Leo Graf is just an ordinary engineer, working for GalacTech. He's a perfectionist who believes in minding his own business, and doing the job he's been given as efficiently as possible and without any errors that could cost lives. However, his life changes when he's assigned to the Cay Project Habitat. Leo discovers that the primary inhabitants of the space station are Quaddies, a group of humans who've been genetically engineered to have an extra set of arms where their legs normally would be. This and a few other modifications make them perfect for working in free fall. But as Leo soon finds out, the Quaddies are essentially enslaved by GalacTech, forced to work without pay and only taught what the company wants them to know. Not to mention, the vast majority of them are merely children and the older ones are expected to reproduce but are not even allowed to choose their own mates. Although his conscience pricks, Leo tries to tell himself that he's just there to train the Quaddies. But when news arrives that new technology will soon make the Quaddies obsolete and that GalacTech is considering either institutionalizing or possibly even exterminating them, he simply can't sit idly by anymore. Putting in motion a daring plan to help them escape and form their own colony, he sets about teaching them a brand new lesson about freedom.
Falling Free is the first book in Lois McMasters Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga if you're choosing to read them in the chronological order of the series, like I am. It takes place about two hundred years prior to the escapades of the Vorkosigan family, so there aren't really any common characters with the later books. However, the Quaddies who are such a big part of this book - or at least their descendants - apparently appear in a future story of the series. This one, though, is about Leo Graf, an engineer who is sent by his employer, GalacTech, to the Cay Project Habitat, a space station in orbit around the planet Rodeo. He's there to train some of the inhabitants of the station, who he's surprised to discover are a group of genetically modified humans known as Quaddies. They were bioengineered to have a second set of arms instead of legs and a few other modifications that make them ideal for working in free fall (aka zero-gee). Leo has never seen anything like them, but other than their mutation they're equal to any other human in every way. However, as he learns more about the Quaddies - most of whom are merely children - he realizes that they're slaves of GalacTech, not paid for their work and treated like nothing more than experiments who have no emotions or will of their own. Even though this doesn't sit well with him, Leo tells himself to keep his head down and just do the work he was sent there to do, but eventually the injustice of it all is more than he can bear. When it comes out that a new anti-gravity technology has been invented that will make the Quaddies obsolete and that GalacTech is planning to institutionalize them or possibly even exterminate them, he sets about making a daring plan to help them escape and create a colony of their own. I'm usually not a big reader of straight-up science fiction, but Falling Free was a surprisingly good book that I really enjoyed.
The story is told from several different characters' viewpoints, starting with Leo who is an engineer employed by GalacTech for the past eighteen years. After seeing the worst happen on other projects that he wasn't involved with, he's a determined perfectionist who prides himself in doing a job efficiently but also doing it right the first time, so that accidents don't happen on his watch. After being assigned to the Cay Project Habitat, he's intrigued by the Quaddies and impressed with their bright minds and eagerness to learn, but he's almost immediately troubled by their circumstances. Leo discovers that they're kept in a very self-contained environment where they're taught an incredibly sanitized version of history and what actually goes on Downside, and they aren't allowed to have any items such as books, music, or videos from the outside world. Also virtually all of the Quaddies on the station were gestated in a synthetic uterus, but now that some of the oldest ones have reached maturity (about 20 years old), they're being bred to give birth biologically. However, they aren't allowed to choose their mates. Add all this into the lack of any kind of wages for the work they do, and it becomes abundantly clear to Leo that they're nothing more than slaves. That's why when the information comes out about GalacTech ending the Cay Project, Leo simply can't allow these kids to be used and abused any further. As someone who's a perfectionist myself, I could really relate to Leo in that respect, as well as in his need to help the Quaddies. He's a man who has a strong sense of right and wrong and isn't afraid to stand up when he sees injustice happening no matter what it might cost. He's also incredibly intelligent with a touch of adventurousness, putting together his daring plan and making changes as needed on the fly. He also starts to have some feelings for Silver, one of the Quaddie females, which I felt showed him to be very open-minded.
Silver is another of the POV characters, one of the older Quaddies, who works in hydroponics. She's watched several of her friends be given gestation assignments and longs to be a mother herself, but the Cay Project powers-that-be haven't given her that chance. Instead, she's basically being used by the head of the project as his personal mistress and sometimes has sex with a Jumpship pilot, too, because he brings her gifts of contraband such as books and vid-dramas from the outside world. Because she's been exposed to these things, she feels like there must be more out there to experience, but at the same time, she's essentially stuck in an endless loop because of where she is and the things she's been taught. Then Leo arrives and a whole new world of possibilities opens up to her. I really liked Silver. She has a rather sweet, innocent way of looking at things, but she's also quite curious. When given a chance, she exhibits a brave, daring side. She's eager to get on board with Leo's plan for the Quaddies' future and steps up as a leader of the mission.
Claire is another one of the older Quaddies whose perspective we get. She was the first to give birth naturally and is enjoying new motherhood. She's in love with Tony, her baby's father and Leo's star pupil, so when the Cay Project leaders say that they want her to have another child, but with a different male, she's crushed and so is Tony. So that they can be together, the two of them hatch a daring escape plan for their little family that doesn't exactly go as planned. I loved these two and their baby, Andy. They clearly all belong together, and it's only the unjustness of the Cay Project system that's keeping them apart. Both Claire and Tony also become eager participants in Leo's plan.
If memory serves, the final POV was that of Bruce Van Atta, the head of the Cay Project Habitat, who's really a piece of work as the main villain. I could tell almost instantly upon Leo meeting the guy that he had a smarmy personality that I immediately didn't trust. He cares for no one but himself, and his only concern is maintaining his career, which means making sure that GalacTech doesn't lose money. He's a cruel SOB, who just keeps getting meaner as the story goes on and really has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Overall, Falling Free was a really good book. The series as a whole was recommended to me by my romance-reading friends and I know that later books in the series supposedly have some romance in them. This one only had a touch of it in the budding attraction between Leo and Silver and the devoted relationship between Tony and Claire. Surprisingly, however, this wasn't a detractor for me. I was very much sucked in by the action, adventure, and overarching plot of Leo trying to find justice for the Quaddies by freeing them from slavery. As for downsides, the characterizations could have perhaps gone a little deeper, but I got to know the characters well enough to relate to and root for them. In fact, I'm rather sad that I likely won't see any of them again given that the book is set so many years before other events in the series. With that being the case, my biggest issue was probably the technical language that's often used. Some of it is necessary to build authenticity in a sci-fi story of this nature and I did appreciate the seemingly solid science portrayed, but particularly when Leo was teaching the Quaddies, the technical stuff goes on for several paragraphs that were pretty dry reading. This was a fairly small part of the book, though, so it didn't end up detracting much from my enjoyment of it. I very much look forward to continuing the series and meeting the members of the Vorkosigan family.
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