Thursday, January 19, 2006

Books (Science Fiction): Ethan of Athos

I just finished the fourth of Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Verkosigan books, Ethan of Athos. Back when I started the series, teflonjedi mentioned that he has a copy of this but never got into the rest of the series.

Ethan of Athos is not a good place to start on the series. It's my least favourite of the four books I've re-read so far (though I still enjoyed it overall).

The book is atypical of the Vorkosigan series. Miles Vorkosigan never actually appears, though he's mentioned via his "Admiral Naismith" alias. I can't remember the order the books were written, but unless I'm mistaken, Ethan was the third book Bujold wrote set in this universe, and Miles himself was not in her original plan. The first book written was Shards of Honor, the story of Miles's parents, which I treat as a prequel to the Miles books, though it's more accurate to say that the Miles books are sequels to Shards. The Warrior's Apprentice was next, continuing Miles's story from Shards, and Ethan followed, continuing Elli Quinn's story from Apprentice. The Vor Game and Cetaganda, the two books that precede Ethan chronologically, were written well after, and the jump back to a less mature version of the world is quite noticeable.

(Bujold, when she came to write Cetaganda, makes a reference to Ethan when a Cetagandan is momentarily distracted by a problem concerning L-X-10 Terran-C. It turns out that that problem is what started the chain of events that leads to the story in Ethan.)

The second problem with the book, and the one that grated most, was how socially out of date it felt at times (the book is 20 years old). The title character, Dr. Ethan Urquhart, comes from an artificial society of fundamentalist misogynist homosexuals -- their Founding Fathers took advantage of the (then new) invention of the uterine replicator to colonize a planet (Athos) without involving women, whom they seem to picture as a stereotypical Moral Majority type's stereotype of a radical feminist. This certainly sets up a lot of potential for culture shock when Ethan has to leave Athos to seek out new ovarian cultures to replace the 200-year-old ones on Athos, but it comes off as rather clunky in the novel. For one thing, Ethan runs into anti-gay bigotry on Kline Station (his first stop-over after leaving Athos, and the site of most of the action), which seems very out of place in an advanced galactic culture. Perhaps it was more believable in 1986, but these days it just sounds anachronistic.

Ethan, of course, gets tangled up in intrigue on Klein Station and is forced to work closely with Elli Quinn (a woman), but Bujold never really goes anywhere with the conflict which should have been happening due to Ethan's background -- Ethan, it turns out, is far less prejudiced than some of the Stationers he met early on, and so manages to work with women without too much trouble. In the end, Athosian attitudes towards women turns out to be nothing more than a plot device to bring shipments of genetic material into the story.

As I said, though, I did enjoy reading the book -- I just wouldn't recommend starting the series with it. For that matter, one can skip over it when reading the series without missing much.

And, of course, the cover art has almost nothing to do with the book. It shows a dramatic fellow in a flight suit standing in front of a big spaceship, looking much like George Bush wishes he'd looked during his "Mission Accomplished" photo-op. It's a scene that never happens in the book. Not only that, the art doesn't make much sense: the fellow's flight suit has an oxygen mask with goggles and a hose leading down to a waist-level pack (he's wearing it hanging around his neck by its strap) but he's also holding a full space helmet, meant to fasten to his collar. There's no reason to have both -- if he were wearing the mask, the helmet wouldn't be able to lock down over the hose, and if he were wearing the helmet, there'd be no point to the mask.

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