Ethan of Athos

by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Publisher: Baen
Copyright: December 1986
Printing: March 2001
ISBN: 0-671-65604-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 237

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While this novel is set in the same universe as Bujold's Vorkosigan series (and chronologically takes place between Cetaganda and Brothers in Arms), it's something of a side story and (I believe) not really necessary for understanding what happens later. This is convenient, since even if you enjoy the rest of the series, you may want to skip this one.

The colony world of Athos was founded by extreme sexist separatists who barred all women from the colony and who have been artificially inseminating eggs produced by "uterine cultures." All contact with the rest of the universe is heavily censored, particularly to remove pictures and messages from women, and the world has developed what sounds like a strongly authoritarian culture focused on farming, child-rearing, and public service. Ethan is an obstetrician who takes care of children in artificial wombs, dispatched from Athos to the nearest wormhole transit point to try to find replacements for the world's failing uterine cultures before more children become impossible. There, he gets pulled into a multi-sided intrigue around an escaped product of genetic engineering and dangerous new human capabilities.

The setup is reminiscent of other, far better novels such as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. They're far better because they actually do something with a similar setup, as opposed to alternately ignoring it and using it for confusion and laughs the way that Bujold does. If you're expecting any memorable statement on sexual politics, utopias, culture clashes, or even genetic engineering, you'll be sadly disappointed. Bujold is back to skidding superficially off the character conflicts the story should naturally raise, settling for quips and self-deprecation.

Ignoring all of that, the plot isn't bad. It's another of Bujold's well-paced, twisting political intrigue stories, with a little bit of action, a lot of fast thinking, and several amusing characters. The plot suffers a lot from several unbelievable coincidences, particularly Ethan's accidental encounter with exactly the unlikeable technician who proves to be vital to the plot, but as with the main Vorkosigan books the story does keep pulling the reader along. The problem was that, in this book, I didn't like the main protagonist, didn't enjoy the background, was distracted by the lost opportunities, and found the ending somewhat unsatisfying.

Ethan of Athos isn't worse writing than the Vorkosigan books. It just flubs the setup, raising significant issues that Bujold isn't capable of dealing with properly in the format of light, meaningless political space opera. It's not a horrible book, particularly if you can ignore the feasibility and rational implications of the background and just enjoy the quips. It's essentially the same stuff as the other Vorkosigan books, though, so I wouldn't bother unless you're out of others to read and a desperate for a Bujold fix.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-08-21

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21