The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring – Larry Niven

Set in the same universe as A World out of Time but only very tenously connected to that novel, these series of two should be read as a set. The novels are set in which is not really a world. A “smoke rIng” of atmosphere and biomass orbits around a neutron star, forming a huge but habitable donut-shaped space. In other words, no gravity. Humans have colonised this “smoke ring” in various ways. Enjoyable, but more for the wickedly cool setting than for the stories.

Note: These are now also published in an omnibus edition.

Falling Free – Lois McMaster Bujold

Not, technically, a Vorkosigan novel since no Vorkosigan family member is so much as lurking in the background, it is nevertheless set in the Vorkosiverse, though, about two hundred years before Miles’ birth. The story is about the origin of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered for work in free fall, whose most striking adaptation is the replacement of their legs with arms (and hands). Leo Graf is an engineer and teacher assigned to the habitat where the quaddies are being “reared”. The corporation he works for intends to use them for free fall work, thus avoiding the costly planetside leaves necessary to ensure good health for normal humans. The thousand quaddies are young, the oldest only just out of adolescence, and are being treated like children, with no voice in their future. Legally, they are the property of the corporation, even as they live their lives, work hard, even procreate. As artificial gravity is invented, the quaddies become instantly obsolete, the need for free fall work decreasing dramatically. They are no longer cost effective for the company, which orders the experiment terminated, meaning sterilization and confinement to barracks (read, prison) on a planet. For the free fall adapted quaddies, gravity wells are an unnatural, dangerous and generally terrible environment. At this point Graf rebels and plans the exodus of the quaddies, away to make their own lives.

This is one of the best novels I have ever read. The characters, “normal” and quaddie alike are well rounded, interesting, authentic. Bujold quickly manages to turn the quaddies from freaks into just “different humans” in the mind of the reader. The plot is excellently constructed, with disparate elements and personalities meshing well to create an engaging whole with many page turner moments.

The illustrations of morality are particularly poignant. The company brass thinks of the quaddies as little more than animals. Creatures to be disposed of when their usefulness has run its course. Leo Graf and some of the other staff, on the other hand, sees them as people, as children to be protected. The parallels with slavery are obvious, but more clever is the message that corporate leaders often have a lack of scruples making them morally little better than the slave-masters of previous centuries. A brilliant read.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mutants & Microbes” omnibus.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach

In this curious non-fiction volume, Mary Roach explores an aspect of space travel that is normally glossed over: the human inside the machine. She starts by explaining why engineers find humans the trickiest part of their spaceships, and goes on from there through impact experiments on cadavers, body odor research (really!), what happens to humans if they lie still for weeks on end, the horrors of space food, the even greater horrors of going to the potty in space and various other subjects.

If this sounds boring, think again. Not only is the subject matter surprising and fascinating, but Ms. Roach’s writing is infused with an extremely entertaining dry wit. Throughout her research and her many interviews with scientists, astronauts and even interns involved in space travel and its accessory activities, she seems to find the humor in every situation. To be fair, it is hard not to see the humor but she describes it so well. A couple of selected gems:

“Safeguarding a human for a multiaxis crash is not all that different from packing a vase for shipping. Since you don’t know which side the UPS guy’s going to drop it on, you need to stabilize it all around.”

“The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press. The PCLP said that the room that houses the base archives is locked. And that only the curator would have a key. And that Holloman currently has no curator. Evidently the new curator’s first task would be to find a way to open the archives.”

I recommend this book even if you are not particularly interested in the space program. It is a great read about what it really takes to put people in space.