Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga

Rereading the Vorkosigan Saga: Falling Free, Chapters 2-3

Welcome back to the Vorkosigan reread!

We’re still most of a book away from any Vorkosigans. Last week we looked at the opening chapter of Falling Free (and some of the cover art). This week we’re looking at chapters 2 and 3.

Back at the Cay Project’s Orbital Habitat . . .

Leo admires the view from the orbital habitat’s observation lounge, watching cargo being pushed towards the jump point in local space. He is joined by the Cay Project’s psychologist, Dr. Yei, who continues the disorientation tour by taking him to see the Quaddie children in their nursery, and lecturing him on ideological purity. The Quaddies’ survival depends on their discipline and their communal values. The galaxy is full of people who will find their existence repugnant, so it’s important that they appear non-threatening. Quaddies have been carefully educated so that they don’t come to think the abnormal is expected. Yei explains that their understanding of history has been carefully censored to promote this goal. Yei checks to make sure Leo hasn’t brought any unauthorized reading material with him, and tells him to watch his language—once upon a time, a downsider worker on the station used the term “spit in your eye” and the five-year-old Quaddies spat at each other for months. Downsiders are important role models to the Quaddies, who are still children even though some of them are becoming parents. Van Atta has summoned Leo, but Dr. Yei’s control of the Quaddies’ education means that she is in charge of his course on welding and quality control in zero gravity conditions, and she can have him fired. Leo suggests that the Quaddies are perhaps a little feminized, maybe too well-behaved, and Yei tells him he shouldn’t pass judgment until he’s been on the habitat for longer. Leo feels that, as a quality control engineer, passing judgment is his job, but he keeps his thoughts to himself in order to smooth things over with Yei.

Meanwhile, Silver, Claire, and Siggy get together to watch some vid discs. After a look at the cat segment of the riveting (and probably Dr. Yei-approved) title Animals, Animals, Animals! the Quaddies jam the door controls, fuzz the monitoring cable with a homemade device, and switch over to The Prisoner of Zenda. Siggy would prefer something realistic, with cool chase scenes through asteroid fields, and he and Claire have a lot to say about the filth associated with the animals in the film. Silver scolds them into shutting up by threatening to take her disc and leave them with Cleaning and Maintenance Techniques for Food Service Areas. The rule-breaking involved in this concerns the Quaddies, but Silver reassures them by pointing out that Mr. Van Atta breaks the rules all the time. For example, he disables the smoke alarm in his quarters when he smokes a juba-joint. The other Quaddies are curious about this. He shared a joint with Silver once, but it didn’t have any effect that she could feel. Silver is jealous of down-siders, who she sees as people who get to go places and make things happen.

Dr. Yei observes Leo’s welding class. The Quaddies are eager and attentive students as Leo lectures on spotting welding flaws. After some discussion of porosities, laminations, and the value and limitations of x-radiography vs. ultrasounds, Leo talks about the importance of integrity. He tells the story of a series of falsified inspection reports that resulted in fatal defects in jumpship propulsion chambers and killed 86 people. Physics is the ultimate quality control inspection, and falsifying inspection records and reports can cost lives. The most important quality in the men and women Leo trains is their commitment to integrity. Dr. Yei is concerned that this story might be disturbing to the Quaddies, but not enough to continue observing Leo. As Leo takes his class to the lab to disassemble a beam welder, Yei returns to her other responsibilities.

Those responsibilities include checking in on Claire and Andy. Claire, Andy, and Tony are in Claire’s quarters, where Claire is introducing Andy to rice cereal. Andy thinks rice cereal is gross. Tony agrees with him. Dr. Yei plays with the baby while he tries to grab her earrings. Yei lets Claire know that the company is pleased with Andy’s progress, and she’s been moved up in the reproduction schedule. Tony, meanwhile, is about to be sent off to Kline Station, several wormhole jumps away, as part of the team on the Quaddies’ first welding job. Claire is alarmed by this. Dr. Yei had previously told her that her pregnancies would be more spaced out. Dr. Yei explains the push for productivity increases in all aspects of the Cay Project. Tony is also alarmed. How is he supposed to help Claire with her pregnancy and with Andy if he’s so far away? Claire sets aside her worries about single parenting and suggests that Tony can leave a sample with the doctor, but Dr. Yei corrects them. Claire’s next pregnancy will be with Rudy in Microsystems installation, and Tony’s next assignment on the reproduction roster is Sinda in Nutrition. Claire and Tony are both upset. Yei scolds them for pair-bonding, then shoves Tony out of the room so she can have a private conversation with Claire.

She asks if Claire and Tony continued having sex after she conceived Andy, and is annoyed when Claire gives the obvious answer. Claire defends herself by saying the doctor told her it was harmless, and down-siders do it all the time. Claire admits that Silver is her source of information about downsiders. Silver is Claire’s best friend—they were dorm-mates before Andy was born and Claire was reassigned to private quarters. All the Quaddies are curious about down-siders, and Silver had inside information as a result of her sexual relationship with Van Atta. Yei gripes that she thought Van Atta had the wit not to “contaminate the experiment.” She tells Claire she will make time to talk to with her about the reproduction assignment, then floats off to talk to Van Atta.

