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Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve read reviews that referred to Falling Free as one of Bujold’s “weaker” works, despite the fact that it won the 1988 Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of the year. Let’s just agree that it lacks the full maturity of her later works, and go on to talk about what I think it does very well.

The book is set in the Vor universe, but 200 years before the time of Bujold’s most famous character, Miles Vorkosigan. The plot is fairly simple: Engineer Leo Graf is hired by a megacorporation Ampad, which is building a space station, to train a work crew in freefall building techniques. What he does not know until he gets to his assignment is that, in an experiment designed to reduce labour costs resulting from the need to rotate freefall workers planetside on a frequent basis so that they don’t acclimatise permanently to freefall, Ampad has genetically engineered workers “designed” to live in freefall. As he teaches the workers, known as Quaddies because they have four arms rather than two arms and two legs – the better to manipulae objects in a freefall environment – he also discovers that Ampad considers the Quaddies to be chattel rather than human beings with civil rights, and that it is keeping the Quaddies in a deliberate state of ignorance about the universe outside the station on which they were created and are now being trained. Ampad is also keeping the Quaddies a secret from everyone outside the corporation, because it expects the quaddies to be a major cost-saving advantage in bidding on contracts.

Then comes the plot turn. Artificial gravity is invented. It’s no longer necessary to rotate work crews. The Quaddies are no longer a hidden advantage, and they’re now costing more in development and maintenance than a standard contract workforce would.

And we all know what corporations do with chattels that have become financial liabilities rather than income-producing assets.

Bujold packs some very interesting and important topics for consideration into this story, beginning with the whole issue of genetic engineering of organisms for specific purposes. Then there’s the question of whether such purposefully designed organisms can be exclusive property – which in the case of an intelligent organism means slavery. And of course, the whole plot is a detailed examination of how, in the corporate world, ethics goes right out the spacelock door when the profit and loss statment is on the table.

The book also looks at the issue of difference – not just prejudice against beings that are not like us, but what it means to be differently abled, and when a physical advantage becomes a disability – two-legged humans are disadvantaged in freefall, while Quaddies are disadvantaged in gravitational fields. Another strong focus of the book is an exploration of the different ways that people deal with being placed in a situation where they know they are engaged in activities that are ethically insupportable – why do some people keep accommodating, and others finally stop and say “This cannot be allows to continue,” and how much will they sacrifice to a greater good?

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