Monday, 19 March 2018

Falling Free — The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Falling Free is the latest book we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It’s actually the earliest book to take place chronologically and was published fourth out of all of them. Set about 200 years before the other books in the Vorkosigan universe, Falling Free is about a race of genetically engineered “quaddies” who were designed to function better in freefall than normal humans do.

You can read Katharine’s review of Falling Free here, and Tsana’s review here.

Katharine: Hello everyone! Welcome back, and apologies this discussion is so late. Totally my fault, and totally because I struggled to finish reading this one. I was not a fan.

Tsana: While this is definitely not one of my favourite Bujold books, I didn’t hate Falling Free. There was one aspect I was definitely not a fan of (and that was true the first time I read it as well), but other than that I found it to be an interesting hard science fiction book.

Katharine: We meet Leo Graff, who is being hired on a top-secret project and based out on a self-sufficient space station, to teach welding in space, and how to do it safely. Unfortunately it turns out that his boss is someone he’s run into before, and didn’t exactly give a glowing recommendation for… so even before he begins, he knows he’s up against someone who has a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

Tsana: Well I don’t think the boss knows that Leo hated him, which is why he gets Leo hired… but I’m jumping ahead a little. The interesting thing about this space station is not who’s in charge of it, but the project that is being run out of it. The company that owns the station has genetically engineered a new race of humans that can work and live in microgravity environments much better than normal humans can. Their most visible biological difference? A second set of hands instead of feet.

Katharine: Called quaddies, the oldest are only just at childbearing age, which several of them are now experimenting. Tony and Claire are the first parents, and Tony happens to become quickly Leo’s best student. The quaddies are mostly far too innocent for their own good and are considered property of the company.

Tsana: Yes. And when we say childbearing age, they’re like 15 or 16, not adults. That, and some of the interactions with adults in positions of power over them contributed to a significant squick factor. Is that the main thing you didn’t like about it, Katharine?

Katharine: Can go more into that after we raise the spoiler shield as it’s too hard to discuss without it. But basically… the quaddies exist and Leo is only one of many of their instructors, except we don’t see much of any of the others. We see doctors and the ‘mothers’ who care for the kids, and that’s about it.

Tsana: A lot of the book is a look at what might be thought up as a solution to various problems normal humans face working in space for long periods of time, as well as, er something that I’ve just realised is a major spoiler.

Spoiler shields up!

Katharine: I think we can say whatever is in the general blurb, and as it kind of all happens before we hit the middle of the book? Basically, what the quaddies have been created for is replaced with new technology before they can even get out there and start working. The results of this is what gives Leo a new purpose in life and yedda yedda yedda.

Tsana: I mean, I still think that’s a major spoiler. Even if the blurb is crappy, it all happens in the second half of the book. And it’s behind the spoiler thing now. So. What happens when you’re genetically engineered for something that becomes obsolete. For the company that created the quaddies it means a significant loss of investment, but for the quaddies themselves it’s a matter of life and freedom.

Katharine: I have to admit I’m surprised they didn’t want to just kill them all, rather than their idea of bringing them planet-side and leaving them without the ability to procreate. I mean, the company doesn’t care much about them otherwise.

Tsana: Well some of them did want to kill them all. Van Atta just wanted an excuse to and then, at the end, he found a bit of buried paperwork ordering the destruction of “post-foetal experimental tissue cultures”, signed for by some administrator who had never met a quaddie and probably didn’t actually know what they were. So that the quaddies managed to escape was very much a matter of lucky timing. It’s also why the latter part of the book has a bit more action than the first half, though not nearly as much action as Miles usually sees.

Katharine: Silver probably sees the majority of the action, doesn’t she? Speaking of, and onto my main issue with the book, is how randomly Leo starts fantasizing about one of the more sexually-active kids, even though he’s nearing 40 himself. What makes him any better than the other adults who are taking advantage of them? That he ‘cares’ more? Hell no.

Tsana: To be fair to Leo, he knows he shouldn’t be thinking of her that way and tries to ignore those thoughts etc. And, unlike Van Atta, the project leader, he doesn’t actually rape Silver or abuse any of the other quaddies. What bothered me most was a) how Van Atta manipulated and raped Silver and b) how this wasn’t explored or dealt with much in the text. Also Silver’s subsequent relationship with Ti, but that was less problematic, though still questionable. At least with Leo at the end, we clearly see Silver throwing herself at him, not the other way around.

Katharine: I agree, I think Leo bothered me because he was still portrayed as the hero, and it seemed to come out of nowhere, and be more about how beautiful Silver was rather than for her intelligence or willingness to act.

Tsana: I think it’s also about Silver’s intelligence. After all, he only meets her because of his best student Tony, who is very eager to introduce Leo to some of the other quaddies, especially his girlfriend Claire and his son Andy. For all that it’s weird to be making teenagers breed, at least Claire and Tony seem to be very into the idea (partly thanks to brainwashing…). I also thought Andy sounded adorable. The real problems for the young couple arise when it’s decided by the adults — mainly Dr Yei, the psychologist, I think — that they should be reassigned to different people for their next children. Ew.

