Vintage Treasures: Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Vintage Treasures: Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free (Baen Books, April 1988). Cover by Alan Gutierrez

Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most acclaimed writers in science fiction, with four Hugo wins for Best Novel under her belt (matching Robert A. Heinlein’s record), and three enormously popular series to her credit — the Miles Vorkosigan saga, the fantasy trilogy World of the Five Gods, and the Sharing Knife series.

But in April 1988, when Falling Free appeared, she was a relative unknown. Her first novel Shards of Honor had appeared the previous year, followed quickly by two others set in the same universe: The Warrior’s Apprentice, the tale of the young Miles Vorkosigan, and Ethan of Athos, the story of an exclusively male planetary colony.

But Falling Free was the book that would catapult her to stardom. The first novel (in chronological order) in the sprawling and ambitious Vorkosigan Saga, it was nominated for a Hugo and won the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the first of numerous nominations and awards she’d receive during her career. In 2017, when the first Hugo Award for Best Series was awarded at the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, Bujold easily brought it home for the Vorkosigan Saga.

[Click the images to free bigger versions.]

Other editions of Falling Free: Analog Science Fiction, December 1987, with the first
serialized installment; hardcover edition (SFBC, August 1994), NESFA Press reprint
(September 2004), and omnibus collection Miles, Mutants and Microbes (Baen Books,
August 2007). Covers by Vincent Di Fate, Bob Eggleton, David Seeley, Alan Pollack

Falling Free was first serialized in four installments in Analog in late 1987/early 1988, and then appeared as a paperback original from Baen in April 1988. It’s been reprinted many times over the decades, but my favorite editions are the NESFA Press hardcover in 2004, with an introduction by her brother Jim and a marvelous cover by David Seeley, and the omnibus edition Miles, Mutants, and Microbes, which also includes the novella “Labyrinth” and the Nebula-nominated novel Diplomatic Immunity.

Falling Free is a book that has been richly discussed over the past 36 years. But the review that really piqued my interest in the book didn’t appear until 2020, at The Idle Woman.

When the experienced engineer Leo Graf arrives at his new posting – the orbital Cay Habitat maintained by the firm GalacTech – he is greeted by Tony, one of the Habitat’s ‘permanent residents.’ Leo is shocked: in this unregulated corner of space, GalacTech have delved deep into the forbidden ethical dark corners of bioengineering, and have created a community of workers perfectly adapted to their zero-gravity workspace. With two extra arms replacing their legs, and systems which can resist the debilitating effects of ‘null-gee,’ these workers are GalacTech’s vision for the future… But, as Leo learns more about the Habitat from its suavely sinister director, Bruce van Atta, he finds his ethical alarm bells ringing…

This is what I like about Bujold. She’s a bit like Asimov: not just interested in creating technologies but in questioning what our responsibilities are in doing so… GalacTech have found the perfect solution to the modern labour problem: indentured slaves who don’t even realize they’re enslaved, and who are ‘self-replicating’… GalacTech has registered them, not as human workers, but as ‘post-fetal experimental tissue cultures.‘ Legally, they can be destroyed at the culmination of the ‘experiment.’ And soon word comes that a viable anti-gravity system has been invented, which, at one stroke, erases the usefulness of Quaddie technicians. Panicking, Leo must try to come up with a way to save these talented young people from the machinations of their employers – but is there time?

Yes, there are long scenes in which Leo and his new pupils discuss engineering welds… However, this space-cadet business is all set alongside careful character development, and we get to spend time with a small band of key Quaddies, including the gifted Tony, his loyal girlfriend Claire (their attachment being one of the things GalacTech is keen to prevent), and their friend Silver, whose alluring looks hide a shrewd strategic mind… as Leo begins to teach the Quaddies to challenge their preconceptions, and to think beyond the world they’ve known so far, you find yourself hoping against hope that they will succeed…

Falling Free has a great concept and endearing characters, and offers a thought-provoking glimpse into the past of Bujold’s universe… A mixture of tech and heart, this is a fine standalone sci-fi story with villains who make you gnash your teeth, heroes you can get behind, and an ethical question that feels even more relevant today – with gene editing already taking place – than it did when Bujold wrote this story in 1987. A pleasant glance aside from the main core of the Vorkosigan novels, and one that gives a sense of the richness and breadth of Bujold’s canvas.

Read the complete review here.

Fifth printing of Falling Free, with a new cover by Pat Turner (Baen Books, June 1999)

Falling Free was published by Baen Books in April 1988. It is 307 pages, priced at $3.50 in paperback. The book remained in print for decades, and an ebook edition was published in 2011 by Spectrum Literary Agency. The cover of the Baen edition was by Alan Gutierrez.

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

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Lest we forget, her accolades include being an SFWA Grand Master. … I never read this particular book, but it sounds great. Another “Vintage Treasures” post, another trip to the used bookstore website.

K. Jespersen

Ditto, re: used bookstore. Well said!

John E. Boyle

I had the pleasure of reading this when it first came out in paperback and Dame McCaffrey nailed it:
“Boy, can she write!”

Steve A Oerkfitz

I have never been able to get more than 50 pages into one of her books. Her writing just doesn’t grab me. Also does anyone come closer to Baen for having ugly covers?

Rich Horton

I recall reading FALLING FREE in the Analog serialization and thinking, eh, that was OK. Then I read SHARDS OF HONOR and I was hooked.

The Idle Woman

Thanks so much for the link! I’m really pleased to hear that my post sparked your interest – and wow, it’s high time I went back and carried on with Bujold. She’s such a compassionate, thoughtful writer and there don’t seem to be enough of those in any genre, let alone SFF. It’s really lovely to hear that something I wrote four years ago is still helpful!

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