TWO THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS ON GENDER: AMMONITE AND ETHAN OF ATHOS

I read back-to-back Nicola Griffith’s acclaimed Ammonite (1993), just re-issued as an SF Masterwork, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (1986), as part of my current search for sf novels with interesting ideas about gender. Back in January I was wondering here whether I’d eventually write a paper on another one of them, David Brin’s Glory Season, and, well, it’s done: I emailed the final version 2 days ago. In the end, that ‘average’ novel, as I called it, has ended up inspiring a very complex chain of thought about my misgivings about certain kinds of separatist sf feminist fiction.

Brin lost the James Tiptree jr award for best sf fiction focused on gender issues to Griffith, and I really needed to check in which ways her work is superior. My conclusion is that it is not. Also, that humour does benefit this kind of speculative fiction.

Ammonite is so close to Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness (1968) that I even wondered whether Griffith had the book at hand as she wrote, as a reference. In both cases, an anthropologist, risks his or her life to understand what is going on in a distant planet in which something quite odd connected with gender is happening. As any sf fan knows, LeGuin’s male explorer, Genli Ai, is completely baffled by the fact that Gethenians are genderless until they enter ‘kemmer’ and become either male or female, depending on the sex their erotic partner triggers. I used to love LeGuin’s book until I realised that she never contemplates same-sex unions. Maybe Griffith had the same problem, I don’t know.

The question is that her female anthropologist, Marghe Taishan, is sent to test in her own body a vaccine against the virus that has killed off all the men (… and 20% of the women). Logically, she finds a new Herlandia, peopled only by women. It’s true that Griffith’s planet has a much larger variety of women characters than Charlotte Gilman Perkins’s classic Herland (from her 1915 novel), and that she’s very open about their lesbianism. It’s also quite true that her women are all convincing in the tasks they carry out: I didn’t miss male characters at all. What I totally disliked was that Griffith doesn’t bother to explain why her sexist virus has killed all the men –I found that narrative resource plain androphobic. I also disliked her ‘magical’ approach to reproduction. Genetic variety is achieved when the women fall into a mystic, visionary state in which they can manipulate the embryos in their partner’s body, without surgery or lab work. Deep sigh… at the technophobic silliness of feminist pastoral sf.

From what I’ve read, Ethan of Athos is possibly one of the worst novels by Lois McMaster Bujold, which is great, for that was my introduction to her work and I loved it. She exports the idea of the misogynistic monastery on mount Athos in Greece to an all-male planet, in which men can choose between celibacy or homosexuality. In this society men accumulate credits to be allowed to become fathers of sons gestated in artificial uteri. This patriarchal lifestyle depends, however, on the availability of ovaries on the interplanetary bio-market and is deeply threatened when someone tampers with Athos’s most recent purchase. Ethan, a doctor in charge of one of the reproduction centres, is sent to find out what happened and to buy replacement ovaries. What follows is a highly entertaining, humorous adventure, as Ethan adapts to the fact that a woman (eeks!), and a mercenary to boot, has become his main aid in that mad quest for artificial reproduction.

An Amazon reader wonders whether Bujold is homophobic in making her all-male planet misogynistic. I don’t think so, although it’s true that Ethan doesn’t meet any other gay men outside Athos. I think that her target is, rather, gender separatism, as it leads to absurdly one-sided societies. Ethan himself realises that, after all, Athos is going to be conditioned for generations to come by the genes he’s chosen for its new baby boys, as it has been already conditioned by those of the first woman who helped to start the experiment. In contrast, in Griffith’s tale the erasure of men’s genetic imprint and even presence is total. Neither planet, of course, can be a utopia for heterosexual women like myself.

Possibly, what I enjoyed best in Bujold’s tale is that she lets Athos be, and even gives Ethan an unexpected new lover. A more radical feminist –and I have no doubt that she is a feminist indeed, considering her mercenary Elli Quinn– would have dismissed Athos altogether, but my impression is that Bujold’s universe is big enough to encompass all kinds of gender choices, even a utopian patriarchal celibate/gay world. Only this explains her heroine’s own choices, ironic as they may be. In contrast, Griffith’s world is completely humourless, as she takes the premise too seriously to consider its glaring faults, both as a lesbian paradise and as an androphobic hell.

Now you choose…

2 thoughts on “TWO THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS ON GENDER: AMMONITE AND ETHAN OF ATHOS

  1. Hi, great blog post. However, I do disagree with Ethan of Athos being one of Bujold’s Worst books. I thought it was very good, though personally I wish it’d explored the idea of an all male-world (Athos) and how/why it came to be. A feminist critique/reading of “Ethan of Athos” would be a fun read.

  2. Hi Patrick!
    Thanks for the message. Did I really write this is not a good novel? Oh, my… what was I thinking of? I do like the novel and I probably meant Bujold has written other novels I like better.
    You might enjoy this BA dissertation, which I tutored a while ago:
    Pablo Sánchez López. “An (Un)feasible Gay Planet: The Vital Intercession of Women in the Continuity of Athos in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos”. http://ddd.uab.cat/record/180123
    Best wishes,
    Sara

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