Heroes–and Miles

Everyone has different ideas on what makes a hero. For me, more than looks, a cool manner, great taste in clothes, castles, and cars, is the seduction of competence.

I love a hero who gets things done that need doing.

When I was a kid, Superman was the most prevalent hero: strong, handsome, good, honest, loyal, and red-white-and-blue patriotic. By the sixties, when I was a teen, the cynical, alienated anti-hero had become popular. I got as tired of heroes who were no different than the villains as I had been with the old two-fisted manly man whose women were helpless, waiting to be rescued before they gratefully devoted their lives to his domestic comfort, because of course there weren’t any heroic women. How could a woman be heroic when the way to resolve any kind of conflict was to launch into a long, drawn out fist or gun fight?

In my kid reading, one of my favorite heroes was Pippi Longstocking. She got to live on her own, do what she liked, she had all kinds of powers, including super strength if bad guys tried to grab her or her kid friends, but she was always kind, and always did the right thing.  Gradually I lost interest in Pippi, not that I ever disliked the books. But I reread them less frequently, and it took a few more years to realize why: because Pippi was always cheerfully in control of things. She might leave chaos in her wake, but she knew what she was doing and where she was going.

When, at fourteen, I first encountered Frodo of the Nine Fingers, I had a new hero. Compared to Pippi, Frodo hadn’t much to offer in the physical realm: he wasn’t super strong, he wasn’t a leader, and at the end, he’d even lost his home. But his emotional battle, his inner strength outshone that of kings and war heroes.

My fictional heroes now are not necessarily those with physical prowess (though I do enjoy a good swashbuckling battle), they are the ones whose inner conflicts are at least as great as the physical challenges, and one of my top faves is Miles Vorkosigan, the short, hunchbacked, spindly hero in Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera series.

It would have been easy to make her Barrayarans the villains in her stories. After centuries of isolation, the Barrayarans were reunited with far-flung humanity; at first at a disadvantage as a feudal society dominated by a military caste, they took to space flight (and modern weapons) with terrifying enthusiasm. Bujold’s central characters are at the heart of the imperial government, not just showing but making sympathetic the strain between the male-dominated rigid hierarchy based on martial skill and the (relatively) leveled playing field of high tech. But the past still shapes the culture, which centers around the tall, strong, martially skilled male. Into this atmosphere Miles is born, damaged severely in utero—and determined to earn his place in the Barrayaran world by his wits.

Bringing me to Miles’ family. He did not spring in brilliant isolation from a set of dullards. We first meet his parents in the absorbing duology Shards of Honor and Barrayar (I think now joined as Cordelia’s Honor): Miles’ father is a military hero—smart, logical, and unswervingly loyal and honest—his mother loathes the military mindset, but has the great gift of appreciating people as individuals, whatever their background. And through the succeeding novels, you can see traces of both parents in Miles’ interactions, even when the parents themselves are not onstage for the entirety of the book. Eventually Miles discovers (typically, the most lethal way possible) that he has a clone brother. How the family deals with a clone raised to murder the family from within is fascinating, in both Brothers in Arms and the award-winning Mirror Dance.

Miles is frequently his own worst enemy, but he has a great deal of formidable competition in a variety of rivals, difficult personalities, and outright (and terrifying) villains. He has no physical strength—frequently his bones break—so he has to rely entirely on wit, cunning, observation, and charisma. Smart heroes who are insufferable in their superiority are not appealing to me, especially when they have no sense of humor, especially about themselves; I remember in high school, when a segment of my fellow students were avidly devouring Ayn Rand for the intellectually superior heroes, I checked a couple of them out. Politics aside, I soon came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t want to be in a room with these speechifying rantypants for more than five minutes. Miles I would follow around for hours—days, weeks—if I could survive the collateral damage.

