The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold, narrated by Grover Gardner

BordersofinfinityWhy I read it:  This is another from my personal stash.  I was in the mood for a little more Miles Vorkosigan and it was the next one in the series (which I am trying to listen to in order).

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  [A Miles Vorkosigan Story] Miles infiltrates a prison camp at Dagoola IV, where he plots from within to free the prisoners.  [Publisher’s Note: The Borders of Infinity was originally published as a stand-alone novella in the anthology Free Lancers in September 1987. It was then included in the novel Borders of Infinity (October 1989). For the novel, Ms. Bujold added a short “framing story” that tied the three novellas together by setting up each as a flashback that Miles experiences while recovering from bone-replacement surgery. Fictionwise is publishing these novellas separately, but we decided to leave in Ms. Bujold’s short framing story for those who may also wish to read the other two novellas (The Mountains of Mourning and Labyrinth).]

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  In this full length audiobook, the author has created a “framing story” to join the three novellas together.  Miles is recovering from bone replacement surgery and Ilyan, the spymaster, asks him about certain expenses he has incurred in some of his missions.  A rival faction is using a bean counter who is dedicated to counting beans to stir up trouble for Count Aral Vorkosigan and unseat him from the Prime Ministership – Ilyan wants to learn everything about these missions so that he can nip trouble in the bud – even if Miles is resentful of the unsaid accusation of misappropriation.

The Mountains of Mourning

This novella takes place when Miles is only 20 and is on leave shortly after graduating from the Academy.  A woman begs for justice for her murdered baby daughter and Count Aral Vorkosigan sends Miles in his stead to investigate the crime and mete out said justice.  The baby was born with a hare lip and a cleft palate but was managing to feed well enough. Simple plastic surgery could have fixed the defect (should Hara have been able to access the treatment of course) but on Barrayar, birth defects are not tolerated well.  It is particularly so in the remote villages where there is no good communication with the cities and where the people cling to old traditions.  Miles is, of course, a “mutant” himself and his own life was threatened on the basis of his defect before he was even born (see Barrayar).  Things are slowly changing on Barrayar but Aral wants Miles to sent a message that the killing of infants on the basis of a birth defect is NOT OKAY and will no longer be tolerated.  Miles has to use his ingenuity (as always) to sort out the truth and in the process he has to win over people (as always) who judge him on the basis of his physical imperfections.

Labyrinth

Now aged 23, Miles is tasked with picking up a defecting scientist from Jackson’s Whole – a planet on which anything can be bought for a price – including genetic manipulation, clones, sex, slaves – you name it, if it can be imagined, it can be obtained on Jackson’s Whole. Miles’ cover is a trade mission – the plan is for this scientist to join Miles’ crew as a MedTech and then they will fly away to Barrayar.  Easy right?  Well, not so much. There are three powerful and kinda-sorta warring factions on Jackson’s Whole and Miles finds himself enmeshed in their politics when the scientist refuses to leave without certain tissue samples and when Bell/e Thorn (Bell/e is a Betan hermaphrodite and I’m not sure of the spelling given that I listened to it) is smitten with a Quaddie by the name of Nicole who is basically a slave on the planet.  To complicate things further, the tissue samples are in dormant form within another genetically manipulated “creature”.  Miles is tasked to kill said creature and retrieve the tissue samples and only then will the scientist agree to leave with him.

This story is another look at “what is normal” and “what is human” – at one point Miles says “human is as human does” and that about encapsulates the heart of the story.  Falling Free, The Mountains of Mourning and Labyrinth all deal with issues about “defects” and genetic “manipulation” (intentional, an accident of birth, or otherwise) and are ultimately, I think, about our responsibilities to other people on the planet – to people who are “different” and the acceptance, self-determination and respect they deserve.  I think it’s a continuing theme of the entire series actually. And it is done brilliantly.

The Borders of Infinity

I didn’t actually pay attention to the time stamp on my iPod but this story felt longer than the earlier two.  It kind of throws you in the deep end and doesn’t completely come together until right near the end but I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read/listened to it already.  The story begins when Miles is thrust into a prisoner of war camp on Dagoola IV, a misbegotten planet in the charge of the Cetagandans. The camp is a kind of dome force-field thing.  The Cetagandans have no guards inside the dome and they “push” ration bars through the forcefield at random intervals twice a day.  They cling to the letter of the Vorkosiverse equivalent of the Geneva Convention but come nowhere close to the spirit of it.  Those who die in the dome – and they are many – are stacked near the edge of the filed and they are incinerated and then removed from the dome by the Cetagandans.  The camp has therefore become a bit Lord of the Flies and Miles is at a severe disadvantage – even more so than usual, when he is thrust into the dome with nothing but the clothes on his back (and they don’t last long).  He is obviously a “mutant” and he is beaten immediately.  Of course, for Miles, a beating has rather more severe consequences than to someone whose bones aren’t made of talc.  From this inauspicious beginning, he has to muster the inhabitants of the camp into a cohesive force (because reasons) and the way he goes about it is typically, brilliant and quirky and… Miles.

Lots of bad things happen to Miles in the series (and I’m what, halfway through? If that?) and he does manage to come out on top in the end and I suppose, considered all together, it might seem to strain credulity too far.  But to balance that, Bujold doesn’t guarantee the survival of other main/prominent characters and there is always a cost to Miles as a result.  I’m kind of watching him grow up via this series and I can see he is becoming increasingly sensitive to and sensible of the risks he runs and the costs others may pay because of them.  At heart he is an honourable man and we want him to succeed because he is representative of “good and right” in many ways.   Miles’ disabilities have forced him to strengthen other parts of himself and I love the way he has adapted and thrived in this environment – others may have fallen under the great strain of it and it would have been no shame to them but in this universe, it is often the very things Miles despises about himself (his disability, his weakness) which give him the tools to win.  (In that respect, it brought to mind David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, which is a non-fiction book I listened to recently and which was kind of fascinating and which dealt with similar themes but in the real world.)

What else? Grover Gardner does his usual stellar job of narration.  He doesn’t do character voices in quite the same way other narrators I know and like do but it’s not true to say he does no character voices.  His portrayal of Tora in Labyrinth was very good – she is female but given her, um, circumstances, the voice he used seemed very appropriate even though it wasn’t remotely female.  For the most part, Mr. Gardner doesn’t really do female voices – he softens his tones slightly but that’s about it.  Still, there is nuance in his stylings and he somehow manages to represent the various different characters distinctly.  I can’t really explain it – he just does.

I feel like Mr. Gardner has a good handle on Miles’ character and I like the way he vocalises the humour and fear/astonishment at all the scrapes Miles gets into and how he somehow MacGyver’s his way out of them.

The Vorkosiverse provides reliably good space opera, the narration is always excellent and when I’m up for a little change of pace in my listening, a Miles Vorkosigan book never fails to satisfy.  I’m so looking forward to the two books where Miles falls in love – but I am determined to listen in order and I’m not up to those ones yet.  Dammit.

Grade: B+

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