Saturday, 23 March 2013

Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos is an unusual 1986 story from Bujold, in that although it is set in the Vorkosigan universe it doesn't feature her long-term hero Miles. Athos is a remote, agricultural planet with one peculiarity - there are no women. The men who settled Athos had strong religious objections to women, regarding them as evil temptresses, so they took advantage of replicator (artificial womb) technology to produce their (male) children. The problem was, the replicators needed occasional restocking with female genetic material which had to come from off-planet, so when an urgently-needed batch of new material proves to have been switched for useless junk, they are in a crisis.

Ethan is a young doctor, an expert on the replicators, so is sent off-planet in order to find the material required. This is a huge adventure since travel off-planet is normally banned: Ethan has never seen a woman, and even photos of them are highly restricted. He arrives at Kline Station, a vast independent entrepot which gives him the best chance of buying genetic material, only to find himself in the middle of a conflict he doesn't understand, which all seems to be focused on the material which Athos should have received but has gone missing. He is up against ruthless Cetagandan secret agents and only survives with the aid of Elli Quinn, a female mercenary who is also involved in the case. Eventually all is resolved, although in an unexpected fashion.

This is an entertaining tale, well written as usual by Bujold who is a master (or should that be mistress?) story-teller. In some respects, it defies expectations.

WARNING: some spoilers follow.

With Ethan constantly in the company of the beautiful, likeable and resourceful Elli, the story arc seems predictable: Ethan realises that his culture has got it all wrong as far as women are concerned, rejects his backward religion and tumbles into the sack with the willing Elli, before starting a new life well away from the stiflingly parochial Athos. Except that none of this happens, and what he wants from Elli turns out to be rather different. This makes me reflect that Bujold seems to have a soft spot for minorities. Miles is physically handicapped, but overcomes his disadvantages with cleverness and determination. Ethan is homosexual, like everyone else on his planet, and is shown as a likeable if naïve hero who gets a rough time from the repellent homophobes on Kline Station. Even the bizarre Athosian culture is merely described in a matter-of-fact way, without criticism and with only some gentle parody, and it all seems to work well enough for the Athosians.

Ethan isn't unchanged by his experience, however, and does end up doing something rather radical which will have major implications for the future of the people of his planet - but there is no suggestion that they will become anything other than entirely male.


WCG said...

Bujold is much too accomplished to take the story where you might expect, isn't she, Tony? (And that's quite a contrast with the situation in your previous post, about Prometheus. Of course, that's just a movie, and I never expect much from movies.)

I can't say that I find the society on Athos plausible, but I like how Bujold challenges my biases. After all, Elli was so appealing to me (right from her initial appearance in The Warrior's Apprentice). And Athos wouldn't be at all appealing, even if it were co-ed. :)

But it's easy to like Ethan, and I like where the story went. And, as you say, it was certainly entertaining (like everything Bujold writes).

Anthony G Williams said...

Yes indeed - Bujold takes the most unpromising material and turns into an enjoyable read.