Book Review

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

B-

Title: Falling Free
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Publication Info: Baen 1999
ISBN: 067157812X
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

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 über-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.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Berni says:

    That is one of Bujold’s weakest books, I think.  You should start with the first two real Vorkosigan books, which are available together as CORDELIA’S HONOR.  (Individually they’re SHARDS OF HONOR, where she first meets the man she’s going to marry, and BARRAYAR, about her very stressful pregnancy with Miles—stressful because of Barrayaran politics.)  These are wonderful.  I love Cordelia and was sorry Bujold didn’t write more specifically about her.

    Ditto, if you read Bujold’s fantasy, skip her first fantasy, THE SPIRIT RING and read her Chalion universe series instead.

  2. 2
    dl says:

    Ditto Bernie.  Shards of Honor excellent, and her Miles adventures are mostly good.  Hated Spirit Ring, very disturbing.

  3. 3
    D.S. says:

    For an extra thrill listen to the unabridged audiobook Curse of Chalion read by Lloyd James.  In the beginning his voice is diffident in a Jimmy Stewart sort of way, but sexy.  It gains in confidence as the story progresses but is still very low key and attractive.

  4. 4
    Megan says:

    I feel compelled to defend The Spirit Ring (mainly because I thought it got a bad rap when it came out, presumably because it was Something Different).  It’s not as strong as Bujold’s Chalion books, but it’s as strong as the science fiction she was writing in the early 90s.  Later Bujold is generally better than Earlier Bujold…which is nice, because it bodes well for the Next Bujold.

  5. 5
    Jennifer says:

    Yeah, Falling Free, and Ethan of Athos, (also in the same universe, features a planet that only has men on it and the doctor sent off to look for eggs) are pretty weak compared to the Vorkosigan books. Just skip to Cordelia and Miles and you’ll be happy.

    I never got into the Chalion series. It seems to be one of those books where I pick it up and can’t even get a toehold on what the world is like and how it relates to our reality, so I gave up.

  6. 6
    L.B. says:

    Ms. Bujold is one of my favourite authors of all time in any genre, and like others on this list I read widely. Her strength is in her characterization, and my favourite character is definitely Miles Vorkosigan. He is one of the most fascinating, strong, intelligent, needy, and flawed fictional characters I’ve ever encountered. (I’d recommend starting with the “Warrior’s Apprentice”, which introduces Miles. I also enjoyed Shards of Honour, which is about Mile’s parents.) This is how all characters should be drawn. Simply brilliant.

    That said, on the (thankfully infrequent) occasion when Ms. Bujold seemed compelled to write about stock characters… well, the less said the better.

    Thanks! I’m going to go re-read some of her books now.

  7. 7
    jmc says:

    I’ll join the chorus, and agree that Falling Free is one of Bujold’s weaker offerings, along with Ethan of Athos and Diplomatic Immunity.

    I love Shards of Honor, the duology of first real Vorkosigan books.  But the book that I’ve pimped to everyone I know—The Curse of Chalion.  It’s one of my favorite books :)  [I feel like such a fan-girl typing that.]

  8. 8
    Katie says:

    I would definitely start with Cordelia’s Honor (because if you get Shards of Honor, you have to wait until you can get Barrayar, and you won’t want to).

    I’ll second that Ethan of Athos can definitely be skipped.

  9. 9
    Sisuile says:

    Hey, I liked Ethan of Athose and Falling Free…but…they really are two of her weaker offerings and must be read after you’ve gotten through some of Miles and Cordilia. It’s like she assumes, rightly or wrongly, that the reader of those two is not using them as an introduction to the universe and have some clues about the world that she’s already built. So if you’re coming in with those as the first offerings, you’ll get lost and frustrated because of the underlying assumption that you know what she’s talking about.

    Grabing Cordelia’s Honor should help clear some things up.

  10. 10
    Candy says:

    Everyone: Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll be borrowing a friend’s copy of Shards of Honor some time soon, and y’all will find out what I think of it when i’m done with it.

    Sisuile: It’s not that I felt lost or frustrated, I was just kind of bored.

