Falling Free is an early stand-alone story in Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN SAGA. It takes place before the events we read about in the other books and tells the story of the Quaddies, those genetically engineered “mutants” who have four arms and no legs and who, therefore, make good workers for zero-gravity situations. They were created in secret by a corporation who is using them as free labor.
The story starts when Leo Graf, an engineer, is hired to train students on a distant planet. Leo doesn’t know, and isn’t told, that his new students are Quaddies, so he’s quite surprised and repulsed when he first meets them. Despite their strange anatomy, though, the Quaddies are just as smart as other humans and their four arms makes them better at some mechanical tasks. Soon it becomes apparent that the Quaddies are really just children and teenagers who want to be as normal as they can and don’t even realize that other humans would find them hideous. The corporation gives them no privacy and tries to keep them ignorant of other cultures, but the Quaddies have found ways to smuggle in trashy romance novels and videos. Leo struggles with the ethics of what the corporation is doing, but he initially decides not to rock the boat…. until a new technological advancement makes the Quaddies suddenly obsolete. Now Leo has to decide whether or not to help the Quaddies escape the fate that their owners have decided for them. If he does, he’ll ruin his illustrious career.
All of Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN stories are fast paced, fun, and amusing, and Falling Free is no exception. On the surface it’s an entertaining adventure that’s often funny, such as when a Quaddie couple is trying to escape with their baby and worried about the trail of dirty diapers they’re leaving behind like breadcrumbs. It’s hard not to adore the Quaddies — they’re clever and sweet — and it’s easy to be outraged at their circumstances. The stakes are certainly high.
Falling Free is a story about revolution, and who doesn’t love a good revolution story? It’s also about the seduction of power, the difference between free time and freedom, what makes us human, how doing nothing can be morally wrong, and how just one person really can change the world.
Falling Free is not as wonderful as the other VORKOSIGAN books. The characters aren’t nearly as well developed. Leo, the hero, has little personality and the villains are obvious and one-faceted. Bujold fans know that characterization is what the author does best and that is missing here. Also, the humor isn’t quite as clever, which is disappointing because I love Bujold’s sense of humor. But Falling Free is still a fun story that’s worth your time, especially if you’re interested in the history of the Quaddies.
Falling Free won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1989. I listened to Bernard Setaro narrate the excellent audio version produced by Blackstone Audio. It’s 8.75 hours long.