Apr 2 2009 11:44am

Quest for Ovaries: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos

Ethan of Athos is Lois McMaster Bujold’s third published novel and the third book in the Vorkosigan saga. It’s absolutely nothing like the other two. Athos is a planet where, like Mount Athos in Greece, women are not allowed. Ethan is an obstetrician there, before he gets sent on a mission to the wider galaxy to bring back new ovarian cultures. There he meets the mercenary Elli Quinn, who upsets all his ideas about women, and becomes involved in a complicated plot involving two sets of interstellar thugs (from Cetaganda and Jackson’s Whole), a telepath, and the whole future of his planet.

The thing that makes this good is Ethan’s unruffled innocence; the charming utopian Athos, where you have to earn social duty credits to be entitled to a son; the quiet acceptance of homosexuality as the norm on Athos (there is no actual onstage sex in the book); the ecologically obsessed Kline Station; and the fast-paced plot that doesn’t give you time to think.

My favourite moment is when Terrence Cee reveals himself as a telepath to Ethan:

“If you truly possess such a talent it would seem a shame not to use it. I mean, one can see the applications right away.”

“Can’t one, though,” muttered Cee bitterly.

“Look at pediatric medicine—what a disgnostic aid for pre-verbal patients! Babies who can’t answer Where does it hurt? What does it feel like? Or for stroke victims, or those paralysed in accidents who have lost all ability to communicate, trapped in their bodies. God the Father!” Ethan’s enthusiasm mounted. “You could be an absolute savior!”

Terrence Cee sat down rather heavily. His eyes widened in wonder, narrowed in suspicion. “I’m more often viewed as a menace. No one I’ve met who knew my secret ever suggested any use for me but espionage.”

“Well—were they espionage agents themselves?”

“Now that you mention it, yes for the most part.”

“So there you are. They see you as what they would be, given your gift.”

It’s interesting that Athos is a Planet of Men, because it’s the only one I know of, and I can think of quite a few examples of Planets of Women. (Russ’s Whileaway, Griffith’s Ammonite) and others of Women and Men Live Apart (Sargent’s Shore of Women, Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, Brin’s Glory Season). I couldn’t have imagined what a feminist notion a planet of men is, and how tied up with nurturing children Athos is, accounting for the costs in a way that doesn’t dismiss it as “women’s work.” In the end Ethan comes to realise that Athos has mothers too, or at least ovarian donors.

Elli Quinn, who was a very minor character in The Warrior’s Apprentice but who will be important in the series later, is the only repeating character in this book. Other things that will later become important are the Cetagandans and (especially!) House Bharaputra of Jackson’s Whole. Barrayar is barely mentioned. The name Vorkosigan is not mentioned. And in the rest of the series, the things that are so important here are barely mentioned. Kline Station is never revisited; neither is Athos, and they’re barely mentioned again. Terran-C is mentioned once briefly in one of the stories in Borders of Infinity. It’s possible that Bujold is planning to revisit the planet of peaceful gay guys in a few generations when they’re all telepaths, but so far she has done no more with it. So it’s perfectly possible to see this book as a detachable appendix to the series, like Falling Free. But it was written immediately after the first two books, and published immediately after them. It was as if Bujold had three tries at starting the series. She began it with Cordelia, again with Miles, and then a third time with Ethan and Elli before settling down to write a lot more about Miles. Was she waiting to see what people wanted? Or was it just that she had a lot of different interesting ideas and working them out within the context of one universe gave her a solid base of history and geography to go on from?

Joanna Slupek
1. Spriggana
Actually, in "Cetaganda" Miles hears general Millisor talking to haut Rian about tracking the lost L-X-10-Terran-C to Jackson's Whole and memorizes it as a distraction for Simon Illian. :-)
2. gollywog
Maybe these different characters and places were stories that were floating around in Bujold's head and she managed to incorporate them into the same universe. Perhaps Miles was the strongest character and wouldn't leave her alone until she wrote him out. The idea of Athos is interesting but in the context Bujold used it, it maybe didn't lead to a lot of other stories.

I live with a character very similar to Miles both in body and in mind. My husband has very similar bone and body problems yet his "life force" is strong, very hard to ignore. He hasn't tried yet to take over any armies or planets but I can very well imagine running along behind him and ducking a lot. Perhaps Bujold has such a character in her life too.

Do writers of such stories plan them coldly? Or are they pests that demand attention? Whichever, I'm sure happy to read them.
3. JoeNotCharles
This is also the site of one of the few "better ideas" I've spotted in the series: "Luigi Bharaputra and Sons" has a very different tone to the agents of "Vasa Luigi, Baron Bharaputra" we see later.
4. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho
Another example of a Planet of Men story is A. Bertram Chandler's "Spartan Planet".
5. Bradford DeLong
There are a couple of other mentions of people who are working on the telepathy gene as well--"How are you enjoying your new identity, Admiral Naismith?" from "Memory," for example...
6. carbonel
IIRC, another planet of men, albeit a very unfortunate one, is found in Cordwainer Smith's "The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal."
C.D. Thomas
7. cdthomas
I was going to mention the gloriously horrid Dr. Astarte Kraus, but I'm glad you beat me to it.

And I mourn man!
Naomi Libicki
8. AetherealGirl
The thing that I find very familiar about Athos, living in Israel as I do, is the way that the self-image of the planet is tied up in its being the last refuge of a minority which is persecuted everywhere else in the nexus. Whatever the reality actually is elsewhere, the Athosians believe that the wider wormhole nexus is a dangerous place for men, and genuinely wonder why they don't get more immigrants.

But what Terrence and Ethan do is turn this false belief that Athosians have about themselves into a true one: Within a couple of generations, Athos really will be a planet where a minority which is persecuted and enslaved wherever else it's found (assuming that Elli and Terrence's dark suppositions about the plans of various governments come to pass) can live on their own terms, independently and in peace.

And if in the future there are telepaths who are persecuted and enslaved and so on, they will come to Athos. And Athos, on the one hand, will be happy to have them (at least the male ones) -- it will mean finally fulfilling the purpose for which Athos was founded. On the other hand, Athos won't be remotely equipped to handle them.

I suspect that this situation was a deliberate setup for a sequel or series of sequels; unfortunately I suspect the reason they haven't been written is because somewhere along the way Bujold decided she wasn't actually interested in telling that story. Which is a shame because I'd be interested in reading it.
Nicholas Alcock
9. NullNix
Yet another 'planet of women' story, perhaps the first: _Virgin Planet_ by Poul Anderson. Not one of his best, but not bad (I'm not sure Anderson was capable of telling a bad story).

Definitely crushed by _The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal_, though. (But, of course, that story isn't true.)
10. WilliamB
About the question why are there so few stories about Planets of Men:

Tom Toles wrote a cartoon circa 1992. A man asks a woman about her pin, which promotes a political party for women. "What if," he asks "I started a political party just for men?" Her retort is "What, another one?"

SF is like that. In many SF books one can count the number of female characters on one hand. Female leads are quite rare. The older the SF book, the more likely this is to be true. So a world that includes a planet of men is largely redundant.

I'm pleased to see this changing. There are more female characters in SF, more significant female characters, more female leads. Perhaps someday soon a planet of men will be unusual and interesting instead of the norm.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
WilliamB: I don't think that's the case. I mean yes, there are lots of stories where the female characters are only there as rewards and scenery, and lots of planets too, but there are very few where they are notably absent. In Ethan of Athos it's the shape of their absence that the society is built around.
12. WilliamB
It is true that even the books with no women onstage, are placed in societies that have women. So from the perspective of EoA, I agree with you.

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