Thu
Aug 6 2009 1:26pm

The most expensive plumbers in the galaxy: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free

Falling Free (1987) is about as hard science as it’s possible to get—it’s a novel where all the good guys are engineers, with engineering mindsets, and the solution to social and economic problems are engineering ones. It’s explicitly about how changing technology affects people’s lives. But to start talking about it you have to begin with biology.

The Quaddies have four arms and no legs. They’ve been developed (genetically engineered) by GalacTech for use as zero gravity workforce. (Thus “Falling Free,” they’re designed for free fall.) They’ve been trained as engineers. And they’re not considered as people, the company owns them and can terminate them at any time—for instance when artificial gravity is invented that makes their whole species technologically obsolete.

Falling Free is one of Bujold’s early books, and it isn’t as technically accomplished as her later work. It’s definitely one of her minor books, but she’s so good that a minor book for her would be a major one for anyone else. This is the same universe as the Vorkosigan books, but set several hundred years earlier. It’s both an interesting background—the company, Earth beginning to be eclipsed by its colonies, the beginnings of Quaddie culture—and an exciting story of escape and engineering. It’s also a character study of how people go along with things until they realise they can’t do that any more—it’s an examination of what it means to be free.

Leo Graf is an engineer who is passionate about engineering. He’s prepared to accept the Quaddies situation being really fairly bad, but it’s only when events press it on to absolutely appalling that he decides to take action. He’s an odd hero. He consoles himself by thinking how he saved three thousand people’s lives inspecting welds—he really is exactly like an engineer. I find him hard to get a grip on. The Quaddies—all of them—are much more sympathetic. I especially like Silver with her taste for illicit romance novels and men with legs. But I don’t find the Silver/Graf romance very convincing even so.

This is a very traditional science fiction book in many ways—the best bit is the science. When I think about this story I remember the bit where they remake a plasma mirror, and when I get to that bit I can’t put the book down. The whole changing technology bit feels real. Bujold does brilliantly at getting you to accept four armed human beings as sympathetic people.

Bujold originally planned this book as the first of a trilogy, but the other two proposed books never got written and now never will. We know what happened to the Quaddies from “Labyrinth” and Diplomatic Immunity, they successfully escape and set up their own gravity-free culture far away. Nevertheless the end of Falling Free always leaves me wanting to know what happened to these people immediately next, not their remote descendants.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

9 comments
R. Emrys
1. R. Emrys
I love the quaddies. I particularly love one of the few good thing their masters do for them: give them children's stories that value careful thought and peaceful problem-solving over violence. And when you see them later, they're still like that. They can fight when they need to, but they romanticize engineers in the way most cultures romanticize warriors.
Liza .
2. aedifica
I've sometimes enjoyed myself puzzling over just how a quaddie's lower arms would look--how the hip-joints would support arms, and so on. I'd love to see a really good visual representation of one someday.
Ursula L
3. Ursula
Regarding pictures of Quaddies, here are two old Analog covers. The first, http://www.sfcovers.net/Magazines/ASF/ASF_0694.jpg, is for "Falling Free" and seems to have the Quaddie with lower limbs that are basically legs with hands in place of feet, while the second is for "Labarynth" http://www.sfcovers.net/Magazines/ASF/ASF_0713.jpg, and has what I'd consider more "arm" like lower limbs, jointed to flare out at the hips and with elbows that bend the lower arm upward with the palms upward as well.

But I'd love to see more Quaddie art - I don't usually visualize my reading, but I find myself trying to visualize much of what the Quaddies do, from rooms arranged without an "up" to the games and dances.
Liza .
4. aedifica
Thanks for those links, Ursula! I think the biggest difficulty I have with imagining them is that shoulder joints are built for something relatively forward-pointing and hip joints are built for something downward-pointing, so I keep trying to decide whether I think the joints (still called hips? lower shoulders? something else?) are built more like our hips or like our shoulders.
Ursula L
5. Ursula
I suspect that, in terms of genetic modification, "legs with hands" would be easier, as one would only have to modify the feet. However that would limit the usefulness of the lower arms, as the grasp would be facing backward, and the knees bend the hands toward the back of the body, out of sight.

I think that "lower arms" design would be more useful. Having the lower elbows bend forward, instead of backward like knees, and having a greater range of motion for the hips/lower shoulders, and the palm of the hand face upward, would put the "working" area for the lower arms in easy sight.

Genetically and anatomically, you'd probably look to monkeys for the model for this. Something like an orangutan, which already has lower hands nearly as functional as uppers, and climbs in a manner not too different from anchoring in place in microgravity (in terms of muscle use) would be a start for good design.
Ursula L
6. Ursula
Nevertheless the end of Falling Free always leaves me wanting to know what happened to these people immediately next, not their remote descendants.

I just had the most awesome vision of a Cirque du Soleil-type production of the Quaddie ballet dramatizing the escape/resettlement of the Quaddies which Miles saw in Diplomatic Immunity.

(My first thought was animation, but a Cirque would be much, much cooler.)
R. Emrys
7. sunjah
I loved Leo Graf- some of my best friends are engineers. I do wonder how much he owes to Bob McMaster. My favorite scene is when he instructs his quaddie students on "good and evil" using a weld that is bad but faked to look strong. Leo becomes a hero when he is forced to face the need to apply his ethics beyond his own personal work (where he would like to bury his head).
Joanna Slupek
8. Spriggana
Quaddie pictures from Poland: illustrations from a serialized publication of Falling Free and a book cover.

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