Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Monday, August 25, 2014

TITLE: Ethan of Athos
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 256

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: Off-shoot of the Vorkosigan series - it comes after Cetaganda, chronologically.

Our hero is a quiet, upstanding citizen of Athos, an obstetrician in a world in which reproduction is carried out entirely via uterine replicator, without the aid of living women. Problem: the 200-year-old cultures are not providing eggs the way they used to, and attempts to order replacements by mail have failed catastrophically. But when Ethan is sent to find out what happened and acquire more eggs, he finds himself in a morass of Cetagandan covert ops and Jackson Whole politics - and the only person who's around to rescue him is the inimitable - and, disturbingly, female - Elli Quinn, Dendarii rent-a-spy.

This one is a bit of an off-shoot from the main Vorkosigan series. It's set in the same universe, and we recognise a couple of characters, but Miles shows up in name only.

Ethan Urquhart lives in Athos, a planet on which no woman has ever set foot. Reproduction there is a very serious matter, and Ethan is an obstetrician and head of a reproductive centre. As such, he's aware that Athos is in a very risky position: the ovarian cultures they depend on to create new babies are getting very old and deteriorating at a fast rate. Before long, they won't be usable at all.

No matter! The ruling council of Athos have decided to devote a big chunk of the planet's meagre foreign reserves (they're a VERY remote planet, and they don't produce much that other planets want to buy) to buy new cultures, and the parcel has just arrived. Ethan unwraps it with much anticipation, only to realise they've been cheated. The shipment is full of useless bits and pieces, not the supposedly high-quality ovarian cultures they'd ordered.

Something needs to be done, and clearly middlemen can't be trusted. It somehow falls to Ethan to do what's necessary. He's to take the remaining foreign reserves and go off-planet to make sure they get the cultures. It will be tough to be in environments where he must come into contact with... *shudder*... women, but someone has to do it.

Problems start as soon as Ethan gets to the nearest travel hub, Kline space station. A party of Cetagandans spies are convinced that Ethan has something they've been looking for, and it's all somehow connected to the faulty cultures sent to Athos. Fortunately for Ethan, who's a bit of a babe in the woods, Elli Quinn is there. Readers of the previous books will remember her as the mercenary who got her face burnt off in The Warrior's Apprentice. Well, her much-admired Admiral Naismith made sure she got a new face (and she delights in using it to freak out people who knew her before), and she's still part of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. She's on Kline Station on an intelligence mission, investigating why the Cetagandans destroyed the biotech labs which produced the order meant for Athos and trying to find out what it is they're after. Ethan is her best bet at finding out, so she rescues him when she finds him in desperate trouble and convinces him to co-operate with her to find out what's going on.

There were things here I liked. Elli is a great character. I believe she has a larger role in future books, and that makes me happy. She's competent and intelligent and has a wry, dry sense of humour. I also liked the plot. It's a bit convoluted, but that's par for the course for Bujold. Everything clicks at the end, which feels satisfying. Finally, I also really liked the setting. Bujold has some interesting points about what it would take to run a massive space-station on a permanent basis, and there are some really interesting touches, like the complete obsession with sanitary precautions and ensuring nothing contaminates or destabilises the very delicate balance of the station's ecosystem. Best of all, this element of the world-building plays an important role in the plot.

However, there were also elements that didn't work for me at all, and those were quite crucial. They were all related to Ethan and his world.

First of all, Ethan. He just didn't gel as a character. He's supposed to be a man from a planet where not only are there no women, they are considered dangerous and treacherous. He's never seen a live one in his life, and images of women are censored. On the first scene, we even see him hesitating to use the "w word" in a professional conversation, even though, he assures himself, it's the correct scientific term. And yet, apart from a little bit of shyness at the beginning and some minor mistrust of Elli Quinn (which really, anyone in his situation would have felt, since he can't be sure of what her agenda is), he has absolutely no trouble interacting with women. I didn't buy it for a minute.

Then I had issues with Athos itself. It's basically a planet full of mysoginists, a bunch of men with the sort of medieval mindsets that see women as dangerous and evil and out to ensnare and control men. Bah! I feel uncomfortable with a narrative that asks me to root for them to be able to continue with their life as it is. It could be argued they're not doing any harm, but I'm unconvinced. What about men who are heterosexual and are forced, just because of the place they are born, to never meet a woman? Also, Bujold seems to be proposing homosexuality to be just something you drift into if there are no other options... a choice, basically. This is contrary to evidence (although maybe in 1986, when the book was written, that wasn't so clear), and if you follow down the obvious logical path it implies that homosexuality can be "cured", which is an idea that has caused huge amounts of suffering.

I was also very uncomfortable with Ethan's choice at the end. This is a spoiler, so let me leave some space:








Turns out the suspense plot hinges around a young man who is a product of Cetagandan genetic manipulation. He is a telepath, and the Cetagandans are desperate for his genes, so they can create more. The man started all the mess by bribing the biotech lab preparing the cultures for the Athosians into inserting telepath genes into all the cultures, which would mean that Athos would be come wholly populated by telepaths within a couple of generations.

Ethan finds this out, and then right at the end, quite in love with the young man, he chooses to switch the new cultures he bought and use the original ones, with the telepath gene. This he does without consulting anyone, just because he feels if he takes it to the Council, the decision would be split and no one would act. Hell, no! No consideration at all for the privacy of those who would not be telepaths in the first few generations but who'd have their minds read, none for the future children who'd be born with the capacity to read minds and whether this is a good thing, no thinking at all about whether he has any right to make that decision. No, no, no, no.

I really can't believe Bujold, who's usually pretty thoughful about this sort of ethical consideration, just threw it in at the end, almost as an afterthought. It's a huge thing and it deserved a lot more development.



Kaetrin 31 August 2014 at 03:13  

Great to see another perspective on this one. Thx! :)

Merrian 4 September 2014 at 08:04  

My feelings about this book are close to yours Rosario, I think (just said this on Kaetrin's post too). The more I consider EoA after reading the more (for me) the issues get in the way of the story. I think Athos as a place and culture suggests the emergent point of EoA as being that our sexuality is culturally and socially constructed and enforced and that whatever the dominant culture wants/believes has to be lumped, like it or not. Even though this is a great Elli story the misogyny of Athos isn't called out in the way that Barrayar's is. I was thinking that EoA is in fact a clearly 20th century book. I don't think it would or could be written that way in 2014. And I completely agree about the ethics of using the telepathic cultured genes without consent. I can imagine people thinking they are going mad and the implications for relationships are potentially awful.

Rosario 4 September 2014 at 08:13  

Yes, I think you're completely right about this being very much a book of its time (huh, almost 30 years ago, hadn't quite realised). With most authors, I'd probably just shrug and understand that and not feel particularly disappointed. I just can't do that with Bujold. As you say, she has a good track record (in even earlier books) of questioning some of the problematic elements and calling them out. This just felt thoughtless.

Bona Caballero 27 February 2016 at 04:06  

I've just finished reading this book. I don't know when my review is going to be posted. I think it's the first Vorkosigan book that I enjoyed more that you, although I had this very uncomfortable feeling about Athos planet and I just couldn't connect with Ethan. After reading your review I understood my own feelings better. It's not just a planet full of gay men -that could have been a good utopia, I think-, but a planet full of women-haters.

Rosario 27 February 2016 at 09:11  

Bona: At least it's one I can pretend is not part of the series :) I look forward to reading your review, whenever it's published!

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