Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold
Synopsis from GoodReads
The familiar old SF “planet of women” chestnut is reversed in the planet of Athos — an all-male planet made possible by the invention of the uterine replicator. Ethan, drawn out of his beloved Athos by a quest, finds himself an alien in more mainstream human society, and cannot help but find women disturbing aliens as well, especially the ultra-competent, ultra-beautiful Elli.
Ethan of Athos is Lois McMaster Bujold’s third novel. It departs from the concerns of the Vorkosigan family to explore the ramifications of advanced biotechnology, turning many a cliché on its head along the way.
It’s very refreshing to see the ‘usual’ sci-fi trope of an all-woman planet/race reversed here in Bujold’s Ethan of Athos. In fact, not only does Bujold reverse the gender, but she manages to steer clear of the more common pitfalls, cliches, and annoyances that tend to surround the trope’s usage (usually by male writers. Hmm….).
Like in many of the other Vorkosigan Saga novels, the plot of Ethan touches on ethics, morals, and various viewpoints concerning reproduction. The fact that we see this discussion from the third person limited POV of a gay man from a world without women does, in some ways, limit the discourse. But I don’t think that’s a major problem. Partially because Ethan, like Cordelia Naismith from Bujold’s previous books in the series, is willing to listen to other view points and, also like Cordelia, is an emphatic person. On top of that, some of Bujold’s other novels have already given us some very different viewpoints on the subject, so it’s not as if she’s limiting herself.
In fact, reproduction and family structure seem to be at the heart of many of Bujold’s novels, if not all of them. Or at least play a central role. Cloning, in vitro and in vivo reproduction, genetic tampering pre-birth, ritualized infanticide… all of these and more are issues that Bujold and her characters tackle again and again, in different ways, and with different sub-genres poking in. But over and over, Bujold comes back to families, humanity, and the influence of technology on procreation. I think that’s one of the reasons I keep coming back to Bujold’s novels, even though I have to admit that Miles is definitely not one of my favorite view point characters. Because she is focused on how technology impacts things that I care about.
There are some minor quibbles to be found in Ethan of Athos, to be sure. One of them, of course, is that, if you’re female, you might be offended. Ethan is from a planet where women are evil. And so when he finds himself confronted by women… Well, some of his attitudes and reactions are less than flattering. But I was mostly able to shrug that off.
My main issue was that I felt the pacing was inconsistent. I don’t know why. It could be because of the space between reading chunks. But I still felt as if sometimes things moved too quickly and other times they dragged out. The action climax belongs to the first of those while a decent chunk of the middle belongs to the second. And, of course, there’s the novel’s length. My copy clocks in at just shy of 200 pages. That’s short for a sci-fi novel, although Bujold explained in an author’s note that it seemed that publishers were looking for shorter novels when she wrote and submitted it. But it’s still not a lot of space to fit in what is actually quite a bit of story.
Overall, however, I enjoyed Ethan of Athos. And it did leave me ready to return to Miles in the series’s next installment.