Over the next few days, Leo notices that Tony seems distracted and withdrawn. He nearly causes a serious accident with a beam welder. Leo checks in with Tony to ask what’s bothering him. Tony asks about other companies that do deep space construction, about earning money, and about what’s beyond local space. Leo is concerned that Tony might want to be paid, something he knows isn’t in GalacTech’s plans. He gives a glib answer to Tony’s question out of loyalty to the company he’s worked for for eighteen years. He can tell that Tony is holding back, but he decides not to pursue it. Leo feels bad about not being completely forthright with Tony, but he’s not sure what to do. He’s out of his depth and his expertise doesn’t seem to apply to the Quaddies’ situation.

While Leo contemplates the yawning blackness of space, Silver is having sex with a jump pilot. While his eyes are closed, she contemplates his face and reactions, experimenting with her stereoscopic vision. She’s clearly not emotionally invested, but makes interested noises and faces she learned from Mr. Van Atta. The pilot offers her book discs, which she eagerly accepts, and a blouse, which she turns down. She wouldn’t be able to explain where she got the blouse, and she wouldn’t be able to share it. In Silver’s mind, trading sex for book discs is a clever way of using her sexual labor for things the Quaddies want, and not sharing is deeply wrong. Silver reminisces about the incident where an unauthorized book disk was found in a reader. As the source of the material, Silver almost confessed until Van Atta threatened the perpetrator. She loves books—even the vapid-sounding books that Quaddies are allowed to read. She tells her jump pilot how Bobby BX-99 and the Plant Virus inspired her to work in hydroponics, and tries to explain the attraction of terrible romance novels. They’re full of two-leggers who have a mysterious power to make other people do things. She compares the temperamental and fictional Lord Randan of her favorite stories to the temperamental Mr. Van Atta of her personal acquaintance. She can’t understand why Randan is alluring while Van Atta is scary. Silver keeps the pilot distracted while Claire, Tony, and Andy sneak into the shuttle-hatch flex tube and stow away on a ship. As she prepares to leave, the pilot’s commanding officer interrupts them to announce schedule changes. The ship that Claire, Tony, and Andy are on is heading to Rodeo, rather than going directly to the next space station.

 

COMMENTARY: In general, psychologists do not fare well in Bujold’s work, and Dr. Yei is no exception. She claims to care deeply about the Quaddies and their welfare, but she’s far more interested in manipulating them to get them to comply with project goals. Her manipulation of history textbooks would make the Texas State Board of Education proud. Her warning to Leo about The Time the Five-Year-Olds Did Spitting demonstrates just how complete her control is, and how out-of-touch she is with developmental norms. This also explains why she’s taken by surprise that 20-year-old Tony and Claire didn’t keep her informed about their sex life. I can certainly see why Yei is hell-bent on keeping her job with the carefully-managed Quaddies and staying far away from unconstrained populations. The insurgents won’t need to kill her when the revolution comes—they can offer her a substitute teaching position at any human middle school and watch her spontaneously self-destruct.

Yei’s blithe assumption that Tony and Claire would be happy to cooperate with their new reproductive assignments is disturbing on several levels. I’m dismayed that the Quaddies aren’t free to choose their own reproductive partners, then disturbed that they are not only supposed to accept the partners provided for them, but are supposed to accept a succession of partners. I’m disturbed that this process requires Quaddies to have actual sexual intercourse and that, given the emotional complications of the managing reproduction for the long-term genetic health of a small population, the Cay Project hasn’t opted for artificial insemination. And then I’m disturbed that I tried to think of a humane way to manage the Cay Project’s reproduction program and didn’t stop with DON’T.

There is a weird moment in Yei’s dialogue with Leo when he suggests that the Quaddies are feminized. The word choice is oddly academic for the rest of the context. The Quaddies are excessively supervised and carefully deprived of tools that they could use to generate even rhetorical resistance to their condition. This is feminine in the sense that colonized people were (and are) often feminized in the discourse of domination. It’s not an engineering term. But Leo echoes this gendered construction of the Quaddies when he dismisses Tony’s desire to earn money. Tony, and the other Quaddies, are like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Silver demonstrates this idea too, when she thinks about two-legged people who seem real because they go places and make things happen, while she hides the things she most desires so she can be what they want.

Yei and Van Atta control the house and all the little dolls. Van Atta knows exactly what legal grounds the Cay Project stands on in several jurisdictions. He knows that he is in charge of one thousand slaves, and he is an expert at identifying personnel who will find a reason to not protest. Dr. Yei is protecting the Quaddies from a cruel world. Leo is focused on the technical questions. Van Atta pretends that the Quaddies’ physical differences make them subhuman. Leo knows better—he’s training them in ethics as well as welding. Disability is a major theme in Bujold’s work. The Quaddies have advantages over people with legs in free fall, but they still face barriers that prevent them from fully participating in society. At this point, that barrier isn’t their lack of legs, it’s Van Atta.

Silver is a quiet and gentle revolutionary, committed to the sweetly-socialist values of the Quaddie community. She’s completely untroubled about being a prostitute—her sexual labor is an untracked resource that she can freely trade for goods that she and her friends value. Like books, vid discs, and pilot distraction. She’s also ruthless. Her threat to take The Prisoner of Zenda and leave Claire and Siggy with Cleaning and Maintenance Techniques for Food Service Areas is terrifying. I can imagine worse fates, but I would rather saw through my own arm.

I’ll be tackling chapter 4 next week—Claire and Tony escape!

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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