It’s time once again for the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, a loving, thoughtful look back at the works of Lois McMaster Bujold in the saga of Miles Vorkosigan and his friends and family. This week I continue in the slightly extraneous novel Ethan of Athos, which, it turns out, has an odd number of chapters. This means that at some point I have to do a weekly post with only one chapter instead of two (since the odds of my doing three chapters in a week is apparently quite low), and, apparently that week is this week. So kick back and let’s take a look at Chapter Five of Ethan of Athos, wherein Dr. Ethan Urquhart and Elli Quinn try to dispose of a dead body on a space station.
Ethan wakes up when Quinn throws a set of Stationer clothes on top of him. She says she has an idea to get rid of the body, but she wants to catch the right people on shift, so they have to hurry. She helps him dress and they leave their refuge with float-pallet and crate in tow. Ethan is feeling a little bit better, but queasy and far from rested. Ethan is nervous about being noticed, but Quinn says that in his red coveralls they’ll think he’s a porter in charge of the crate.
They pass through a hydroponic garden full of carrots, which makes Ethan even more nauseous; Quinn picks him a carrot to try to help settle his stomach, but he decides to stick it in a pocket for later. She takes them through a door marked NO ADMITTANCE (on both sides), and stops in front of another door marked ATMOSPHERE CONTROL. She tells Ethan to keep his mouth shut or his accent will give the game away.
The room on the other side of the door is surrounded by glass walls with water on the other side, filled with plants and newts. Quinn tells Ethan that the plants are to convert CO2 to oxygen, and the newts are to keep the plants in check, but then they have to keep the newts in check. Quinn greets a nearby technician, Dale, and tells him that the Dendarii have never experienced the joys of newt-oriented cuisine.
The tech’s eyes glinted with a humor baffling to Ethan. “What! Can there be a soul in the universe so deprived? No cream of newt soup, either, I suppose?”
“No newt creole,” confided Commander Quinn with mock horror. “No newts ‘n chips.”
“No newt provençal?” chorused the tech. “No newt stew? No newt mousse in aspic? No slither goulash, no newt chowder?”
“Bucket ‘o newts is unknown to them,” confirmed Quinn. “Newt caviar is a delicacy unheard of.”
She asks for some of their excess to take back; he offers three hundred kilos, but she says she can only afford to ship a hundred. She does offer to dispose of the rest for him, though, or take them down to the Transients’ Lounge if they need them. They go up to where Drew stuns a batch of newts in the tank, brings them up in a big newt trap, and packs 100 kg of them into three big cartons. He offers to help them pack their crate, but Quinn says she wants to do it by hand, to pick only the best, and Drew goes back down.
Quinn and Ethan wrestle Okita’s body out of the crate and weigh it, then swap it with an equivalent weight of newts from one of the cartons. Quinn explains that this will leave them in the end with only a crate full of stunned newts to dispose of, which is less fraught than a dead body. Ethan asks if they’re going to dump the body back in with the plants, but Quinn says that he’ll see.
On their way out, Quinn tells Drew that she brought the wrong size shipping canister, but she’ll take the newts down to Disposal anyway. After they leave, a relieved Quinn explains to Ethan that they could have just left the cartons there, but she was afraid that Drew might get an order from the Transients’ Lounge after all and open up the wrong carton… They sell the newts up there as “frog legs” at a premium price, she adds. The stationers are sick of the newts, but Biocontrol thinks they work just fine and refuses to diversify them.
Ethan and Quinn begin speculating about what this genetics project Millisor is so worried about might be. Quinn suggests that maybe the Cetagandans were looking to raise super-soldiers. Ethan is skeptical, pointing out that even super-soldiers need to be raised from babies, and the costs of child-rearing are quite an economic commitment, which couldn’t possibly be spent on something as non-productive as an army.
Elli Quinn quirked an eyebrow. “How odd. On other worlds, people seem to come in floods, and they’re not necessarily impoverished, either.”
Ethan, diverted, said, “Really? I don’t see how that can be. Why, the labor costs alone of bringing a child to maturity are astronomical. There must be something wrong with your accounting.”
Her eyes screwed up in an expression of sudden ironic insight. “Ah, but on other worlds the labor costs aren’t added in. They’re counted as free.”
Ethan stared. “What an absurd bit of double thinking! Athosians would never sit still for such a hidden labor tax! Don’t the primary nurturers even get social duty credits?”
“I believe,” her voice was edged with a peculiar dryness, “they call it women’s work. And the supply usually exceeds the demand—non-union scabs, as it were, undercutting the market.”
Ethan was increasingly puzzled. “Are not most women combat soldiers, then, like you? Are there men Dendarii?”
She hooted, then lowered her voice as a passer-by stared. “Four-fifths of the Dendarii are men. And of the women, three out of four are techs, not troops. Most military services are skewed that way, except for ones like Barrayar that have no women at all.”
“Oh,” said Ethan. After a disappointed pause he added, “You are an atypical sample, then.” So much for his nascent Rules of Female Behavior. . . .
