Friday, June 10, 2011

Review: Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold


Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: Baen, 1988
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, Book 1
Awards: Nebula
Nominated: Hugo

The Book:

“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 safe, nor in the rules...

Leo Graf adopted 1000 quaddies—now all he had to do was teach them to be free. “  ~barnesandnoble.com

I’m finally starting Bujold’s “Vorkosigan Saga” from the very beginning!  Falling Free occurs first in the internal chronology of the series, but it doesn’t feature any of the Vorkosigan family.  Instead this is the origin story of “quaddies”, genetically engineered beings that have two extra arms instead of legs, and are designed to live and work in zero-g.  This seems to be a much better starting place for the series than Cryoburn, if only because it does not assume that the reader is familiar with any people or locations. 

My Thoughts:

Falling Free is a rather simple, straightforward space adventure.  In terms of plot, characterization, and morality, it is much more blunt than I am used to reading from Bujold.  This is not necessarily much of a problem, since I think that it was intended to be a fast, pleasant story about good triumphing over evil.  The blatant moral message is that enslaving people is wrong.  I highly doubt anyone with a shred of decency would disagree.  However, the issue is slightly complicated by the consideration of what constitutes personhood.  The question of what defines a non-human (quaddies are classified as a non-human species) as a person is only addressed lightly in the story, but I think that it a topic worthy of discussion.

The quaddies are designed by a corporation that sees them as very expensive ‘experimental tissue’ instead of people.  Therefore, the company retains rights over their environment, reproduction, and even their lives. The question of their personhood is simplified greatly by the fact that they think and behave exactly like human beings.  Given this, I thought the human staff’s casual acceptance of the quaddies’ predicament was a little hard to swallow. I found myself wondering how the story would have played out if the situation were less clear-cut.  If the quaddies were designed to have the cognitive abilities of an animal, would anyone care about their enslavement?  What if they were given a slightly sub-human level of intelligence?  If either of those situations had been the case, then the untroubled attitudes of most of the human staff would have seemed a little more believable.

Most of the characters are fairly simple, and they fall into easily recognizable roles.  Leo Graf is the reluctant hero.  Even though he risks losing everything he’s ever worked for, he finds himself unable to leave the quaddies to exploitation and possible death.  The villainous Bruce Van Atta and the GalacTech Corporation are unrelentingly evil.  Their abuse of their power over their charges makes the eventual rebellion both necessary and inevitable.  The quaddies themselves are mostly docile and friendly by design, and they are raised in the completely controlled environment of an orbital habitat.  There is a pair of quaddie lovers, Tony and Claire, who found that the corporation didn’t really respect their ideas of love and sexual loyalty.  The most interesting quaddie was Silver, a na├»ve woman who had been drawn into prostituting herself for information and entertainment from the outer world.  While none of the characters were particularly complex, they fit the tone of the story well.

The story mostly concerned itself with the quaddies realizing their desire for freedom and trying to find a way, with Leo Graf’s help, to acquire it.  It seemed that any time there was a hint of ambiguity about which path was right, the villains (Van Atta and GalacTech) would do something even more horrible, forcing the heroes hands.   I found that a little disappointing, because it seemed to remove the necessity for the heroes to make any truly difficult decisions.  However, there were still enough interesting challenges in the heroes’ way to keep the story exciting.  It was a fun, easy story to read, and I was definitely cheering for Leo Graf and his 1,000 ‘adopted’ quaddies!

My Rating: 3.5/5

Falling Free is was a quick, light, sci-fi adventure novel.  While the premise and the characters are relatively simple, it’s still an exciting story with heroes that are easy to like and villains that are easy to hate. It would have been interesting to have a little more exploration of what constitutes personhood in a non-human species, but that absence didn’t really damage my enjoyment of the story.  I’m guessing the quaddies will show up later in the “Vorkosigan Saga”, and I’m looking forward to possibly seeing how their space-based culture will develop!

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the book when I read it a few years back. The quaddies do appear in the Vorkosigan Saga, but only in one of the later books.

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  2. I'm glad I'll get to see them again! I figured they would, since I got the feeling this was a sort of prequel book. My guess was that maybe they show up in one of the Vorkosigan Saga books written before 1988.

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