Thursday, October 13, 2016

Ethan Of Athos - Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos is a stand alone novel set in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan’ universe. That said, none of the Vorkosigan clan feature. Rather, the focus is on the titular Ethan, a Doctor sent out from the planet of Athos in search of new genetic material.

Athos is the backdrop to much of the novel. Its society is explored in some depth in the opening chapters of the text, and the social mores inculcated in Ethan by his society are a key factor in much of the rest. Athos, you see, is a world first populated after artificial gestation has become practical. This has allowed some rather odd societies to construct themselves – including Athos, a world at the far, far end of the back-end of nowhere, aggressively reclusive and populated only by men. Athos is a society designed to order-one where ‘Social Duty Credits’, acquired from volunteer work and the like, are used to determine a citizen’s right to, amongst other things have and raise child. Athos is a relatively tranquil place though, and the narrative takes pains to show us several instances of domesticity, and a society with a strong strand of family and trust running through it.

At the same time, this is a society with several flaws. On a practical level, they’re dependent on a supply of genetic material to keep increasing their population. On a social one, there is a pervasive fear of women – something brought in by the original settlers. There’s a dissonance here, at the root of Athos, a quiet sub-current in the text. The same families of men that care for and love their children, that work hard and with a pleasantly straightforward honesty – those same individuals are reduced to reflexive fear and horror at the very idea of women, and have embargoed the gender from visiting the world.

Isolated as Athos is, it still needs some trade, and has a slight connection with the universe outside their space. That tenuous connection is Kline station, the other core location for the novel. Kline is a sealed environment, a thronging, claustrophobic metropolis, self sustaining, surrounded by the infinite vacuum of space. In comparison to Athos it seems to thrum with nervous energy, and has a cosmopolitan nature perhaps unfamiliar to the inhabitants of Athos. It’s a Casablanca for the stars, where different political and social systems clash, merge and generate an interesting synthesis. But Kline has issues as well – for example, it has an eco-police, a force with seemingly sweeping powers, whose role is to preserve the environment of Kline, to enable it to continue to function; from monitoring protein vats to arresting individuals suspected to have communicable diseases, they’re everywhere. Kline isn’t a paradise, it’s just somewhere different, with different priorities to, for example, backwater Athos.

To the credit of the text, it doesn’t present either of these options as necessarily better than the other – they simply exist as they are, and each is given ample room to display both virtues and vices.
In a similar vein, so is Ethan, the protagonist, a doctor from Athos. He’s pitched out into the wider universe in search of new genetic materials, to allow Athos to continue to grow. A man in a high-flying career, with a sense of determination around seeking to create a family, Ethan is calm, focused, and shockingly unprepared for the wider universe. The text lets the reader see Ethan’s inner monologue – and in most respects, he’s a good man, drawn into events he may not be ready for. But it also allows exploration of his own casual prejudices, against women, and as regards the more cosmopolitan society of Kline, where he ends up in search of his materials. There’s an unflinching honesty to it which makes for a rather enjoyable read – especially combined with the other aspects of the gentle Ethan’s character.

Ethan is counterbalanced by the acerbic, disturbingly competent, and somewhat fiery mercenary, Elli Quinn. Quinn has turned up in other Vorkosigan books as a supporting character – but given her own outing, proves thoroughly enjoyable. She’s quick on the uptake, and her blunt, no-nonsense physicality works as a foil to Ethan’s more abstract approach. Their interactions with each other explore the edges of their own prejudices – Ethan’s against, well, women, and Quinn’s own against what she feels Ethan is – a zealot, a man with no military training, family focused, physicallyweaker and hence with less value. Both have their views challenged by the other, and if neither entirely comes around, their exploration of their differences, and the gradual amalgamation of their views, makes for interesting reading.

The plot, surprisingly enough, is something of a spy thriller. Ethan quickly makes some enemies, not entirely knowing why, and spends much of the text either on the run, or trying to work out why quite so many people want to kill him. I won’t spoilt it, but suffice to say that the answer to that question is one which may change Ethan, Athos, and perhaps the universe at large. In the meantime, the action is fast-paced, and the prose makes up a tense and snappy read. There’s some emotional depth on display as well, to counterbalance all of the flash – the novel hangs together rather well.

Is it worth reading? It’s awkward in places, and some of the social commentary is a bit clunky, but it’s a novel filled with interesting ideas, broadly well put, embedded into a page-turning plot. So if you’re in the mood for something that mixes big ideas with a narrative punch, this may be one for you.

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