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What is Ethan of Athos?

On Athos, a world without women, Dr. Ethan Urquhart delivers babies from uterine replicators. But when the ovarian cultures start dwindling, he is sent abroad on a mission to replenish the planets stocks.


ETHAN OF ATHOS was once a very controversial novel but now reads like a light hearted science fiction adventure. Basically, what made it controversial in 1986 is the titular Ethan is a homosexual and he’s not only the protagonist but the book is, to a large extent, about a lot of controversial sexual subjects. Indeed, sadly, a lot of the books subject matter would be controversial today because it deals with gender separatism, reproductive rights, misogyny, and genetic determination.

It’s very much about the effect of science on Natural Selection and the changes it has brought about for both genders. In this respect, EOA is probably the most genuinely “valuable” of the Vorkosigan Saga in terms of literary merit but I also think of it as one of the most entertaining stories. The fact it doesn’t have Cordelia or Miles in it is a testament to how effective the tale is and how the subject matter has weight.

The premise is the titular character is an obstetrician on the planet Athos. Athos was settled by male gender separatists who wanted to create a monastic community in the service of God. Two hundred years later, it’s become an all-homosexual community (or celibate if you’re born fully heterosexual) without much focus on the subject of the divine. Indeed, the biggest thing they’ve maintained from their ancestors is the belief women are inherently sinful and disgusting even though the vast majority of them have never encountered a woman.

This community can only survive due to the miracle of science and they can’t have children without outside ovarian cultures. They order these through, effectively, a catalog and the last shipment proves to be a complete failure. Ethan is forced to go out into the wide woman-filled world and find new cultures in order to save his planet with its ridiculous society. Along the way, he ends up meeting female space marine Elli who is trying to do her own mission that involves tracking down a genetically engineered psychic assassin.

There’s a lot to unpack in the story, especially given Ethan is a homosexual male protagonist from a misogynist society written by a heterosexual woman. Surprisingly, he gets a lighter hand than he might have under a (heterosexual or otherwise) male author. Ethan is kind, gentle, polite, and his paranoid reaction to women is played more for laughs than the disturbing brainwashing it is. Athos is treated as a pleasant place to live with a quirky culture than the result of a truly perverse set of founders taking advantage of science.

Part of the fun is Ethan is the passive noncombatant character frequently rescued by the dangerous aggressive Elli. A lesser writer might have had Ethan discover the joys of heterosexuality as a reason to come to respect Elli but, no, he’s genetically homosexual as well as by cultural tradition. Instead, he comes to respect her and admire her purely based upon her ability even as she is bewildered by his passive decent nature as much as his bizarre upbringing.

The book was supposedly inspired by Lois Bujold’s analysis of how technology like birth control and reproductive technology has dramatically changed the opportunities available for women. In this case, we’re actually approaching the time when we’ll be able to grow our children without need for women to carry them or have children born from two same-sex parents. So, this book was prescient in other ways as well.

In conclusion, this is a “big idea” book which is shoved into a premise about spy vs. spy action on a space station. I liken it to Blade Runner in that was a movie about a LOT of things in a action movie noir detective story. This is a about a LOT of things in an espionage and “stranger in a strange land” plot.

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