Ethan of Athos
Cover of the first edition
|Author||Lois McMaster Bujold|
|Preceded by||The Warrior's Apprentice|
|Followed by||Falling Free|
Ethan of Athos is an English language science fiction novel that is part of the Vorkosigan Saga by American author Lois McMaster Bujold. It is an unusual item in the series in that it does not feature Miles Vorkosigan, the protagonist of almost all the other books. It appears in the 2001 omnibus Miles, Mystery and Mayhem.
The name "Athos" for the main character's planet may be a reference to Mount Athos in Greece. Alternatively, it may be an indirect tribute to the actor Oliver Reed, whom Bujold is known to admire (she has cited him as a model for Miles' father Aral Vorkosigan); Reed played the role of Athos in the 1973 film version of The Three Musketeers.[speculation?]
It tells the story of Dr. Ethan Urquhart, Chief of Biology at the Severin District Reproduction Centre on the planet of Athos, and his quest to Kline Station to find out what happened to a shipment of vital ovarian tissue cultures.
Athos was founded and maintained as an exclusively male-populated planetary colony, and a planetary religion and ideology supports this single-sex structure. Their continuing reproduction relies on uterine replicator technology and ovarian tissue cultures. However, after 200 years of service, the ovarian cultures introduced by the original colonists are deteriorating into senescence. The Population Council orders new ovarian cultures from another planet, Jackson's Whole, but upon delivery discover they have received an unusable mixture of dead and animal tissues. The Council appoints Ethan their planetary ambassador and sends him offworld in search of a fresh batch of tissue cultures, and (if possible) a refund from the original supplier, House Bharaputra. This is considered to be a very daring assignment as it means contact with women, who Athosians are taught are demonic and terrifying. This impression is only reinforced by the men who periodically move to their planet from the wider galaxy and report upon the horrors of womankind.
Ethan's first encounter with a woman occurs when he asks directions from Commander Elli Quinn, a rather unorthodox intelligence officer with the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, who is on home leave for the first time in ten years. Many men stare at Quinn, though the reasons why are a mystery to Ethan (it turns out that Quinn's face was surgically reconstructed to be extremely beautiful). Ethan learns that women in general are not the monsters he was taught they were; they are as varied as men and range from honorable to devious to helpful to selfish. Ethan quickly gets embroiled in some trouble: he is attacked by military agents from Cetaganda who are seeking the fugitive Terrence Cee as well as the lost tissue cultures, but Elli rescues him.
Terrence, who approaches Ethan with a request for asylum, turns out to be the last surviving creation (originally labelled as L-X-10-Terran-C) of a Cetagandan genetic project to create telepaths. Although his telepathy is reliable, it has a small range and can only be triggered for a short amount of time by ingesting large doses of the amino acid tyramine. Terrance’s female counterpart, Janine (J-9-X-Ceta-G), was killed in their escape, but he managed to preserve her body and convey it to Jackson's Whole, where he bribed House Bharaputra to splice her genes into the ovarian cultures that were purchased by Athos. Terrence had intended to escort the cultures to their destination on Athos but was delayed on his way to Kline Station, and is now horrified to learn that the cultures were stolen and replaced by the useless material that ultimately arrived on Athos.
After Terrence's departure from Jackson's Whole, the Cetagandans attacked House Bharaputra, killed the researchers who had worked with him, and destroyed their records. These Cetagandans then followed him to Kline Station, and are the same agents who attacked Ethan. In turn, the Bharaputrans hired Elli to track down the Cetagandan agents, although she is also gathering information for the Dendarii.
It turns out that for petty personal reasons, a minor official on Kline Station "threw out" the Bharaputran tissue cultures that contained Janine's genes. Elli defeats the Cetagandans and attempts to recruit Terrence to the Dendarii, but he is far more attracted to the isolated, uncomplicated life on Athos. He does give Elli a small genetic sample to take back to the Dendarii, but not before Ethan asks her for (and receives) one of her ovaries to create a new tissue culture.
After her departure, the original Bharaputran shipment unexpectedly turns up intact and usable, not destroyed. Ethan buys a new set of ovarian cultures anyway as a cover, uses their packaging to relabel the cultures with Janine's genes, and returns with them and Terrence to Athos. Elli's donated ovary culture is an additional, 451st culture.
Athos, a three mooned planet undergoing extensive terraforming, is what author Lois McMaster Bujold refers to as a "monastery" planet, similar to real-life all-male cloisters. The planetary economy is self-sustaining and virtually completely independent of interstellar trade. The entire human planetary population is male. Athos was settled some 200 years earlier by an exodus of religious zealots who sought to found a sanctuary away from women, who have since become mythologized as "demonic" due to the "madness" they cause in men. Contact with the rest of human civilization is limited to an annual interstellar courier from Kline Station that brings information, supplies and immigrants, though the number of immigrants has decreased significantly over the years. Emigration is not illegal, but very few men want to leave the planet. All incoming information is screened with all references to, and images of, women being censored before dispersal to the planet. Athos’ extreme isolation and history have led it to be derisively referred to as "The Planet of the Fags" by lower-class citizens of other territories. While homosexuality is generally the norm on Athos, it is by far not a sexuality shared by the entire population.
