This is the more serious story in the series so far, one where even the trademark Miles Vorkosigan wit fizzles down in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation.
As the novella opens, Miles, together with a small group of people, is being herded by Cetagandan guards into a prison camp: the other inmates are all Marilacan troops, captured in the course of the war between the two planetary governments, and for a while one might wonder what Miles is doing here, and how he was captured – but since Marilac and Barrayar are allies and our favorite Vor heads a mercenary fleet, it’s easy to form an idea about the how and why…
Dagoola IV is a barely habitable planet chosen by the Cetagandans for their POW camp, one where no guards or constant patrols are needed because the inmates are held under a transparent dome where light shines constantly and there are no privacy or means of escape. What Miles finds is an extremely deteriorated situation: the strongest prisoners have banded together to prey on the weakest, and the appalling living conditions have caused most of them to regress to a more primitive, more animalistic state. Miles, due to his very unprepossessing appearance, is immediately targeted by the worst local bullies, and finds himself literally naked, having been robbed of the few items allowed to each prisoner – clothes, sleeping mat and drinking cup – and savagely beaten. Having made contact with an inmate who seems slightly deranged, the only one willing to talk to him, Miles starts with him on what turns out to be a recruiting operation of sorts, that will ultimately bring his plan to fruition – because of course he has a plan 🙂
As foolishly over the top as this adventure goes, in pure Miles Vorkosigan style, there is a definite darker side to the story, a pall of despair and hopelessness that is not completely lifted even in the end, when success smiles on the seemingly impossible enterprise despite the inevitable price to be paid. The darkness comes from understanding how easy human nature can be debased when the conditions are right – or rather wrong – and from the realization that what is happening on Dagoola might very well be a sort of Cetagandan experiment, one that this time does not focus on gene engineering but rather on psychological manipulation. The same exquisite care we saw the Cetagandans apply to the creation of their perfect gardens with singing frogs and artfully arranged flowers can be seen here in its more twisted, more blood-chilling expression: a transparent cage in which the captives are used more or less like rats in a maze, with a few calibrated stimuli applied to elicit the desired responses. It’s worth relaying Miles’ musings about the whole setup:
Subtle torture . . . Miles reviewed the Interstellar Judiciary Commission’s rules for the treatment of POW’s, to which Cetaganda was a signatory. So many square meters of space per person, yes, they were certainly supplied with that. No prisoner to be solitarily confined for a period exceeding twenty-four hours—right, no solitude in here except by withdrawal into madness. No dark periods longer than twelve hours, that was easy, no dark periods at all, the perpetual glare of noon instead. No beatings—indeed, the guards could say with truth that they never laid a hand on their prisoners. They just watched, while the prisoners beat each other up instead. Rapes, even more strictly forbidden, doubtless handled the same way.
In a similar situation, it’s not so strange to see how even Miles falls prey to pessimism and despair, and there is a brief moment when it might seem as if he’s headed in the same direction as other inmates who have lost all hope and given up on survival – or escape. Not the kind of attitude we saw in him before, even in the worst circumstances, and that, more than anything else, can give us the measure of what the prisoners endured in that camp.
If we need some suspension of disbelief to accept the fact that a lone person – a small, naked, defenseless individual – would be able to rouse a few thousand disheartened prisoners and turn them into a cohesive force able to assist in their rescue, what is far easier to accept is that Miles possesses the kind of personality that brings other people to trust him: the strength of his convictions, founded on the sense of honor and responsibility he inherited from both parents, makes people listen to him, trust and believe him. And this time around I found myself thinking that it’s a good thing for Barrayar – or for the whole galaxy, at that – that he has no ambition to rule, otherwise he might just as easily turn into the kind of tyrant whose power extends over vast populations just on the strength of his word.
Once again, Lois McMaster Bujold offers us much food for thought under the guise of adventure, and the seriousness of the situation adds some new facets to Miles’ personality, balancing out his usual posturing with some very welcome depth.