Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold, narrated by Grover Gardner

EthanofAthosWhy 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,

Spoiler

Ellie Quinn, a member of the Dendari Mercenaries, who is on her debut intelligence mission.

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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.

Spoiler

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.

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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.

Favourite Quote: 

“Necessity is the uterine-replicator of invention.”

Grade: B

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9 comments on “Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold, narrated by Grover Gardner

  1. azteclady

    The quote had me giggling.

    One of these days I’ll brave the immensity of titles–and time commitment–that is McMaster Bujold’s backlist.

  2. Kaetrin

    @azteclady: I actually find it comforting that I have these books on my TBL/wishlist that I know will be entertaining and thought-provoking. I think I’m going to be a bit sad when I finish.

    I guess I could always start again then though, couldn’t I? 😀

  3. Rosario

    Looks like we’re progressing at about the same rate through the series! I posted my review of it just a few days ago ( http://rosario.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/ethan-of-athos-by-lois-mcmaster-bujold.html ). I liked it a lot less than you did. It’s by far my least favourite of all the Bujold books I’ve read.

    First, I resented being asked to root for a misogynistic society that sees women as treacherous and dangerous. If it is about tolerance, it’s about the need to tolerate intolerance, and I’ve not much patience with that.

    I had similar doubts to yours about how homosexuality worked in Athos. To me, the logical conclusion of how things are presented is that homosexuality is something you can choose, not something that’s part of your identity, and obviously, that´s a very problematic view.

    Also, I had huge issues with the decision Ethan makes right at the end, when he has a choice about which ovarian cultures to present to his colleagues. I didn’t think it was his choice to make at all, and I felt he made it much too lightly, without considering any issues of privacy (especially of those who wouldn’t be telepaths but would be potentially surrounded by those who can read their thoughts).

  4. Kaetrin

    @Rosario: Oh that’s interesting! I can certainly see what you mean regarding a misogynistic society, although I admit I only see it now that you’ve pointed it out. I’m a notoriously bad feminist. I just don’t see a lot this stuff. The problem I had with the Athosians wasn’t so much that there were no women, but more that the Athosians could not leave and choose whether that was the life they wanted for themselves. I suppose if there are going to be misogynists around, the idea they’re on their own planet and far away from women isn’t entirely a bad one to me.

    Yes, I did think it was improbable that the entire population would be gay and I did notice there was no mention of heterosexuality. (Although there was mention of some Athosians seeing a woman and being struck “mad” by lust.)

    I admit to being a little lost at the end. It was kind of… not ambiguous, but it wasn’t said straight out either and I think for that reason I kind of glossed over the wider repercussions. Also, I think I was focusing on other aspects of the book so my brain didn’t have much space left to ponder this deeply. I definitely agree it wasn’t up to him but I’m not sure he was entirely wrong exactly. Would he have been equally wrong to do the opposite? I don’t know. (And I freely admit I haven’t given it much thought).

    Heading off to look at your review now! 🙂

  5. Rosario

    @Kaetrin: @Kaetrin: Oh, you’re not! I really like the way you look at these issues in your reviews, especially when there’s something you regard as potentially problematic but still like anyway. It’s really thoughtful. So many people refuse to acknowledge that there could be other views and assume that if they like it, it’s unproblematic.

    Plus, there are often no right or wrong readings. I actually quite like the idea that Bujold might have been saying that a good universe would be one where all the misogynists went off to a faraway, isolated planet to be misogynistic together, away from any woman. Wish we could implement it! 😉

    As for the end, I’m not sure it was the wrong decision, either. I objected more to a) him deciding he should make that decision, and b) the very off-hand, almost thoughtless way the decision was made. Bujold is usually really good at considering ethical issues, but she never really acknowledged the problems with this particular one.

  6. Kaetrin

    @Rosario: Yes, I think you’re right on that last. In Falling Free for example, the whole book was essentially a discussion of slavery and independence. There wasn’t a lot of time devoted to the fate of the ovarian tissue here – at least, not on page. I recall (it’s been a while) Ethan thinking it either had to be all or nothing and at the time it made sense but no-one made him the decision maker for an entire race of people. Except… he was charged with finding appropriate ovarian tissue and that’s what he did… Oh, conundrum! I’m still uncomfortable with the secrecy behind it. Athosians have a right to choose I think.

  7. Pingback: August Round Up |

  8. Merrian

    My feelings about this book are closer to Rosario’s I think. The more I consider EoA after reading the more (for me) the issues get in the way of the story. I think Athos as a place and culture suggests the emergent point of EoA as being that our sexuality is culturally and socially constructed and enforced and that whatever the dominant culture wants/believes has to be lumped, like it or not. Even though this is a great Elli story the misogyny of Athos isn’t called out in the way that Barrayar’s is. I was thinking that EoA is in fact a clearly 20th century book. I don’t think it would or could be written that way in 2014.

  9. Kaetrin

    @Merrian: Oh you’re right about it being a book of it’s time. I think I would have had a very different reaction to it had it been produced in 2014. I always approached it as something of an artifact. IIRC, there wasn’t much information about how Athos came to be settled; how they came to be a male only society. But I do think if there are going to be men that don’t like and don’t want anything to do with women, the best place for them is in a galaxy far far away and where they have no influence on women outside their own little lonely planet. 🙂

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