Lois McMaster Bujold
Ethan of Athos (1986)
Reviewed: 1999-02-20

Dr. Ethan Urquhart is Chief of Biology at a District Reproduction Center. He delivers babies from uterine replicators. You see, on Athos there are no women. In fact, the planet is forbidden to them. Isolated from the galactic community by distance and a lack of exploitable resources, the Athosians have peacefully lived their peculiar social experiment for 200 years. But now the ovarian cultures dating back to the original settlement of the planet are giving out. With the future of Athos at stake, Ethan is chosen for a unique mission: to travel abroad and buy ovarian cultures to replenish Athos's dwindling stocks.

Commander Elli Quinn of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet is a native of Kline Station, a humongous space habitat at an interstellar crossroads. Now she is back home to enjoy her leave. Or rather that's the cover story she would tell you, as she is in fact on a secret intelligence mission for Admiral Naismith.

When Ethan arrives on Kline Station he meets women for the first time in his life. The culture shock is immense and source of the expected amount of comic relief throughout the book. The first time he meets Elli Quinn, she hands him a much-needed map, the second time she extracts him from a barroom brawl, and the third time she saves his life. Events on Kline take a very different turn from what Ethan expected, and the poor doctor is forced to uneasily team up with Elli in order to deal with deadly machinations involving her mission, frenzied Cetagandan intelligence operatives, an even more mysterious party, and his own duty to Athos.

Ethan of Athos is another light romp by Bujold. In this side branch of the Vorkosigan series, Miles Vorkosigan appears only off-stage as Elli's charismatic superior Admiral Naismith. Talking about Elli, I ought to mention that she is quite cute. As usual Bujold excels at creating vivid, likable characters.

Like many other aspects of human behavior, it remains unknown how much of our response to sexual signals is culturally induced versus genetic. The set-up of this novel potentially provides much room to explore the issue, but alas, Bujold refuses to examine this topic more than cursory. Judging from Ethan's thinking I'm forced to conclude that Bujold favors the cultural view. Or maybe his responses are overridden by cultural conditioning? I guess, Ethan of Athos is just too fluffy to ponder questions such as these. It's one of Bujold's earlier novels and doesn't quite match the accomplishment of her award-winning work a few years later.

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