Free will, self-ownership and the foundations of humanity: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free, the 2014 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade-plus history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian work, the Libertarian Futurist Society has been publishing since 2019 a series of Appreciations of all past award-winners.

Here is an Appreciation of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free,
the 2014 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction:

By Michael Grossberg
   Falling Free is a Nebula-award-winning sf novel that explores free will and self-ownership, two important concepts at the foundation of our humanity and liberty that also happen to be at the core of modern libertarianism and classical liberalism.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s 1988 (1987) novel, part of her bestselling Vorkosigan Saga, considers the legal and ethical implications of human genetic engineering.

In particular, the story conveys the personal impact on the rights and liberties of “manufactured beings” owned by corporations – a theme also explored in F. Paul Wilson’s Prometheus-winning novel Sims.

First published as four installments in Analog magazine (from December 1987 to February 1988), Falling Free focuses on the creation of genetically modified people in a new human species called “Quaddies,” who have four arms, with the second pair appearing where unmodified humans have legs.

Designed to work efficiently in zero gravity on space habitats, the Quaddies are young and naïve, but intelligent and eager to work and master new skills.

Initially created clandestinely as biological tools to be employed as a space labor force because of their comfortable adaptation to zero gravity, the Quaddies are viewed as highly profitable workers by corporations and commercial interests – since they wouldn’t require mandatory time off as other humans would, since normal bodies tend to deteriorate over time in weightless conditions.

Basic libertarian issues of human rights versus slavery arise in the novel because the company that created them treats Quaddies as chattel slaves, with no rights as human beings, no recognition of their feelings or desires and full dependency on the company for life support in space.

Not regarded as human, Quaddies are classified as “post-fetal experimental tissue cultures,” justifying authoritarian control over their limited access to information. Even worse, the Quaddies are unable to disobey orders to reproduce and mate in breeding programs that ignore their actual partners, or to have their pregnancies terminated.

Worse, the Quaddies’ very existence is threatened after a new artificial-gravity technology makes them obsolete. Treated like mere tools to be discarded, the young human species faces both tyranny and potential extinction.

As the stakes rise from liberty-versus-slavery to include life-and-death issues, a bipedal human engineer, assigned to help train the Quaddies on a space habitat, gets to know and appreciate them and soon decides to help them break free.

On one level, that’s an easy decision, since the Quaddies are easy to appreciate and even love: Despite their ignorance and carefully inculcated misconceptions about the world, these new human beings are idealistic and caring – as well as generally unfamiliar with politics, deception and violence. Although forced to do some bad things, they don’t know any better because of how they’ve been raised, separated from the wider human worlds.

After adopting a thousand Quaddies, Leo Graf, the engineer, faces very real risks in breaking the rules, but he wants to do what’s right. Part of his responsibility, and a moral imperative within that quest, is teaching these “little people” to be free.

And as the Quaddies learn, they grow up. No longer naïve children, they become more complex and self-aware adults, demonstrating intelligence, wisdom and a more sophisticated understanding of their less-than-ideal world and its politics.

Enhancing the story’s emotional impact, despite a one-dimensional villain, is Bujold’s ability to write science fiction that’s plausible – and create great space opera. In terms of the science and technology imagined, her stories make sense. She also creates believable characters worth caring about.

With its heroic engineer and plucky, endearing new-human underdogs, Falling Free is Heinleinesque in its can-do spirit and Question Authority individualism.

A reading tip: Falling Free, included in the 2007 omnibus Miles, Mutants and Microbes, easily can be read as a stand-alone novel in the Vorkosigan Saga. But it’s also a good place to start if interested in reading the whole series.
Commonly listed as the fourth published novel in that series, the novel actually is the first book in that future interstellar history in internal chronological order.

Set well before the birth of Miles Vorkosigan is born, and about two centuries before the events in Cordelia’s Honor, Falling Free has its own settings and characters, different from the main series of Vorkosigan novels.

Note: Lois McMaster Bujold (1949 – ), the 36th author named a Grand Master (in 2019) by the Science Fiction Writers of America, has won four Hugo Awards for Best Novel, matching Robert Heinlein’s record.

Lois McMaster Bujold (Creative Commons license)

Falling Free was the first of her books to win a major sf award – the 1988 Nebula Award for best novel. Her overall Vorkosigan Saga won a Hugo Award for Best series in 2017.

 

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Harlan Ellison’s “’Repent, Harlequin!’Said the Ticktockman,” the 2015 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

Prometheus winners: For a full list of Prometheus Award winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards and the Libertarian Futurist Society, quotes from articles on the Prometheus Blog and explores the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe exploring and dramatizing a positive vision of human flourishing and human possibilities in the future is key to achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

 

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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