I started reading Lois McMaster Bujold with Shards of Honor, which sounded like just my thing (and was). When I wanted to venture further into the Vorkosigan saga, I discovered that, while Shards was the first to be published, it’s not the first in the internal series chronology: that’s Falling Free. But I saw various comments online to the effect that Falling Free, which takes place about 200 years before the main storyline(s) begin, isn’t necessary to read and isn’t all that good. So I skipped it and went on.
Here is Bujold’s own take on reading order and series entry points. I think Shards of Honor was a great entry point for me, but recent reviews by Kaetrin and Natalie made me rethink skipping Falling Free. I’m glad I did.
Falling Free tells the story of the quaddies, humans (though not legally, and their status is a subject of debate among the characters) genetically engineered for work in null gravity–among other things, they have an extra set of arms instead of legs. They’re developed by, and legally the property of, GalacTech, a major corportation. Then engineer Leo Graf arrives on Cay Habitat to teach welding, and the more he comes to understand his quaddie students’ situation, the more troubled he is by it. Eventually, he’s moved to act. As you might imagine, there’s a lot going on thematically: genetic engineering, disability, what it means to be human, slavery, corporate greed, and more. But I want to focus on the nature of heroism in the novel; it’s a theme that every Bujold book I’ve read so far has explored in interesting ways.
Here’s the official blurb, which is both basically correct and, to me, troubling:
Leo Graf was an effective engineer…Safety Regs weren’t just the rule book he swore by; he’d helped write them. All that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat. Leo was profoundly uneasy with the corporate exploitation of his bright new students till that exploitation turned to something much worse. He hadn’t anticipated a situation where the right thing to do was neither save [sic, surely it should be “safe”], nor in the rules…
Leo Graf adopted 1000 quaddies; now all he had to do was teach them to be free.
This description casts Leo as the hero of the novel. And in many ways he is. He’s what I’m now coming to think of as a classic Bujold hero (and I’m including female heroes like Ista and Cordelia here), one who is somewhat reluctantly drawn in, but who eventually commits full on to heroic, even self-sacrificing action. One who serves others. A problem-solver. While the blurb contrasts Leo’s work as a safety-conscious, rule-bound engineer with his heroism, in fact he’s an engineer as hero: he sees the plight of the quaddies as a flaw in the system that must be corrected. In the end, it requires all his creative problem-solving skills to help save them. I loved this about the book, and loved the way Bujold wove imagery inspired by Leo’s vocation throughout.
But though it’s fair to see Leo as the hero, and his point of view probably gets the most space, there are several other point of view characters, including the quaddies Claire, Tony and Silver. They are erased in this blurb, lumped into an amorphous mass. Nor are they exactly “children,” though the oldest quaddies are about 20. Tony and Claire are parents themselves.
I think the blurb gets it most wrong with the idea that Leo adopts the quaddies and teaches them to be free. Because they’re young and they’ve been designed and raised to obey and cooperate, they need advice and expert help to break free. But they’re also starting to find their own ways to be free before Leo comes along. Silver and Claire, in particular, recognize that they’ll need to figure out freedom for themselves. The “downsider” version (Leo’s version) may not be theirs.
It’s the psychologist–who cares about the quaddies but is really offering mostly a more benevolent form of dictatorship–who considers and rejects adopting the quaddies. Leo, on the other hand, throws in his lot with them:
“I am a quaddie,” Leo whispered in wonder. He regarded his hands, clenched and spread his fingers. “Just a quaddie with legs.” He wasn’t going back.
This is precisely the opposite of adoption. Or they adopt him. Moreover, Leo doesn’t see himself as rescuing the quaddies. He insists that they must rescue themselves, and that it will take all of them together to effect the rescue (as it does). He just lends expertise–this is a characteristically modest view, but it’s also important, because he isn’t setting himself above the quaddies.
Though I think the blurb is not quite right, it does highlight something that nagged at me as I read. Is this the kind of story in which the noble, compassionate white guy saves the slaves? Are they less than he is, incapable of acting on their own? Do they exist only to support his heroic arc? I didn’t think, in the end, that Bujold crossed that line, made the quaddies seem less than fully human even as the story overtly argues that they are not. The plot is as much a revolt as a rescue. Nevertheless, the other reading shadows the novel.
And perhaps that’s deliberate. I think many of Bujold’s novels consider the appeal of traditional heroic traits, even when they don’t fit easily with more contemporary, progressive values. Consider, for instance, Barrayar vs. Beta Colony, as I did when I read Jackie’s discussion of feminism in Shards of Honor. Barrayaran culture appears to me, as it does to Cordelia, impossibly dated and wrong in many ways. And yet, I’m also emotionally attached–in large part thanks to fiction–to its notions of personal honor, even though really I think duelling is wrong and female chastity should not be important, certainly not more important than men’s. And so on. Beta Colony seems more sensible on many issues. Who hasn’t said that people should be required to get a license before becoming parents? And yet, who really imagines herself as the person required to get one? Would I have traded the visceral experience of being pregnant for the convenience of a uterine replicator? Heck no (though I wish it were an option for those who want or need it). Beta ways seem cold.
Often, Bujold seems to me to be exploring precisely the emotional, atavistic hold notions of heroism and honor, of rescuing others, can have on us; the way that admirable aspects of Romance narratives (in the broadest sense of the heroic quest, as well as in the love story sense) and Romance heroism are inextricably mixed with parts that are problematic. Her characters are often muddling through how to take the good from a culture and leave the bad, as Aral and Cordelia must do in marrying and making a life together.
When I read Bujold, I am sometimes reminded of other heroic adventure tales I’ve enjoyed, including those by John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rider Haggard. Or Arthurian legend. Those stories are often troubling–racist, sexist, etc. And yet their appeal endures. We’ve been forcefully reminded lately that SFF and its community of writers and readers have hardly left these problems behind; nor has the romance genre. I’m not sure we can tell heroic stories without bringing some of their baggage along, and I think that question is part of what Bujold’s fiction explores. To me, they are still stories worth telling, but I’m grateful for writers who are self-conscious about the telling, and who lead me to ponder these questions.