I’ve Just Seen a Face

Komarr — Lois McMaster Bujold
Miles Vorkosigan, book 9


1998’s Komarr is the ninth volume in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series.

Barrayaran-conquered Komarr depends on its soletta array, which concentrates the feeble output of its sun, for marginal habitability and slowly progressing terraforming. When half the array is wrecked by a colliding spacecraft, it’s up to Imperial Auditor Georg Vorthys to determine whether this was a tragic mishap or deliberate sabotage.

Accompanying Vorthys is the most junior Imperial Auditor, Miles Vorkosigan.

Ahoy! Spoilers ahead!

Miles is delighted when in the course of the investigation he is introduced to Vorthys’ great-niece Ekaterin Vorsoisson, who happens to be just Miles’ type1. Alas, Ekaterin is already married to struggling functionary Tien. Although Miles has no way of knowing this, the marriage is deeply strained. Tien is an ass, as many characters have reason to observe. Frustrated by his many career failures, Tien blames his setbacks on bad luck and his abused wife.

Even after centuries of terraforming, Komarr’s surface conditions would kill an unprotected human. It’s difficult to see whose interests would be served by an attack on the mirror. There might be some benefit from a paranoid Barrayaran perspective: Komarrans would remain confined to their domed cities, where they would be easier to control. However, the progressive Barrayarans hope that Barrayarans and Komarrans will one day be one people2. And no Komarran would want to see a centuries-long terraforming effort undermined. Still, it does seem an unlikely accident.

The explanation is simple: the soletta array was not the intended target at all. It merely an unlucky bystander. The intended victim was nothing less than the Barrayaran Empire itself. The conspirators are not going to let one single failure, even one they don’t quite understand, halt their scheme. Nor will they allow pesky Imperial Auditors to impede them.


I remember USENET discussions to the effect that the soletta array could not work as advertised. I don’t recall the details and don’t want to do the math to check. Instead, let’s focus on it as evidence of an important world-building choice on Bujold’s part. Garden worlds where humans can live as easily as they do on Earth (easily if you ignore natural calamities like volcanoes, drought, etc.) are very rare. Marginal worlds where people can live with a lot of effort are more common (for small values of common). Thus far Komarr has absorbed centuries of effort without becoming what we might call welcoming, an effort justified only because it’s located near an important cluster of wormholes. It’s not clear this is sustainable long enough to transform Komarr into a garden world. Terraforming is hard and it is slow. That’s believable.

Tien is almost entirely without redeeming features. He married a younger woman whom he could dominate, isolated her from her friends and family, and spent more than a decade subjecting her to corrosive psychological abuse. He sneered at her competence, accused her of infidelity, and assured her that she is crazy if she thinks he is tormenting her (gaslighting). He has refused to face up to the fact that he has slowly developing Vorzohn’s dystrophy, in hopes of hiding this from other, mutant-hating, Barrayarans. He has engaged in risky financial ventures and failed at those as well. In the course of this novel, he cons Ekaterin out of her meager savings in an attempt to stave off disaster. He’s also corrupt.

The best that Ekaterin can say of him is that he never actually hit her.

It’s not at all surprising, then, that Tien does not even manage to redeem himself in death. Nobody intended for him to die; the antagonists in this book eschew personal violence. Instead, Tien is a victim of his own incompetence and panic.

Tien also made the fatal mistake of being the wrong side in a romantic triangle. This is rarely a sensible move in a Bujold novel. Accept failure with grace2, as did Duv Galeni, and live to win one’s own Delia. Resist the will of the creator and meet the fates of Tien and Passage’s superfluous suitor, Alder.

The antagonists in this book see themselves as the heroes, struggling to revolt against brutal conquerors. It’s true that their chosen method may indirectly kill thousands of people on Barrayar (and did kill a handful of people in the Komarr system when their initial experiment failed). A small error in timing would have resulted in an incoming fleet of heavily armed Barrayarans. However, they believe that their bold scheme, if properly executed, will be a close-to-bloodless solution to barbarian invasion. Too bad that this is not their book. The hero of the series is a highly-placed scion of the Barrayaran Imperium. A free Komarr is unlikely. At least in this series.

The book ends on an ambiguous note, at least as far as the budding romance goes. Miles realizes that it is too damn soon to propose to the newly widowed Ekaterin. They part as friends.

Is this just another one of Mile’s failed romances? That’s what the first readers of the book may have thought. But they were wrong! In the next Vorkosigan novel, A Civil Campaign, we see Miles pursuing Ekaterin using the same bold moves that have served him so well in the past4. I will review that novel in September.

Be it noted that Komarr is not just a set-up for the next novel in the series. It works nicely as a self-contained mystery/political thriller.

Komarr is available here (Amazon). This edition is not available from Chapters-Indigo.

1: Tall, beautiful, smart brunette. Or more cynically, “live woman in proximity to Miles.” See, for example, his dalliance with Taura.

