Review of The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Mountains of Mourning
by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Warrior’s Apprentice was, by all metrics, fun, but I didn’t think it was especially substantive. Miles blunders his way into and out of a problem, succeeding more on luck and determination than any particular flash of brilliance on his part. (There is nothing wrong with luck and determination, of course. These are valuable qualities to possess!) I enjoyed the book, but it’s not going to keep me up at night.
The Mountains of Mourning, on other hand, brought me to tears.
In what seems to be a trend now, Miles brings trouble upon himself by following a whim to be a nuisance and poke his head into someone else’s business. His father appoints him Voice to go and solve and try a case of infanticide in a very backwater village on Vorkosigan lands. This is more than just one murder case, though: Miles and his father agree this is how they will send a message that things are changing. The law isn’t going to look away if someone kills a baby because it has deformities.
And who better to deliver that message than the young heir to Count Vorkosigan, the “mutie lordling” as the villagers call him—to his face—his limbs stunted and his bones brittle?
David Brin once wrote something in an afterword that has stuck with me, despite all the other reservations I have about Brin. He commented that it’s curious we place so much stock in fantasy set in a pseudo-medieval, feudalistic society. Feudalism, he points out, is a raw deal. There is nothing noble or great about the majority of the population slaving away so a couple of people can ride around on horses killing each other for sport and profit. Yet we romanticize it and perpetuate this idea that real “high fantasy” involves castles and kings and queens and knights, as if these things are any more heroic than a fair and democratic election.
With her Vorkosigan saga, Lois McMaster Bujold has set up a similar paradoxical dynamic. Though it takes place in the future, the series recreates many elements of a feudal society on Barrayar, as a result of that particular world’s Time of Isolation, when wormhole travel wouldn’t work and they were cut off from the rest of human civilization. Having rejoined the rest of the galaxy, Barrayar finds itself mocked as somewhat barbarous for its customs. Miles, the son of the unlikely union of a Barrayaran count and a Betan starship captain, is literally the juxtaposition of two vastly different worldviews. As I mentioned in my review for The Warrior’s Apprentice, it’s very interesting to see him embody both conservative and liberal elements from these respective cultures, sometimes in ways he doesn’t consciously realize.
The Mountains of Mourning is a masterclass portrayal of these very tensions and the way change happens slowly (but inexorably). Miles is both an agitator and a progressive: he wants change, and he wants it now. Yet he’s also confounded by some preconceptions—he isn’t advocating, at least not right now, for the abolition of the Barrayaran nobility and class system, even if he recognizes it is absolute nonsense. Along a similar line, he takes his duties as Lord Vorkosigan quite seriously. He feels a responsibility to the people of this village.
So Bujold portrays the fine line that Miles must walk. It is so bizarre to readers like us, especially those of us who come from developed, privileged backgrounds, to see the socioeconomic and technological disparity on Barrayar. The village doesn’t even have flush toilets, the second-most important technology after the Internet! My gut reaction is “give them everything and give it now.” Miles is perpetuating an unfair and inherently inequitable system by playing the judicial lordling.
… what else can he do? Even if money were not an issue (and it always is), even if time were not an issue (never enough, like money—do you think they are in cahoots?), you’d still run into the stone wall that is the old guard—the people who don’t want this change. Resistance to change is the core motif of this story, as soon becomes apparent. Miles can no more air-drop technology into the village to transform it into a modern town than he could brainwash everyone into believing that he is, in fact, believed celebrity Miley Cyrus from ancient Earth history. It wouldn’t work, because the people themselves are still far too invested in the way things are.
Change is slow. We chafe at this, and we regard this as a problem. Yet it is perhaps one of the strengths of our tendency, as a species, towards counter-productive and often violent acts of social cohesion. Yes, we ostracize and punish those who do not conform sufficiently. But from this we gain a certain resilience. Think about all the times sweeping change happened in history—it never went well. First contact is jarring. Revolutions tend to be bloody and tend to beget counter-revolutions. Change is inevitable and always disruptive on some level, but gradual change tends to be more successful (or at least, less costly in terms of lives, capital, infrastructure).
The Mountains of Mourning is the shortest Vorkosigan story I’ve read so far. It’s one of my favourites, though. I love how Bujold portrays Miles here. This is, for him, a turning point: he comes out of this experience with a sense of purpose and direction for his boundless energy. At the same time, we get a sense of the state of flux of Barrayaran society, as well as the challenges that the Vorkosigans and other progressive elements of that society face in the decades to come. All in all, there is so much subtext packed into this novella. It’s charming, uplifting, devastating, so no wonder it moved me to tears.