When I first read Cetaganda, several years ago, I was slightly disappointed with it for some reason, probably because it’s less “adventurous” than other Miles Vorkosigan capers, at least on the surface. Thinking about the overall plot now, though, I was able to better appreciate it and to catch several nuances that I missed before, like the unusual opportunity to visit a new planet in this region of space besides Barrayar or the few swift glimpses of Beta Colony.
The Cetagandan empress died recently, and the massive state funeral is attended by dignitaries of all neighboring systems, including the old adversary Barrayar, whose emperor sent Miles and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril as part of the delegation that will represent him, together with the Barrayaran ambassador on Cetaganda. What might have simply been an interesting, if somewhat boring, assignment turns out to be anything but when the two cousins’ shuttle is met by a strange individual who seems bent on assaulting the young men and then just as quickly disappears, not before leaving a strange object in Miles’ hands. The item turns out to be a very important key to Cetaganda’s Star Creche, the repository in which the DNA lines are archived – the very core of the Empire’s structure. Unsurprisingly, Miles finds himself enmeshed in what turns out to be a planned coup and understanding that Barrayar has been targeted as the public scapegoat, and that war might ensue, he launches into uncovering the whole plot, often risking life and limb in his usual reckless way.
Until now, the Cetagandans had been only mentioned as the old enemies who tried to conquer and annex Barrayar at the time in which Miles’ grandfather was a young man, and when the elder Vorkosigan made his name as a cunning strategist who greatly contributed to the invaders’ defeat. Here we are finally allowed to see the Cetagandan culture in all its splendor, and splendor it is, indeed: these people value beauty and artistry above all else, as testified by their magnificent cities and luscious gardens, but mainly by that same creativity as applied to genetic manipulation. Cetagandan society is divided between the haut, the ruling class created and perfected through centuries of selective breeding, and the ghem, the military who enforce the haut’s power. The whole setup always made me think of the old Japanese Empire, what with the complicated social structure, rigid customs and heavy accent on the exquisite beauty of one’s surroundings.
That beauty, however, hides cut-throat politics and subtle currents of shifting alliances that often look much too deadly even for Miles’ stubborn resiliency, and here is where cousin Ivan starts to come into his own, both as a character and as the foil for his relative’s foolish stunts: up until now, Ivan has been depicted as the feather-brained young Vor living only for wine, women and song (and he is that, granted, but not only), while in this novel we start to see how the insouciant attitude is only a cover for his desire to live as uncomplicated a life as possible. From some not-so-fond reminiscences we learn how the too-energetic Miles used to be, even in childhood, the bossy creature he grew up into, and how it always fell to Ivan, and Elena Bothari, to bear the brunt and the eventual punishment for Miles’ harebrained schemes. So it’s understandable if poor Ivan now wants a quieter life, and why he keeps trying – sadly, without much success – to advise his cousin for more caution, and to stop acting outside the chain of command.
Not that hapless Ivan has any chance of being successful, of course: Miles is driven by the burning need to prove himself, to prove that being disabled in body does not impair his keen mind and intuitive powers, and it’s possible that here, on Cetaganda, where he’s confronted with beauty and physical perfection taken to the extreme, he might feel that desire become even more compelling. There are no space battles in this novel, no galaxy-spanning conflicts, but still the challenge posed to Miles’ intellect is no less complicated – or deadly – and here he’s motivated by another reason besides political expediency: the deep infatuation for a beautiful haut woman, the exact opposite of what he is and yet a goal he somehow needs to reach for. This younger Miles, although not a virgin, is still painfully shy where women are concerned, which is understandable considering his problems, and despite everything he went through in his adventures he’s still a young, insecure youth dreaming of love – and he also seems determined to set himself unattainable targets, either to prove himself that he can, or unconsciously reaching for what he knows is impossible. Once I understood this, I could not avoid cringing in sympathy every time Miles makes some self-disparaging remark: it’s not pity I feel for him, but rather the realization that he embodies all the insecurities and, yes, hurts we all felt in the difficult years of our adolescence – and that’s one of the reasons he’s such an easy character to understand and love.
One of the facets I was able to appreciate more, this time around, was the ethical angle that comes to the fore every time we are presented with some Cetagandan genetic “wonder”: these people did not limit themselves to perfecting their genome, they extended those studies to their entire environment, selectively breeding animals and plants and sometimes crossing them in new and – to them – spectacular ways. When Ivan is angered out of his usual bonhomie at the sight of a plant whose “flowers” are mewling kittens, we ask the same question about moral boundaries and whether the search for perfection might not be tainted by the loss of our humanity, as flawed as that might be.
In many ways, Cetaganda is a more restrained, more thoughtful story, and that’s the reason I did not fully appreciate it in the past, but now that I’m following these books’ temporal sequence I realize how there is a natural progression that follows Miles’ journey as a person: here he starts to leave his early life behind, moving toward a more responsible maturity (well, up to a point, since this is Miles Vorkosigan we’re talking about…) and infusing some seriousness in his chaotic adventures. I know that this seriousness will become more evident in the future, and I look forward to retracing his steps in that direction.