  11. 11
    C. Diane says:

    Gotta concur with everyone else.  Falling Free is weak.  I’ve read the whole Vorkosigan series a couple of times, but never re-read FF.  I liked Ethan, but I’m a big Elli Quinn fan, and she’s a major player in that story. (I also like Ivan, and I’m glad the Author Had a Better Idea on his characterization.)

    My top 3 (so hard!) are Memory, the Vor Game, and the Mountains of Mourning (really a novella.)  I liked the short in Irresistible Forces (and of the other 5 stories in it, I liked 1, hated 2 and was ambivalent on 2.)

  12. 12
    Karla says:

    Candy I’m glad to see you’ll give Shards of Honor a try because it really is good – although Warrior’s Apprentice is way more fun for my money.  Although Civil Campaign reminds me of Oscar Wilde and oh heck I just really like the whole series, but Ethan and Falling Free are without question the weakest offerings.

  13. 13
    Marianne McA says:

    I’ve just finished a major Vorkosigan reread, and I do love the series. While I’d start with Shards of Honour, just for completeness, I don’t think it’s that great a book. Not much complex world building. [I’m not even sure I saw why the hero and heroine were attracted to each other – certainly what Cordelia theorises, much later in the series, about where his attraction to her stemmed from, wasn’t something I’d picked up on from that book. Barrayar is better, but my heart lies with the books about Miles. I haven’t read Falling Free, but the Crazy Plan part sounded like most of the Miles books – he spends a lot of time scrambling for solutions.
    My favourites from the series would be the later books – Memory, Komarr and A Civil Campaign (which is a more-or-less a sci-fi Regency. Fantastic book.).
    If you weren’t going to read the series, and just wanted to read one book to get a feel for Bujold, I’d plump for Memory.
    Worth mentioning that, if you’re buying them, most of the books have been bundled into omnibus editions, which for me were both easier to find and cheaper than buying an individual book. [Though annoyingly, I didn’t realise that at first, which meant I ended up with duplicates. Gaaah!}
    As Berni mentioned, Shards of Honour and Barrayar are published together as Cordelia’s Honour, and – from memory – I think the next couple of books are published together as ‘Young Miles’.

  14. 14
    C. Diane says:

    As much as Memory is my favorite book, I *really* think it’s a bad place to start.  So much of it relies on knowing Simon, Alys, and Miles’ past exploits with the Dendarii.  Having that background, I think, is essential to knowing why the major plot point is so important.

    I’d start with one of the Miles books.  Cetaganda’s a fun one.  Many of my friends recommend the Warrior’s Apprentice as a starting point.

  15. 15
    Marianne McA says:

    Actually, I wondered that after I posted, so I took Memory off the shelf to have a look at whether it’s unreadable by itself, and ended up reading the whole thing yet again.

    Bujold is quite good at backstory – I originally read the series out of order, and the books read well even out of sequence, though I agree with you that it’s better to read them in order.

    Cetaganda’s not a favourite of mine -the dynamics of Cetaganda’s internal political structure still escape me: perhaps the Warrior’s Apprentice is the best starting point (though the writing is tighter later in the series, and I want Candy to Like The Next One.)

    Has anyone read an early copy of Bujold’s new book? [I have it in my head it’s called The Sharing Knife, but that sounds very like a Philip Pullman title, so perhaps I’m misremembering.]

  16. 16
    C. Diane says:

    It’s dangerous, picking one up!  I was looking for 2 specific scenes in Memory a month or so ago, and it was so hard not to read the whole thing. (I have a quote from it as my email .sig: “Money, power, sex … and elephants.”)

    I think it stands alone well enough – she does give good backstory – but IMO it just hits harder? if you know and are invested in the characters.

    I haven’t read any excerpts from the Sharing Knife yet, but http://www.harpercollins.ca/global_scripts/product_catalog/book_xml.asp?isbn=0061137588&tc=cx has the first 2 chapters.

  17. 17
    Lucy-S says:

    This book was a pleasant enough diversion, but it’s surely not one of Bujold’s best.  Ditto the suggestions Berni made.

