Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review: Falling Free

Lois McMaster Bujold
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

I usually like Bujold’s books, but I found this one primarily dippy and also a bit creepy.

Falling Free is set on a remote space station owned and operated by the Ampad Corporation.

Ampad has staffed the station with custom-made genetically engineered workers called “quaddies.” The company has no intention of ever letting the quaddies walk on a planet’s surface; they are designed to spend their entire lives in the gravity-free environment of the station. So the company engineers have manipulated the quaddies’ genes to put an extra pair of arms where their legs should be. With four hands, the quaddies are able to work better in free-fall than a regular two-handed person since they can hold on with one or two of their hands while working with the other two or three. And breeding their own permanent in-station work force is cheaper than hiring planet-bound contractors.

The quaddies are good-natured and friendly – because they’ve been psychologically conditioned to be so. Unfortunately, the company doesn’t give a darn about them and sees them essentially as expendable slaves. The quaddies aren’t ever allowed off the station. They are forced to reproduce with whomever the company says they have to reproduce with, regardless of if they like that other quaddie or not. The company can also sterilize them at will.

The quaddies make up the bulk of the station’s work force, but the company has hired a few two-armed, two-legged people to fill supervisory roles like trainers and managers.

For the most part, the two-legged employees are 100% evil and mean and regard the quaddies as subhuman.

But then Ampad makes the mistake of hiring a two-legged guy named Leo Graf to be a welding instructor. Graf isn’t prejudiced towards the quaddies and quickly grows attached to them. Then, when he finds out that the company is thinking about installing cheap newly-developed artificial gravity systems in the station, which would mean they wouldn’t need free-fall-only employees anymore, he realizes that he has to help the quaddies escape before the company decides to sterilize and/or possibly kill all of them to cut costs.

The reason I say this book is dippy is because the plot is pretty basic and the characters just weren’t interesting or complex enough to make up for it. I lost most of my enthusiasm about a third of the way in.

The quaddies are also almost uniformly upbeat, optimistic, charming, friendly, kind, and earnest. Annoyingly so. I wish that some of them were a little cantankerous or at least just not so nice all the time.

The creepy part was that Leo Graf, who I interpreted as being a somewhat older man, ended up having a romantic relationship with what seemed like a really, really, really young quaddie. I’d like someone to tell me I have the ages wrong because it gave me the heebie-jeebies.

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