Ethan of Athos is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. In it, we meet Ethan for the first time - this is the third book in the publishing order which means Bujold wrote of Cordelia and Aral, then Miles, and now Ethan, as if trying out which storyline she wanted to continue with. Her decision becomes clear as we proceed onto further books.
Tsana: So turns out I had completely forgotten the main plot of Ethan of Athos, despite having read it before. I remembered the premise of Athos and that Ellie Quinn was in it, but that was about it. Some of the story was more of a surprise to me than it should have been. And I enjoyed it more this time around than the first read through, probably because I was paying more attention and not just being disappointed that there was no Miles. What did you think of it overall?
Katharine: I was surprised by how much I really, really enjoyed it. I’ve personally always wanted to write space opera and this being mostly based in a space station where you have to consider so many other things like what they consider actual threats (fire and disease as opposed to a murderer on the loose) was of a huge personal interest. Ethan had such character growth throughout, and I felt as attached to him as I did with Cordelia and Miles - and surprised it happened so quickly.
Tsana: Yes, that part was fascinating. I loved how quarantine/biosecurity basically had more power to arrest and detain people than what we would think of as “normal” security. And it lead to some very amusing interactions between some of the characters. The question of how to dispose of a body or other incriminating evidence was similarly interesting since everything is so carefully monitored all the time and a rotting corpse would quickly set off alarms.
Katharine: I love it so much - it’s that type of worldbuilding which sets this series apart as it’s so hard to think about what would be so different to earth.
This book felt a bit more like a mystery book set in space than the previous have - so many characters who are hunting out answers and crazed men with guns coming after them. Love it!
Tsana: Yes, definitely a mystery set in space, but let’s leave the details of that for under the spoiler shield. My other favourite thing was how realistically Ethan thought his world was normal and his reactions to being confronted with a society that we would think of as closer to the real world. He starts off thinking women are evil and not really people, which is problematic for him when half the space station’s residents are female!
Katharine: So amusing, and still so true for some small groups of people depending on their religion in our world today - I know a group who will remain at least a meter away from women they don’t know or who are unattached so… I don’t really understand why - to say temptation demeans them both - I guess ‘just to be proper’? Anyway.
I also liked how at the same time Ethan is scared of women that he comes from a place that has very open thinking about sex and relationships and how a community can work together fairly and earn their way up. One of his first interactions when he arrives is with a gang of homophobic blokey blokes, and it’s an interesting juxtaposition to show just how backwards and forwards Athos manages to be at the same time.
Tsana: Yes, that’s true. Although I was mostly disappointed at how not progressive the stationers were on that front. I like to think the future will be less homophobic than the present, not more (although, this book was written in the 80s…). After hearing so much about how progressive Beta Colony is in the other books, I was disappointed to see that’s not how most places are in this universe. Even Quinn seemed a little homophobic, although it was outweighed by her acceptance.
Katharine: And I was a little disappointed that it was most evident in the gruff men workers - kind of like our current typical ocker Aussie stereotype. But I guess the story needed some kind of confrontation early on, and it’s the easiest thing to go for.
Tsana: And it was published 30 years ago. On the other hand, I actually thought Ethan’s fear of women was handled pretty well. It could easily have come across as more misogynistic than ignorant and fearful.
Katharine: And he could have been dismissive and rude - so I agree that was handled well. What I also loved is Quinn, and how her intelligence shines through - she makes quick and hard decisions, disappears and reappears, and you never really know what she’s capable of. I love seeing so many female characters who are pretty much the most capable nearby. Even if it’s the scary waste disposal woman…
Tsana: Hah, she turned out to be more than what she seemed too. But that’s getting into spoiler territory… Perhaps we should raise the spoiler shields?
Katharine: Spoiler shields… Activate!