  18. 18
    Jennifjord says:

    I had the same reaction to Falling Free, which I read early on in my Bujold glom. And now in comparison to the sheer brilliance of Mountains of Mourning, Mirror Dance, Memory, and Paladin of Souls, it looks even worse. So I’ll second what everyone else said, stick with the books and I really, really hope you love Miles and company.

    I’m waiting not very patiently for The Sharing Knife Part One to get to my library. I’m hoping to get it next week.

  19. 19
    Doug Hoffman says:

    Another vote for Shards, Candy. Great balance of action, SF, and romance.

    Swallowing contest at my place, btw.

  20. 20
    badgerbag says:

    Falling Free is the boringest one. Start with Shards of Honor! Then just plow through them and the goodness builds up like a soap opera. Then when you hit Mirror Dance and Memory you’ll be blown away. In many ways Cetaganda is the coolest book with the most subversive feminist message. & then if you are still with me, you’ll get to Civil Campaign and the romance novel goodness kicks in, though again, very subversively.  It’s because Miles is such a dillweed, and you have to like him anyway, but it becomes clear he’s an unreliable narrator. 

    Taken together they are all very cool.  I’m crazy about Paladin of Souls too, another especially romance-novelly one.

  21. 21
    Shweta says:

    I just composed an entire email before realizing there were comments… and I was saying basically what everyone else here is:  Falling Free/Ethan/Spirit Ring are relatively weak.  Silly me.

    Annnnyway, I agree with Candy that Falling Free is boring more than confusing. 

    I do love Cordelia’s Honor, and vehemently second its recommendation. Ditto all the Chalion books.
    While I love Miles, upon rereading The Warrior’s Apparentice I was struck by how very immature he starts off.  This immaturity put one of my friends off the Miles books entirely, and so now I hesitate to recommend it as a starting point.

  22. 22
    Kay says:

    No one’s mentioned yet why Falling Free, Ethan of Athos, and Spirit Ring are the least of Bujold’s works:  they’re all from very early in her career (21, 20, and 15 years ago).  The Vorkosigan saga was written in approximate chronological order, and her growth as a writer is evident.

    I love Shards of Honor primarily for the characters and humor in it; the writing, noticeably better than in FF, is not yet up to the level of mastery I’ve come to admire so much in her books.  [The one scene of violent, twisted sexuality made me hesitate to recommend it to my young niece, but it’s untypical, and absolutely essential to the series.  Besides, she probably hardly noticed!]

    I recommend Borders of Infinity for readers considering whether to take the plunge into the Vorkosiverse.  Comprising a frame story wrapped around 3 novellas detailing crucial points in Miles’ development/adventures, it’s a good, short intro to the characters and the world, without spoiling any of the other books.  The first of the novellas, the Mountains of Mourning, is possibly the very best short story I’ve ever read, both as story and technically.  It’s available free online at http://www.baen.com/library/1011250002/1011250002.htm  .  Lots more info available at http://www.dendarii.com .

    A careful second reading of The Curse of Chalion revealed unobtrusive, incredible artistry used in service of the story, and convinced me to change my policy of not re-reading (because “so many books, so little time!”).  I think once we get the second Sharing Knife book, I’m going to love it almost as much!

    Hoping you’ll try more Bujold,
    Kay (I wanna be Cordelia when I grow up) B.

  23. 23
    John Cowan says:

    I can’t argue with the claim that the non-Miles books are the weakest books in the Vorkosiverse, but I do want to give two cheers for Falling Free anyhow.  The hero’s a geek, and you get into his head, and that makes it appeal to me, qua geek.  Okay, we aren’t all geeks.

    But the other, louder, cheer comes in two parts, the first time when Leo gives his lecture about the morality of geekery, how important it is to always be on the watch for the possibility of faked data and fraudulent reports—and how you will be tempted in your career to produce such things, and how essential it is to resist.  The second time is when Leo begins to see that his political problems actually have technical solutions: that he isn’t helpless just because he’s dealing with the Big Boys, and that in fact they are helpless in dealing with him.  (Another book that has this quality is The Descent of Anansi by Steven Barnes and Larry Niven.)

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