Discussion Post: Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold


Ethan of Athos is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. In it, we meet Ethan for the first time – this is the third book in the publishing order which means Bujold wrote of Cordelia and Aral, then Miles, and now Ethan, as if trying out which storyline she wanted to continue with. Her decision becomes clear as we proceed onto further books.

You can read Katharine’s review of Ethan of Athos here, and Tsana’s review here.


Tsana: So turns out I had completely forgotten the main plot of Ethan of Athos, despite having read it before. I remembered the premise of Athos and that Ellie Quinn was in it, but that was about it. Some of the story was more of a surprise to me than it should have been. And I enjoyed it more this time around than the first read through, probably because I was paying more attention and not just being disappointed that there was no Miles. What did you think of it overall?


Katharine: I was surprised by how much I really, really enjoyed it. I’ve personally always wanted to write space opera and this being mostly based in a space station where you have to consider so many other things like what they consider actual threats (fire and disease as opposed to a murderer on the loose) was of a huge personal interest. Ethan had such character growth throughout, and I felt as attached to him as I did with Cordelia and Miles – and surprised it happened so quickly.


Tsana: Yes, that part was fascinating. I loved how quarantine/biosecurity basically had more power to arrest and detain people than what we would think of as “normal” security. And it lead to some very amusing interactions between some of the characters. The question of how to dispose of a body or other incriminating evidence was similarly interesting since everything is so carefully monitored all the time and a rotting corpse would quickly set off alarms.


Katharine: I love it so much – it’s that type of worldbuilding which sets this series apart as it’s so hard to think about what would be so different to earth.

This book felt a bit more like a mystery book set in space than the previous have – so many characters who are hunting out answers and crazed men with guns coming after them. Love it!


Tsana: Yes, definitely a mystery set in space, but let’s leave the details of that for under the spoiler shield. My other favourite thing was how realistically Ethan thought his world was normal and his reactions to being confronted with a society that we would think of as closer to the real world. He starts off thinking women are evil and not really people, which is problematic for him when half the space station’s residents are female!


Katharine: So amusing, and still so true for some small groups of people depending on their religion in our world today – I know a group who will remain at least a meter away from women they don’t know or who are unattached so… I don’t really understand why – to say temptation demeans them both – I guess ‘just to be proper’? Anyway.

I also liked how at the same time Ethan is scared of women that he comes from a place that has very open thinking about sex and relationships and how a community can work together fairly and earn their way up. One of his first interactions when he arrives is with a gang of homophobic blokey blokes, and it’s an interesting juxtaposition to show just how backwards and forwards Athos manages to be at the same time.


Tsana: Yes, that’s true. Although I was mostly disappointed at how not progressive the stationers were on that front. I like to think the future will be less homophobic than the present, not more (although, this book was written in the 80s…). After hearing so much about how progressive Beta Colony is in the other books, I was disappointed to see that’s not how most places are in this universe. Even Quinn seemed a little homophobic, although it was outweighed by her acceptance.


Katharine: And I was a little disappointed that it was most evident in the gruff men workers – kind of like our current typical ocker Aussie stereotype. But I guess the story needed some kind of confrontation early on, and it’s the easiest thing to go for.


Tsana: And it was published 30 years ago. On the other hand, I actually thought Ethan’s fear of women was handled pretty well. It could easily have come across as more misogynistic than ignorant and fearful.


Katharine: And he could have been dismissive and rude – so I agree that was handled well. What I also loved is Quinn, and how her intelligence shines through – she makes quick and hard decisions, disappears and reappears, and you never really know what she’s capable of. I love seeing so many female characters who are pretty much the most capable nearby. Even if it’s the scary waste disposal woman…


Tsana: Hah, she turned out to be more than what she seemed too. But that’s getting into spoiler territory… Perhaps we should raise the spoiler shields?


Katharine: Spoiler shields… Activate!



Katharine: Okay, so, spoiler territory. So basically Ethan has left Athos because a very important shipment their world was expecting never made it there. They rely on ovarian cultures in order to breed the next generation, since the most notable thing about Athos is possibly that there are no women there. Because Ethan works in the field, he’s deemed to be the most suitable to brave the unknown and seek out what’s happened, and, if possible, obtain a replacement.


