I’ve heard a lot about Lois McMaster Bujold. I mean, one of my best friends wrote about Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan for his college entry essay—and he got in. Bujold inspires a lot of hard-core love among the geeks, and I’ve been meaning to check out her Vorkosigan saga for several years now.
Falling Free is set in the Vorkosigan universe, though it takes place about 200 years before Miles is born and its events are only tangentially related to the greater Vorkosigan saga. Regardless, I was pretty excited about digging into it, because I thought the premise teemed with all sorts of possibilities for drama and adventure. To wit: What if a massive conglomerate with interplanetary interests commisioned biologists to genetically engineer a species of human maximized for life in freefall? What if this species was considered corporate property and not strictly human? And to drive the ethical considerations to the fore, what would happen if, for some reason, these engineered humans became completely obsolete?
Unfortunately, though the questions this book raised were enough to make me tingle from anticipation, the execution was disappointingly slight. Falling Free is entertaining, but between lack of proper character development, minimal time spent on the thorny philosophical and ethical issues and having the actual adventure start more than halfway through the book (not to mention ending the story just as it got really interesting), the book doesn’t qualify as anything more than a slightly-better-than-mediocre experience.
Our Intrepid Hero is Leo Graf, Engineering Instructor Extraordinaire, known across the galaxy (or at least, GalacTech, his employer) for his mad welding and safety instruction sk1llz. His latest task is to teach a group of young ‘uns at a space station what is basically Advanced Shop Class in Space, something he’s done often enough. But these young ‘uns are different. They’re unusually well-behaved, and have been indoctrinated from the cradle to listen to their superiors and only minimally question authority. And then there’s the fact that they’re genetically engineered so their bodies are less susceptible to the ravages of long-term life in freefall, including retention of bone density and organ health, thus saving the company the expense of periodically sending them downside.
Oh, and there’s the small matter of the extra pair of arms they possess in the place of legs.
Graf is perturbed by the situation—not so much by the deliberately engineered mutations as the fact that the Quaddies (as they’re informally called) are treated like livestock; he also finds the extensive psychological conditioning the Quaddies go through disquieting. The action finally kicks into high gear when technological developments make the Quaddies obsolete and Bruce Van Atta, the Ã¼ber-villainous program director, reveals how he plans to dispose of them. Graf knows that what Van Atta (and GalacTech) want to do is wrong, but he’s not sure what he can do until (cue Summer Blockbuster Preview Guy’s voice) he comes up with a plan so crazy, it might just work.
Given the astonishing ethical and philosophical implications of the genetically-engineered Quaddies and the politics of corporate ownership of sentient entities, very little time was spent examining the nuances of the situation. In fact, precious little time was spent on setting, period, which left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied, because when I read science fiction, I enjoy a certain amount of rivetty crap. I don’t want to be inundated with specs and theory, but a some detail is nice, and I’ll confess right here and now that I’m a whore for complex world-building a la Hyperion or A Fire Upon the Deep.
The relatively sparse details did mean book moved along at a decent clip, though the pace is uneven—not much happens in the beginning of the book, and the last third or so is crammed with nail-biting moments. I enjoyed that part of the book best—the Crazy Plan of Leo’s required massive co-ordination, and almost everything that could go wrong, did. The problem was, by the time I got to the nail-biting stuff, I wasn’t particularly invested in the characters and the story, so instead of flipping the pages as fast I could to find out what happened next, I felt at most mild curiosity, though I was certainly able to appreciate the clever makeshift solutions they came up with.
In terms of characterization, the points of view are divvied up amongst various characters, which can be effective in bigger novels, but this isn’t a particularly meaty book. As a consequence, you don’t get to spend too much time in anyone’s head except Leo’s, so most of the other characters don’t feel as complex or developed as they should be. And to tell you the truth, everyone’s kind of boring—the good guys are, anyway.
Also, Graf has a romantic entanglement that was completely unnecessary, one that emerged out of nowhere. I’m not sure why it was included, because his motivations were convincing enough without the True Lurve component; not only that, he and his objet d’amour didn’t spend much time with each other at all, which made the romantic aspect a mild annoyance more than anything else.
Oh, and boohiss for the two-dimensional and utterly sociopathic villain. After the third time I was hit over the head with the fact that Van Atta does things only when they serve his self-interest, I got it. I didn’t need to be hit on the head with it again.
And one last nit to pick: I’m not in any way a dialogue tag Nazi, but oh dear Lord did Bujold have a problem with those in this book, to the extent that I started noticing them. And I’m not normally a person who’s bothered by dialogue tags, mind you.
Overall, this was a pleasant enough read, though not particularly memorable. I admit, I was a bit disappointed, given how various friends of mine have built up Bujold in general and the Miles Vorkosigan saga in particular to me. However, I have no qualms about picking up another Bujold. I hope it provides me with a less yawn-a-riffic experience than this one.