After a hiatus of a decade, Miles is back. His latest adventure is called CryoBurn. In spite of the relatively serious subject matter (cryogenic freezing) some readers will regard this as a lighter book, especially as much of it is seen through the eyes of a child, and because Miles’s wits are not tested to the limits for most of this book. Bujold explores all the ramifications of this particular piece of futuretech, from the comedic to the horrifying, legal to spiritual. The cryogenic center of the story seems like an arbitrary subject, isolated . . . until it isn’t. Bujold often writes story arcs in pairs, one light, and the next picking up on threads established in the easier adventure then yanking them inexorably into sometimes excruciating knotwork. I am really looking forward to what happens next.

Sherwood Smith



Heroes–and Miles — 23 Comments

  1. followed here from your blog, Sherwood. I loved your point about the beginning (and ending) lines of MIDDLEMARCH. There are so many interesting thwarted heroes to think about.

    Just because she’s fresh on my mind (I blogged about her yesterday), Dana from Octavia Butler’s KINDRED. She’s trying to save her ancestor/herself, but in the process is forced to support the institutions of slavery. Rock, hard place.

    Oo, or Lisa See’s SNOW FLOWER & THE SECRET FAN. The narrator there is rather a hero, in the heroic sense–a village leader and prominent successful person–but her biggest personal failure at the end of her life is a failed relationship with a former friend.

    Rats, now I’m thinking of tons of books. Better sign off.

  2. Like you I wearied of the alienated anti-heroes and the “heroic” women whose heroism consisted of sacrifice to stand by their menfolk even when said menfolk didn’t stand by them. A hero of whatever gender must certainly have some competence–mental, physical, emotional–but more the hero must have a cause that goes beyond personal gain and be willing to offer him or herself up to it.

  3. I found CRYOBURN to be a very mature work. Perhaps she selected a child viewpoint to counterweight this? Everything revolves around death, end-of-life issues, and how they affect the larger society.
    Another thought: The theme really makes sense when you get to the end. Was the entire book a sort of edging up to and preparation for that final drastic transition in Miles’s life?

  4. My initial read of Cryoburn had me glancing anxiously at the length of the book. The foreshadowing in the novel clearly pointed to what the final drabbles dealt. The second reading left me pondering the mature examination of quality of life and/or death, The third had me appreciating Lois’ skillful manner in dealing with subjects that could have made the whole book ‘depressing’ rather than thought provoking.

    My read of her using multiple POV’s? I think Lois Bujold is trying to give Miles a break, and to move the readers of the series on to other viewpoints. But then again, I do want Miles to have some ‘happy times”.

  5. Interesting takes on CryoBurn. I do think the use of the child’s POV was an interesting choice, given the material. I didn’t find it convincing at times; whereas Nicky in Komarr was brilliantly focused. But this is really nitpicking about a fine book; the very end shows that Bujold is at the top of her powers.

  6. When I first started reading Miles’s books, after Cordelia’s, my first impression was that Miles is this generation’s Cletus Grahame — a similarly brilliant strategist and tactician, but with a metric ton more charisma than Cletus ever had. I loved Tactics of Mistake when I was younger, and the rest of the Dorsai books. Miles’s books, though, are just as great from the point of view of how cool it is watching someone conquer a regiment with three friends, an empty gun and a lot of fast talking, but they’re also a lot more fun, and I agree that Miles is the sort of person I’d love to hang with.

    It would’ve been easy to leave it there, to keep writing a never-ending series of books about a character her fans loved. Instead, Bujold has let Miles grow and change and make huge mistakes that completely altered his life. I still miss Admiral Naismith, but there’s satisfaction in reading the more mature stories too. And they’re still fun — the message that you don’t have to be a rollicking, out-of-control twenty-something to have fun is important too. 🙂


  7. Bujold has a track record of moving on from her protagonist, after he or she has collected all the plot coupons. I wonder now if we can look forward to another Cordelia-centered book?

  8. Angie: I felt that way, too! I could have read about the Little Admiral forever, yet Memory is my favorite of all.

    Brenda: rumors flying around are that Ivan is getting his own book at last. And much as we’ve seen “that idiot Ivan” he’s proved his brains so many times–most crucially in Memory, and action and leadershipwise at the end of Civil Campaign so I’m hoping that these are hints of a good Ivan-centric story to come. (I’ve asked for Ivan happy ending fanfic for Yuletide, and read some nice ones, but I want the “reality’ of canon.)

