The Magic of Elli: Ethan of Athos and Labyrinth

Alex and I carry on with our review series of the Miles Vorkosigan saga with the novel Ethan of Athos and the novella “Labyrinth” (published with Cetaganda in the omnibus Miles, Mayhem and Mystery). We have discussed Cordelia’s Honor (Shards of Honor and Barrayar) and the Young Miles omnibus (The Warrior’s Apprentice and “The Mountains of Mourning” and The Vor Game) previously.

Ethan of Athos and “Labyrinth”

By Lois McMaster Bujold

ALEX:

This novel started enjoyably enough, if weirdly, what with the discussion of uterine replicators – it is an unusual enough thing to encounter in SF that imagining a roomful of the things with an attending physician is weirder for me than reading about FTL! Anyway, things then got even weirder, and for me way harder to read, when it’s revealed that these replicators are being used because Athos is a world populated entirely by men.

TEHANI:

It’s really clever, the way it starts out. We know about uterine replicators because of Cordelia’s story (and Elena’s too, in fact), and so we naturally assume these are simply gestating children for some parents of the “usual” type. It’s quite a shock when we find out differently! It was a good introduction to the world though, setting us up to be fond of the main character.

ALEX:

The opening few chapters, those set on Athos, were quite a trial for me to read. The misogyny was so believably portrayed that, were this my first encounter with Bujold and/or I thought it was written by a man, I would probably have given up in disgust and never touched the series again. I swallowed my bile and continued because I figured a) Bujold deserved some trust after the characters of Cordelia and Elena, and b) neither Tehani and Tansy would have put up with that sort of crap. Turns out, thankfully, that this was a fair decision. Of course.

TEHANI:

Of course! Would we steer you wrong? I think Alisa might have stumbled into that problem though – have a feeling it may be the books she tried to start with, which really isn’t a good idea. Readers, be warned! Ethan of Athos is NOT the place to start reading this series!

ALEX:

Whoa, I cannot imagine starting with this book.

TEHANI:

Having said that, I didn’t have the same reaction as you. For some reason, I wasn’t offended that this was a lifestyle choice made by a group of men a couple of centuries earlier. I guess I read it as that while yes, some of the men making up the colony originally might have been women haters, others would have joined for different reasons. And many years later, there is that whole whisper game that’s gone on about what women are like, causing both inaccuracies and naivity in the current generation. Ethan’s own reaction probably demonstrates that best, when he reads the scientific journal and can’t tell which articles are by men and by women! (Hilarious, by the way, in light of recent discussions on just that!). I was more cross that the children growing up on Athos weren’t educated about the outside world, and women, in any sort of way other than to dismiss or demonise them. Hmm, maybe that’s what you mean!

ALEX:

I think I find the very idea of men wanting to escape from women in this permanent way – since that’s what the planet is all about – irrational and offensive, when they also want to ensure continuity of their genes. They’re not giving their sons the chance to make the choice for themselves. There are some lines that really struck me – the “revolted silence” that greets the idea of growing female fetuses to harvest their ovaries, for example. It is a revolting idea, but the men are revolted by the idea of women being present in any real way on their planet. The way that some of the characters spoke of genetic choice I also found uncomfortable.

Anyway, the ovaries that Athos has been using for 200 years to develop their foetuses from are coming to the end of their productive lives. Ethan is an … obstetrician, I guess … who discovers that the replacements they’ve purchased are not what they thought. In turn, he gets sent on a mission off-world, to get some more. This of course means that he has to deal with that sin-inducing entity, Woman. His first encounter on the station where he disembarks is with just such a personage … who turns out to be Elli Quinn! Tehani, she is back in my life, just as you promised! Ethan ends up getting involved in a Cetagandan mess concerning genetic experiments with telepathy. He learns that women are not (necessarily) the enemy – although he does end up going home, to Athos, and mostly happily.

TEHANI:

Yep, it’s an overdose of Elli! She’s so awesome, and I think this book is fantastic because it really sets her up as an intelligent and resourceful person all on her own, not just as a sidekick to Miles. Well played Bujold!

ALEX:

Yeah, I am definitely an Elli fan.

Athos as a planet is a really interesting place. I’m very interested to hear, Tehani, what you think of it coming from a mother’s perspective. Like I said I found the misogyny hard to deal with. As a society, though, I was fascinated. The idea of earning social credits so that you can become a Designated Alternate – and the idea that being a parent is actually, hugely, valued in society. Ethan’s shock and horror that parenthood should be treated as unpaid labour was quite welcome coming from a male character! The idea also that celibacy is an accepted part of society was nice to see, as was the genuine love for children and Ethan’s desire to have a large, connected family.

TEHANI:

I think the actual societal model is brilliant! There are some people who really shouldn’t have kids, and parenthood is definitely undervalued in our society – to have both issues dealt with (in what I think is actually a very smart and sensible model) was a delight. Somebody make that world with women and I’ll be there! 🙂

ALEX:

Cetaganda does not come off well in this story at all. Their genetic experiments are shown as just that, experiments, and the idea that they might just possibly be serving an admittedly somewhat dubious greater purpose – as demonstrated in the novel Cetaganda – is barely alluded to. This is one of the disparities between the two stories.

TEHANI:

See, this is where it fell apart a bit for me. Terrence and his background simply don’t fit the Cetagandan societal mould set up in Cetaganda! Here’s a quote (from p 319 in the paperback omnibus) to demonstrate:

“Is Cetaganda – controlled by women or something?”
A laugh escaped her [Elli]. “Hardly. I’d call it a typical male-dominated totalitarian state, only slightly mitigated by their rather artistic cultural peculiarities…”

It goes on to talk about genetics projects headed by men, sponsored by the Cetagandan military. In Cetaganda though, genetics is the sole province of women, right? And telepathy is NEVER hinted at!

