Life, death, and cryofreezing

Cryoburn - Lois McMaster Bujold

When I first read this sci-fi novel in 2010, I didn’t like it. Now, on re-reading, I don’t know why it didn’t work for me then. This time, I loved it. As I read, I looked at the growing page count with dismay. I didn’t want it to end. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple of months.

Its science fiction aspect is not of the space exploration, nor are there any heated battles between robots and aliens. This story is much more subtle. The science is of life and death, and it’s threaded through with moral questions. Can we cheat death? Should we pay for it? Is there any one correct answer?  

The action takes place in the Vorkosigan universe, on a planet where the main business is cryofreezing those who don’t wish to die. They pay corporations to freeze them and store their bodies until... That’s the question. Until someone comes up with the secret of eternal youth maybe. Or until the payments stop coming. And then what? Unfreeze and bury? And what are the scams that could be played to outsmart this system? What are the safeguards?

Miles Vorkosigan, the Imperial Auditor extraordinaire, arrives to this planet to find out, but his investigation is swamped with complications. There are a couple of kidnappings and an illegal cryofreezing operation, bribery and orphan children, bioengineered sphinxes and mind-boggling conspiracies. But as always, Miles is undaunted. His cousin, the emperor, has faith in him. When the emperor said, “Here, Miles, you’re better at diving into the privy and coming up with the golden ring than anyone I know. Have a go,” Miles has a go, and beneath his relentless pushing and prodding, the conspiracies disintegrate, and the bad guys are suitably punished.  

Among all those heavy-duty adventures peppered with life and death problems, the plot is galloping at a frenetic pace, but there are also moments of unexpected and uncontrollable laughter. Like her hero Miles, Bujold is undaunted by the complexities of the world she has unleashed on her readers.  

Unfortunately, about 70% in, the pace slows down, the story loses its focus and starts meandering, as if not sure where to go. The two main mysteries Miles confronts don’t collide or even intersect; they run in parallel, diminishing the impact of either, making the plot somewhat muddy.

The ending is also mildly disappointing. The book doesn’t end when the story does. It keeps going – its pages sliding into philosophy, contemplations, and writing experiments.

Despite these minor faults, it’s really a superb novel, even though it is #14 in the series. Most series would’ve been tired by this point, but not Miles or his creator. Their imagination is as rich as ever.