I finished Ethan of Athos yesterday, this being part of my “housekeeping” of Bujold’s earlier work. I believe I’ve read all of the stories where Miles Vorkosigan (or his brother Mark) are the central protagonist; now I’m going back and picking up some of the onesie and twosie titles that are in the Vorkosigan saga but are kind of hovering on the periphery, like this one. In a nutshell, I found it a pleasant read, but not a stellar one, when compared to other titles in this story arc. There are some classic Bujoldian tropes at work here– sexual gender confusion, sardonic humor, knocking down of sacred cows, genetic manipulation and its effect on traditional sexual pair-bondings. All very familiar stuff to fans of her work.
Ethan Urquhart, the titular character, is a classic Bujold character who goes on a journey, discovering things about himself and his place in the wider cosmos. We’ve seen this before. I did like the setup– Athos is the reverse of the hoary old SF Planet of Women cliche from the 50s. On Athos, women don’t exist due to uterine replicator technology and society has evolved around a rather unique pair-bonding ritual for raising children. The planetary economy is self-sustaining and virtually completely independent of interstellar trade. The entire human planetary population is male. Athos was settled some 200 years before the events of the novel, by an exodus of religious zealots who sought to found a sanctuary away from women. Contact with the rest of human civilization is limited to an annual interstellar courier from Kline Station that brings information, supplies and immigrants, though the number of immigrants has decreased significantly over the years. Emigration is not illegal, but very few men want to leave the planet. All incoming information is screened with all references to, and images of, women being censored before dispersal to the planet. As you might imagine this creates a society where men are paranoid about women and treat them as semi-demonic. This was an interesting plot twist but I felt that I was being set up when I read it. You *know* Ethan will have to go out into the wide world.. this is Lois Bujold here. You *know* he will meet an intelligent, highly competent woman who will teach him important life-lessons. You *know* he’ll be outside his comfort zone, and it will probably involved some weird twisted subplot focusing on genetics and gene manipulation. And so it proved to be.
Ethan, playing one of Bujold’s stock roles, the wide-eyed innocent, is a doctor who specializes in the uterine replicator birth technology necessary to keep Athos’s unique society thriving. When a series of events possibly sabotaging the genetic future of Athos occur, Ethan is forced to go offplanet to Kline’s station, where most of the events of the novel take place. The resulting collision with Ethan’s restricted and narrow-minded world view with the cosmopolitan practicality of Kline’s station, and his first dealings with a woman that is in every sense his equal (and in many areas, his superior), Elli Quinn of the Dendari Free Mercenaries, leads Ethan to question his upbringing and prejudices on both sides of the equation, all the while being involved in a classic espionage shoot-em-up plot that is classic Bujold. Which is all very fine stuff, except.. er..
The thing is, this book was written in 1986, and some of the homophobia (as anticipated by the setup of Altos) rings a little flat, dated and unfunny in 2013. Really? A planet of fags? That seems less than artful coming from this author, but I give her a grain of salt. This was Bujold’s third novel. The stuff that I read her for.. spies and mercenaries and explosions and her signature wry humor, it’s all there. So it’s not a bad read at all, it just doesn’t compare well to her later novels in the Vorkosigan saga. Still worth picking up and giving a try.