Mountains of Mourning, The by Bujold, Lois McMaster, 1989

Mountains of Mourning, The by Bujold, Lois McMaster - Book cover from

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Another relatively new foray for me in SF are the novels and stories of Lois McMaster Bujold, particularly the Vorkosigan saga. I stayed away from it for so long because it won so many awards, including multiple Hugo Awards for best novels. For some reason - for which I have no explanation - my instincts have always told me that works that have so much popular appeal usually suck, but with these books I have been pleasantly surprised. This book won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. Bujold seems to be using each book to explore different literary themes and genres, though all of them are rooted in an SF tradition. This book, The Mountains of Mourning, is a long SF novella with mystery elements to it. It is very deep and has quite a bit to say about a number of socially relevant topics.

The Mountains of Mourning is set on the planet Barrayar approximately 1,000 or so years in the future. Barrayar was an early Earth colonization and terraform project that was stopped abruptly when the wormhole that provided access to Earth suddenly closed. With access to Earth totally cut off, all of the scientists that were busy making Barrayar ready for human settlement stopped doing their jobs and refocused their efforts on survival. Many plant and animal stocks had been moved to Barrayar from Earth by that time, as Barrayarian plants and animals were inedible. Since those terrestrial materials had no natural predators at all they dominated the Barrayarian environment, and without scientists to restrain the manner in which they spread, they killed most of the natural Barrayarian life. This led to massive deforestation and erosion, and caused a major environmental crash that almost wiped out all life on Barrayar. At the time of the telling of Bujold's tales a new wormhole had been discovered that gave access to Earth and trade had resumed, though Barrayar was considered by many to be a back-water dump. Prior to the resumption of contact Barrayar had worked its way back up to a late iron-age technology, and had developed an imperial form of government. Since trade with the rest of the galaxy resumed Barrayar was been flooded with high tech, causing some social disorder.

Barrayar was also at odds culturally with the rest of the galaxy, and in this book the difference that was at issue was the treatment of mutants, a unique underclass on Barrayar. Barrayar was slightly more radioactive than Earth, and as a result more children than normal were born with congenital defects. During the "Time of Isolation," when survival was not a foregone conclusion, the practice of aborting mutant fetus and/or the murder of the infants after birth had become necessary for the survival of the family. But the Barrayarian government started taking steps to normalize Barrayarian culture once contact was resumed, and as a result this practice was declared illegal. The murder of mutant children was the central issue in this book. A woman from a distant village called Silvy Vale trekked to the capital city of Vorkosigan Surleau. Her village administrator refused to investigate the murder of her infant, who was born with a hare-lip and a cleft palate. She believed that her husband, Lem, murdered the child, thinking that it was a mutant. The planetary governor, the Count, dispatched his son Miles to investigate, to try, and if necessary to execute the criminal. Miles himself was a product of the new, more lenient policy. He suffered from a disabling congenital disability that has shortened his legs and weakened them significantly. He was obviously a mutant, and even though he would one day rule Barrayar, he was the subject of scorn and ridicule.

The book is broken up into four parts. In the first, the woman traveled to the Count to ask for help. In the second Miles returned to Silvy Vale to look for Lem. Most of the locals became convinced that Miles was up to no good, and would either execute lem without properly investigating the claims against him, or worse was sent there only for a dog-and-pony show and would execute Lem summarially to “send a message” than infanticide would no longer be tolerated. Although Miles did his best to tell the locals that he will not prejudge the man, it was obvious that he had prejudged the culture that produced him; at least until the doctor who has been assigned to travel with him reminded him who his audience was:

“These hill-folk are ignorant, lord,” offered Pym after a moment.

“These hill-folk are mine, Pym. Their ignorance is…a shame upon my house.” Miles brooded. How had this whole mess become his anyway? He hadn’t created it. Historically, he’d only just got there himself. “Their continued ignorance, anyway,” he amended in fairness. It still made a burden like a mountain. “Is the message so complex? So difficult? ‘You don’t have to kill your children anymore.’ It’s not like we’re asking them all to learn 5-space navigation math.” That had been the plague of Miles' last Academy semester.

“It’s not easy for them,” suggested Dea. “It’s easy for the central authorities to make the rules, but these people have to live every minute of the consequences. They have so little, and the new rules force them to give their margin to marginal people who can’t pay back. The old ways were wise, in the old days. Even now you have to wonder how many premature reforms we can afford, trying to ape the galactics.”

And what’s your definition of a marginal person, Dea? “But the margin is growing,” Miles said aloud. “Places like this aren’t up against famine every winter any more. They’re not isolated in their disasters, relief can get from one district to another under the Imperial seal…we’re all getting more connected, just as fast as we can. Besides,” Miles paused and added rather weakly, “perhaps you underestimate them.”

Dea’s brows rose ironically...

Bujold did bite off quite a bit with this book, but in the end she expertly tied up all the loose ends, and brought the story back to home very well. Miles solved the mystery in a Sherlock Holmes kind of way, and renderd one of the wisest, most profound punishments that anyone under the circumstances could have come up with. But long before reaching that resolution, Bujold tackled some much larger issues that infanticide - namely prejudices against the disabled, capital punishment and class distinctions - and dealt with those just as excellently.

The only real problem that I found with this book was that Bujold never dealt with the perception that Miles was sent to exact revenge, rather than do justice, or merely “put on a show,” as he was accused of several times. Sending a mutant to execute the murderer of another mutant does smack of revenge, and even though Miles rendered a very even handed and wise punishment to the killer, nobody realized beforehand that this may have been the motivation for sending Miles in the first place. The belief was that Miles was sent to do the Crown's bidding, but there was a more obvious personal element to sending Miles that I really read nothing about. But other than that, this book is virtually perfect, and suffers from no problems at all. I have read a few others of Bujold’s books, and I can pretty easily say that you will be hearing more from me about them. Give this entire series a try.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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