Most Athosians are religious, however, remaining quite liberal, with a strong devotion to their families and communities. Partnerships are usually romantic and sexual, resembling homosexual couples in our society, but both celibacy and youthful promiscuity are also present. Ethan himself feels attraction to Terrence, but not to the various women he encounters throughout the story. Athosians regard an individual's sexuality as a very private matter.
Only the need to replenish a few vital items, like ovarian tissue cultures every other century, keeps Athos from severing all ties to the rest of human civilization. Athos has almost no tradable natural resources, however it is suggested that what profit could be made is, in theory, of interest to some. There is a small but growing call on Athos to obtain a jump ship so the planet can trade with Kline Station, However, this is almost unanimously quashed due to Athos's preferred isolation. Athos' few natural resources and extreme isolation are probably the main reason why the founding fathers settled on the planet in the first place, a decision most citizens are apparently thankful for.
Through military and community service, Athosians earn "Social Duty Credits" towards reproduction. These ‘points’ can be taken away for criminal infractions. As with any culture, while the desire for children is the norm, there are a minority who do not care to raise children so the loss of points is not a matter of concern for them. A father could potentially earn enough credits to have up to four sons, possibly more. If parents are found to be mistreating their sons, or are simply unable to care for them, the government has the power to 'repossess' them and place them in the care system.
Parents tend to grow beards to display their status as fathers, though it is sometimes considered unlucky to begin growing the beard before the baby is born. A father can choose a co-parent to help raise their sons. Co-parenting is one of the fastest ways for a person to earn social duty credits towards gaining their own sons. While a co-parent does not have to be in a relationship with the father, it is very common. Either way, being chosen to be a co-parent is considered a high honor. Co-parents can grow moustaches to display their status or to show they have experience raising children. Athosians in exclusive relationships often will choose to have their children produced from the same egg stock their partner came from, or both partners will choose the same egg stock for their sons, which flatteringly creates a family resemblance. With enough social credits, a pair can have several sons and usually raise them together as brothers. This creates a family style situation which is considered ideal.
Sons are grown in and birthed from uterine replicators (artificial wombs) at one of 9, soon to be 10, Reproduction Centers around the planet. For the production of human ovum cells, the colony's founding fathers brought and maintained a set of ovarian tissue cultures which are abstractly referred to with a code indicating the original donor’s initials and the iteration of the culture; e.g., CJB-9 is the 9th production of the tissue culture donated by Dr. Cynthia Jane Baruch. Specific cultures are preferred when a father wants a tendency towards a particular trait in the resulting son. CJB eggs, for example, are thought to produce the best doctors. But eventually, in Ethan’s time, the cultures reached the end of their viability, requiring the acquisition of new cultures.
For each conception, sperm is freshly collected from the prospective father and screened to remove the 50% of the cells that contain the "defective" X chromosome that would produce daughters, leaving only the Y chromosome sperm to produce sons. Due to strict censorship and prohibition on anything to do with women, few Athosians have ever viewed a human female, even as a fictional image. To discourage curiosity, Athosians are led to believe that to do so would cause a "madness" to overcome the male viewer. Although it was theoretically possible to replenish the Reproduction Centers' old tissue cultures by creating a female fetus purely to harvest its ovaries, this option was discarded due to abhorrence against women.
The future of Athos is unknown. However, few people are interested in Athos or its inhabitants due to its isolation and insulation from the rest of the galaxy, its non-stragetic placement, and it's mostly agrarian economy. The telepathy complex, present in Terrence Cee and grafted into the new ovarian cultures brought by Ethan Urquhart and Terrence Cee, will appear in future generations of Athosians, but as knowledge of it is so limited, it is unlikely it will attract attention from others.
It is unclear what the exact population of Athos is during the events of Ethan of Athos. Ethan states that around 10 births are performed at the Severin District Reproduction Center per day. The center is one of nine, soon to be ten, spread across the planet. Severin is located within driving distance of the planet's capital city, so it can be assumed that it is located in one of the more densely populated areas. By extension this would mean it is one of the busier Reproduction Centers with 10 births per day presumably being regarded as anywhere from an average to a high daily birth rate per center. However, it is also possible that all the centers have the same birth rate, with all the centers being located close to the larger towns.
This would mean that the planet has around 33,000 new births per Earth year. Taking the average life expectancy of 80 Earth years at least (since it is likely their medicine is superior to the best available today) the population is likely above 2.5 million.
It is confirmed elsewhere in the Vorkosigan Saga that ovum cells and sperm are not necessarily required for reproduction; all that is needed are any healthy cells from the donor(s). Reproduction via such techniques exists and is in use on Beta Colony. This means that Athos being dependent on female ovarian cultures is not an unavoidable situation now but could have been 200 years ago when the planet was settled. However, due to the planet's extreme isolation and very limited and short contact with other civilizations it is not difficult to understand why the authorities on Athos have not heard of the technology yet. If Athos did find out about that innovation it would completely emancipate the planet from its last remaining dependency on the rest of humanity.
- LGBT themes in speculative fiction
- Reproduction and pregnancy in speculative fiction
- Sex and sexuality in speculative fiction