Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Ethan of Athos, Chapter 11

When we wrapped up last week’s blog post, Elli, Ethan and Terrance were headed out to rescue Elli’s cousin Teki, who had been picked up by Millisor’s squad of nefarious Cetagandan agents—the ones who like torturing people. All three of them have military training, but Terrance gets Elli’s second stunner. He also gets instructions to hang back and pick off anyone who escapes the Biocontrols squad. Ethan goes with Elli; He gets to carry the medkit.

This reread has an index, which you can consult at will, should you feel the urge. We’re covering books in reading order, so Ethan is the seventh book, rather than the third. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.

My favorite part of this sequence is the Station Security officer. Biocontrols gets to abrogate civil rights as a matter of public health, but Security needs probable cause to go bursting into someone’s quarters, so Security Guy takes gleeful notes on all the legal reasons why it might be legit to enter a transient individual’s personal quarters without a warrant. Then he makes lists of all the things he wants to charge everyone with. I appreciate his attention to civil rights and his dedication to the law. This is a lovely contrast to Biocontrols Officer Helda, who has returned to lead the public health raid.

If you had previously thought that Helda was a decent person and perhaps just a touch harried, her appearance here will readjust your thinking. Biocontrol was very nice and non-judgmental with Elli when she called in to report that Millisor gave her an STD and was about to pass it on to someone else. In her capacity as Biocontrol’s boots on the ground, Helda is judgmental, cruel, and brutal. She is exactly the kind of public health official whose actions and attitudes prevent people from seeking treatment for serious medical problems and prolong disease outbreaks. After denouncing downsiders with STDs as filthy, Helda triggers the fire suppression system to pump the oxygen out of the room to force the Cetagandans to open the door. She then dismisses all injuries sustained by all persons within as bloody noses—dramatic-looking, but non-serious.

Helda hasn’t laid eyes on Teki yet, and her blithe attitude about his probable state allows Ethan to cruise in with the medkit and have a few words with Teki while he’s still high on the fast-penta that Millisor and the boys dosed him with to get Quinn’s phone number. Teki knows a lot of stuff. For example, he knows that Ethan is Athosian, and that Helda hates Athos. Recent comment threads have suggested that a number of commenters are curious about the heterosexual population of Athos, and here we have a possible example; Helda’s son immigrated to Athos at age 32. Teki suggests that this was Helda’s fault—he was trying to escape his mother’s hectoring. Helda confirms this assertion; She wants her son back, and she would even stop criticizing his girlfriends. Helda can’t tell her son this because the Athosian censors return all correspondence from women.

I believe that representation is important. Everyone should be able to see themselves in works of literature. I’m not really concerned with the absence of straight men here, though. I read Ethan of Athos as an inversion of the heteronormativity found in the vast majority of the rest of the literature that made up its contemporary context. It’s purpose was to suggest that the future may hold a variety of alternatives to queer invisibility. Readers who were desperate to see heterosexual men represented in works published in 1986 had a lot of choices, including the other books in the Vorkosigan Saga (Miles is, like, really REALLY straight). The invisible gay men in the mainstream fiction of the 1980s were not faring well in their invisible background—there was an AIDS crisis—and I suppose the invisible straight population of Athos might not be faring well either, despite Ethan’s assurances. Ethan thinks it’s transgressive and daring to read medical journal articles with the authors’ names still on; I don’t think he’s hip to the Athosian counter-culture. But since Athos’s straight community is fictional, in addition to being nearly invisible, I find that I can assuage my concerns for their well-being by assuming that they’re hanging out in a different story. How is Helda’s son doing? Well, Athos is doing a great job protecting him from his mother. That’s all I know, and I’m at peace with that.

This chapter involves a rescue mission, with combat of a sort and some dramatic bleeding, so Bothari is on my mind this week. Ethan and Bothari are both sergeants who deliver babies, and I would like there to be a symbolic connection. Ethan and Bothari are both missing one parent. They both started their careers in the military, and then left it for other forms of service. They both have a hard time relating to women. That might be where it ends. OR IS IT? They both have children with women they admire, both outside of traditional parenting relationships in the culture in which they live—Ethan and Terrence will become the only men on Athos who have met their children’s mothers. They’re going to find it empowering. Bothari met Elena’s mother, and they were both part of the handful of people who knew the truth about Prince Serg (although not about Ezar’s assassination plot) and about their daughter’s conception, something from which they both suffered very badly. Bothari was a murderer and a rapist. It’s not unjust that Elena Visconti shot him, and it’s not unfair that Elena Bothari rejected him after his death. But before he became what he did, he had value and potential that he never had the opportunity to realize. I like imagining Ethan as the Bothari who could have been, in a better world.

Oh yeah, also, Helda intercepted and disposed of Athos’s shipment of ovarian cultures because she’s hoping that a lack of reproductive opportunity on Athos will force her baby boy to return to her and produce grandchildren where she can see them. Helda is working under the belief that, although she has been disappointed by every single other person she has encountered in her entire life, her grandchildren will finally be worth speaking to. Helda could really use some social skills counselling. My Favorite Security Officer prepares to arrest absolutely everyone (on legal charges that are fully justified by the current circumstances) while Elli sneaks out the door.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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