolai, or Nikki, who are Barrayaran colonists. Tien is Administrator of part of the terraforming project; the latest, the reader discovers, of a series of jobs he has held which have led to the family moving constantly. We discover, both through presentation of Ekaterin’s thoughts and emotions as well as Miles’, that Tien is a sufferer of a genetic disease, Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, which he has passed on to his son, but which he is currently trying to keep secret – mostly because genetic anomalies are viewed with suspicion by the Vor class on Barrayar. His and Ekaterin’s marriage is not a happy one by this stage, though she is clinging on to the vows she made and is loyal in deed, if not in thought, to Tien’s wishes and commands. He, tellingly, is quick to assume that people do not rise in society through their own efforts, but through connections and nepotism, and resents what he sees to be his lack of success due to his lack of such influence – rather than his own limitations.

The book considers the investigation into the solista damage and the peripheral information arising from it, as well as the relationship between the Vorsoissons, and how the arrival of the auditors changes it. It also becomes clear that there is a major conspiracy within Tien’s department, with which he is complicit (though not an active member) – though Bujold doesn’t reveal to the reader what that is until near the end of the book.

The characters are well-rounded and sympathetic, particularly Ekaterin, and Bujold is careful to consider the constraints operating on women in a long-standing patriarchy (such as is Barrayar), and the difficulty of disowning the system in which one has been born and brought up. Although Ekaterin tries to be obedient to her husband, she is intelligent enough to realise that he is not worth her respect, and, of course, she is deeply worried about her son’s medical condition and Tien’s reluctance to have this fixed (medical technology has advanced to a level where the genetic modifications required could be done easily, though not cheaply). There’s a very moving bit where she’s questioned under ‘fast-penta’ and the drug (which tends to impel truthfulness from its subjects) has removed all the inhibitions and pressures under which she is living, and she is able to relax and say, “It doesn’t hurt.”

The secondary characters are also well-drawn, and their motivations and actions are believable. The pace is slower and the action less dramatic than Bujold’s previous Vorkosigan books, reflecting the changes Miles has to make to his life, both as a result of leaving ImpSec and becoming an Auditor, and because of a different set of health problems. There is enough science fiction here to keep SF fans happy, though the relationships between Ekaterin and Tien and Miles are of equal importance to the plot.

There are many humorous bits, and dramatic events, and Bujold handles the unravelling of the enquiry deftly. Further to my review of A Civil Campaign, I would recommend reading these books such that Komarr is first – they follow on almost directly from each other, and there are many references in A Civil Campaign to the events of Komarr. I think it probably also helps to have read the other Vorkosigan books as well, if only to put into context Miles’ previous career, and the society structure of Barrayar and its galactic neighbours (though I haven’t, and enjoyed both books very much).

This was a very satisfying read and is thoroughly recommended.

(The image above is from the UK edition of Komarr, though I read the Baen US edition whose cover is not nearly as good)

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11 Responses to Komarr – Lois McMaster Bujold

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Great review! Still haven’t read any of her books 😦

  2. Pingback: Review of 2010 in books « Ela's Book Blog

  3. Pingback: Lois McMaster Bujold – Komarr « Fyrefly's Book Blog

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  5. I am an old time science fiction fanatic. I think that review is terrible for a couple of reasons. First of all it tells too much of the story. Like after reading that review the reader already knows a genetic disease is a central motivator of the story and Miles and Prof. Vorthys don’t know that at the start.

    I consider Komarr and Falling Free to be the two best Bujold stories for the SCIENCE in them and Komarr is better for the character creation and development. Komarr includes an aspect similar to the famous science fiction story The Cold Equations. The Laws of Physics do not give a damn about people. Make a mistake and they can kill you. The LAWS will not care. Komarr has a scientist, Dr. Riva, who figures out the mistake the conspirators made. But most reviews of this book do not mention that aspect of the story. It is all about, bad marriage, embezzlement, but not PHYSICS. Physics and mistakes about physics are at the heart of this story but that is irrelevant to most reviewers. It is as though science is no longer important to stuff called SCIENCE fiction so today most sci-fi ain’t. Hyperion is not science fiction, neither is Star Wars.

    Bujold’s father was an engineer. I suspect Prof. Vorthys is partly modeled on her father. But most so called science fiction and sci-fi reviews don’t do realistic science. I just finished a couple of Bujold’s fantasies. Even her version of fantasy has a kind of scientific consistency.

    SCIENCE is a Way of Thinking. Sci-fi could be used to encourage that in young children, but not if it is junk.

    • Ela says:

      Hi umbrarchist. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Apologies if you thought the review overly spoilered – I mentioned the genetic disease because it’s one of Ekaterin’s main concerns and is revealed to the reader quite early on (even if not to Miles and Prof. Vorthys).

      With respect to the “science” aspect, all I can do is to review the book based on what I thought of it (I’m not a professional critic, and though I’m a scientist my field is quite different). Your take is different, equally valid. For me, I like Bujold’s books because she makes the human story more important – the fiction, rather than the science, as it were – and I don’t read a lot of “hard” SF with which to compare it. I agree that her fantasy books (certainly The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls) are very believable because Bujold roots the “magical” aspects of the book in theology, and a consistent theology at that.

  6. What kind of scientist?

    There is no worm hole science in that Bujold’s wormholes and Necklin rods are “fantasies”. But the way she has her fictional engineers and scientists deal with her “fantasy” phenomenon is very scientific and applies to any science. Bujold was a pharmacist. Her paradigm of how a scientifically extrapolated reality would work shows in all of her works. I only read Paladin of Souls because so many sources say it is better than Curse of Chalion. They seem quite equivalent to me though the “magic” in Paladin is even more complicated. I think I will stick to SF. Swords and horses are rather uninteresting. Funny how so much horse manure disappears from such stories. LOL

    • Ela says:

      The problem with making science fiction absolutely scientific means that the writer has to either accept the limitations of slower than light-speed travel, or else invent something that makes rapid space travel possible – wormholes or gateways are not an uncommon option. Otherwise, the writer is fairly limited to considering Earth or near-Earth scenarios, or else setting things so far in the future that the question of evolution of the human species during the period of interstellar travel then becomes important (though rarely tackled, as far as I’m aware).

      My dad is not a fan of fantasy since he considers most magic in which worlds in which it appears are treated inconsistently by authors. Bujold’s isn’t, which I like, but I will happily read a lot of fantasy.

      • I wasn’t talking about Bujold’s universe being absolutely scientific. I was talking about her using an accurate scientific approach with a scientist and engineer making a mistake with their technology in her treatment of the plot of Komarr. The conspirators erred in what they thought the “fantasy” physics would do. That error got people killed, and was the trigger for the entire story. But they could not figure out the error due to complicating circumstances but another scientist did. So the “fantasy science” which is treated scientifically is integral to the story and part of what makes it an exceptionally good SCIENCE FICTION story. Science is a WAY OF THINKING and Bujold demonstrates that in this fictional tale.

        But the vast majority of reviews say nothing about it.

      • Ela says:

        True, but I and other readers are much more likely to call out a writer for not setting their characters and plot in a scientifically-credible universe (or one that is inconsistent with itself), rather than one, such as Bujold, who does; and this is probably why we don’t think to mention it in reviews. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course.

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