Later (p 373), this conversation takes place:

There was no talk at all of ever admitting him to the ghem-comrades, the tightly-knit society of men who controlled the officer corps and the military junta that in turn controlled the planet of Cetaganda, its conquests, and its client outposts.

It all just feels WRONG given what we know from Miles’ adventures on Cetaganda – which surely Elli knows too!

Ethan of Athos was published about ten years before Cetaganda though, and therein lies the problem. Bujold obviously changed her mind about how she wanted Cetaganda to work between the two books, but reading them in close proximity makes the continuity issues very apparent. I like the Cetaganda version better (as I mentioned in the last review) and I think comparing the two, it’s pretty easy to see why Bujold changed track there. Terrence’s Cetaganda, what we see of it, seems just another male-dominated society, whereas the exploration of the society we see in the novel Cetaganda gives us a very different norm.

Bujold’s afterword in the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus which contains these stories is interesting for her discussion on the way she let the Cetagandans evolve in their own book, rather than just being the “rather all-purpose bad guys” they started out in the earliest stories. She also talks there about extra-uterine replication and genetic engineering, themes in all three books to one extent or another, making it a great wrap up to the sequence!

To be fair, I think the Cetagandan glitch one of the very few continuity problems with the Vorkosigan saga as a whole, so maybe I’ll simmer down and just let it slide now 🙂

ALEX:

It is indeed an interesting look at lack of continuity. I’d be interested to know what sort of notes Bujold kept!

Miles does not feature in this story personally. He does get several mentions, though, as Quinn reflects on her ?love/admiration? for him, and the role that she is playing within the Dendarii Mercenaries as an information agent. It’s a curious part of the Miles universe in that sense, and I can’t help but wonder whether Bujold considered a series featuring Quinn in her own right…

TEHANI:

OOOH!! What a GREAT IDEA!! Let’s write to her and ask her for that 🙂

I liked the ending of this book – I think Ethan shows tremendous but believable growth throughout the story, and his admiration of Elli is expressed in the most important way he can. Perhaps taking Terrence back with him and the little hopeful romance projected are a bit trite, but overall, it works pretty well.

ALEX:

I was shocked at first by Ethan’s request/suggestion I was shocked at first by Ethan’s request/suggestion that he take one of Elli’s ovaries, but came around to your point very quickly – that it’s an expression of immense respect, actually. Terrence is the character we haven’t spoken of much yet – he’s quite the enigma, since Elli and Ethan have slightly different takes on him and the Cetagandan has a very different view. I actually wondered, towards the end, whether the Cetagandan was telling the truth and that Terrence would actually end up betraying Ethan, so I was pleased to discover that he was on the up and up. And I didn’t think the romance was that trite, in the end.

The omnibus is complemented by the novella “Labyrinth” which rounds out quite nicely, I think, a discussion of genetic engineering in the Vorkosigan universe. Miles gets employed to pick up a disaffected geneticist from Jackson’s Whole. Things (of course) go somewhat awry, and Miles ends up having to retrieve a genetic package … which is secreted in the leg of a genetic experiment … which is locked in a dungeon at the bottom of a very nasty man’s research facility. The genetic experiment turns out to be a fanged, clawed and 8-foot-tall 16 year old girl.

TEHANI:

And isn’t it fun how Miles’ adventures ALWAYS go awry? One of my favourite things about the books.

ALEX:

SO MANY DISASTERS.

I enjoyed this story, and it was nice to get back to Miles relying on his wits to get things done – and, this time, actually finding that his lack of height is af advantage, when having to crawl through ducts. I will admit to being a bit uncomfortable about Miles’ sexual encounter with Taura – no matter that she’s huge, she’s still young! And I’m not comfortable with the idea that sex can be used quite so (ahem) mercenarily – not and have both parties apparently enjoy it. Yes yes, perhaps I am confused in my attitude towards this bit; I’ll be the first to admit it!

TEHANI:

Yep, I struggled with that too. So many reasons this is not cool. From one angle, if you squint, it could be said that Bujold is using Miles like women are often used in books – as a sacrifice on the altar of sex in order to get to a higher goal. But yeah, Taura is so young, and naive, and unsophisticated, that it’s just icky. It also makes me wonder why, exactly, the character had to be this age? Miles is 23 in this story, and it’s something that bothers me a lot – if there’s no real reason the character couldn’t be a year or two (or three) older, why not make them that? I mean, Taura has a shortened life span, so making her 16 means Bujold can get more years out of her I guess, but really? It’s her own world building she’s dealing with! And while we aren’t going to read Falling Free in the reread (it’s not a Vorkosigan book, it doesn’t count I tell ya!), Bujold does the same thing with a character there too, which also squicked me (and is one of two main reasons I don’t really like the book – the other being, it’s not MILES!). So yeah, not cool, especially when it’s avoidable. If Bujold gets so much right, should we fuss when we have a problem with one thing?

ALEX:

I guess it’s disappointing to find these sorts of issues in books that we otherwise enjoy – I don’t like finding flaws in those I admire!

Anyhow, I also enjoyed this story for its greater exploration of Bel Thorne, the Betan hermaphrodite, and other Dendarii. I can see the crew developing in further stories, and I look forward to it greatly.

TEHANI:

Ah, Bel. I’m a fan of Bel – it is such a complex character, and Bujold draws it so well. Its emotional and physical journey is a highlight. Overall, I liked “Labyrinth”, and, no spoilers, but this story actually sows a lot of seeds that will grow hugely over the coming books!

ALEX:

Of course it does. Look forward to their growth and harvest!

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