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?


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