Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Sunday, August 03, 2014

TITLE: Falling Free
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 288

TYPE: Futuristic
SERIES: Prequel to the Vorkosigan series

Leo Graf was an effective engineer...Safety Regs weren't just the rule book he swore by; he'd helped write them. All that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat. Leo was profoundly uneasy with the corporate exploitation of his bright new students till that exploitation turned to something much worse. He hadn't anticipated a situation where the right thing to do was neither save, nor in the rules...

Leo Graf adopted 1000 quaddies now all he had to do was teach them to be free.

Falling Free is set in the same universe as the Vorkosigan books, but a couple of centuries before Aral and Cordelia's time. It's a time before artificial gravity has been perfected, so maintaining space stations is an expensive undertaking. Workers can't spend more than a few months in zero-gravity environments (it's really bad for muscles and bones), so need to be constantly shuttled back and forth to terra firma for a bit of rest and physical recovery.

A large corporation has come up with the perfect solution to the problem. They have genetically engineered a group of human beings to be ideally suited to zero-gravity. Quaddies, as they're called, can spend all their lives in space stations without ill effects, and their name comes from the fact that they have two extra arms instead of legs. Perfect from holding on while leaving their other arms free to do whatever work needs doing. As the book starts, the programme has been going on for a couple of decades, and the oldest quaddies are in their late teens.

Leo Graf is an engineer who's also an employee of the corporation. He's come to the quaddies' workstation to deliver instruction in welding, and is very surprised to see the physical characteristics of his new trainees, as the corporation has not particularly advertised their existence. He's even more surprised to discover that quaddies are not considered workers, but property. The corporation created them, so under the law, they own them. Quaddies are superficially well-treated, but they are basically slaves. They're not paid and the details of their lives are tightly controlled, from what reading material they're allowed, to whom they're allowed to mate with. Leo is uncomfortable with this from the start, but should he really jeopardise his career and pension over it? However, when it becomes clear the quaddies' entire existence is at risk, he determines to help them go free.

I didn't love this one as I've done the Vorkosigan books, but it was enjoyable. Like all of Bujold's books, although there is plenty of action and derring-do, it's fundamentally a character-driven book. That's just as I like it.

Leo is a good, decent man, but one whose first instinct is to mind his own business and not rock the boat. He's an engineer, his job is teaching welding, not meddling in how the corporation runs its business, he thinks. There are plenty of people like that on the space station, but only Leo ultimately decides to risk it all for what he thinks is right and help the quaddies. Because even though they've been brought up to believe this is the way things should be and that's that, several of the quaddies have rebelled against this. They want to be free. Leo, with his outside experience, can help.

I liked that the quaddies have a role in their escape, and it isn't all about Leo as a saviour. I also liked that they are fully developed as characters, even if only a small number. A couple are on the young and innocent and naive side, but not all. Silver was my favourite. She's cunning and manipulative, and for her sex is just a tool to be used and no big deal (and who has, in fact, used sex as a tool). She's not demonised or punished. She's deemed a perfectly good person by the narrative, given her own romance plot and not judged at all. I loved that.

I also found it really interesting that this is not a hand-wringing diatribe against genetic manipulation. The problem is not that the quaddies exist, it's the way they're being treated, denied the dignity and rights that should be theirs as human beings. My views are a lot less casual than that, but this approach worked for this book.

On the whole, this was fun. There are flaws (for instance, there's a bit too much engineering detail in some cases. I appreciate that this is how Leo thinks, but my eyes glazed over a few times), but it's pretty good.



Barb in Maryland 4 August 2014 at 02:53  

Re: All the engineering bits--if I recall correctly, that subject is an important part of Bujold's background. (Her father was a safety?/structural? engineer??--sorry, I don't have easy access to her bio info right now....)

I rather enjoyed this one--more than 'Ethos of Athens', anyway.

Rosario 4 August 2014 at 07:02  

Yes! I remember reading an interview with her and she said Falling Free was an homage to her father. I did like the way Leo thought, it's just that she went a bit overboard with the details at some points!

I've read Ethan of Athos myself now, and definitely, this was much better. I had some big problems with E of A.

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