Sunday, August 28, 2005

50 Book Challenge #45 & #46: Falling Free & Ethan of Athos

Despite my lukewarm response to some of Bujold's more recent efforts, I purchased a couple of cheap paperback editions from her backlist to occupy my time in Clerksville, since I have no TV, no computer (AC adapter died), and no friends.

Falling Free poses an interesting moral puzzle. If you were artificially created at great cost in such a manner that you could only thrive in weightless space, would it be justifiable to steal a spaceship to live on? The Quaddies, a newly developed race of four-handed humanoids specially adapted to space, are made obsolete by the development of artificial gravity and are to be retired to what will almost certainly be an abbreviated existence planetside. We follow their engineering teacher, Leo, as he gradually awakens to the Quaddies' plight and fights the evil corporation that sees them as capital equipment, not human beings.

Falling Free fails to the extent that it takes the easy way out by making the corporate representatives almost uniformly evil and unsympathetic, and it milks the scenarios for action sequences when it might be more interesting to ponder the moral obligations of the parties involved. It's short, but seems to drag at the end as things seem to break and go wrong solely for the purpose of edging the work out of novella territory and to display more of Leo's engineering expertise. Verdict: one thumb up, but at a 45 degree angle.

Ethan of Athos
is a tangential departure from Bujold's Vorkosigan series. It follows the plight of a doctor from an all-male planet as he gets in far over his head in a quest to obtain new ovarian tissue lines. To do this, he goes off-planet, where he meets Elli Quinn, a beautiful mercenary who's investigating a genetic engineering project gone wrong that may have become entwined with Athos's request for new genetic material. Verdict: same, but for different reasons: this is far more conventional genre work, and the characters don't carry the story as well as they should, but it's fairly well executed for what it is.

I may have finally put my finger on what irks me about Bujold: her gender politics appear much more advanced than they actually are. Leo thinks poorly of the corporate reestablishment of women's work but ends up reenacting the same old tired May-December romance scenario. Ethan is much more tolerant of women than one would think of the representative of a planet that fled the fairer sex's evil influence and the spacers are far more homophobic than one would think people in a society where "natural" conventions have been turned on their ear by uterine replicators and genetic meddling might be expected to be.

Bujold's intentional liberalism on the gender and sex front is almost always obvious, and thus her stubborn insistence on certain conventions strikes one as absurd and perhaps annoying. I had a similar problem with the rapid conversion of Cordelia from warrior to mommy in the first Vorkosigan book. I suppose she's trying to make a point about certain inclinations being hardwired in the human species, or maybe just slow to culturally evolve, but I'm not buying--at least, not anymore.
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