Welcome back, named and anonymous readers on the Internet, to the Vorkosigan Saga Reread. This week we start a new book, Ethan of Athos, chronologically after Cetaganda though written long before it. The books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series generally involves Miles Vorkosigan, or at least his mother Cordelia. Generally.
Ethan of Athos is the second book in the omnibus volume Miles, Mystery & Mayhem, and it includes at most two of the three elements in that title, because there is no Miles in it. That’s probably one reason why I haven’t reread it nearly as much as I have the rest of the series, because it isn’t technically a Vorkosigan book at all. There’s no Vorkosigans in it; the closest we get is one of the Dendarii, and a mention of a Naismith. Last time I reread it, it was better than I remembered it, so I decided to include it in this reread (as opposed to Falling Free, for example). It’s one of Bujold’s first novels, and yet hardly anything in her later books springs from it; without that reference in Cetaganda years later, it could lift out of the series without a trace. And it does, unfortunately, have a really slow start, so I’m hoping that I’m recall correctly that it does get better…
Dr. Ethan Urquhart deftly delivers a baby boy from a uterine replicator at Sevarin District Reproduction Centre, where he works, on the planet of Athos; he pronounces the baby perfectly healthy, to the delight of the baby’s waiting father.
On his way to check on one of his more worrisome embryos, he chats with Georos from the night shift. When he checks on the embryo, CJB-9, he finds that it’s non-viable, not having formed properly. Georos says that the father is scheduled to come talk to Ethan so they can get permission to terminate, which Ethan is less than thrilled about.
On his morning inspection, Ethan first reprimands one tech for playing raucous modern music instead of more sedate classical works (“the classic hymn ‘God of Our Fathers, Light The Way’ rendered by the United Brethren String Chamber Orchestra”), then another for letting the levels of waste toxins get dangerously close to the maximum allowed before changing the filter. As such, he almost misses the CJB-9 father when he arrives, and has to dash back up to his office. The father, Brother Haas, is surprised at Ethan’s youth.
Ethan touched his shaved chin, then became self-conscious of the gesture and put his hand down hastily. If only he had a beard, or even a mustache, people would not be constantly mistaking him for a 20-year-old despite his six-foot frame. Brother Haas was sporting a beard, about a two-week growth, scrubby by comparison to the luxuriant mustache that proclaimed him a long-standing designated alternate parent. Solid citizen. Ethan sighed. “Sit, sit,” he gestured again.
Haas asks what the problem is, for him to come all the way in person; Ethan notes that he came from Crystal Springs, even though there is a closer Reproduction Centre, and Haas said that Sevarin had a CJB stock, which he particularly wanted. A recent farming accident made him realize that they needed a doctor, and CJB’s tend to make good doctors. Ethan says that it’s far from a certain correlation, but admits that he himself is a CJB-8.
Ethan tells him that the embryo was non-viable; Haas asks if there’s genetic damage they can repair, but Ethan says that only a few common problems can be fixed that way, if they’re spotted early. He tells Haas that since the problem was with the ovum, they won’t charge him extra, but they can’t offer CJB anymore. In fact, nobody can, because this was the last viable CJB culture on the whole planet. Haas asks why they’ve stopped working, if there was some kind of offworlder sabotage.
“No, no!” Ethan said. Ye gods, what a riot that fabulous rumor could start. “It’s perfectly natural. The first CJB culture was brought by the Founding Fathers when Athos was first settled—it’s almost two hundred years old. Two hundred years of excellent service. It’s just—senescent. Old. Worn out. Used up. Reached the end of its life-cycle, already dozens of times longer than it would have lived in a, ah,” it wasn’t an obscenity, he was a doctor and it was correct medical terminology, “woman.”
He talks Haas into trying a JJY-8 instead, since one of his best medtechs is a JJY-7. He hopes Haas doesn’t follow his statement to its logical conclusion, since all of the ovarian cultures they have on Athos are descended from those brought by the Founding Fathers, and so they’re all in danger of senescence, and CJB is not the first to disappear. A distressingly large number of embryos are coming from the shrinking pool of cultures that haven’t begun to have problems yet, and things are only getting worse. They need a long-term solution for the issue.
Over the next three months, another culture dies, and another one’s egg production is on a severe decline. One day, the Chief of Staff, Desroches, calls Ethan to inform him that a mail ship has docked at the space station. Ethan has received some copies of The Betan Journal of Reproductive Medicine, but that’s not all. When he arrives in Desroches’s office, he sees the large refrigerated container from House Bharaputra on Jackson’s Whole, with a new selection of fifty ovarian samples. Ethan is vastly relieved that they have finally arrived, with nobody having to venture off the planet to try to obtain them. Desroches assigns him to get the new cultures settled in.
