Linkspam, 6/28/13 Edition

My brain is pretty worn out this week, so commentary is going to be pretty minimal.

Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold

It has been at least a decade since I’d read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free and I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get around to it for lo, it is awesome.

I had always thought of it as a relatively minor Bujold novel and on this reading I discovered that I was very, very wrong. I’m not saying it is the very best Bujold novel, but it’s definitely moved into my top five (the others: Paladin of Souls, Memory, Komarr/A Civil Campaign, Barrayar okay I am totally cheating here by combining two–I can’t pick just five!).

The reason I decided to pick this up was a need to use my Audible credits–I was going on a long train trip and wanted a few choices in audiobooks. Between the two credits I had and a mystery coupon that was in my account, I managed to get three audiobooks for about $3 (plus my monthly membership fee, of course). I’d heard good things about Grover Gardner’s narration, I was in the mood for something short, so I picked it up. And after listening to the first two hours last Friday I decided that I needed to read it faster than I could listen to it and happily discovered that Falling Free was included in the omnibus Miles, Mutants, and Microbes that I’d picked up a few years ago shortly after I got my first e-reader.

The plot of the book is extremely straight forward: Leo Graf, welding engineer, is sent out to the back end of nowhere to teach a class on non-destructive testing techniques. When he arrives, he discovers that he’s been specially requested by one of his former students, someone he booted up to administration for very good reasons (involving people being promoted up to their level of incompetence). He also discovers that his students are a group of genetically modified humans–modified so heavily that they are an entirely different species of human.

Instead of legs, they have arms–two pairs. Known as quaddies, they also have other modifications that allow them to thrive in zero-gee conditions. They’re also, legally, not people. They’re the property of a large engineering firm, GalacTech.

And that’s where the problems start. Because Leo does see them as people and it is through his eyes that the reader does, too. As Leo gets to know the quaddies, so do we. And they are just a bunch of kids–the oldest among them are just 20 years old and the GalacTech personnel in charge of their upbringing have done their best to mold them into the shape they want and need them to be. This involves heavily revisionist history, total lack of privacy, and a general ban on fiction and other media.

Then it all goes haywire–two quaddies, Tony and Claire, were told to make a baby. And they did, and in the process, they became pair-bonded. And when Claire’s “production schedule” is accelerated and Tony isn’t involved…well. Things get interesting fast. So interesting that reproductive choice is the trigger event for everything else that follows–this is something that’s a theme in Bujold’s other work, too.

This really is an amazing and wonderful book. It’s fast-paced and the quaddies are so very interesting–and you can see the seeds that Bujold planted in this book for what quaddie culture becomes when we encounter it again 200 years later during Miles Vorkosigan’s lifetime. The beginnings their dance and musical forms are here, as are their naming conventions and everything about their entire society. Bujold even slips in a bit about accommodations; at one point when Silver is in an environment with gravity, she reflects that it wouldn’t be so bad if only the seat were shaped properly.

I also really love this book because of Leo Graf. He’s an engineer through and through and approaches everything as if it’s an engineering problem, even as he’s figuring out how to help the quaddies grab their freedom with all four hands and not let go.

My favorite bit is one near the end involving a work permit. Or the earlier bit with the inspection record. Or maybe the point at which Leo throws in with the quaddies fully:

The solution had been lying around him in pieces all this time, invisible until he’d changed. He grinned dementedly, possessed. He yielded himself up to it without reservation. All. All. There was no limit to what one man might do, if he gave all, and held back nothing.

Didn’t hold back, didn’t look back–for there would be no going back. Literally, medically, that was the heart of it. Men adapted to free fall, it was the going back that crippled them.

I am a quaddie,” Leo whispered in wonder. He regarded his hands, clenched and spread his fingers. “Just a quaddie with legs.” He wasn’t going back.

Leo and Cazaril (from The Curse of Chalion) are, I think, cousins of a sort.

I think if I talk too much more about this book I’ll end up giving it all away or typing in all my favorite bits (which is like 30% of the book, at least) and no one wants that so I’ll just say that Bujold is doing so many interesting things in this book–she’s talking about privilege and what it means to be a person and integrity and so many of the other themes that echo throughout her entire body of work. Ethics is another huge theme here–how much genetic manipulation is too much? Is it possible to go too far?

There is one thing that confuses me, though. Why on earth has this book been repeatedly nominated for a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award? There’s nothing remotely libertarian about it–in fact, I would say that the principles it espouses are about as far away from libertarianism as possible. The quaddies share everything–they have very little private property and their entire society is set up as an interdependent system because that is the only way they’re going to survive. Quaddies, literally, cannot make it on their own–their natural environment precludes that as a possibility.

If you haven’t read this book, you really need to. It’s wonderful in every way a book by Bujold can be wonderful.

The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold

You guys. This book.

I’ve long been a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold and one of my long-standing comfort reads is The Paladin of Souls (which is my very favorite book if one is allowed to have such a thing) and after last week at work I decided I needed something familiar this weekend.

I’ve also been in a bit of a romance funk lately and felt like I needed something–I don’t want to say substantial because that’s not the right word at all–but something that it really hard to find in romance novels. Something that would be intellectually absorbing as well as emotionally satisfying.

So I hit upon re-reading Bujold’s Chalion books, starting with the first, The Curse of Chalion. And this was just what I needed after these weeks of re-organization and gossip and general stressfulness of the day job. Because, hey–things could always be worse. I could have a death demon and Dondo dy Jironal in a tumor in my belly and I don’t. So that’s something.

So what’s it about? It’s about everything. Just like all of Bujold’s books–how does she do it, seriously? She’s one of the best writers working today in any genre, in my opinion. Even a bad Bujold novel is head and shoulders above the field–and very few of her books are bad. And this one, this one certainly is not. Not by a long shot.

More mundanely speaking, it’s about Cazaril and how he was betrayed and walked across the country in the hopes of getting a job in the kitchen of the household where he was a page and how he ended up as secretary-tutor to Iselle, half-sister to the ruler of Chalion and, eventually, the ruler herself. Oh, and the gods.

To me, the gods and the theology are some of the most interesting things about these books. It’s rare that a religious system feels as organic and as natural as the one in this setting does and the way that Bujold tackles questions about how the gods work in the world is something I really love. Also the way she writes so openly and frankly about power and honor.

I also love the way this book is about a man who is a bit older than the usual epic fantasy hero–Cazaril is all of thirty five years old!–and about a man who has a job which seems to be boring but which allows him to really have a hand in the shape of Iselle’s character. I think a lot of writers would have chosen to write about Iselle or Bergon more directly, instead of letting someone like Cazaril take center stage. They certainly wouldn’t have put most of the action off-stage the way Bujold does–but it really works here, so much so that when Caz does revert to his soldier’s training it really makes an impact both on the page and on the reader.

There are complicated politics and tragedy and heartbreak. There is also redemption and a miracle of the very best kind.

I’m having a hard time being even the least bit coherent about this book because it really was what I needed to read and I feel much less weary as a result. If you haven’t yet read this book, do pick it up. I promise that you won’t regret it.