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Aral Vorkosigan is a fictional character from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga series. Known throughout this science fiction universe as “The Butcher of Komarr,” he dominates the imagination of the two main point-of-view characters in the Vorkosigan Saga, Cordelia (in Shards of Honor and Barrayar), who becomes his wife, and their son Miles. He appears, at least briefly or as an important if absent figure, in all the novels of the series except Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos, and Falling Free. He also provides the narrative framework for the presentation of three short stories in Borders of Infinity.
Near the end of the series, he is considered on his native planet, Barrayar, “a colossus bestriding the last half-century of Barrayaran history” (“Winterfair Gifts”). His full title as of the end of Diplomatic Immunity is "Admiral Viceroy Count Aral Vorkosigan, Former Regent and Prime Minister of Barrayar." From the age of 11 until he is 44, his role is primarily military and expansionist; from 45 to 75, he dominates planetary politics; for the remaining years of his life, he and Cordelia administer the Barrayaran colony on the planet Sergyar, where they first met. He is depicted as a man of great integrity, an honest politician, a warrior who values human lives, and an egalitarian aristocrat.
Aral is described as being below average height, stocky and not particularly handsome, but projecting an aura of power and authority. The author of the novels has likened him to the actor Oliver Reed before he succumbed to alcohol.
Aral’s early life (before the age of 44) is known primarily from his confessions to Cordelia in Shards of Honor. The narrative assumption is that he always tells her the truth.
Aral is the son of Count Piotr Vorkosigan, 10th count of the backwoods Dendarii district, and Princess Olivia Vorbarra, grand-daughter of a Barrayaran emperor. Aral’s paternal grandmother was a Vorrutyer; his maternal grandmother was from Beta Colony. Count Piotr and his wife had three children; Aral was the second of two sons.
When Aral was 11 years old, his siblings, his mother, and most of his cousins were massacred by the ruling emperor “Mad Yuri” Vorbarra; Aral tried to defend his mother with a dinner knife. Count Piotr led a military party which deposed Yuri, installing Ezar Vorbarra as the emperor in his place. Yuri was executed by being stabbed to death and dismembered, with Aral having the privilege of wielding the knife first. Because of the massacre, Aral is one of the few surviving descendants of the Imperial line, with a possible claim on the throne through his mother (though Barrayar does not recognize descent through the female line).
At the age of 20, Aral married a cousin from the Vorrutyer family (A Civil Campaign, ch. 3), an arranged marriage. That they loved each other is suggested by some drawings he made of her (Shards of Honor, ch. 15), but they had no children. During his absences from the capital she took two lovers. Ges Vorrutyer, a fellow lieutenant who was in love with Aral, told Aral (Shards of Honor, ch. 7), and Aral challenged both men to illegal duels. Aral killed them, but escaped charges because it was assumed the two had killed each other. His wife died, either a suicide or murder by Count Piotr, though Aral was rumored to have slain her to avenge his honor (A Civil Campaign, ch. 15). Aral then began to drink a lot and entered, or possibly was already involved in, a passionate affair with Ges Vorrutyer. Eventually Aral seems to have broken off the affair (Barrayar, ch. 3, and several references in Shards of Honor).
At age 44, at the beginning of the novels, Aral meets and falls in love with the Betan Survey captain Cordelia Naismith. According to her analysis, she provides a “solution” to his bisexuality, being both a woman and a soldier (Barrayar, ch. 5, repeated in Mirror Dance, ch. 16). They marry and have a child, Miles, who is physically handicapped as a result of exposure to a teratogen. Count Piotr attempts both abortion and infanticide of this imperfect heir, and Aral becomes estranged from his father until Miles is able to walk, at about the age of 5. Aral and Cordelia are otherwise childless until, in Mirror Dance, they discover Mark, a clone of Miles created when Miles was about six years old. They acknowledge Mark as their son and, for a short time when Miles is MIA, the heir to the title of Count. By the time Aral dies, around 83 years old, he has four grandchildren, all Miles's children (Cryoburn).
Two other children are fostered by Aral and Cordelia. Elena Bothari is the daughter of Sergeant Bothari and an Escobaran woman he raped, brought back in a uterine replicator to Barrayar after the Escobar fiasco. Elena ends up marrying and settling in another planetary system. Gregor Vorbarra is the orphaned Emperor, educated by Aral and Cordelia, who live at the Imperial Residence during their estrangement from Count Piotr, during the period when Gregor is 5 to 10 years old. At Gregor's wedding, Cordelia and Aral stand in place of Gregor's parents. At Aral's interment at Vorkosigan Surleau, Gregor insists on having a place as one of the pallbearers "The man has carried me since I was five years old." "It's my turn" (Cryoburn, Aftermaths).
