A Tunnel in the Sky

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Falling Free
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 19, 2020

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A few preparatory remarks before getting to the gist of this novel. First, Lois McMaster Bujold is the latest recipient of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, presented by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. I intend to devote this year, and probably into next year as well, to reading and re-reading a lot of her books, in between others of course. Second, Falling Free was her first award winner, garnering the 1988 Nebula for Best Novel. It was also a finalist for Hugo and Locus awards, and later won a Prometheus Hall of Fame from the Libertarian Futurist Society. That was in 2014, after it had been nominated on five earlier occasions, and oddly enough, it was nominated again in 2015. It is currently out of print in an individual edition, but used copies can be found through third party sellers on Amazon. The ISBN number of the one with the cover art shown is 0671653989, but another, 067157812X, may be even cheaper. It's also available for Kindle. In print, it's in an omnibus volume, Miles, Mutants and Microbes, which combines it with two other stories, the novella "Labyrinth," and the novel Diplomatic Immunity. A purchase using any of those links may earn us a commission. Third, the recommended reading order for Bujold's books varies depending on who you ask or which website you search. It's up to each reader to decide. I normally like to experience an author from their beginnings, the better to track their improvement, and I did that when I first discovered her back in the late '90s, but didn't continue for too long, mainly due to that confusion of order. I was also intimidated by her prolificacy, in much the same way as happened with C. J. Cherryh. Bujold recommends the internal chronology of events even though that doesn't match publication order. In this case, that also goes against something she said at another time. Falling Free is the earliest in chronology by about 200 years, but she once wrote that it wouldn't hurt to read it later, but before Diplomatic Immunity, since that one has Miles Vorkosigan encountering descendants of the "quaddies" (more on them in a minute) who were introduced in Falling Free.

For more information, check out her official website, The Bujold Nexus, her blog on Goodreads, or Wikipedia.

Orbiting the planet Rodeo is the Cay Habitat. Both the space station and the "downside" installations are the property of the GalacTech Corporation, headquartered on Earth. Leo Graf is an experienced engineer and welder in space applications, called to Cay Habitat to instruct a unique group in the latest welding techniques. He is unaware of who his students will be until he boards the station, when the quaddies are revealed to him, a situation that is at first unnerving. The quaddies were not created through surgical techniques, vivisection, but rather genetic manipulation at the base level. Dr. Cay (now deceased) declared they were a new species, homo quadrimanus, designed specifically for free-fall space work. As such they are not considered human, thus they are property, essentially chattel slaves. The "quad" in their name denotes that they have four arms, the second set being where a human's legs would be. After the initial shock, Graf gets to know several of the quaddies well, knows them to be intelligent and quick learners. He bristles at some of management's tactics in directing quaddie life, especially developing a strong dislike for the habitat's chief of operations, Bruce Van Atta. He might could overlook some of that, just concentrate on his job, teaching the quaddies to the best of his ability, if not for an unforeseen circumstance.

Word has come from Beta Colony of a revolutionary new artificial gravity device. If viable, that would render the quaddies unique abilities in free-fall pointless. Since they are property, described by the corporation as "post-fetal experimental tissue cultures," they are scheduled to be relieved of duty and transferred down to detention facilities on Rodeo. Later, the order is given for them to be destroyed, cremated, but before all of that is known, other situations develop to complicate matters. The quaddie experiment is less than twenty years old, but several of them have been mated to produce another generation, the intent being to create a colony of a thousand. Tony and Claire's child is Andy. Claire expects to be allowed another child, but she's upset that they want her to mate with someone other than Tony. Another hiccup comes after the news of the artificial gravity, when GalacTech wants to scrap the project, their first thought is to sterilize the female quaddies before transferring them down to Rodeo. They might have gotten away with it if not for the fact Leo Graf heard about it through the rumor mill.

Even though this was early in her career, Bujold had already established her SF credentials. Some of the credit can be given to the many books she discovered on her father's shelves, as well as his and her brother's expertise in scientific matters, which helped her develop realistic and believable scenarios. But as I've said many times, the prospects of new technologies and the grand scope of space exploration is pointless if there aren't realistic, believable, and sympathetic characters. This is where Bujold truly shines. Leo Graf is a well-rounded individual, whose many years of experience in space construction helps him to meet each project with confidence. He's also honest, forthright, and fair in dealing with both subordinates and superiors. Of course, to be fair to Bruce Van Atta is to work against him, since he is the complete opposite of Graf. Leo is not only able to ingratiate himself with the quaddies, he also influences many of the other humans to side with him rather than Van Atta. There are many obstacles in his path to rescue the quaddies from the fate GalacTech has in store for them, and to afford them the opportunity of freedom and self-determination. This works as a stand-alone book, even though I'm surprised she didn't follow-up with the immediate aftermath of these events. When next the quaddies are seen, it's 240 years later. I haven't read Diplomatic Immunity yet, but will get to it soon.

The next few books to review in this sequence I've read before, but it's been a long time. I'm looking forward to them and to the many I haven't read yet. I hope they're all as good as Falling Free.


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Lois McMaster Bujold


Winner of:

Finalist for:

Out of print pb


Or in Omnibus with two other stories:
Miles, Mutants and Microbes

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.