1990’s The Vor Game is the second of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan novels.
Four years after the events of The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles graduates from the Academy. Given his personal history and family connections, one might expect him to be given some cushy assignment. Instead he is dispatched to serve as weatherman on Kyril Island, whose isolation is matched only by the region’s unfitness for human habitation.
Still, how much trouble could one fresh graduate get into a place so sparsely peopled as Kyril Island?
After the mutiny, Imperial Security chief Simon Illyan attempts to solve the problem of where to assign obligate-troublemaker Miles by doubling-down on the Kyril Island strategy. If the arctic was insufficiently distant, try sending Miles (and his unfortunate minder, Ungari) to evaluate a minor crisis in Hegen Hub, a wormhole crossroads between Aslund, Vervain, Jackson’s Hole, and Pol. Whatever trouble Miles manages to get into won’t be ImpSec’s problem.
Pol borders the Barrayaran Empire while Vervain borders Barrayar’s traditional enemy, the Cetegandan Empire. Political instability between the four systems dependent on the Hub might be due to Cetegandan machinations, although a superficial analysis suggests that Cetaganda has as much to lose if the current frictions develop into war as anyone else.
Transport hubs prove a good place to encounter old friends. Aslund has hired Miles’ former mercenary company, the Dendarii Mercenaries, who have gone back to their pre-Miles name, the Oseran Mercenaries. The name change is thanks to a coup by Admiral Oser, who outmanoeuvered Miles’ former allies, Tung and Jesek. Oser is in no way happy to discover Miles’ presence. He prudently orders Miles’ execution, just in case.
A potential interstellar war and a mercenary commander bent on his death isn’t bad enough. Dodging his enemies, Miles is picked up for vagrancy. Among his fellow prisoners? None other than Gregor, Emperor of Barrayar.
The main problem with this book is the lavish use of coincidence to power the plot. While Hegen Hub is an important nexus in the interstellar wormhole network1 and a possible destination for someone fleeing Barrayar2, the odds that Miles would entirely by chance end up in the same cell as his fugitive emperor seem poor. Each coincidence added to the mix only reduces the aggregate probability; at times it seems like there is nobody in the Hub without a personal connection to Miles Vorkosigan.
Readers seem to have come to terms with the coincidences because they voted it a Hugo in 1991, for Bujold’s second win. Perhaps the attraction of the novel is the humor of Miles’ desperate improvisation in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds: a mad officer bent on restoring his reputation by executing a considerable number of his own men; two burly guards dragging Miles off to be airlocked; convincing Illyan not to have Miles shot in order to protect the careers of every other unfortunate in the Barrayaran military.
Readers may have also been enjoying Miles’ antagonists, who are a despicable lot and are fun to hate3. Commander Cavilo is the worst of them, gleefully willing to betray her allies the moment a better opportunity comes along. In many ways she is Miles’ evil twin, so it’s not surprising his antagonists end up lining up behind her.
As endearing as Miles can be (intermittently), he’s almost as hard on his friends and allies as on his enemies:
“Hm,” Illyan said. “And yet… who shall I assign you to now? Which loyal officer gets his career destroyed next?”
The sensible answer would be to take Miles out back and shoot him. Alas for Illyan, Miles is far too well connected for that to be acceptable. Instead… well, that would be telling.
1: Beta was settled via STL (slower-than-light) ships, but it was lucky in that it was later found to have a connection to the wormhole network. Not every system does (Barrayar didn’t for centuries). I wonder if there are any systems settled by STL that are still isolated? STL ship destinations would be a matter of historical record. It would be easy enough to communicate with them via radio, as they would have had to be close enough to the Solar System to be reached by STL ship.
2: I wonder where Gregor was heading. Probably nowhere in particular; Hegen Hub was the destination of the first ship he was able to join.
3: Oser isn’t an over-the-top bad guy. He just wants his mercenary company back. But while genre-aware enough to order Miles airlocked as soon as his nemesis is captured, he is not quite genre-aware enough to understand that the only winning move (when facing Miles and the will of the author) is to immediately surrender.
The Cetagandans are oddly muted antagonists in this. They’re definitely involved in the plot, but we never meet any actual Cetagandans.