Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos
After turning a friend of mine on to the rest of the Vorkosigan saga, I decided to re-read them all, myself. After finishing the "core" novels, I figured I ought to read the peripheral ones, as well. Ethan of Athos is sort of a sidelight to the main storyline, about Dr. Ethan Urqhart, director of a reproductive center for a planet populated entirely by men.

We've all seen a number of SF novels about planets populated solely by women, and somehow are more comfortable with that concept than the all-male variety. Of course, the only way this works is because of the Galactic technology base of the uterine replicator. The replicators figure so prominently in Cordelia and Miles' stories, and Bujold seems to have explored the "what if?" implications of this technology on society, in the spirit of John W. Campbell's editorial tenure.

Bujold has previously explored the difference between cultures, such as Beta Colony, which heavily use replicators, and Barrayar, which didn't, as well as the cultural revolution occurring through the introduction of replicator technology after it's introduction on Barrayar. The replicators figure heavily in the life extension techniques available on Jackson's Whole (creating a clone and having your brain transplanted into it). In Ethan of Athos, she explores the idea of a monosexual culture which is allowed to survive over the long haul because of the availability of uterine replicators and cultured ovaries.

However, when our story begins, the viability of Athos is threatened by the slow deterioration of the ovarian cultures upon which the planet depends. The Council had ordered, from House Bharaputra on Jackson's Whole, 50 new ovarian cultures to replace the ones that were dying, but when the package arrives, it's filled with non-viable ovaries, from various sources, human and animal. Dr. Urquart - Ethan - is sent to investigate and to negotiate with some other commercial firm to buy more cultures, and to ensure their safe delivery this time.

Ethan, of course, has never been off planet (Athos is quite isolated, intentionally), and in the early part of the story is quite terrified by Galactic culture and the unknown, especially women, who are held to be the source of all evil in the Athosian religion. When he arrives on Kline Station he makes the acquaintance of Ellie Quinn, presently detached on leave from the Dendarii Mercenaries, or so she claims. There's a plot afoot, involving Cetagandan agents, and he lands right smack dab in the middle of things.

He's picked up for interrogation by Ghem Colonel Millisore and Ghem Captain Rau, and when they find he has no useful knowledge for them after a seven hour chemical interrogation, they decide to dispose of him. Quinn intervenes at the last moment, killing their agent, and then uses Ethan as a stalking goat to draw out Millisore and his minions.

It seems that the Cetagandans were having some human genetic research done on Jackson's Whole. One of the results of that experiment, Terrance Cee, revolted against his "masters" and stashed the gene complexes in the shipment of ovaries bound for Athos.

The action and intrigue revolve around Ethan's, Quinn's, Terrance's and Millisore's search for the missing gene complexes.

The overall effect of the book is to round out some aspects of Galactic culture, flesh out some facets of Ellie Quinn's character, and bounce a few new cultural and philosophical ideas off of Bujold's reading audience. Bujold raises some interesting points about the hidden costs of childbearing and child rearing, that most Earthly cultures "write off" through the "free" labor of women and wives, but which must be strictly accounted for and paid for in a totally male society. Interesting and entertaining reading all the way round.

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