The novel “Falling free” by Lois McMaster Bujold was published for the first time in 1988. It won the Nebula Award as the best novel of the year.
Leo Graf is an engineer who takes care of quality control in space habitats. Working for GalacTech, a very important space corporation, on their Cay Habitat is instructed to train a group of Quaddies, the product of genetic engineering applied to human beings to make them suitable to live and work in microgravity conditions.
The Quaddies have no legal protection, in fact they’re GalacTech’s property because legally they’re the product of their biological experiment. For Leo Graf it’s not easy to work in that situation and he’s very disturbed by the idea that the Quaddies are considered a product to be used and sold to other space habitats. The situation becomes even more serious when the news arrives of the invention of an artificial gravity generator, a technology that will make the Quaddies obsolete as a work force in space habitats.
Lois McMaster Bujold is best known for her Vorkosigan saga she started writing in the mid-1980s. However, among the first novels there’s “Falling free”, which is set about two centuries before Miles Vorkosigan’s birth and consequently can be considered as an autonomous novel despite being set in that fictional universe.
“Falling free” is set in a period in which humanity is expanding in space making interstellar journeys exploiting space tunnels. Various space habitats have been built, the problem is that no remedies have yet been found for the physical decay that occurs when humans spend long periods in microgravity. GalacTech, one of the big corporation involved in this expansion, decided to create the Quaddies, human beings with a second pair of arms instead of their legs and other genetic modifications that eliminate the risk of physical decay. GalacTech’s plans for commercial exploitation of the Quaddies are abruptly interrupted and the corporation must decide how to manage what have become a burden, a choice dictated by purely economic considerations.
Technical and scientific elements form the foundations of “Falling free”, yet it can’t be considered a hard science fiction novel. Lois McMaster Bujold offers minimal explanations for the technologies used for interstellar travel, in space habitats, etc. and for the genetic engineering used to create the Quaddies offering only the information that the reader needs to understand the story.
In my opinion, Lois McMaster Bujold is great at making her readers aware of the importance of technical and scientific elements through their consequences. In particular, she shows the economic consequences of certain advances and the behavior of a large corporation in the exploitation of those advances and in the management of what are considered obsolete technologies. The cynicism shown by GalacTech through its project manager Bruce Van Atta is stressed by the fact that in this case human beings are considered a corporate asset because they’re the product of genetic engineering.
The ethical and moral factors linked to the creation of the Quaddies quickly become central in “Falling free” and in the first part there are various reflections on the problems arising from their creation, their exploitation and the fact that they’re made obsolete by the new artificial gravity generation technology. For this reason the pace is initially rather slow, mainly made up of dialogues. Leo Graf, based on the author’s father Robert McMaster, is by far the most developed character, becomes aware of the Quaddie problem and decide to take responsibility for their future. The pace accelerates in the second part of the novel, where many characters have to make important choices and there’s a lot of action.
Behind all the scientific and technological products Lois McMaster Bujold develops a strong human factor with various characters’ strengths and weaknesses. For this reason “Falling free” offers a lot of food for thought and in my opinion that’s what makes it it a must-read novel.