Tsana: Only possibly the most notable thing about Athos?!? ;-p

But yes, 200 years after settling the planet, the ovarian cultures the Founding Fathers (literally!) brought with them are reaching the end of their usefulness. When Athos orders more, they instead get a shipment of dead, cancerous and/or bovine ovaries (not ovarian cultures!) instead. Someone has screwed them over and, while they’ve lodged a complaint, their need for fresh cultures has not gone away. Since they apparently can’t trust the rest of the galaxy to deliver properly, they gather what’s left of their monetary resources and send Ethan out into the big, scary galaxy (well, to Klein Station) to get a fresh batch. What happened to the original shipment (why it was just rubbish) is the first mystery of the book.


Katharine: Because of the requirements of travel, this means that Ethan will be away from Athos for a full year, which means he’s leaving behind his partner/brother. Which is another very interesting aspect of Athos. We should start from the start though – in order to be able to have children, you must earn credits in order to be able to trade them in for a child. You can do this by doing extra social duties in addition to your day job. And so, Ethan’s fathers have had him, and his brother Janos.


Tsana: And a bunch of other brothers who aren’t in the story. Apparently, the most romantic thing about Ethan’s fathers was that they cultured their children from the other partner’s “mother” culture. Which is the closest they can get to having kids together, I think. There’s also no prohibitions against what we’d think of incest, I suppose because there can’t be any accidental/unintended pregnancies with poor gene diversity…


Katharine: That’s true – that’s the main reason it’s frowned upon in our society I guess… and it’s what Ethan does as a job. Somehow, even though there’s huge pressure to be helpful to society in general, Ethan’s partner is a bit of a waste of space. He seems so unthoughtful of Ethan, too. I’m glad there wasn’t some way of Janos joining Ethan out in the great unknown because I would have wanted to throw him out an airlock by chapter three.


Tsana: Maybe a Cetagandan would indeed have thrown him out an airlock by chapter three ;-p It seems a pity  that the thing holding Ethan back from having kids was Janos being too irresponsible to earn “designated alternate” status, which is what they call a co-parent on Athos. Good thing the plot happened and sent Ethan out into the galaxy.


Katharine: Where he… well, the spoiler shield is up, even though this is jumping towards the end of the novel… where Ethan manages to find another special someone who just might love Athos, but more about that later. So Ethan is on Klein Station where he almost gets bashed by homophobes, escapes two scary interactions with an actual female, and almost gets killed by some guy over the exact reason he’s left Ethos. Someone else wants to track down the shipment that never made it to Athos, and he’s willing to kill to get answers. Ethan undergoes hours of torture and it’s only thanks to the scary female that he manages to survive his first week away… Who is our favourite Quinn, out on assignment from Admiral Naismith.


Tsana: Yes, and Quinn is the only real connection we have between the events of Ethan of Athos and the other Vorkosigan Saga books we’ve been reading. Well, there is one other easter egg — did you notice that the first article Ethan looks at in his Betan medical journal was written by Elizabeth Naismith, Miles’s grandmother?

But back to Ellie Quinn, we first met her in the Warrior’s Apprentice shortly before she got her face melted off by enemy plasma fire. In Ethan of Athos she appears “back home” on Klein Station with a new face and supposedly on leave from the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, but really on an intelligence mission for Admiral Naismith. Since Klein Station really is her home, looking up old friends presents her with a good cover for her more covert actions.


Katharine: And it’s her odd friends who help them manage to get through everything – slightly bending rules and coming up with innovative ideas around what we were discussing earlier – the strict laws they have around disease and general health. Such as where to hide a dead body…

At some stage the very person who sent Ethan the shipment appears, begging asylum.


Tsana: But not having any answers as to what happened to the proper shipment that he sent! And having his own usual secret, thanks to the Cetagandan genetics research he was a product of. I have to admit, this was the one point at which I felt that what we learnt of Cetaganda and their genetics programme in Cetaganda slightly belied what we were being told in this book. It’s not too contradictory if you don’t stare at it too closely but it did remind me that Ethan of Athos was written ten years or so before Cetaganda.


Katharine: And as far as series go, this one (so far) seems pretty good at keeping things straight even as she goes back and forth. I can only imagine the amount of worldbuilding Bujold must have done before publishing… or perhaps she started first drafts of a few bits and pieces here and there but finally went ahead with the first few books?