Ethan starts thawing the cultures, though he only planets to do twelve of them at first, enough to fill the support units left vacant by the deterioration of the original cultures; a whole new bank of machines is in the works to contain the rest of them. While he waits, he takes a look at the Betan journals; his censorship level has risen high enough now that he can, for the first time, read offworld journals uncensored. Most of the articles have to do with in vivo births, involving actual “women”, and he makes sure to avoid those, but the ones involving uterine replicators or male reproducing apparatus he finds interesting. One new technique for the replicators he finds intriguing enough to look up at the authors, Kara Burton and Elizabeth Naismith; he is taken aback by their pictures, beardless like young, childless men but showing clear signs of age. He half-expects insanity to strike him just from seeing the images, as it is supposed to do when you see women in the flesh, but apparently the pictures don’t have the same effect.
He opens up one of the new cultures which has reached the correct temperature. He is taken aback to find it shrink-wrapped, and raw material rather than an actual culture. Many of them look odd; when he counts them, there’s only thirty-eight; and some of them are too large, and familiar from his time spent butchering meat in K.P. as cow ovaries. Once he’s satisfied himself of his conclusions, he bursts into Desroches’s office and gives him the bad news.
Desroches was just donning his coat, the light of home in his eye; he never turned off the holocube until he was done for the day. He stared at Ethan’s wild, disheveled face. “My God, Ethan, what is it?”
“Trash from hysterectomies. Leavings from autopsies, for all I know. A quarter of them are clearly cancerous, half are atrophied, five aren’t even human for God’s sake! And every single one of them is dead.“
Bujold takes a bit of a risk in this book, making our main viewpoint character (the only one for the book, as I recall) someone from a distinctly different culture. It takes a little while to notice, perhaps, the complete lack of female characters, but discovering that “woman” is a somewhat distasteful term that can only be used clinically is the first sign. Ethan’s reaction to the pictures, and the stories of the madness that women strike in the hearts of men, reveals just how neurotic the culture is about them. The author isn’t actively judgemental against the inhabitants of Athos, since everyone is actually fairly well-adjusted as long as women don’t come up, and not too caricatured. Everyone is perforce gay, or possibly just asexual by Athos standards. Though sex is evidently not required to produce babies, so it may be optional. Haas lives in a commune, so pair-bonding for parenting may not be required, as long as somebody will be available to raise the children…
I seem to recall that it becomes clear at some point that the ovarian culture letters are the initials of the original donors (and it makes me wonder if LMB used the initials of friends or fans or just made them up). The numbers I’m not quite as sure about, but I guess they must do some cloning or copying of the original cultures or something… Okay, I don’t know, and maybe they go into it more later, but I don’t recall that particularly.
I guess there are a few references to things that turn up again in the series–House Bharaputra on Jackson’s Whole, for instance, as the suppliers of the cultures. Athos is doubtless standoffish about dealing with offworld women, so maybe they ended up with Jackson’s Whole because the Jacksonians are less picky and willing to meet the Athosians’ doubtless bizarre conditions. Except that they apparently screwed them up this time… Oh, and I’m pretty sure that Elizabeth Naismith is Miles’s Betan grandmother, of course.
Ethan is brought along to an emergency Population Council meeting where they try to decide what to do about the outrageous shipment. It emerges that they bought from the lowest bidder, but they had promised fifty cultures for each Centre, and the next would only have sent thirty. They have only four days until the ship leaves again, and there won’t be another for a year. Some of the representatives grumble that they should have their own ships, and others ask them how many Reproduction Centres they want to trade for them. One councilor makes the suggestion that they could grow their own ovaries, using female fetuses, not bringing them completely to term…the other councilors, revolted, say they’re not that desperate yet.
The councilors are also worried about the problem of genetic diversity, especially given that they only had three immigrants this year and two the year before…and those tend to be a little “strange”. They agree that they need to get some new cultures, but this time they will have to send an agent actually offplanet to supervise it. Desroches says that they need a man with technical know-how and proven integrity, given that he’ll be handling all of their available foreign currency, moral fibre to resist the temptations of the greater galaxy, as well as energy and conviction; he adds that this man should also be unattached, not to leave an overburdened partner behind him. Belatedly, Ethan realizes that Desroches has been thinking of him the whole time.
After the meeting, Ethan complains that Desroches had set him up, and Desroches admits it, but said he would never have volunteered on his own. He asks Ethan if he can think of someone better they could have picked, like the fellow with his talk of female fetuses… Desroches also points out the social credits that this trip will earn Ethan, ten years’ worth, if he returns. Ethan says it’s his foster-brother and partner who really needs them, but they’re not transferrable. Desroches says that Ethan’s partner is likeable enough, but totally irresponsible; Ethan tells him to stay out of his private life. Desroches said at least they didn’t draft him and send him out on military pay.
