Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Ethan of Athos

Here’s the thing about Ethan of Athos; I LOVE IT. It had been a long time since I read it, and I didn’t really remember anything about it in any particular way, so I picked it up last week after I finished writing about Cetaganda, and not too long after that I put it down again because I was done. My only regret about the time in between was that there wasn’t more of it. I do not, at this moment, feel equipped to authoritatively state that this is the most lovable book in the Vorkosigan Saga, but it is definitely a very strong contender.

And I know what you’re thinking right now, blog readers—you’re thinking I like it because Elli Quinn shoots stuff. You’re not wrong. She does shoot stuff. She shoots stuff with stunners, and puts trackers on people, and gets people drunk and she’s fearless and I love her. But I do not love this book for her alone, because Ethan is no slouch either, in the fearlessness department. He’s not what I would call traditionally fearless—he has some fear. But he powers through in the service of things that are more important, even when it gets him smacked around. They’re a good pair. And Terrence doesn’t drag them down—he’s brave and self-sufficient despite being all alone in the universe. Plus also good-looking.

Sadly, Terrence is too good looking for any of the book covers.

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I like most of the covers for the Kindle editions of the Vorkosigan series. This is an exception. I don’t think the faces are well-rendered. The background shade of yellow is one that goes in and out of fashion—I know why it goes out; I’ve never understood why it comes in. But to its credit, the Kindle edition DOES feature a baby. Most covers for Ethan seem to be working overtime to cover up the book’s focus on reproduction.

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Ethan in a manly pose. NO LADY BITS HERE.

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Elli in a manly pose. GUARANTEED FREE OF GIRL COOTIES.

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ACTION STATIONS!!! MANLY FISTICUFFS!!!

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DANGEROUS CETAGANDAN!!!!

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DEFINITELY NOT A UTERINE REPLICATOR.

And yet, Ethan of Athos IS the story of one man’s quest for some viable ovaries.

Athos is a planet at the end of nowhere, occupied entirely by men. It’s a two month trip out from Kline Station, and the census ship makes that trip once a year. The men of Athos are Protestants—I can tell from the hymn titles. As we embark upon this, the seventh book in the Vorkosigan Saga, I am noticing that I interpret a lot of future cultures in Bujold’s universe as Space Scandinavia; I’m convinced that Betans are really into flat pack furniture, and that Komarr is Space-Amsterdam. Athos is like Space-Denmark, because of its embodiment of the principles of hygge—the Danish lifestyle trend focused around the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures. Athos is all about simple pleasures. Ethan’s boss has adorable photo cubes showing his children and a spotted pony. Happy children and a spotted pony is a decent summary of my personal life goals. Unfortunately, Athos and hygge share a darker side which is all about self-imposed xenophobic isolation from anything that might be overwhelming or uncomfortable.

All alone on their planet far away from the nearest galactic nexus, Athos has achieved some admirable things. For example, they’ve done away with the stigma surrounding activities that are often denigrated for traditionally being “women’s work.” Athos just has work, and someone has to get it done. These men are adorably eager to be parents and invest their time in their sons. At least, a lot of them are. There’s nothing in Athosian culture that would be considered a feminine experience or impulse, not because the things we tend to categorize that way don’t exist, but because those are acknowledged as human experiences and impulses. And that’s great! But Athosians are only able to carry off these apparently enlightened cultural attitudes because they’ve completely segregated themselves from the objects of their hatred.

Ethan’s questions about women lay out the misogynist prejudices underlying Athosian culture—“He was not sure if they were supposed to be inciters to sin, or sin was inherent in them, like juice in an orange, or sin was caught from them, like a virus.” Somehow, Athos’s founding settlers managed obtain a collection of donor ovarian cultures to prevent their self-imposed isolation from becoming terminal. Given Athosian attitudes towards women, I imagine a number of women might have been willing to sacrifice an ovary to ensure that the planet’s early leaders went VERY VERY far away. Even among Bujold’s characters—a group that tends to leave home and struggle through an exotic and hostile universe—Ethan may be going the farthest out of his comfort zone.

Dr. Ethan Urquhardt is a hard-working reproductive specialist, saving up the social duty credits he needs to earn his own sons while maintaining the replicators and cell cultures on which Athosian reproduction relies. His boyfriend, Janos, is horrible. Ethan is the most loving and sympathetic partner a horrible boyfriend could ever ask for; Ethan puts a positive spin on everything Janos does. When Janos leaves his motorbike lying in the garden path, Ethan interprets his carelessness as evidence of an idealistic rejection of materialism. Janos is convenient for Ethan, and Ethan is a handy resource—a mature yet uncritical adult—for Janos to exploit. Janos and Ethan are also foster brothers, which would be weird on any other planet, but they aren’t genetically related and somehow it’s slightly less weird here. It helps that we’re not going to spend a lot of time on Athos, or with Janos. Ethan has fallen for the lure of the bad boy, and it’s why this aspiring family man doesn’t have any sons to leave behind.

Next week, we dig into Athos’s problems, Ethan’s problems, and the quest on which the future of Athos relies! Two, maybe three, of these things involve ovaries.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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