Tsana: I’m not sure. There are quite a few time jumps in her writing/publishing of the series, so I can’t imagine she’d planned everything from the start. But on that topic, there was really great oblique reference in Ethan of Athos to something about Ellie (the secret Terrence learns) which isn’t explained until much later and which I only got this time around because I’d read later books. (And which I’m not going to explain further because spoilers.)


Katharine: Saying things like that just makes me want to finish off the discussion here abruptly and go on to read more, you know :p


Tsana: We can’t finish just yet, we still haven’t talked about Terrence Cee!


Katharine: Okay so Terrence Cee. Named that as his scientific reference was L-X-10-Terran-C when being breed as a telepath. He was the first to survive the creation, and was soon joined by Janine (J-9-X-Ceta-G). And things don’t end so well for them… which is why he’s now seeking asylum.


Tsana: And why the Cetagandans want him either dead or under their control, preferably alive. And because Terrence got involved with the shipment sent to Athos (before it went astray), the Cetagandans think Athos is somehow involved with Terrence and a burgeoning army of super soldiers or whatever their paranoid fantasies are.


Katharine: And so Terrance has the body of Janine, and shipped her remains along with himself… and he’s distraught to find that his shipment, too, has been mangled.


Tsana: Well, not her body exactly. It’s more that he replaced Athos’s purchased ovarian cultures with those created from Janine. A little bit dodgy! And, it also got me wondering about genetic diversity on Athos. Surely part of the point of them ordering 200 new cultures (or however many it was) was to also introduce 200 sets of genetic variations into their genepool. Continually creating the next generation from a limited set of “mother” cultures can’t have been good for them over the past 200 years, but this is an issue that isn’t brought up at all.


Katharine: It was certainly glossed over. This is what everyone is after though, and even Quinn wants to see what she can get from Terrence in exchange for her protection. The Cetagandans need to get Terrence back, and ultimately it comes down to one of the homophobic locals we’re introduced to near the start of the book.


Tsana: Yes, when we finally found out what happened to the original Athosian shipment (full of Janine) it’s a pretty amusing contrast to what the military-minded Cetagandans and Quinn had been thinking. The quarantine worker who kept popping up every so often was annoyed at Athos because her son emigrated there and she was no longer able to contact him. So she sabotaged Athos’s shipment by disposing of it and replacing it with rubbish. Not what anyone would have guessed!


Katharine: Well their planet can’t survive without the shipment, and she thought this meant she’d get her son back. She doesn’t really have to learn a life lesson through this though, does she?


Tsana: We don’t really see enough to know whether she learns from her mistake. Although I think rather than the equivalent of modern jail time she’d be given extensive therapy, so maybe she will gain a life lesson that way.


Katharine: That raises another interesting question pretty separate to this… in our world we have punishment (time served, community service, fines, etc) that are supposed to fit the crime. If you have extensive therapy then the person should change their way of life… would that feel satisfying to any lives that were ruined by whatever crime they originally did? I wonder how human it is to want pain to match the pain caused, or if it’s what we’ve been conditioned to expect.


Tsana: We don’t actually have punishments matching the crime in the real world, do we? Not all the time at least and not in certain situations. Surely it’s better to strive for a better society without antisocial elements, which is better achieved through therapy than through locking people up. Although I can see the argument for punishment (fines, incarceration, etc) deterring re-offense but there are a lot more political and social issues surrounding the matter in the real world than I feel equipped to discuss here. And that’s before we get into differences between Australia, the US, various European countries, etc.


Katharine: So very true. I think I preferred the glimpse we see of their justice system in The Mountains of Mourning than what we (don’t) see here, but yes, moving on.

I wish we got to see more of the food of the world. That’s what I loved in Harry Potter – all the different foods and drinks. Though I guess we get to see their extensive range of drugs…


Tsana: There is certainly one book that comes a bit later on with a focus on food… But spoilers!


Katharine: You’ve done it again – now can I go keep reading, please?


Tsana: Yes, now you can keep reading!


Next up we’ll be reading and discussing two novellas, “Labyrinth” and then “Borders of Infinity”, in two separate posts in the next month or so. We’ll be attending Worldcon in Helsinki which may throw things off a little, but this also means we may write our next discussion posts from the same laptop! *gasp!*



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.