Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Ethan of Athos, Chapters 6-8

In any given moment, in any given story, what we’re reading is about the past, the time the story was written, or the present. And likewise, at any given moment, we’re learning about the setting, the characters, the plot, or ourselves. There are some interesting learning moments in store for the Vorkosigan reread this week. For example, everyone on Kline Station really does eat a lot of newt. Elli wasn’t making that up.

This reread has an index, which you can consult at will, should you feel the urge. We’re covering books in reading order, so Ethan is the seventh book, rather than the third. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the worth and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.

Before he locks himself away, Ethan has some drinks with Elli and discusses the current situation, which involves something very strange going on with Athos’s order for ovarian cultures. I’m not sure what to make of Elli putting something in Ethan’s beer. Important plot revelation 1: House Bharaputra put more time and effort into fulfilling Athos’s order than were required by the goods Athos ordered, and far more time and effort than were required by the goods Athos actually received. Important plot revelation 2: The Cetagandans are VERY interested in that order (although we know they are not into frozen cow ovaries, and were not reassured by Ethan’s recitation of the inventory). Once Elli goes out (leaving the door unlocked—Ethan is not a prisoner, and Elli is not a prison guard) Ethan is left to his own devices.

Because Ethan is stuck in it, Elli Quinn’s hotel room functions as a cell. It has a room service console and a bathroom and stuff, and the sanitary facilities are actually usable (the cannister of dead guy has been disposed of). So it’s not an unpleasant cell, all things considered. We’re seven books into the series, and we are on, at least, the eighth time that a character is locked in a cell. Miles and Cordelia are the most frequent victims. It’s what Bujold does to characters when she wants them to think about what they’ve done. It’s a gift to reread bloggers really. So often you have to figure out what a character is thinking by what they do; It’s rare that they sit down and complete a series of paper-and-pencil psychological inventories.

Ethan is recovering from significant physical trauma and exhaustion, so he mostly hangs out in her quarters and sleeps. Ethan and Quinn do not have sex, for which I am eternally grateful, not because I hate sex scenes (although I am very picky) but because it would be completely out of character for both of them, and because I don’t want to read the story of how an obstetrician discovered girls. In between naps, Ethan reads; Our Dr. Urquhardt has come to the conclusion that reading obstetrical journals with the names left off was poor preparation for the realities he is facing in the field. This is typical for him—Ethan is super-introspective, and likes problems that can be solved by learning and knowing things. He has some social skill deficits as a result of his cultural background, and these are currently aggravated by his trauma-induced anxiety. He also (“accidentally”) views a romantic holodrama (Love’s Savage Star—great title!) featuring a relationship that he finds puzzling. Ethan finds all heterosexual romantic relationships puzzling. Love’s Savage Star does seem to be a bizarre and melodramatic work, but I’m surprised that Ethan is puzzled—Ethan is, after all, loyal to Janos, an unemployed younger man who has difficulties with alcohol and impulse control and can’t pick up after himself. I have not seen a picture of Janos, but I feel certain that he possesses some physical characteristic that might be considered analogous to Quinn’s mammary hypertrophy, were the clothing ripped from it. Possibly, we have just learned that Ethan is in denial about some aspects of the differences between his own experience and the experiences of others. Alternately, Love’s Savage Star might be weirder than I have accounted for.

Concerned that the evil associated with Quinn’s womanly nature will be infecting him soon, and aggravated by his extended period of mostly-solitary confinement, Ethan picks a fight and storms out of Quinn’s hostel. This initially seems to be a mistake—he’s spotted by the Cetagandans within minutes, and they try to shoot him. But it’s also a good thing; If there’s one thing we learned from Cetaganda it’s that if you don’t go anywhere, you don’t meet up with your contacts. Ethan finally meets Terrance, the source of all his troubles, and Terrance requests asylum. Ethan has only an ambassador’s title, and not the resources of an embassy, but he grants Terrence’s request anyway, and then they go have a chat about Terrance being a Cetagandan military project and having an additional organ in his brain that senses thoughts (but only under the influence of tyramine), and about Terrence’s beloved Janine. Long story short, Terrance escaped from the Cetagandans and tried to put Janine’s ovaries into Athos’s order for ovarian cultures, and now the Cetagandans want him (and Janine’s ovaries) back. Ethan is delighted by Terrence’s talents, because of their potential for working with preverbal patients and stroke survivors. A few of last week’s commenters saw this as a call-back to his interrogation by the Cetagandans—when they asked if he was a doctor, he asked where it hurt. I also see this as a call-back to Ethan’s examination of Elli’s regenerated face after he learns that she survived a plasma burn.

What’s next for Terrance? Elli shows up and tries to recruit him to the Dendarii. And then Elli realizes that the only way to activate his mind-reading powers is to get him drunk. The Cetagandans are monitoring the pharmacies, so they can’t just buy a bunch of tyramine tablets. I think there are several advantages to psychic powers that have to be activated by chocolate, wine, and cheese. Not weight loss. Other advantages.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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