Vorkosigan Saga #9: Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 22 January, 2018

Like Falling Free, this book is set within the Vorkosigan universe, but isn’t about either Miles or his mother, Cordelia.

I really enjoyed this one. Feminist science fiction tends break with genre conventions in interesting ways, but Ethan of Athos managed even to break with those breaks – first by centring the story on a man, then by using one patriarchal society as the backdrop for exploring an entirely different patriarchy. And, while there are only two important female characters in the book (a minority by a fairly wide margin), and while those women break rather significantly from what North American culture would see as “women’s” roles, the book manages to have a lot to say about how women (and women’s labour) get valued.

One of the most ding-ding moments in the book is when Ethan is talking about the tremendous labour cost of raising an army, and is surprised to find out that – in the outside universe – all that labour is simply unaccounted for. It belongs primarily to women, and is therefore not “productive” labour. On his own world, where there are no women and therefore where parenting is handled exclusively by men, that labour is recognised as such. This fit in beautifully with what feminist economists like Nancy Folbre argue.

I loved Bujold’s vision of human adaptability. While North American culture still disproportionately offloads the labour of parenting onto women, and while so many will straight-facedly argue that it is simply a matter of biology, Bujold presents us with an all-male society where men – absent any other choices – simply step up and become parents. Some, like the main character, Ethan, go well beyond that to be downright nurturing. From the very beginning, Ethan is preoccupied with babies. His whole career is devoted to their creation, his long term goal throughout the novel is to have children of his own, and it is the threat to babies that incites his actions again and again.

The same is the case for Bujold’s concept of sexuality. Absent choices, many people will content themselves with homosexuality regardless of what they would choose if choices were available – as we see in gender-segregated environments like prisons and the military. History has many examples of societies with different conceptions of sexuality – Ancient Greece being the most well-known example. And, of course, Bujold allows for those individuals whose sexuality is less flexible, which on Athos would mean the celibate orders. It’s a vision of sexual fluidity that doesn’t get mentioned much in a culture where homosexuality is always on the defensive.

I’ve been hoping for a glimpse of the Quaddies ever since Falling Free. Now, I guess I’ll be hoping to see what the future holds for Athos.

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Vorkosigan Saga #8: Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 2 January, 2018

The Cetagandans have lurked in the shadows of this series since the beginning, but – other than a brief glimpse in Warrior’s Apprentice – this is the first time we’ve gotten to meet any of them.

The stakes don’t feel quite as high in this book, for some reason, but the worldbuilding is incredible. It reminded me a bit of A Door Into Ocean and Dune, in the sense that women are in charge of bio-engineering. And, in all three books, it’s through the monopoly of bio-engineering that these women secure their power/freedom.

I liked the way the female and male spheres were separated, yet also intertwined and interdependent – mirrored by the relationship between the haut and the ghem classes.

Mostly, though, I liked that all of this was just a glimpse. Miles is permitted a peek at the inner lives of the haut, but no more than that. I can’t wait to see both how Miles’s actions in this book will affect the Cetagandans of the future, as well as how his experiences with them will affect his own responses to their future conflicts.

I love seeing how much Miles seems to be maturing as the series progresses. He seems more self-aware now, with a greater understanding of why he does the things he does (like keep problems secret from his superiors until he can solve them himself).

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