My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Falling Free is part of the Vorkosigan Saga, although I can’t (yet) see the connection. I’ve read both Shards of Honor and Barrayar, the next two books in the saga and Falling Free does not appear to relate, but that is just fine, because I liked this tale.
Leo Graf, our main protagonist, is an engineer who is sent to work at the Cay Habitat in zero gravity with a group of very intelligent yet emotionally naive Quaddies. Quaddies are genetically engineered human beings bred with a second set of arms in place of legs (for a total of four arms). They were engineered in such a way as they do not suffer the typical side effects common to humans due to prolonged time in space, such as bone loss and atrophy of the muscles in the lower extremities. They were never intended to live their lives in space and were to serve as a space bound work force. Leo’s job is to educate the Quaddies about engineering.
“This is the most important thing I will ever say to you. The human mind is the ultimate testing device. You can take all the notes you want on the technical data, anything you forget you can look up again, but this must be engraved on your hearts in letters of fire. There is nothing, nothing, nothing, more important to me in the men and women I train then their absolute personal integrity. Whether you function as welders or inspectors, the laws of physics are implacable lie detectors. You may fool men. You will never fool metal. That’s all.”
― Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free
Leo soon finds himself in a bit of an ethical dilemma. He does not like the pretended benevolence with which the Quaddies are treated by their care takers and recognizes it as actually something more akin to the type of patriarchal benevolence practiced by a master toward a slave. In fact, as it turns out, the Quaddies are less than slaves, if that is possible, as they are characterized as post-fetal experimental tissue cultures. This is particularly significant when, suddenly deemed obsolete, the Company decides to sterilize the entire lot of Quaddies and house them downside somewhere until they die.
Leo teaches the very naive and childlike (most really are technically children) Quaddies that they are to be valued as any other human being and he helps them break away from the care takers in order to strike out on their own among the stars.
I’ve read multiple reviews of this book and overall people tend to believe this book to be passable but definitely not one of Bujold’s best. Personally I find that Falling Free has some of the most honest and brave character portrayals, showing people as they really are… hovering somewhere in the realm between good and evil. Certainly there are characters that cross the line, but most of us have our moments good or bad) and these characters do too. They, like most humans, make decisions based on their own self-interest, even the good/right decisions. And, as with much of humanity over history, the people in this book have found ways to neatly reason their trespasses. This tale also explores what can happen to a person who does not value their self-worth, that they might sell themselves cheaply, as does Silver, a very bright and pretty Quaddie who she allows her body to be used for small favors.
Leo is a true hero. He puts himself in the line of fire, so to speak, in order to help the Quaddies escape sterilization and an unjust imprisonment for the chance to begin a new life on their own.
“There was no limit to what one man might do, if he gave all, and held back nothing.”
― Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free
This story has a happy ending. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
All of that said, Falling Free is none too subtle. It makes some very clear statements about slavery, prejudice, humanity and what constitutes humanity, justice, honesty, and human duty. While I appreciate subtlety, I can tolerate Bujold’s presentation here. It works for me.
There is one thing about which I did experience a bit of discomfort with regards to this tale, and it may be simply my misunderstanding, and I hope this is the case. The Quaddies are described as being children essentially, teenagers. Yet, their caretakers encourage them to mate on cue. In other words, they decide who should try to become pregnant, and with whom. Like cattle, eh? I am uncomfortable with this on the one hand and yet, I had to keep reminding myself, on the other hand, teenagers do have sex and have children and while this isn’t the preference, it happens all over the world and is acceptable in many cultures. In that regard I can’t find a lot of fault with it, and this further lends to the bravery had honesty with which this story was written. In that, it challenges some of our long held understandings of what is “supposed” to be right and wrong.
To me, this is what good writing is all about.