Falling Free - Lois McMaster Bujold

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Falling Free
Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen Science Fiction
ISBN 067157812X (Amazon Link )

I'm becoming fond of bricks and mortar bookshops again - on-line shopping is quick, offers a vast catalogue of titles, and is convenient at 4am, but it's not well suited to aimless browsing. Besides, I love the smell of bookshops. Perfect bookshops sport an air-conditioned chill and a reverent hush as well. I'd like to live in one.

This weekend's aimless browse had me looking for something blatantly space opera-ish for a change of pace. My eye was caught by the new paperback of Bujold's Diplomatic Immunity. This was just the shop teasing me, I'd read Diplomatic Immunity in hardback when it came out. Then I moved house, got convinced that I hadn't read it as I would have remembered the awful cover, and bought a second hardback... Turns out my brain just managed to purge the hideous cover from my mind.

I did the usual thing, "Pity I've read all of these. Shards of Honor, Mirror Dance, oh, NESFAs Dreamweaver's Dilemma, Falling Free ... that's the early non-Vorkosigan one about the quaddies. Funny, can't recall much of the detail..." I picked it up, had a quick flick through, and realised I hadn't read Falling Free!

(Of course, I couldn't leave with just one book anyway, never mind that I only came in to look for Interzone magazine, promising myself that this week, I wouldn't buy any books. I left with Silverberg's Roma Eterna to keep Falling Free company on the ever-growing To Read pile.)

Falling Free is set a couple of hundred years in the backstory of the Vorkosigan books, and so sports none of the usual cast of characters or even cultures. An early Beta Colony crops up though, with uterine replicators and other technological innovations prominent McGuffins.

Our lead is Leo Graf, a stereotypically bluff career safety engineer and instructor with GalacTech. Leo's assigned to the Cay Habitat, set on the fringes of human space. He thinks he's just there to give his usual course in non-destructive testing and is a bit shocked when Bruce Van Atta reveals his new students. Van Atta is clearly the villain of the piece - a company executive now, Leo remembers him as problem from an old project, whom Leo pushed to administration to get him out of the way. The Peter Principle is clearly at work here.

Van Atta takes Bruce on a quick tour of the zero-g Habitat, starting with Tony. Tony seems very young to be a spacer, but the real shock comes when Tony, full name TY-776-424-XG, drifts from behind his console to reveal not legs, but a second pair of arms. These quaddies are GalacTech's newest inventory items - not legally human, and perfect for zero-g work. As quaddies suffer no deleterious effects from zero-g, they don't need the expensive recovery time down a gravity well that other workers need.

Leo's misgivings about their legal status grows as he finds the innocent quaddies don't get paid, having all their needs taken care of by the company they don't need it anyway. His misgivings grow further as he is introduced to Tony's girlfriend Claire, and their baby Andy. Van Atta is delighted with these new pieces of equipment, they're self replicating and the company has a large breeding programme planned. Of course, Leo can't help but notice that Claire's pal Silver seems especially pleased at any attention from Van Atta...

Leo later runs into of Dr Yei, a mostly sympathetic character in charge of the quaddies psychological development and conditioning. Her young population of quaddies live in an isolated world, one where they expect communal living, co-operation and discipline. They are highly educated as engineers, but the version of history they are taught is carefully edited to avoid confusing ideas being introduced to them. Leo's personal belongings and his speech must equally be kept in line with the habitat policy. Only Leo is so crass as to call it censorship.

Leo finds the young quaddies engaging, and soon puts his misgivings aside to settle into a routine of real work, of preaching the joys of proper engineering to his eager and capable students.

Reader's familiar with the Bujold universe will find all this zero-g confusing, and will no doubt see the plot detonator a mile away... artificial gravity from Beta Colony. At a stroke, GalacTech's investment in quaddies is rendered useless. but what to do with the inventory items? The thousand or so young lives? Termination? Sterilisation and imprisonment down the crippling gravity well? Just how does a single engineer lead a revolution on-board an orbital habitat?

Falling Free is only Bujold's fourth novel and I think it is one of her weaker ones. This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it, I did, but it's not typical Bujold, this is more a space adventure story along the lines of a Clarke or Heinlien juvenile (though some sexual plot elements might prevent you giving it to a kid as a Bujold starter).

Bujold's trademark characterisation is present, but it's heavy handed. Leo is too competent and honorable a hero (though it's refreshingly old-fashioned to see a practising engineer presented as heroic), Van Atta too slimey and inhuman a villain, the quaddies too sweet and innocent not to protect.

Really, Leo has no choice, the sweet, innocent little quaddies are enslaved, sexually taken advantage of, and tortured by the eveeeuuul corporate managers... how can Leo not step in? A little more shading with grey, a little more complexity in the characterisation would have helped this novel along a lot. In the same vein, I felt that the plot itself was a little too smooth, the practical engineering approach to the problem clearly dictated a single solution, and the only surprise in the the whole procedure was Van Atta's theory of what was happening.

Falling Free is only early Bujold, not vintage Bujold. An enjoyable light read, but really, only one to recommend to Vorkosigan completists.

Posted: Sun - August 31, 2003 at 04:13 PM