Aral received his first military commission at the age of 18, and by 36 was the youngest admiral in Barrayaran history. A master strategist and tactician, he planned the conquest of Komarr, the only inhabited planet at the other end of the only wormhole access to Barrayar. His goal was to impose Barrayaran power with a minimum of fighting, and his description of the conquest became a required text for galactic military schools. However, one of his officers ordered a massacre of a large group of Komarran leaders being held together, protected by Aral’s word; this was the infamous Solstice Massacre. Without waiting for a court-martial, Aral personally executed the officer. For this act, he was demoted to Captain. On Komarr and elsewhere, it was assumed that he killed the officer in order to conceal the fact that he or the Emperor had ordered the massacre, however, resulting in his legendary reputation as "the Butcher of Komarr" and an enduring ill-will expressed in a revolt 10 years later, an assassination plot (Brothers in Arms), and an attempt by Komarrans to close Barrayar's wormhole Komarr). After his demotion, Aral spent a period at the arctic base on Kyril Island, drinking heavily, and then was given a ship to command, known as “the Leper Colony” because of the rough nature of its crew. True to its name, the crew mutinies, at the beginning of Shards of Honor.
Aral is still part of the highest political and military discussions. Emperor Ezar and his chief of security, Captain Negri, plan a glorious death for Ezar’s sadistic son Serg, who will die leading a hopeless expedition to conquer the rich planet Escobar. Aral is horrified, but participates in order to minimize deaths and damage. The staging camp for the attack is the uninhabited planet which will eventually be named Sergyar, where he meets Cordelia. She becomes an important factor in the brevity of the war, both by conveying to Beta and Escobar details of the coming assault and as captain of a Betan ship escorting a secret defensive weapon to Escobar. Aral is aware of all this and takes it into his calculations in planning the retreat. After the retreat he is immediately restored to the rank of admiral and put in charge of the prisoner exchange. He then retires from the military.
Emperor Ezar dies, leaving Aral (now married to Cordelia) as regent for Ezar’s 5-year-old grandson Gregor Vorbarra. Aral’s first decision as regent is disastrous: the execution of young Carl Vorhalas for dueling. Carl’s brother seeks vengeance through a poison gas attack, which deforms the fetus Miles. Count Vordarian then leads an uprising, attempting to install himself as Gregor’s protector and then replacement; while Aral organizes the military response, Cordelia has Vordarian beheaded and ends the “Pretendership.”
Aral’s later regency is skipped over by the novels. There are attempts at invasion by Cetaganda and at rebellion by Komarr, both of which he puts down. We are given to understand that he reforms the military, imports and encourages the use of new technology, and generally attempts to introduce humane, rational, and egalitarian principles in Barrayaran society.
When Aral is in his early 60s, Gregor comes of age as Emperor, with Aral continuing in power as his Prime Minister and leader of the "Centrist Coalition." A year or so later, Aral’s father dies and Aral becomes the 11th Count Vorkosigan, with local duties. Aral continues for another decade in unbroken power except for brief periods when his son Miles’s adventures arouse accusations of conspiracy.
In his early 70s, Aral considers retirement from public life, and is forced by a cardiac event to give up his position as Prime Minister (Mirror Dance). At that point (Memory), the Emperor is planning Aral's son Miles’s military career on-planet, but Miles's own problems end his military career and confine him to Barrayar. Miles becomes his father's proxy in the Council of Counts. Emperor Gregor appoints Aral and Cordelia co-viceregents of the planet Sergyar, which is being colonized by Barryar and terraformed. Aral still holds this position when he dies, at the end of Cryoburn.
Aral first appears in Shards of Honor as a dark romantic hero, already 44 years old and richly experienced, both violent and sexual. He is not tall and not handsome, but he is physically powerful, charismatic, and brilliant. Passionate and high-minded, he is tormented by memories of those he has killed (or not killed) defending his honor. Cordelia loves him, it seems, because of his painful regrets and his agonized desire to transcend the code which prescribed his crimes. At his death (Cryoburn Aftermaths), she comments that he should not be frozen to await revival, but be allowed release from painful memories.
Aral finds in Cordelia someone to whom he can confess his worst memories. She offers him a different vision of honor, which does not require bloodshed but is devoted to the protection of the living, such as her brain-damaged Ensign Dubauer and the seventeen fetuses conceived by the Barrayaran military on female prisoners of war. In Mirror Dance, when he thinks he is dying, Aral attempts to offer his clone-son Mark some last words: “All true wealth is biological” (ch. 15, recalled by Mark in ch. 33).
Aral’s son Miles represents both his greatest moral challenge and his redemption. Barrayaran policy towards crippled offspring is abortion or infanticide. With Cordelia, Aral accepts Miles and encourages him to develop military and personal ambitions. Aral’s political career is in part directed towards reforming society so that it will accept Miles as Count Vorkosigan. In the short story “The Mountains of Mourning,” Miles must judge a case involving backwoods infanticide of a child with cleft lip and palate. This case echoes Aral’s first major decision during his Regency, whether to pardon a young man who had killed another in the traditional but outlawed practice of the duel (Barrayar, ch. 7). Aral’s decision in that case—to execute the boy as an example—contrasts with Miles’s decision; the latter is able to devise a bloodless punishment for the infanticide, breaking the cycles of bloodshed and vengeance.
- Some thoughts on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Aral Vorkosigan, essay by Jo Walton, 2010