  9. Bujold does such a great job of letting Miles grow from his adolescent insecurities to his mature(r) self and remain consistent from book to book. The ‘prequel’ books ‘Cordelia’s Honor’ really add a great deminension to Miles’s own life . Just as we boomers grew up with the tales of the wartime exploits of our parents, we get to see Miles’ parents exploits up-close. And speaking of heros: I would love to see Bujold revisit and expand on Cordelia’s exploits. I think the two books that make up Cordelia’s Honor: ‘Shards of Honor’ and “Barryar’ are excellent books and unique in my experience in presenting a three dimensional heroine such a Cordelia who portrayed as so brave but is presented as having realistic fears in the moments of her bravery. (Take that Vordarian!)

  10. Rumors are confirmed: LMB read two segments from “the Ivan book” on her author tour and mentioned she was quite a few chapters in when it stalled out and she moved on to Cryoburn, so hopefully it won’t be too long before it’s complete. And Byerly is guest-starring. Yeah!

  11. It is getting more and more difficult to determine the qualities of a ‘hero’. More often than not, the ones with the muscles/superpowers/both and drop-dead-gorgeous-appearance are revered as heroes. Occasionally, they are stated to be ‘intelligent’, though very few of them actually do anything *show* their intelligence.

    Nowadays, most of the girls of the younger generation seem to adore the anti-heroes; characters who often go through a cycle of good-turned-bad-turned-good-then-died (the last point doesn’t always happen, of course). Characters such as Snape (HP), Jacob (Twilight), and some others whom I can’t really remember at the moment. Listening to them rant about how misunderstood anti-heroes are… sometimes it gets on my nerves. Especially if said anti-heroes don’t really contribute much, and just stand around giving angst.

    Now you’ve got me interested in Miles…. *_*

  12. Daidero: even though Miles isn’t in that first book, Cordelia’s Honor I suggest you begin there.

    Yes, the angsty mis-understood heroic villain, or villainish hero . . . Lord Byron understood that quite well.

  13. Recently, I’ve been yearning for the really old-fashioned kind of hero. The one who was the Head Boy of the Boarding school and looked out for the younger kids instead of tormenting them. Or the Captain of the football team who was as nice as he was strong and who made sure that the nasty kid got his comeuppance.

  14. There is a perennial difficulty in writing good but interesting characters. C.S. Lewis pointed out how much more interesting and fun Satan is, in PARADISE LOST, than the Heavenly Hosts.


  15. I think throughout his books one of the Miles’s dictums is: “It isn’t how much force you use, it’s how it is applied.” Which I think is directly from Echos Children filk but may also be in an earlier book. A real departure from the hero-of-brawn.

    Thanks for posting about Miles.

  16. Elsewhere, someone pointed out that this book ends with Miles assuming his hereditary name/title. The entire series began, over in WARRIORS APPRENTICE, with his angst about -not- having the ancient and proper names inherited from his grandfathers. So there’s a symmetry through the entire series that may well indicate that this is the end — at least of Miles’ segment.

  17. What really got me about Cryoburn was the end: both fun to see drabbles in a Real Book, when I’m used to them online, and also fun to see how in the Vorkosigan universe everyone has protagonist potential – as real-seeming characters should. Gregor’s drabble at the end made me cry, and made me think about both Gregor-as-hero and Aral-as-hero, though neither of them ever were protagonists.

  18. The ending of Cryoburn “proper” (aside from the drabbles) was a total surprise for me and hit me like a punch in the chest, so that I didn’t really take in the drabbles until I read them again, later — except for Gregor’s: “The man carried me for 35 years.”

    Viceroy-Prime Minister-Regent-Admiral (did I leave anything out?) Count Aral Vorkosigan: you grow good sons. Barrayar is in their good hands.