Rescue Me? Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold

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.

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13 Responses to Rescue Me? Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold

  1. kaetrin says:

    The thing which most struck me about Leo was that he was fully aware of the inherent danger of setting himself up as rescuer/benevolent dictator and actively and repeatedly avoided it (and, he reminded himself of that too, because that kind of power had its temptations). Even so, he didn’t want the mantle of leadership and he didn’t want the Quaddies to exchange one yolk for another. And, I thought, he always saw the quaddies as human – which was something that most of the Downsiders on Cay Habitat didn’t – even the benevolent doctor, I didn’t think.

    The Quaddies had never been allowed to be self-directive and had been groomed and trained to be obedient children, but even so, when push came to shove, Tony and Claire decided that defiance and resistance was their only option – which I thought tied into the interesting things Sunita had to say about slavery in her Captive Prince review.

    Leo threw his problem solving skills into the mix for the Quaddies’ revolution but you’re quite right, he didn’t adopt them and he didn’t really teach them how to be free either. He suggested fixes where he could and encourage self-expression and self-determination and those qualities, intrinsic and natural, took root. It was clear that Silver had a natural aptitute for leadership, from early on in the story actually. I loved that Leo didn’t set himself higher than the other Quaddies, for all he had more knowledge than they of various things.

    I believe the Quaddies appear in a later book in the series and (I’m listening in series order now so it may be a while) when I get to it, I think having listened to/read Falling Free will enhance my reading experience – I am looking forward to seeing what the Quaddies made of their freedom some 200 years on.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for helping inspire me to read the book! I basically read it the same way you did (and really liked it). I agree that she was aware of the pitfalls of making Leo a kind of White Savior (or Legged Savior?) and that she avoided them.

  2. Phyl says:

    I read this book when it was first published. Wow, has it really been 25 years? Your review instantly brought it all back. I loved that book. The recent online chatter about the Vorkosigan saga has been tempting me to go search the basement for my tattered old copies of these books so I can re-read them all. I’m just afraid of what else I might find if I go down there 🙂

  3. victoriajanssen says:

    I read FALLING FREE, but never re-read it, unlike the rest of her books in that universe, so it was great to be reminded of all that’s going on in that book.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wondered whether so many people describe it as weak or slight because it is quite black and white? The villain is a pretty straight-up villain and there isn’t a lot of moral complexity. I thought there were other kinds of complexity, though–there really was a lot going on.

  4. merriank says:

    One of the things that I have taken away from reading all the books is that while Barrayar is seen and shown as backwards and wrong-headed in so many ways the emergent bad culture is actually Beta. I think because at the least, change is happening and is possible in Barrayar but Beta remains self-satisfiedly the same. If we accept a definition of villainy as ‘In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least’ (Chuck Klosterman) an aphorism that could well be applied to Beta with its culture of ‘everyone should be like us’.

    I always read Barrayar as about the power, importance and rightness of a world created by individuals in their web of relationships and Leo and the quaddies fits this as well. It is Leo’s relationship with the quaddies that enables and empowers him and them.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      These are really great points, thanks! (I am not very far into the series). I get the impression that Betans have, or like to think they have, taken emotion (and tradition) out of decision making, and while that has appeal in theory, Bujold shows very clearly the problems it can create in practice. The books really make us examine notions of “progress,” among other things.

  5. Micki says:

    I liked your review a lot! I feel the same way about many of the points.

    I’ve read Falling Free about four times, I think. On first read, it did seem a bit weak — perhaps because the hero was an anti-hero. Also, I still do not completely get what’s going on with the (mini-SPOILER!) engineering plot point that saves the day. But every read, especially when you read the books in the whole context of Bujold’s canon, brings new and interesting things to light. A lot of people know have enjoyed it a lot more on the second read, so it’s not just me.

    Also, I don’t think we’re talking about a “great white savior” in the blurb. Baen books is known for military SF, and their readers are often military personnel — which is a pretty multi-cultural group of people. I will give you that the blurb writer had some sort of “We are mighty Americans” thing going on that didn’t accurately reflect the book itself.

    Or maybe it was a “the scientist will save the day!” There’s a little bit of that in both the book and the blurb, and it goes back to a long line of scientists saving the day. However, in Falling Free, the Habitat is simply crawliing with scientists and baby-engineers. There’s not one scientist who saves the day, but an entire people who co-opt Leo’s knowledge to rescue themselves.

    Falling Free is still not my favorite Bujold, but . . . it’s a Bujold! Very satisfying read.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks for your comment, Micki. I’d agree that “a scientist saves the day” is a good interpretation of the blurb, though of course the book itself is really about SCIENCE saving the day, not a single hero. I’m still fairly new to Bujold and don’t read a lot of SF so I’m sure my reading is naive in some ways.

      I tracked the sudden upsurge of interest in this post to its source and had to laugh at the suggestion that this is a “21st-century kid” perspective on the book. Maybe so, but not because I am one; I’m 45.

  6. Sylvia says:

    Saving themselves – before Leo ever shows up, Silver is dealing with outsiders to get contraband for herself and her friends. Because smuggling is not something actually forbidden, though she’s not about to broadcast her deals. But not sharing – that would be really bad!

    The parents of a cute baby – aww, babies squirming in null-g are adorable – ask Leo about money, then go out and deal with things themselves.

    The quaddie can’t rescue themselves because they don’t know how, but give them a leader and watch them go!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, the quaddies are definitely already resisting in various ways and coming to understand the injustices of their situation even before Leo shows up, and I think that’s important.

      They needed outsider help in part because their world is so restricted, the knowledge they are given so limited. I’m thinking about things like their textbooks being skewed to ideologically convenient messages (now there’s a timely theme). They needed more tools for understanding and changing to their world and Leo, among others, added new things to the toolkit.

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