Katharine: I get it from a science point of view perhaps… wide gene pool… or, uh, whatever. But come on, these kids are more than just experiments.
I like what we see about Andy, and how they all move so effortlessly in zero gravity - to the point where Leo feels jealous (or that he wishes he had the same ease.)

Tsana: I think that was one of several moments when the people in charge forget that the quaddies are people. I mean, I don’t think people like Van Atta ever saw them as fully human. What little we see of the nursing/caring staff seem to care about them more, and the doctor, who helped create the quaddies but is on ground leave for the first part of the book, definitely sees them as people. But a lot of the admin and miscellaneous staff are a lot more detached. The quaddies are basically slaves and somehow that translates to barely sentient as far as some of the adults are concerned.

Katharine: It doesn’t help matters that they’re so childlike also. They sometimes don’t really understand Leo until he can rephrase into a work-related sense, which is pretty much all they know. When things get a little more serious though, he goes to Silver, and he discovers that the kids are a little more crafty then they’ve let on.

Tsana: Silver’s relationship with Ti is more or less based on trading sex for contraband, mostly books and videos from the outside world. This ties in with what Dr Yei tells Leo when he first arrives: that fiction from the outside world is absolutely banned. She and the other senior staff have very carefully curated the information available to the quaddies and they don’t want them to get any unapproved ideas into their heads. (Leo at least has the decency to feel uneasy about this from the very start.) Some of my favourite parts of the book are the scenes where the quaddies are trying to work out how planet-based life works. Gravity is a concept outside of their direct experience and I found all their comments about being stuck to the ground and also how dirty planets look pretty amusing.

Katharine: Also how surely when pregnant the gravity can just pull the baby right out of you. Eww. The kids are otherwise interesting with how they’re brought up with such an innate sense of what you need to do to survive out in space. You’d think it’d be dangerous giving the controls of a ship to a 12yo (I think Leo says at some point?), and other dangerous tools or bits of machinery, however they’re certainly a lot safer than many adults I’d trust with a hydrolift.

Tsana: The innate sense of how to live in space is not different to our innate sense of how to live on a planet. We’re used to our kind of toilets but the quaddies have only ever experienced space toilets and hence have no idea what a planetside toilet might look like (as becomes relevant at one point)...

Katharine: The kids are much more resilient than nearly everyone gives them credit for. When Leo discovers what the company plan to do with them now that they’re obsolete he turns to Silver. She doesn’t freak out, and in fact it comes to light that they have their own secret hideout, away from all the cameras and monitoring. Silver understands that sure, some of the quaddies may be best left last to tell of their plan, but the majority? Leave it all to her.

Tsana: It’s true that it’s thanks to Silver and Leo’s leadership that the plan to rescue the quaddies from corporate decommissioning succeeds. That and the fact that no one was really expecting a rebellion. After all, they had been so careful to stop any of those ideas getting into the quaddies heads. I also liked how the most difficult part of the plan was the engineering challenge and that the running around with weapons component was quite minor.

Katharine: And that they’re still so innocent. Instead of cutting off the clamps that secure the structure they think ‘oh hey, explosives! No one else needs these surely!’

Tsana: Well, to be fair, they weren’t originally needed… I think that’s more a symptom of communal living than innocence per se.

Katharine: They manage to get all the quaddies informed about what the company plan to do with them, and involved in their intricate plan, without anyone giving away what they’re up to, or - and this is what they’ve been conditioned to do - run to a boss and dob in the rest. Even though Tony is planetside due to a previous failed escape attempt (something we haven’t mentioned yet), they manage to save him, and pick up the doctor’s wife, as he wants to come too and his wife hates everything other than music (I’m being flippant.)

Tsana: Quite. But summarising of the plot aside, is there anything left for us to discuss? Perhaps we should have a few words on how this book fits into the rest of the Vorkosigan saga?

Until Falling Free, we only briefly encountered a quaddie in Labyrinth, the novella in which Miles and Bel Thorne encounter a musical quaddie in Jackson’s Whole. (It’s also the novella in which we first meet Taura.) The main reason we’re reading Falling Free now, even though it’s chronologically set first, is because the next Miles and Ekaterin story we’re going to read, Diplomatic Immunity, features quaddies (so we will get to see what happened to them in the end). Given that you didn’t particularly enjoy this one, Katharine, it’s probably good that we didn’t start with it. What do you think?

Katharine: Goodness yes. One of our other friends is looking to start reading the series and I almost want to block her from ALL OTHER BOOKS so she has to read in the order we have. I can’t imagine it any other way.

Tsana: (I’m not sure I have anything else to say)

Katharine: Me either. I want to erase this book from memory.

Tsana: Well I didn’t think it was that bad, but certainly not a favourite. Happily, I have much fonder memories of the next book.

Join us in a few weeks for our discussion of Diplomatic Immunity, which comes chronologically after Winterfair Gifts and before Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. And features quaddies. (And OMG only four books to go!)

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