An interesting departure from Miles’ arc in the Vorkosigan universe, Ethan of Athos takes us to the outskirts of Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantastic future vision of a far-flung, loosely-connected group of human societies in space. The eponymous protagonist comes from a planet colonist by an extreme religious group comprising only men; they reproduce through artificial wombs, and Ethan is one of their reproduction specialists. With this set-up, Bujold not only reverses the “planet of a single gender” trope, she also gets to examine attitudes and ideas that are almost definitely not her own in a compassionate way.
Ethan of Athos starts, and nominally ends, on Athos, but the main action takes place on a space station. Ethan must get to the bottom of a missing shipment of new cell lines for Athos’ reproductive centres. Without them, it will become increasingly difficult to create new (male) children. But Ethan has never been off-planet. Thanks to the censorship regime on Athos, he hasn’t even seen a woman before, let alone met one. Now suddenly he is being pursued by Cetagandan special ops folks, and it seems like his only ally is a female mercenary (and agent of one Miles Naismith, eh).
Many science fiction stories that posit a single-gender planet focus on the idea that women might somehow “get rid of” men. In this book, Bujold does the opposite. She creates a society entirely devoid of women; indeed, owing to the planet’s religious views, any depictions of women from offworld are censored. The only interaction Athos has with the rest of human society comes in the form of an annual census ship that brings the occasional (male) immigrants and any deliveries Athos purchased the previous year. On Athos, men work to earn points towards being able to conceive a child at a reproduction centre. If they have a relationship with another man, that person might be the “designated alternate” parent of the child, but these arrangements tend to be flexible. Bujold hasn’t just imagined a world without women; she has constructed this entire alternative society, and it’s really interesting how she portrays Ethan in this fish-out-of-water experience as he leaves Athos behind on his adventure. He begins with a bit of a country bumpkin feel to him, yet as the story levels out, he acquires more savvy and guile.
I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did! I wasn’t at all hooked by the premise. But once the action starts up, and we start exploring the station and dodging Cetagandan shenanigans, it’s very entertaining. As usual, Bujold melds the realism of life in space—resource management is key on a space station, beyond even security—with the fantasy of this imperialist, political thriller backdrop of galactic society: noble houses and assassins-for-hire and genetic mutants. There is a much bigger story happening here, yet Bujold carefully folds it all into Ethan’s personal priority of protecting Athos’ interests. While this naturally circumscribes the extent to which we learn about the Cetagandans’ nefarious plots, it also keeps the overall story quite tightly focused. Absent an entire Vorkosigan saga cinematic universe (which I would welcome wholeheartedly, let me tell you), this book could easily be adapted into a standalone science fiction thriller: it has all the right set-pieces, and honestly, would have been right at home with the slightly hokey yet oh-so-ambitious late 1980s, early 1990s flicks like Total Recall.
If you look specifically for Miles Vorkosigan’s signature wit or Vorkosigan-adjacent shenanigans, this book might disappoint you. If you cast aside those expectations and enter consider this just another excellent science fiction story from a master storyteller in the genre, then Ethan of Athos is enjoyable and well worth your time.