Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Book Review: Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold (2011 Hugo Nominee)

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Adventure
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Baen; Har/Cdr edition
Publication Date: October 19, 2010
ISBN-10: 1439133948
ISBN-13: 978-1439133941

Lois McMaster Bujold is a name I have oft heard in connection with words like “quality,” “excellence,” and “entertaining,” so when an opportunity came along for me to read her latest novel, Cryoburn, I leapt at the chance. I was not disappointed.

Cryoburn is a new story of Miles Vorkosigan, a well-known SF character. I had no idea who Miles was, as this was my very first Bujold novel. Yet my ignorance was no hindrance to enjoying this throwback (in a good way) to the days when most SF stories were space adventures.

Imperial Auditor (a euphemism for “spy”) Miles has been sent by the Barrayan government to investigate a Cryocorp on Kibou-daini that wants to expand into the triplanetary Barrayan empire. In this far future, cryonics – the preservation and resurrection of the dead or ill through cold storage – is a mundane affair, done easily for those planets developed enough to afford it. But Kibou-daini’s culture makes it a requirement. Everyone on Kibou-daini gets cryonically stored, in effect turning its cryonics corporations into wealthy, politically powerful (the corporation gets the vote of each person it freezes) entities. To Miles, this all sounds rather fishy, and he embarks on a breakneck cat-and-mouse game to uncover the corporate corruption before it gets a foothold in his beloved Barrayar.

Though as a reader I knew nothing of Miles, his family, or his backstory, I easily fell into the world of Bujold’s imaginings. Miles, in particular, is a character that is disadvantaged (he has a physical handicap that makes him significantly shorter than most Barrayans and forces him to walk on twinned canes) yet powerful, an underdog that is morally and intellectually superior to his diabolical enemies. In short, Miles is a hero. The reader cheers for his every success and reels in shock at his every misstep, even as we are sure that Miles will triumph over all. He is a superman that is also extremely personable, given to self-deprecation and humorous turns of phrase, who is kind to a boy he befriends but merciless towards those who would harm those under his protection. I would want Miles to be my friend were he real. With friends like him, you won’t long have enemies.

Bujold has a clear, concise writing style that avoids superfluous word usage but also assumes a certain level of intelligence in the reader. The story is moved forward by its thriller action, much like the Bond films.

The story itself is also thematically deeper than its action-adventure surface detail would imply. Bujold raises (though does not answer) interesting questions about politics when she showcases the evils of a corporation with political voting power. She asks hard questions about when a nation (in this case, represented by the unpredictable Miles) should involve itself in another’s business. There are hints here of proxy revolutions, an idea that should be talked about given the recent changes in the Middle East. There is a treatment of ethics, as presented in the man who wakes up 100 years after being frozen only to realize that technology and culture has passed him by, and revolutionary Lisa Sato’s call for universal cryonics (i.e. healthcare) provided by the government. There is probably more to be explored in this seemingly innocuous and standard action-adventure that would explain and justify its Locus and Hugo award nominations.

Cryoburn is a tale that Harry Harrison, Isaac Asimov or Poul Anderson might have written, one easy to get into for its protagonist and science fiction setting, but one that you stay with for its surprise-a-minute plot, personable characters, and fluid writing. I was new to Bujold and Miles Vorkosigan with Cryoburn, but if this novel is indicative of her overall quality, Bujold will soon rise to near the top of the list of my all-time favorite writers.