A man who has never seen a woman before in his life, finds himself chased by spies and assisted by a female super-spy as they try to track down a telepath everyone wants.
BOOK REVIEW LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD ETHAN OF ATHOS 1986 Baen Books
Though included in Bujold’s badly named but otherwise excellent value Miles Vorkosigan omnibus collection, Miles, Mystery And Mayhem.
While the other stories in the book centre around Miles this terrific science fiction work does not directly feature him at all. He is mentioned in his under-cover identity as Admiral Miles Naismith, as having assigned super-spy Elli Quinn to her mission on the crime world Jackson’s Hole.
Quinn is herself a secondary figure. The eponymous Ethan is the main hero. Ethan is from a monastic, male only world, Athos, where he works as a leading genetics doctor. With a galaxy where children are grown artificially in steel uterine cases, the boys of Athos are bought in genetic batches from other worlds, especially Cetaganda, (subject of the first story in the collection) and Jackson’s Hole.
Athos is in something of a crisis with a major set of genetic materials reaching a natural decay state that renders the material useless. When a fresh batch ordered from Jackson’s Hole proves to be nothing but corpse genes and bovine material, the leaders on Athos realize that they have been conned. Ethan is assigned to go to Jackson’s Hole to uncover the conspiracy, and also buy a fresh replacement batch.
Ethan does not expect danger, but he does expect conflict as there are women on Jackson’s Hole and he has never had to see one before. His superstition-fuelled prejudices are destined to land him in a great deal of trouble.
As a gay man in a new World, he faces much prejudice himself. His is a true fish out of water story. His questioning of various nere-do-wells gets him mistaken for a spy who might be investigating a much bigger conspiracy than the cheap rip off of Athos’s geneticists. Some want a galactic war.
Of course, the true spy is the Jane Bond like Elli Quinn, who has had a facelift since her last appearance in the Miles saga. She gets Ethan out of danger several times, though he gradually finds his feet enough to save her life too as they discover that the conspiracies involve the pursuit of a man who may or not be a genetically developed telepath.
Bujold avoids making Ethan a naïve fool in his stranger in a strange land transition to true hero. He could easily have been played for laughs, and there is a great deal of Bujold’s sardonic wit here, but he is never rendered pathetic.
Quinn’s heroics are well handled, as is her amorality. She disposes of the corpse of one man she kills by pushing his body into the food processors, in effect feeding him to the people of Jackson’s Hole.
We see few clues as to the sought telepath’s abilities. He is just a man who finds himself in need of aid from the Dendari Mercenary (Quinn) and the Athonian Ethan.
A great story with several twists and turns amidst its high adventure. Hopefully, Ethan will return in future stories too, with or without Miles.