Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold
This novel is somewhat of an oddity within the Vorkosiverse , in that the events of this book take place about 200 years before the remainder of the series, and are of greatest importance mainly in the novella “Labyrinth” and the novel Diplomatic Immunity, where the novel gives context to the hostility of the quaddies (a genetically engineered race of beings created for freefall conditions before becoming obsolete due to the invention of artificial gravity) towards militaristic peoples. The events of this particular novel also form the backdrop of the “creation story” of the Quaddies and their search for freedom in a fairly remote and marginal area of space where they can live freely, and it is a story that fits in well with the series’ overall concerns about mutation and duty and what it means to be human.
It is somewhat easy to tell that this was an early novel for Bujold, before she had entirely mastered her craft at creating memorable and complicated characters. Truthfully, some of the characters in this novel are a bit two-dimensional, in particular the almost cardboard villain Van Atta, with his insecure macho swagger and willingness to use force and violence to get his way at every turn. The overall theme is a bit heavy-handed as well, in that the novel points out that genetic engineering with human beings is a very dangerous matter, that companies cannot be expected to treat human experiments as human beings with feelings and rights, and that ultimately responsible self-government is necessary for freedom from exploitation, because kind paternalism can go south in a hurry.
These weaknesses aside, it was a novel I was able to relate to strongly. The hero of this particular novel is an idealistic and yet-technically savvy engineer named Leo Graf, based lovingly on the author’s own father, a noted professor of the obscure field of welding engineering (which plays a major role in the plot of this novel). He is brought by the large and somewhat evil earth-based company GalacTec to a remote mining station where he is told to teach some genetically engineered children (none of whom is older than about twenty) how to weld in zero g free-fall. While there he sees the quaddies as somewhat innocent and child-like beings being bullied and exploited and prepared for a miserable fate (especially once they become technologically obsolescent), and he risks his own life to help them find their freedom from slavery. He also manages to fall in love with a lovely but flirtatious and attention-seeking teenager named Silver, despite being about twice her age. The sweet teenage parents Claire and Tony also make a very fine portrait of young love and the dangers that innocent youth face in the adult world. For those who are fans of science-fiction that include a bit of implicit sermonizing and some major relevance to contemporary trends in bioengineering, this is a book that has held up well in the almost 30 years since its release.
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