Review: Freefall, Chapter 1, by Mark Stanley

By William Stoddard

Mark Stanley has been writing and drawing Freefall for nineteen years now, making it one of the longest-running Webcomics ever. He officially announced the completion of its first chapter on July 11, 2016. Stanley has just been awarded a Special Prometheus Award for Freefall.

The core of Freefall is character-driven comedy. Its three core characters are Sam Starfall, a ship captain; Helix, his assistant/flunky; and Florence Ambrose, the ship’s engineer. None of them is human! Sam is an intelligent alien, of a race evolved from land-dwelling cephalopod scavengers, the only member of his race on the colony planet Jean (though he wears a humanoid exoskeleton). Helix is an Asimovian robot. Florence is an uplifted wolf with intelligence equal to that of a very bright human, but with different underlying instincts—probably the only one on the planet, and one of the few in existence anywhere. Many of the secondary characters are human, but not all; Jean’s robot population is vastly larger than its human (450 million vs. 40 thousand), and we’ve also met Florence’s designer, Dr. Bowman, an unplifted chimpanzee with rage issues. A great deal of the comedy is driven by the tension between Sam’s love of chaos, rulebreaking, and petty crime, and Florence’s conscientiousness and naïveté.

Having made created beings a big part of the setting, Stanley follows Chekhov’s advice about the gun on the mantelpiece: He makes them a major focus of his story. While a lot of it is episodic, over the course of the chapter a continuing plot emerges and becomes central, one whose focus is conflict over the rights of robots. It’s to Stanley’s credit that he doesn’t go in for straw man villains. The immediate threat comes from a corporate executive who has come up with a way to enrich himself; but his actions aren’t corporate policy, and another executive opposes his scheme. The resolution of the conflict brings in Jean’s court system and planetary government, whose mayor is initially opposed to the rights of robots—but other officials have different views, and the mayor’s position becomes more complex over the course of the story.

As a libertarian, of course I find the idea of the universal rights of sentient beings (starting perhaps in #714 with “Intelligent beings should not be property!”) an appealing theme, if one whose appeal isn’t limited to libertarians. But Stanley also inserts a number of other comments that libertarians will applaud:

  • References to the failings of bureaucracies, from inefficiency to manipulation and abuse
  • The idea that government officials need to be restrained by fear of the people rising against them
  • The idea that disobedience and resistance to authority are praiseworthy
  • Elements of free market economics, including a discussion of why it’s more efficient for robots to have control of their own earnings than for maintenance to be centrally controlled (#2432) and a clear explanation of gains from trade based on differences in what is scarce (#1252)
  • Approval for spontaneous order (#2518)
  • At the most basic, repeated celebrations of the virtue of free choice

Stanley also shows a consistent appreciation for diversity. This starts out with his basic cast of characters: Florence’s respect for the law and sense of duty are profoundly different from Sam’s dishonesty, trickery, and love of chaos, but each of them learns from the other, and in fact a running joke is the two of them thinking that they’ve set good examples for each other. (For example, in one strip (#855), Sam laments, “I’ve allowed the prospect of short term profit to endanger my long term goals,” and Helix comments, “That sounds like something Florence would say.”) Other strips have Sam reflecting on liking human beings but finding their behavior and their ethics incomprehensible. His different beliefs are tied to the evolutionary history of his species, in a classic science fictional style.

At still a deeper level, Freefall is often philosophically sophisticated. Sometimes this shows up in the form of jokes and allusions, as when Florence faces a conflict between conflicting moral values, and asks herself, “What would Jean Buridan do in this situation?” (#1803), or as in a strip that says that robots work by clever programming with no “ghost in the machine” (#1328). But these jokes point at a more serious theme: A nonmystical, nonsupernatural explanation of “free will,” or self-direction—as the contemporary philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it, a theory without “spooky stuff.” Stanley envisions both Florence and many of the robots on Jean as having a neural architecture that doesn’t depend on rigid, pre-programmed algorithms, but on complexity and flexibility, letting it arrive at decisions autonomously. In fact, his account of the brain as a self-organizing cognitive system parallels the concept of markets as self-organizing economic systems. And most importantly, he suggests that real virtue has to originate in autonomous choices, and not in imposed “laws.”

Beyond these philosophical and political themes, Freefall is also quite good science fiction. In fact, it’s toward the hard end of the SF spectrum; it assumes that faster-than-light travel is possible, but all its other “miracles” are plausible speculation based on present-day physics and biology. And Florence Ambrose is a classic Astounding-style engineer hero—even though she’s a genetically enhanced wolf, and many strips turn on peculiarities of canid behavior. And even beyond those aspects, Freefall is fun! How could anyone not love the sequence where Sam gets the mayor to say, “This is a direct order. Hit me with a pie!” in the presence of five AIs who are programmed to obey her implicitly?

William Stoddard is the president of the Libertarian Futurist Society, and is a professional copy editor specializing in scientific and scholarly material.

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