Why I read it: I’m continuing my Vorkosigan series listen and this one was next. Or I’d skipped it. The reading order is somewhat fraught I must say. In any event, it’s kind of a tangent from the rest of the series so it fit where I was up to well enough.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) Dr. Ethan Urquhart, an obstetrician on a planet forbidden to women, is Chief of Biology at the Severin District Reproduction Center and one of the busiest men on the planet Athos. Then a mysterious genetic crisis threatens Athos with extinction. Drafted to brave the wider universe for his cloistered fellows in quest of new ovarian tissue cultures, Ethan braces himself for his first encounter with those most alien of aliens–females of his own species.
What worked for me (and what didn’t): As is usually the case with books from the Vorkosiverse, I didn’t bother to read the blurb before diving in. So I had no expectations at all except that very likely Miles would not appear in this one given the title. (I was correct.)
Ethan is a doctor at the Reproduction Centre in the Severin District on Athos. It quickly becomes apparent that Athos is a very unusual place – there are no females on it. At all. The babies are all created from sperm donations from the male inhabitants who have earned sufficient “social credits” to be a father and ovarian tissue which is cultured to create egg cells. Once fertilised via an IVF-like procedure, the fetuses are gestated in uterine-replicators (just like the one in which Miles spent the latter part of his gestation).
Fatherhood on Athos is a Very Big Deal. It is, essentially, the raison d’etre for most of the inhabitants. There is no marriage on Athos so far as I could tell, but a father usually has a partner (sometimes romantic, sometimes not) who serves as the “Designated Alternate Parent”. Ethan has sufficient social credits to be a father (his fondest wish) but his current preferred Designated Alternate is slowing things by being a bit of a layabout.
The ovarian tissue in Athos’ Reproduction Centres are wearing out – many of the samples have had to be retired because they were no longer providing reliable egg cells. When there is a problem with a shipment of ovarian tissue cultures, Ethan is tasked with heading off planet to source new and appropriate cultures for Athos. Censorship on Athos is strict – no messages from females are allowed through and most communication is strictly monitored as well. It is only because Ethan has a high clearance level that he can even see scientific articles authored by women. Women are the big scary monsters which hide under the bed in Athos. The things that scare children into good behaviour. Ethan is scared and worried that his hormones will spontaneously overtake his system and he will be overcome and overtaken by lust merely upon seeing a woman*, such is the mythology that surrounds them. (*To be clear, this is not something he is hoping for – he values his rational mind very highly and the thought of being out of control due to an unwanted reagent (a woman) is not a happy one.)
He heads to Kline Station which is a kind of space jumping off point and a way for him to acclimatise somewhat to life outside of Athos. There, he finds himself enmeshed in a Cetagandan plot and he is forced to work with a female (oh the horror!) in order to save his skin and achieve his mission. Fortunately, Ethan finds he is not actually attracted to women (this pleases him) and while he does not exactly become comfortable with women as a species, he does develop a great respect and admiration for his assistant,
Ellie Quinn, a member of the Dendari Mercenaries, who is on her debut intelligence mission.
The book was written in 1986 and things have changed (thankfully) since then. Still, I don’t know that the homophobia expressed by quite a few (but by no means all) of the male inhabitants of Kline Station ought be regarded as problematic. I don’t think the narrative reinforced the homophobia at all. Given that the story was from Ethan’s perspective and he finds homosexuality entirely normal and usual (indeed, celibacy is the only Athosian alternative), the gist of the narrative is tolerance. In that way, Ethan’s own fears and prejudices about women reflect some of society’s ridiculous ideas about sexuality. I suppose some people will regard the frank descriptions by some Kline Stationers of Athos as a “planet full of queers” or “planet of fags” as inappropriate but I thought in context it wasn’t supported or approved by the narrative.
As it happens, even though Ethan is the “hero” of the story, he is rescued by a female and it is she who does the fighting and much of the clever thinking. So it is a kind of gender-flip story in many ways.
There is only the barest hint of a suggestion of a romance and it isn’t where you’d necessarily think it will be. The story had a lot of interesting features which made me think (something I always appreciate) but I will discuss them under a spoiler cut. I’m not sure exactly whether what I discuss is spoilerish, but it might be regarded so I suppose. Read on at your own risk.
I’m no expert on human sexuality but I understood that the bulk of our (real world) population is heterosexual with less than 10% being homosexual. I don’t know whether that number includes those with bisexual attraction or heteroflexibility. There are some people referenced on Athos who are celibate and choose to be so as some kind of religious statement, but as I understood it, the vast bulk of Athosians are gay. Either they’re gay because that’s their sexuality and it wouldn’t matter if there were women around to be attracted to, or they are gay because there are no women and if they want to get the leg over they have a choice of their hand or another guy. I must say, the latter explanation would appear to be less likely. Not for almost the entire population. There was no discussion in the story about homosexuality being genetic and I suppose if it is the case that there is a gay gene, it may have been passed on by all the gay fathers but that doesn’t account for the female half of the DNA and in any event, it’s not consistent with what I understand to be the case re the (real world) biological children of gay parents. (Not that Bujold was constrained by our reality I suppose – the Vorkosiverse is AU after all). There was also no discussion in the book of heterosexual attraction. I suppose this was because there were no women so nobody knew if they were or could be attracted to females but it seemed beyond belief to me that the entire population was gay. I’ve heard that situational homosexuality is a thing – for example, in prison populations. (I wonder if this is an indication of heteroflexibility? I have no idea but it’s an interesting question.) But even in prisons, not everyone has gay sex. Maybe it can be partly explained by the fact that there have been only men on Athos for generations (the planet was terraformed by men, so there have never been women there) but even so, I found it difficult to believe that everyone was gay.
I liked, very much, that Ethan’s same sex attraction was unchanged after his experiences in the wider galactic world and I liked that there was, in 1986, a sci-fi book which had at its heart, a homosexual man. This is a mainstream book. There are no sex scenes but there is mention of gay sex so I wonder if it challenged some of the readership at the time?
In the end, I thought the narrative had an “it’s okay to be gay” message to it but I suppose equally, it also endorsed the idea that it is okay for some societies to have wonky ideas about women. Ethan, at least, had a changed view – at least insofar as Ellie Quinn was concerned but there was no indication that he went back to Athos as a zealot to champion the idea that women are good and not scary either. And, I think that there was, apparently, no acceptance in Athosian culture of heterosexuality was also problematic.
I also had a question about the genetic diversity on Athos. I’m not a geneticist but it seems to me that if there are a limited number of ovarian tissue cultures from which all eggs are… harvested – then, after a while, there might be some inbreeding. There wasn’t anything in the book which specifically said that a man would never sire the children of his grandmother, for example (which, ew) but there was mention of the new tissue samples providing more diversity. I think it was a flaw in the book that this wasn’t discussed more fully. After all, they had been using the same samples for 200 years. And there were only a limited number of them.
What else? As usual, Grover Gardner provided an excellent narration. He doesn’t have a wide range of character voices but he somehow manages to imbue each player with a distinct persona. I wish I could work out how he does it.
“Necessity is the uterine-replicator of invention.”
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