Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Ethan of Athos, Chapters 3-5

This week in the Vorkosigan reread, Ethan faces the wider world for the first time in his life. Ethan is the kind of introvert who finds it easier to form a partnership with Janos than to meet new people in clubs on his home planet. Kline Station is going to be a challenge.

For new readers and anyone who needs reminding, previous posts in the reread can be found in the index. To find everything has ever published about Bujold’s works, including Jo Walton’s thoughts on Ethan of Athos, check out the the Lois McMaster Bujold tag. Historically, the comments thread has not been terribly spoiler-y but the current policy is that spoilers for the entire series are welcome where they are relevant to the discussion.


Elli Quinn disposes of a corpse.


What you really should be asking yourself here is why? Why are we reading this light and amusing story in which Elli Quinn feeds a Cetagandan agent to some newts and then sends a bunch of newts (DIFFERENT newts) to her comrades in the Dendarii Free Mercenary Company?

We need this story because Ethan has gone to war, and we need to know the terrain. So does Ethan. I think he was honestly expecting to connect with some suppliers, buy some eggs, and head home. He is not prepared for this.

In my excitement about book covers and the Athosian cultural milieu, I neglected to mention that Ethan of Athos was published in 1986, and although it is now seventh book in the recommended reading order, it was the third Vorkosigan novel to hit the shelves. The events in Ethan take place some time after Rian answers a phone call while meeting with Miles in Cetaganda – at that time, L-X-10-Terran-C had been tracked to Jackson’s Whole. Ethan will not be going to Jackson’s Whole; The committee back on Athos decided that further dealings with House Bharaputra would not be cost-effective. Jackson’s Whole certainly would not have been safer. In keeping with the pattern established by previous Bujold protagonists, Ethan spent his time in transit to Kline Station reading. He read obstetrical journals. I appreciate his reflections on his own understanding of gender, but they aren’t adequate preparation for either Kline Station or the war. And in fact, when Ethan disembarks on Kline Station, post-microbiological control inspection, he doesn’t even know what women look like. This is an interesting time to encounter Elli Quinn.

My heart started beating a little faster when I saw the words grey and white. Taken in publication order, the early stages of the Vorkosigan Saga are a little heavy on the Vorkosigans. That’s not a problem, exactly, but sometimes you go a long way without seeing a Dendarii. Elli’s uniform foreshadows the coming war, but right now, before the plans have been revealed, that seems fun. The way my brain connects gray and white and improvisational covert ops mercenary excitement is so strong that I sometimes catch myself thinking of baby penguins as Dendarii Special Equipment. This is a space station and a Dendarii Mercenary is on it! We are in for a good time!

When we last saw Eill, Ivan described her as looking like an onion. Elli is the galaxy’s most vivacious traumatic facial burn survivor. Ethan is interested in this from a medical standpoint, not an aesthetic one, and frankly, the rest of us should be too. Yes, Quinn’s is a face that could launch a thousand ships, if that was something she felt like doing, but the bigger picture is that she suffered a truly horrible, life-altering injury, and now she’s back on combat duty. Yes, she was back in combat before the facial reconstruction back in The Warrior’s Apprentice, but that was an emergency situation. This is detached duty on continued assignment with a mercenary company no one would have blamed her for quitting. Ethan finds her intimidating, and also possibly a source of evil. Ethan wields his loyalty to Janos as a ward against her feminine wiles. He’s new here.

Polyamorous heterosexual relationships seem common on Kline Station, but cultural attitudes towards homosexuality are only slightly more welcoming than the prevailing view of mutant fungi. Ethan is innocently looking for a meal, some artichoke beer, and some men to talk to about the only topic he knows how to talk about when he’s attacked by homophobic drunks. This is the kind of thing that could happen to anyone who tries to recruit settlers to an all-male planet in 1986. Elli comes to his rescue. This is not Ethan’s war – it’s just a mild demonstration of the hostility Ethan is facing in enemy territory. So let’s take a second to talk about the artichoke beer Ethan is craving, okay? It’s a thing that actually exists! I have not tried it. Anyone who has should share their experience in the comments. But I am pleased to see that OF COURSE the Planet of Men has a craft beer scene.

Still scared of women, Ethan ditches Elli at the earliest possible opportunity. This is a huge mistake because it leaves him vulnerable to abduction by the Cetagandans, who spend hours torturing him to find out what he knows about Terrance Cee (nothing). In the process, the Cetagandans reveal their plan to attack Athos and destroy the rep centers within the next seven months. Ethan’s death is imminent – a really bad Cetagandan guy is about to break his neck and shove him off a catwalk – when Elli rescues him again. She doesn’t mean to kill the Cetagandan agent, but the momentum of his effort to break Ethan’s neck sends him over the railing when Elli stuns him.

In the short span of time that Ethan spent playing tourist before getting beaten up and tortured, we saw the bright lights of Kline Station. It has amazing public art; Now, we get to look at its working infrastructure. Information crucial to the story:

  • Kline Station’s oxygen/CO2 exchange is controlled by algae.
  • The population of algae is controlled by newts.
  • The population of newts is controlled by people, who eat the excess newts.
  • Kline Stationers eat a lot of newts.
  • Station workers wear color-coded uniforms.
  • Kline Station takes its microbiological controls very seriously.
  • Elli knows the ins and outs of her home station exceptionally well.
  • Biocontrol Warden Helda is extremely unpleasant.
  • L-X-10-Terran-C is a person.

Ethan and Elli also have a chat about the Cetagandans. Elli knows that the Cetagandans are deeply invested in genetic engineering. She does not know about the Star Creche. She sees Cetaganda as a male-dominated militarist society, which is a fair description. Ethan and Elli’s discussion of the economics of raising a clone army is the political core of this book – Ethan asserts that the economic costs of raising a specialized and otherwise unproductive army would be overwhelming. Raising children absorbs most of the economic resources of Athos. Elli points out that this is not the case on many other planets, where the labor invested in parenting is usually not accounted for. Ethan is not the first of Bujold’s characters to make this calculation – this is precisely why Bruce Van Atta was keen to encourage the Quaddies to reproduce without replicator assistance in the beginning of Falling Free. Anyone who wants to raise a clone army from the replicator bank up will have to contend with it, even though most cultures maintain the fiction that the labor of child rearing is free.

At the end of chapter five, the Cetagandan agent has been fed to the newts. A hundred kilos of newts are being packed into a storage cube for the Dendarii. Next week, we meet Terrance!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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