Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles_Mutants_and_MicrobesI recently filled a hole in my science fiction library when I bought a book by Lois McMaster Bujold, an author that I hadn’t read before. Ms. Bujold has won countless awards, but I’d never gotten around to reading one of her novels, likely because I’d shied away from the science fiction genre about the same time she was rising in prominence.

Perhaps I didn’t choose the perfect place to start (i.e.: it’s not a Miles Vorkosigan novel), but I came across a good deal on an omnibus collection and read the first story in the book, Falling Free, first published in 1988.

Falling Free is a story about quaddies, an experimental group of humans who have been genetically engineered to work in a zero-G environment. The quaddies’ distinguishing characteristic is a visible anomaly: they have been bio-engineered to have an extra set of arms instead of legs. The quaddies are exploited and the protagonist, Leo Graf, feels compelled to aid them.

Although I enjoyed the novel, it read like a book published in the 1950s, à la Robert Heinlein, but with more realistic female characters. Falling_Free_BujoldThe writing was pulpy in sections, and I was too aware of the author’s manipulations as I read: any difficulties in the story seemed destined to ‘work out’, so I felt little anxiety as I waded through the plot. For the most part, the characters are flat representations and the romance seemed like an awkward add-on to the tale. I grew to like and care for some of the characters, but none of them are strong enough to last as favourites in memory. The ending was satisfactory, but brusque.

The story moved along quickly and, once I settled into the tale, it was an enjoyable enough reading experience, but the novel is a bit too light and straightforward for my current reading preferences (I’m sure I would have loved it thirty years ago: perhaps I’ve just gotten old and difficult to please). It was decent, basic space opera, but I expected more sophistication in an award winning book from 1988 (it won a Nebula Award for best novel).

Perhaps I’ll search for a representative Miles Vorkosigan novel (I’ve read that he is an intelligent, complex character), but Falling Free didn’t inspire me to delve deeply into Lois McMaster Bujold’s oeuvre. There is a Miles Vorkosigan novel in the omnibus I purchased (Diplomatic Immunity), but I’ll wait a while before reading it. If there are any Bujold fans reading this, let me know what I should read to hook me!

The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks

The Hydrogen Sonata is Iain M. Banks ninth, and final, Culture novel (another novel, Inversions (1998), has possible unstated ties to the Culture, and Banks also published some short stories in State of the Art that were set in the Culture universe).

HydrogenSonataThe Hydrogen Sonata is set within the Gzilt civilization, which is about to Sublime; to step out of our classic, 4-dimensional life and join with the combined sentience of the higher dimensions. There are hundreds of pages of Banks’ imaginative prose and I’m glad I read it; the novel strikes me as a little flat compared to some of his earlier works (particularly Player of Games and Use of Weapons), but any fan of the Culture series should enjoy it.

The demystification and dismantlement of religion is common in the Culture books; in The Hydrogen Sonata, a Gzilt religious tome was planted by an older civilization as a sociological experiment. The truth is about to come out, but a megalomaniacal Gzilt politician censors the message via murder, mayhem and mass destruction, in an effort to ensure his fame and the successful sublimation of his civilization. The Culture (in the embodiment of several ship-Minds), with its interest in all things (in particular, Subliming), becomes ‘involved.’

The novel’s title refers to a nearly unplayable sonata, T.C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata for An Instrument Yet To Be Invented (the elevenstring, an acoustic instrument played from inside, preferably by a person with four arms), commonly called The Hydrogen Sonata. The sonata has little to do with the plot, other than connecting the protagonist, Vyr Cossont, with an important character, Ngaroe QiRia (Tursensa Ngaroe Hgan QiRia dam Yutton, to be precise). It is details such as the elevenstring instrument, discussions regarding the composer of the sonata, specifics about the composition, and Vyr’s attempts to play the piece, that make Banks’ novels interesting to read (within the novel, one critic described the music as sublime, whereas another suggested that it should only be played in a vacuum so it will never be heard).

There are many sections from the POV of Minds, and more than a few references to the Interesting Times Gang (the ITG), from Excession, which is the only Culture novel I haven’t read (this will soon be rectified…).

There is none of the vengeance that — IMHO — scarred some of Banks’ other novels (e.g.: Look to Windward, an excellent novel with a brutal, vindictive ending). The Hydrogen Sonata ends with gentle susurrations; additionally, the antagonist — Septame Banstegeyn — is less of a B-movie villain than those in some other Culture novels (he is, however, a nasty character).

The novel is infused with a gentle message of acceptance: “It would be far preferable if things were better, but they’re not, so let’s make the best of it.” [p.211]

There will be no more Culture books, and it was fitting that the final novel was about Subliming.

Iain  Banks passed from this realm in 2013. He will be missed.

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