So, lets talk about Memory. Memory is one of those books I have to read every so often, because it’s, well, basically it’s great. In one sense, it’s great because it’s a story about digging into a devious, complex plot from a calculating villain. But in another, perhaps more true sense, it’s a story about someone doing some very stupid things in order to keep hold of a lifeline to a life they almost kind of had, a dream of a different tomorrow, or maybe a different yesterday. And in perhaps an even truer sense, it’s a story about how we aren’t always what we define ourselves to be, and in fact how those definitions can shape us and trap us, until we accept who we are and reshape our expectations to suit.
As long time readers will know, I am a great fan of the Vorkosigan novels, and this one is up there as a favourite. Because here we have Miles, famously the dynamo, a man who has pushed through walls, literal and figurative to have a career in intelligence, doing real work, work which matters. And we have his alter ego, Naismith, leading fleet actions, the hero of a hundred stories, including his own. And, at last, we are at the cutting edge. Because Miles has to decide who he is. Is he Miles Vorkosigan, Imperial subject and occasional troublemaker extraordinaire? Or is he going to live out the dream of being the “Little Admiral”. The story asks him this in dire circumstances, and watching Miles twist and turn on the hook is, well, at once compelling and appalling. This is a man determined to have it both ways, who can make almost anything happen by force of will, trying to overcome some intractable obstacles which make what he wants impossible.
It’s a struggle not to spoil why this might be, but I will say that it’s a hard choice for him. And it’s a downward spiral too, one filled with denial and delaying tactics, and some extremely poor decisions. Of course we’ve all seen those decisions before in previous books, and they usually come off alright. But Memory isn’t playing around. It’s showing us someone coming to the end of a long rope, and not afraid to demonstrate that the intergalactic James Bond lifestyle has physical and psychological consequences.
Miles does not have a good time for a large part of this book.
For all that though, his personality is unbowed, a fierce, driven individual; seeing that energy misapplied is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t feel any less true. It shows us what can happen when what you want and what you can achieve are out of sync, when you have to look around at where you are at this point and decide where you want to be. There’s a couple of paths out from that catalyst, and more than a few of them lead down the spiral of distress, depression, and unpleasant decisions which Miles finds themselves in. As a portrayal of a person in trouble, it’s raw and painful and genuine, with a pain that works because ou can feel it too. Who hasn’t asked themselves what to do next, and whether what they’re doing is what they want? Fewer of us are intergalactic spies, but, you know. The pain of losing dreams is here in all of us, and you can feel it in the energy Miles puts out on the page.
In this he’s assisted by Illyan, his boss. Illyan has always had a bit of a soft spot for Miles, but maybe not for his “Little Admiral” persona, and really isn’t here for the self-serving, self-deluding work tat Miles is doing. But Illyan has problems of his own, under attack by an unseen, uncontrollable adversary, one who might, well, also be Miles. Watching Simon Illyan, the imperturbable head of Security, slowly crumble at the edges, while in front of him Miles does the same...well, there’s no other word than searing. It’s beautifully written, a duet of sorrow of the body and soul, both breaking down, both trying to find a different path than the boxes they’ve left themselves in until now.
This is a character story, and they are both marvellous in their character.
Of course there’s a plot, and byzantine schemes. An investigation that eats its own tail, with more twists and turns than a...twisty, turny thing. And a denouement that will probably have you as delighted as I was. Because oh my does it deliver.
As Vorkosigan novels go, this isn’t one to start with. There’s too much context to find in what came before. But once you start it, you won’t be able to stop until it’s finished. It’s brilliant.