Desroches drops Ethan back at his house, with four days to prepare for the trip. Ethan thinks about his foster brother Janos, son of his father’s Designated Alternate, one of five children the two had had. Ethan had been happy when Janos came to Sevarin to live with him, and hopes to find comfort in his arms, but instead finds the apartment deserted. Checking the garage, he finds his new lightflyer gone, but according to the locator it’s only a few blocks away. He decides to walk over and surprise Janos at whatever party he’s doubtless attending.
Instead, he finds emergency tow vehicles trying to extricate his lightflyer out of the upper branches of a tree. A bystander tells him that one of the two men who’d been inside it when it crashed had been taken to the hospital, and the other, obviously completely intoxicated, had been taken to the police station. A parks official starts tallying up Ethan’s fine for damage to the tree, and then the lightflyer slides out of the branches.
Five meters per second, thought Ethan with hysterical irrelevancy. Times 25 meters times how many kilograms?
The nose-down impact on the granite cobblestones starred the gleaming red outer shell of the flyer with fracture lines from front to rear. In the sudden silence after the great crunch Ethan could quite clearly hear an elfin tinkle of expensive electronic instrumentation within, coming to rest a little out of phase with the main mass.
Ethan finds Janos at the police station to bail him out. He asks Janos how they crashed, and Janos tells him how he and his friend Nick were divebombing some birds (on Athos, that meant feral mutant chickens) and hit the tree by accident. Finding out it was before dark, Ethan asks why Janos wasn’t at work, and it emerged that Janos had failed to get up (Ethan’s fault, for leaving him with only the alarm to wake him), had gotten a talking-to at work which ended up with Janos losing his temper, picking a fight with his boss, and getting fired. The police let Ethan take Janos home, since the charges have all been settled.
When they get home, Janos admits that the fine came out of his already depleted social duty credits. Ethan is incensed that Janos can’t manage even the minimal accumulation that would have allowed any regular person to get one parenting credit by now, and Janos’s irresponsibility isn’t a good sign for parenthood anyway. Janos says he doesn’t care about babies that much anyway, and Ethan is disgusted at his foster-brother’s self-centeredness. He tells Janos he’s leaving, and explains about the assignment he’s been given to go to Jackson’s Whole.
“Now who doesn’t care?” said Janos angrily. “Off for a year without so much as a by-your-leave. What about me? What am I supposed to do while you’re . . .” Janos’s voice plowed into silence. “Ethan—isn’t Jackson’s Whole a planet? Out there? With—with—them on it?”
Ethan nodded. “I leave in four—no, three days, on the galactic census ship. You can have all my things. I don’t know—what’s going to happen out there.”
Janos’s chiseled face was drained sober. In a small voice he said, “I’ll go clean up.”
Five metres per second–that’s about half a gee (assuming they mean “metres per second squared”, that is). I guess most of the Athosians are used to the low gravity, not having known anything else, but I really had forgotten there was anything odd about the gravity… I guess we’ll see how Ethan reacts to the different gravities when he goes offworld. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t make it to Jackson’s Whole, that I recall.)
There does seem to be an explicitly sexual relationship between Ethan and Janos, which is…well, maybe a little squicky, since they’re foster brothers, but I guess they’re not likely to be “inbreeding”, are they? One presumes that they keep track of everyone’s “mothers” so that they can keep that from happening, though there’s little reference to it in these first two chapters. Though it does mention how Ethan and Janos’s parents had a pair of children where each had used the other’s maternal ovarian culture, which makes my head spin a little bit. Sort of like two men each having a child with the other man’s mother, or sister, or cousin…without any “women” actually being involved, of course.
Janos is a piece of work, isn’t he? One might hope that being forcibly deprived of his partner like this might shock him to reality somehow, so I guess we’ll have to see if he shows up in the denouement or anything. I’m not holding my breath, though.
I’m not sure what I think of the female-fetus thing. Where did the original ovaries come from? Donated by the original women, somehow? Given that the founders of Athos may have been just a teensy bit crazy, it’s not impossible that the “donation” was involuntary, but I don’t remember any such skeletons coming out later, so I may just be overdramatizing. Anyway, the Athosians find the idea distasteful because of the idea of raising female fetuses, I imagine; modern-day North Americans are probably more concerned about the “raising disposable fetuses” issue, which is still considered a bit beyond the pale morally. Considering that there is demonstrably cloning technology available in later books, it’s likely that somewhere else, probably on Jackson’s Whole, there is somebody with the knowhow to create embryos from two men’s genetic material, but I suppose it’s probably out of Athos’s price range, plus it wouldn’t do much to help their genetic diversity…
Next week things should pick up a bit, as Ethan actually arrives at Kline Station, the setting for most of the rest of the book, and the plot really starts. It’s possible that we may even see a familiar face–well, not that familiar, since the last time we saw her she didn’t really have a face at all…