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A Life of Danger

Ethan of Athos

By Lois McMaster Bujold 

18 May, 2018

A Bunch of Bujolds


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1986’s Ethan of Athos is a standalone SF novel, set in the same universe and time as the Cordelia and Miles Vorkosigan novels. Ethan shares one character with the Miles books, but is otherwise independent. 

Settled by misogynist religious fanatics centuries earlier, Athos is an isolationist world populated entirely by men. Happily for the he-man woman-haters of Athos, reproductive technology in the form of uterine replicators has allowed Athosians to perpetuate themselves. 

Permitted, past-tense. 

Although right-thinking Athosians prefer not to consider the matter, women (or at least their ovaries) still play a crucial role in Athosian reproduction. The uterine replicators cannot themselves provide the eggs needed to create new babies. Athos’ founders brought with them sufficient ovaries for their long-term needs. Now, however, the long term is over and the carefully maintained ovaries are no longer producing viable eggs.

The obvious solution: order new biological supplies from an off-world source. Athos’ interstellar connections are by design minimal. They are not non-existent. There are several sources for the necessary materials. The order made, all Athos needs do is wait for their order to arrive.

To Doctor Ethan Urquhart’s alarm, the package is unusable. Rather than the high-quality material for which Athos paid, the materials delivered appear to be medical waste, some of it not even human. Athos desperately needed the contents. Now it seems that there will be no future for Athos.

There’s nothing for it but to send some morally robust member of society out into the corrupt universe, there to confront the people who bilked Athos and to find suitable replacement ovaries. There are not many men who can be trusted to resist galactic lures. When one further limits the list of candidates to men with the necessary medical knowledge, there’s really only one candidate with the right mixture of moral fortitude, skills, and inability to say no: Doctor Ethan Urquhart.

Ethan’s arrival at Kline Station is poorly timed. Kline Station is currently a battleground for intelligence agents of feuding powers. The agents try to keep the conflict hidden from station authorities, but fail. 

Ethan tries to track the missing ovary shipment. His questions attract entirely the wrong attention. He is ambushed by a Cetagandan intelligence team and interrogated. Once it becomes obvious that Ethan knows nothing of importance, the Cetagandans will probably murder him. 

If Ethan is to survive, if he is to preserve Athos’ future, then he must do the unthinkable: ally with Dendarii intelligence officer Eli Quinn, a (gasp!) woman.


My tentative schedule had Cetaganda in this slot, but Ethan of Athos is more interesting.

This is a spy story of the North By Northwest school, in which a naīve innocent blunders into a deadly struggle between spies, managing by luck and determination to give the impression that they are a legitimate threat. I have previously complained about Bujold’s reliance on coincidence to power plot, but in this case it works to her advantage. North by Northwest stories require at least one coincidence, one that will place the otherwise uninvolved civilian in the path of adventure.

Ethan of Athos is also a hard SF story. Here, the science is biology. Athos’ rejection of women has had an untended side-effect: men must pay attention to the costs of producing more viable humans; they cannot just force women to handle the matter for free. Athos’ solution to the problem of manufacturing viable adults functions, but only just. Once all the expenses of reproduction and education, all the activities needed to turn a shrieking infant into a useful person are on-book, the whole matter becomes marginally viable. Each new person only just covers the cost of their existence over the course of their lives. 

The implications of the fact that Kline Station is an artificial habitat also shape the plot. Kline Station is a tiny island of life in a vast, sterile, implacably hostile environment. To quote Nathan Spring, of the venerable TV show Star Cops:

[quote]You leave Earth and anything you forget to bring with you will kill you. Anything you do bring with you which doesn’t work properly will kill you. When in doubt, just assume everything will kill you. [/quote]

Survival requires vigilance; issues that could be allowed to slide on a planet need to be handled swiftly or the station will die. Kline Station’s society is shaped by unceasing vigilance. 

Unlike many of the other fictional one-sex worlds in SFF, Athos is oddly free of authoritarian tendencies. The one notable exception is the ongoing censorship of information from the outside world, particularly of anything relating to women. Artificial reproduction as depicted in SFF seems to lead to a top-down society, in which a tiny elite that controls reproduction controls everything else as well. On Athos, those who refuse to conform are looked down upon, but they are not sent to gulags. If they break laws, they are fined, not killed. By galactic standards, Athos is only as dictatorial and clique-ridden as the typical little theatre.

Athos does seem to display an obsession with eugenics that cannot be justified by biology as we know it. Athosians try to breed for traits like intelligence that do not lend themselves to simple genetic filtering (as far as we now know, intelligence is affected by a complex interplay of multiple genes, epigenetics, and nurture) and ignore useful, screenable traits like a taste for coriander (cilantro) or the ability to wiggle one’s ears. Still, it doesn’t matter to the plot if the eugenic programs make sense as long as the characters think they do. 

North by Northwest stories won’t work unless the protagonist is sympathetic; otherwise, the reader will not be rooting for them to survive. Ethan is not the most sympathetic of characters at the beginning of the book; for one thing, he is handicapped by his culture, which has taught him to loathe and fear half of the human race. However, Ethan proves quick to dump his prejudices in the face of facts. 

The people with whom he interacts are less open to change. Beta Colony may be a liberal utopia by galactic standards but Kline Station isn’t Beta. Homosexuals (like Ethan) are viewed with suspicion and dislike. Which actually figures into the plot.

Like Bujold’s other books, Ethan is well-written and fast-moving. If you haven’t read this outlier in the Vorkosiganverse, be assured that it is worthy of your attention. 

Ethan of Athos is available here (Amazon). This edition does not appear to be available from Chapters-Indigo.