Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most popular current authors of science fiction and fantasy, with five Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards among her many honors. Her most popular series is the Vorkosigan Saga, thirteen books dealing with the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan and his family of the planet Barrayar. Miles was born with major birth defects because of a poison attack on his parents, when his mother was pregnant with him. All survived, but Miles is stunted physically with brittle bones, making the military career expected by his family tradition seemingly impossible. Miles compensates with high intelligence and a hyperactive personality and eventually becomes a brilliant military commander of a mercenary force. After a number of adventures, he is forced to retire and becomes an Imperial Auditor – a trouble-shooter and investigator for his cousin, the Emperor of Barrayar.
I first met Lois McMaster Bujold around 1987, right after her first three books were published. She had come to Indianapolis to read at our local science fiction club. Many of us became big fans of her work, and over the years, through meetings at science fiction conventions, we became friendly acquaintances. Sometime around 1990 I gave her Alcor literature and discussed cryonics with her. In 1994 this paid off when cryonics was included in her impressive Hugo Award-winning novel, Mirror Dance (Baen Books). In that book, cryopreservation is a military rescue technique for severely injured combat personnel. Miles Vorkosigan is such a dynamic character that he takes over every scene he appears in, and Bujold needed a way to get Miles out of the way so she could concentrate on his very different clone brother, Mark. While trying to rescue Mark and other troops, Miles gets hit in the chest with a projectile and gets quickly placed into cryopreservation (and revived by the end of the novel). This event turned out to have major benefits in the growth of Miles in later books in the series, making him more thoughtful and more risk adverse. As time goes by, Miles frequently refers to the changes in his life resulting from having survived his own death.
Cryonics has been bouncing around in Bujold’s subconscious for a lot of years since then. Now it bursts out again in Cryoburn (Baen Books, 2010), a remarkably thoughtful novel about a planet whose entire economy and government is built around cryonics, much like the way Ancient Egypt was focused on mummification. I say “remarkably thoughtful” not because it is unusual for Bujold (it is not), but because there have never been more than a handful of cryonics-oriented novels that contain any original ideas or deep levels of thought.
Miles has been sent to a cryonics conference on the planet of Kibou-daini, along with his Armsman (security guard/assistant) Roic, and a cryonics revival expert, Raven Durona. One of the major cryonics companies on Kibou-daini is preparing to start a cryonics business on one of the planets that Barrayar rules, and Emperor Gregor thinks that some deeper conspiracy is taking place. And of course, since novels require a plot, it is. Miles gets kidnapped, escapes, and gets lost in the Cryocombs – vast underground storage buildings for cryopreserved patients. He is rescued by a 12 year old boy, Jin, who takes him to his hideout in an abandoned building – or formerly abandoned. It is now the home of a truly underground (i.e., secret) cryonics facility, handling the preservations of those unlucky enough not to afford cryonics in this society. Jin’s father died in an accident without benefit of cryopreservation, and his mother was a political activist with evidence of the deeper conspiracy, kidnapped and forced into the freezing units by the conspirators. Complications follow.
I’m not going to spend more time on the plot and characters, partly because I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but mostly because that’s not why you are reading Cryonics magazine. You want to know how Bujold integrates cryonics into her story and if you will enjoy reading the book or will be tempted to throw it against the wall.
First, don’t throw the book; you might break the CD-ROM that comes with it. In a stroke of marketing creativity (or perhaps “seizure” of creativity – we’ll see what the results are), Baen Books has included with the 1st printing a free CD-ROM that contains the complete text of Cryoburn – as well as the complete text of 12 other Bujold novels set in this universe, plus several short stories, interviews, speeches, critical discussions, and The Vorkosigan Companion, a fine non-fiction book by others about Bujold’s writing. The only Miles-oriented novel not included is Memory, chronologically the 9th book in the series, accidentally left out through a production error. The text on the CD is included in several different formats and can be downloaded (but not shared or sold) to various e-readers or to your computer. The visual quality is excellent. If you like reading books in e-format, this could be the most cost-effective purchase you ever make.
The economy of Kibou-daini is almost completely built around cryonics. Those with the financial means plan their savings around cryopreservation instead of retirement funds; and those who cannot afford it envy the ones who can. Cryonics is close to being a mature technology by this time. The preservations can be done in a reliable manner by trained people and a good cryo-treatment can be reversed when the cause of death can be corrected. But since there would be no story without conflict, there are some imperfections — reasonable ones, I think. In Bujold’s universe, aging reversal has not been developed as successfully as has been cryopreservation reversal and treatment of disease and basic injury. Suspension revivals are usually done on fairly young people. I might think that real life will turn out the opposite, that aging reversal will come before reliable cryonics revivals; but we don’t have either one today and the point is arguable. Besides, it is Bujold’s book.
