Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Ethan of Athos, Chapters 1-2

To go on a journey, you have to leave home. And if “you” are a fictional character, your journey will only have meaning if “you” have given your readers at least a hint of what “home” is for you.

The home Cordelia left behind in Shards of Honor was an expeditionary force ship whose crew voted on important mission priorities. The Barrayar Miles left in The Warrior’s Apprentice was the kind of home that cordially invites a person to fling themselves off of walls to their certain doom. Ethan is leaving Athos, so the beginning of his story is about what Athos is and how he fits into it. This offers an exciting opportunity for amateur anthropology.

THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT ATHOS, THE MAN-PLANET:

  • Its population is totally jazzed about parenting. With the uterine replicator making reproduction possible for ANYONE with ANYONE ELSE, the population of Athos has continued to grow despite its centuries of male-only isolation. Paying for the use of a uterine replicator and the cell cultures required to have children is expensive, not just in money, but in Social Duty credits, which Athosian men must earn in order to qualify to become a parent or a designated alternate parent. For those men who choose it, parenting is an honor, a privilege, and a status communicated through facial hair; Mustaches for designated alternates and beards for fathers.
  • Military service is mandatory on Athos, despite a lack of enemies with which Athos could militarily engage on the planet, and a lack of the technology that Athos would need to fight any non-planetary enemies. The Athosian military seems to engage in public works projects. It also has regimental bands.
  • Athos is still terraforming. Let’s get real people—I don’t care HOW remote it is, if the Athosian ecosystem was totally friendly to Terran-descended humans, it would not have been colonized by a quirky all-male religious cult. Urban areas seem to be well-developed, with housing, reproductive centers, and cultural amenities. Rural areas lack easy access to reproductive services and medical care. Farming takes a lot of work.
  • The major wildlife on Athos is a population of feral chickens.
  • The first settlers arrived on Athos 200 years ago. It’s the age of everything, including, notably, the egg cultures that fuel Athosian reproduction and the trees planted by the Founders.
  • The Athosian automotive industry has advanced to galactic standards despite the colony’s youth, inability to participate in galactic trade, and difficulty accessing galactic currency. Ethan owns a very nice lightflyer. He does for a few weeks, anyway. Then it falls out of a tree. I’m not familiar with lightflyer technology but I listen to Car Talk, so I’m pretty sure that once a lightflyer has both hit a tree and fallen 25 meters out of that tree to the ground, that lightflyer is totalled. Post-tree, Ethan gives the lightflyer to Janos. Janos is the kind of guy who truly deserves the gift of a totalled lightflyer.
  • The Athosian singles scene is a little intimidating. Look, if Ethan can’t handle it, I’m sure I can’t either. Ethan is one of those people whose profession is also his personality and his mission in life. He’d love to be a family man, but trying to pick up guys in bars just makes him feel shallow and cynical. I imagine that he may have once hoped that one day, he would reach across a uterine replicator and lock eyes with another reproductive scientist, and then their hands would touch and then . . . well, they wouldn’t be hanging out in bars listening to loud pop music with boys in muscle shirts, that’s for certain. Romantic walks on the beach in the rain, fevered acquisition of Social Duty credits, and shopping for spotted ponies would follow within the smallest possible number of months. But if that reproductive scientist is out there somewhere waiting for Ethan, the universe has been keeping them apart. In his absence, Ethan is shacking up with Janos, his foster brother, an individual whose most notable personal accomplishment is crashing Ethan’s shiny new lightflyer into a two-hundred year old tree while chasing a flock of feral chickens.
  • Somehow, the men of Athos can find a way to make women the source of all sin even though they share a planet with Janos. Our layover in Athos is too short to get a good grip on Athosian attitudes towards romantic and sexual relationships between foster siblings, but my gut feeling is that Ethan’s relationship with Janos may fit into some local stereotypes about why these are a bad idea. Ethan deserves a life partner who shares his life goals. Janos uses his Social Duty credits to pay off the fines he incurred crashing Ethan’s lightflyer into the Founders’ tree. Ethan’s boss uses Janos as a textbook example of why Social Duty credits are non-transferrable.
  • Ethan is well-regarded on Athos. Reproductive medicine is a high-status profession, and Ethan’s hard work and dedication have earned him the highest level of security clearance, which means that (among other things) he can read galactic medical journals with the names of the authors included. He reads an article co-authored by Cordelia’s mom! I have no idea how Athosian scientists of less-exalted clearance status make any sense of the citations in scientific literature. Ethan is very aware of his privilege, and careful not to overindulge. In reading the names of authors of journal articles.
  • Athos takes very good care of its fetuses. They get careful monitoring and thoughtful sensory stimulation in utero. Ethan nixes popular dance music in favor of orchestral hymns. This reminds me a little of Bruce Van Atta crowing about how uterine replicators eliminate the need for “flaky foster mothers” back in Falling Free, but I think that’s my defensive gloss rather than Bujold’s intention. My own children are demonstrably quite bright and well-adjusted despite their prenatal exposure to my horrible taste in music. (They wouldn’t pass muster on Athos anyway—they’re girls.) Miles’s prenatal care did not meet Ethan’s high standards.
  • Two hundred years is basically the limit for the useful life of an ovarian culture, even with technological assistance. Athos’s ovarian cultures are dying.
  • Athos does business with Jackson’s Whole. Specifically, they have done business with House Bharaputra, which will never again look as innocuous as it does when a box of ovarian cultures arrives on Athos. For example, a few pages later it becomes apparent that the box is full of medical waste, and not of live ovarian cultures, and suddenly House Bharaputra is having a branding crisis in the Athosian market.

Next week—Ethan faces a larger world, and meets a woman.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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