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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