I had been meaning to check out Lois McMaster Bujold’s sci-fi novels for a couple of years (because I really enjoyed her Sharing Knife fantasy series), but my local libraries and bookstores never had the straight-run of her popular Vorkosigan Saga novels. As a slightly off-topic aside: nothing puts me off a writer or a series quicker than a library not holding one/several of the books in a series for no apparent reason (yeah yeah, stolen or lost… but you can replace it eventually, you cheapskates). My current library system is fantastic, however, and I can generally request and receive an interlibrary loan of any book (except for the newest and shiniest of the new releases). Falling Free is the first novel in the internal chronology of the Vorkosigan Saga, and I’m pleased I took the time to track down a copy.
Falling Free is set in the space-traveling and colonizing future of the human race. The protagonist, engineer Leo Graf, works for GalacTech; he is sent to a planet on the edge of nowhere called Rodeo. Rodeo is a desert planet on a 99-year lease by the company, and it has proved massively profitable due to its previously-undiscovered mineral wealth. The planet was leased specifically because it was deemed undesirable (and because the lessor, Orient IV, was not interested in regulating or restricting any activities GalacTech wished to pursue while in control of the planet), but for some time the profits from mining and petrochemical extraction have been offsetting the costs of a massive genetic experiment. The Cay Project is an orbital station full of genetically designed people with four arms – one pair in what we’d consider the normal orientation, and one pair instead of legs – known as quaddies. Quaddies were designed to live and work in a zero-G environment more efficiently than bipedal humans, and to eventually become self-sustaining and self-propagating; GalacTech bankrolled the creation of the species in hopes of gaining an unpaid space workforce with superior physical capabilities. However, with Rodeo’s lease almost up, and Orient IV impatient to develop the planet and start slapping heavier taxes on the mining industry, the Cay Station and its administrators have basically no time left to turn a big profit fast and justify the existence of their quaddy charges. To complicate things, the head scientist on the project has died and leadership has passed over to an unscrupulous ladder climber called Bruce Van Atta– a man who has no qualms about cutting corners, passing the buck, and abusing the integrity of the quaddies (notably, sleeping with one of them, in an egregious violation of project protocol and basic ethics).
Graf’s job is to train the quaddies in the particulars of space station construction; Van Atta has requested Graf specifically because he once worked under Graf (who promoted Van Atta to get him out of his hair) and because Graf has a reputation as a no-nonsense workhorse with a passion for engineering. Graf quickly learns that the Cay project, which has tried to shelter and socialize the quaddies to be spectacularly innocent and compliant, is full of serious cracks– ranging from quaddies trading sex for unauthorized book discs and vid dramas to the real possibility that the quaddies will be destroyed (categorized as “post-fetal tissue cultures” in the records, and incinerated) in the event of program insolubility. When another colony’s breakthrough artificial gravity device debuts, GalacTech loses its first (and only) quaddy construction contract; artificial gravity promises to revolutionize space travel and construction in a way that is cheaper than a pricey live-on-site designer crew (and will certainly be easier for humans to accept than the unsettlingly four-armed quaddies). The program is scrapped.
Leo Graf is not my favorite sci-fi hero of all time, but he is a character I can enjoy on a superficial level – there’s so much gruff Leo Graf the rough-hewn and blunt that I really really appreciate the shift in perspective when Bujold focuses on other characters for a while. Graf is more than a little paternalistic, which is perhaps in reaction to the youth and naivete of the quaddies he is mentoring (the oldest are barely 20), but this clashes grossly with his (fortunately untreated for most of the novel) romantic interest in Silver, the quaddy Van Atta seduced and who subsequently began trading sex-for-books with a shuttle pilot. I feel like Bujold tried hard to make his attraction (and Silver’s eventual reciprocation) seem natural and not-disturbing, but I got pretty sick of the whole, “Shucks I’m so old and also a supervisor but I like that hot chick who seems to be a slut… gee whiz she likes me too and I am rewarded for steadfastly pretending not to leer at her” thing. Other than that, Graf is pretty okay – he sees the chance to help the quaddies retrofit Cay Station to make a hyperspace jump so that they can avoid either a planetside internment camp (Van Atta’s plan for dismantling the project) or unceremonious cremation (a directive from a GalacTech VP) and hopefully start a new life and culture in a distant star system.
Bujold makes an interesting (but familiar by this point) statement about the ethical perils of technological advancement where it intersects with biology. The quaddies are the obvious argument against toying with genetics in order to turn a profit, and GalacTech’s treatment of them shows a very clear picture of the potential abuses that come with deregulating medical technology and procedure. Falling Free represents the bottom of the slippery slope many fear will result when frontier sciences are funded by corporations and governments looking for their payout allow corporations to “own” products created in this way. At the same time, the novel is upbeat, optimistically concluding that corruption can be beaten and that good people will rise up to do the right thing.
This is an easy read, with a low-stress, slightly predictable plot – I’d characterize it as “pat” in the fun and reassuring way, like a lot of the sci-fi I read as a teen. Another good vacation read.