2: Ask the English, Irish, and Scots how well that “we shall all be one people” worked out. Or Quebec and the rest of Canada. Or Korea and Japan. Really, I can see no way for this plan to go horribly wrong.

3: Not so graceful, actually, but Duv only whined and sulked at Miles.

4: Which is to say, bold moves such as assembling a private army (forbidden to Barrayaran aristocrats), invading Jackson’s Hole (killed, revived, misplaced), and hiding his seizure disorder from his ImpSec superior (fired). But it’s his cousin Ivan who is the idiot.


  • Lynn

    Even after centuries of terraforming, Komarr’s surface conditions would kill an unprotected human. It’s difficult to see whose interests would be served by an attack on the mirror. There might be some benefit from a paranoid Barrayaran perspective: Komarrans would remain confined to their domed cities, where they would be easier to control. However, the progressive Barrayarans hope that Barrayarans and Komarrans will one day be one people2. And no Komarran would want to see a centuries-long terraforming effort undermined. Still, it does seem an unlikely accident.

    Isn't Komarr at the entrance to the only wormhole going to Barrayar ? That being said, it is pure military strategy to not let anyone control the entrance to your home world. And given paranoia, I could see the case for evicting the Komarrans from their world and bringing in settlers loyal to the Empire of Barrayar.

    • James Nicoll

      Is mass migration doable in this setting? Or would removing the native Komarrans involve mass graves?

      • Lynn McGuire

        The Barrayarans are well known for their tolerance and love of their fellow man. Not !

        The Barrayarans are harboring a deep resentment for the Komarrians letting the Cetagendans through previously. Do you really want to know how they would take care of the issue ? Making Komarr a "protectorate" is the least of the bad options.

  • Douglas Muir

    The Komarr situation is an absolutely plausible political tragedy: Komarr is under permanent occupation, while Barrayar can never, ever risk letting Komarr go free. Bujold acknowledges this in passing but doesn't dwell.

    The book appears to be... let's say, heavily informed, by Bujold's own failed first marriage and subsequent divorce. IMS, Bujold has never confirmed this but has never denied it either. Anyway, it's a very convincing portrait of a collapsing marriage.

    Doug M.

    • David Siegel

      Bujold did write that Tien was based on a composite of several [people that she knew (or knew of) who had so-called "borderline" personality (a misnomer, it was once thought to be a condition on the edge of psychosis, but is now considered a se3parate disorder, not particularly on the border of anything). I did get the impression that the relationship between Tien and Ekaterin must be based in part on personal observation, either of her own marriage, or that of someone she knew well. But it could be that she is just very good at dramatizing ideas she has heard of or read of. In any case the book should stand or fall on nits own merits, whether it reflects the author's personal intimate experience or not.


  • Carl F

    To footnote 2: how about the Roman unification of the various Italian mini-states? They have surely remained completely unified throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods, and there is surely no political movement right now to split off the northern part from the southern, right? Thousands of years would be enough to make the unification permanent?

  • Pam

    I think Taura fits the tall, beautiful, smart, brunette description. The fangs are a bonus.

    • Walter

      For Miles lesser mortals need not apply. Roric ended up as Miles' batman, bodyguard, monitor and confidant of the Emperor, because he charged a needler.

      None can question his physical courage.

  • Joel Polowin

    One of the issues with the soletta array is the size needed. If you want to increase Komarr's insolation by, say, 10%, and the soletta is in the same orbit as Komarr, it needs to be 10% of the size of Komarr -- at a minimum, not allowing for reflectance losses.

    Another is that there may be more efficient ways of solving the problem. Since cheap fusion tech is available, it's probably easier to run a bunch of fusion reactors on the ground to create extra heat than to build and maintain a planet-sized mirror array in orbit.

    • Zan Lynx

      Komarr also runs fusion reactors on the ground. They provide heat and atmosphere for the terraforming bacteria, lichen and moss.

      The soletta array is probably cheaper than a bunch of fusion plants. I assume it is built by automated factories using asteroid belt materials.

      • Robert Carnegie

        Since I haven't read the book, is making Komarr reliant on an easily damaged installation in space perhaps deliberate?

        Does it heat the whole planet, or just small specific areas when required? Say if the cabbage region is at risk from frost...

        • James Nicoll

          It is deliberate but the purpose is to add heat to a cold world. Komarrans have lived in domes for centuries and the loss of the soletta won't affect those.

    • Walter

      The physics in Miles' universe is not that of ours. This is far from the only case.

    • Carl F

      10% of the area of Komarr, in any case. "Size" could mean volume.

  • Joel Polowin

    Komarr's cross-section, if you want to be picky.

  • Richard Hershberger

    “we shall all be one people” -- History is full of examples where this works just fine, at least in the long run. These examples are less dramatic than those where it doesn't, so they get less ink. We don't read about Breton or Occitan uprisings against Parisian tyranny because these issues are long settled. Many modern European nation states are the result of the central capital region conquering its neighbors, with cultural imperialism following close behind. It doesn't always work, but often it does.

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