“Atypical.” She was still a moment, then snorted. “Yeah, that’s me all over.”
Ethan eats his carrot as they enter the ECOBRANCH: RECYCLING area, and arrive at Assimilation Station B. Inside there is a lab table with what looks like sampling equipment, as well as lot of monitors and a large machine hooked up to pipes. A technician is doing something between a pair of conduits, and swearing vigorously. She stands up (nametag reading “Helda”), and Quinn is obviously not pleased to see her there. Helda is not impressed with Quinn’s excuse of doing an errand for Dale Zeeman, or her claim to be a former stationer herself, cousin of Teki (who she’d obviously hoped to actually be on shift), and rails about ignorant downsiders putting all sorts of trash into the recycling tubes (like her current example, an oxygen cylinder, freshly wrested from the pipes).
Quinn asks if they can get the cartons recycled, but Helda says it’s the wrong time for it, there’s an interment about to start. Before she can dismiss them, though, the funeral party arrives, and Ethan and Quinn hurriedly sit down on their pallet. The mourners say a few words, but refuse Helda’s offer to stay for the actual interment. Once they’re gone, Helda gets down to business, undressing the corpse of an elderly man and extracting all the inorganic replacements parts. She then puts the body into the large machine which begins to whir. Quinn explains to Ethan that the body is being broken down to its constituents and returned to the ecosystem. For bodies, it’s generally set to fertilize the hydroponics, rather than being sent to the protein vats, like the newts would be. Ethan points out that Okita is going to go in with the newts, and Quinn suggests they turn vegetarian for a month.
Helda turns to find Ethan and Quinn still there, and Quinn explains that she needs to return the float pallet. With poor grace, Helda reprograms the machine and begins to dump the cartons into it. The third carton makes an alarming thump, and Helda is about to open the seals and check on it when Ethan, panicked, claims (in as good a stationer accent as he can manage) to have seen a cockroach. Helda is distracted enough to go examine it, but doesn’t see anything, and Ethan says it was just a flicker in the corner of his eye. She grumbles about idiots seeing things, but says they should call Infestation Control anyway, idly running the recycling machine one more time.
Quinn congratulates Ethan on his quick thinking, since roaches can be a real problem on space stations, liking to eat the insulation off of wiring. She checks the time and says they need to get the float pallet and crate back to the cargo hold soon. She stops and rents a vacuum storage locker for the remaining crate of newts, and she and Ethan lay the newts out in a storage container before sending them off to what Quinn says is storage on the outside of the station. She says she really will have to send them back to Admiral Naismith when all this is over. Ethan tells her that they need to have a good talk about what is really going on, and she agrees.
I’m not 100% convinced about Ethan’s “accent”…mostly because we never hear him comment on the accent of any of the stationers. Maybe he got used to it on the ship or something, but Elli’s the one who actually raises the issue of accents. Maybe it’s just that Elli herself talks in flawless Galactic Standard but can switch back to sounds like the born and bred stationer she is, but I never get a sense that she’s switched from one to the other. It makes perfect sense for Athosians to have an accent, as isolated as they have been, but if so it’s barely noticeable in his word choice, and Bujold doesn’t indicate any differences in pronunciation at any point. Compare this to the contrast between Barrayarans’ “guttural” vs. Betans’ “flat” vowels, mentioned in The Warrior’s Apprentice, at least, and probably Shards of Honour as well. A missed opportunity to add a little more flavour, I guess.
This is the chapter that I remember most from my previous reread of the book, and I’m almost surprised in retrospect to find that it’s actually only a chapter, because in memory it seems much larger. They seemed to take forever wandering around the bowels of the station trying to dispose of the body. Elli does have a plan, of course, which is admittedly a little fragile because Helda being there instead of Teki almost knocks it off the rails. Does that mean that Teki wouldn’t have noticed the thump, or would have just let Elli dump them in? Didn’t Elli consider that the body might not slide out as easily as the newts? I guess not.
One place (of many) where Bujold does come down on the side of plausibility is on the whole cloning issue. Both here and elsewhere she acknowledges the reality that clones can’t just be grown to adulthood in vats, but have to be raised from infancy, and that just possibly this might be a teensy bit of work. Quinn’s comment that “woman’s work” is generally not included in the accounting certainly rings true for today’s society, but is it still so widespread in Galactic society this far in the future? I can see it on Barrayar, of course, as benighted and backward as it is, but on Kline Station? Beta Colony? Maybe I’m just overoptimistic, but it seems that at least some societies may have made some progress in equality, and that perhaps Quinn might have had some experience or at least knowledge of such societies. Maybe she (or Bujold) just wanted to make a point, I guess…
I’m sure next week I will be back up to speed with a full two chapters, have no fear on that account, so just sit tight until then and try to think of something to do with the sudden bonus of time I’ve bestowed to you with my reduced-size, economy-version Reread Post. Until then, I remain….