The real problems are not technical, however. Bujold has wisely noticed that even if cryopreservation and other future medical technologies become commonplace, the world will still be run by fallible and corruptible human beings. The futurist writer and cryonicist FM-2030 used to say that human nature would change with increasing health, prosperity, and education, and that maybe by the year 2030 (hence, his chosen name) there would be a new enlightenment for all – no racism, no poverty, no war. I never agreed with him, to his disappointment. Bujold also assumes human nature will not change that radically.
Human beings have evolved to be competitive and hierarchical. No matter how much wealth is available, many people will still want more than the other guy. If you survive into a distant future, there will still be someone who will try to take advantage of you; someone who will be happy to see you fail; someone who will profit from your success; someone else who will profit from your failure.
The interesting political twist that Bujold adds is that, since the cryopreserved individuals are not fully “dead,” they still have voting rights (in the company and in the government), vested in their heirs until the patient is revived. But, since everyone needs money for their own suspension, people often assign (for a fee) their voting rights as a proxy to a cryonics corporation (the “cryocorps” – pun fully intended by Bujold). After millions of people have been preserved, the cryocorps have enough votes in their pockets to elect the government and set economic policy that favors them. Of course, those votes depend on the owners of the votes remaining at very low temperatures, so the cryocorps aren’t in an overwhelming hurry to solve the aging problem and bring everyone back to full participation.
There are several more layers to this scheme, and I’m sure that the clever among you could think of plenty more. It’s an intriguing set-up.
I do appreciate cleverness in a good writer, and Bujold has that quality in depth. I admire her dialogue, characters, and plot twists. I think she may be the best writer of believable characters in the field of science fiction, maybe the best ever. The character growth of Miles through this series of books is remarkable. Even her minor characters feel real enough for us to imagine that they have a life and a story beyond the bounds of the book at hand. And she gets the little details right, not just the technical details, which she handles much better than Star Trek techno babble, but the human bits.
For example, the different cryocorps try to appeal mostly to the young professionals, but each trying for different market segments – hi-rollers, romantics, history lovers. They are like Las Vegas casinos. There is a nice bit about trying to figure how to enhance the immune system of someone who needs to be revived in a hasty, extra-legal manner. When she has characters argue about the morality of life extension and cryonics, the arguments of both sides sound sincere and honest, like the real arguments we have had dozens of times.
While all of this is done in a fair manner, her interviews for this book suggest that Bujold herself is not a cryonicist. I am pleased that she has taken pains in these interviews to state that she believes cryonicists are sincere and thoughtful, with a lot of smart, technical people involved. She thinks cryonics might work — but she is not sure if she is in favor of it. There is a quote from the book, “Such as a whole society of people who become so wrapped up in avoiding death, they forgot to be alive?”
It’s a fair question. We don’t know what changes that truly successful suspended animation would produce in human society or how financially successful cryonics companies would behave. (Sorry, but what to do with too much success is a problem we would love to have but can barely imagine here in the backward year of 2011.) But then we really don’t know much about the mindset and changes in human interaction that were caused by the fixation on mummification that developed in Ancient Egypt, either.
And as a writer, Bujold (and her hero Miles) cannot be totally against the idea of cryonics, because it saved the life of her hero, gave her more books, and allowed her to think about the meaning of a second chance at life. (Bujold has also spoken about feeling “reborn” many years ago after a divorce, following a difficult marriage, so there may be some additional symbolism going on here.)
Since I have read all of Bujold’s books, some of them several times, I may not be able to predict how much readers would enjoy Cryoburn if it is their first exposure to Miles Vorkosigan. Bujold is actually quite adept at creating self-supporting books in her series, although it is inevitable that many hints from earlier adventures slide into the story. And character development is so essential to Bujold’s writing that enjoyment of the series (and admiration for the author) is likely to build higher if started at the beginning, or at least if you read Mirror Dance, her earlier cryonics-related novel in the series.
From my viewpoint, this is one fine novel. It is not as powerful as the two or three best in the series, perhaps, but like both Miles and Bujold, it is a more mature, thoughtful work. I was pleased to read it and even more pleased to re-read it. Like the work of all great authors, Bujold’s novels get better in re-reading. I would be interested to hear from any of you who try this as your first Vorkosigan book.