I found Falling Free to be an extremely stressful book to read! Around the halfway mark, I was dreading picking it up, as I wasn't sure how much more I could take of quaddie mistreatment. I started to give myself permission to just read a chapter at a time, instead of pushing for 100 pages. Luckily, shortly after that, the quaddies started fighting back, and I got right back into the swing of it. I just don't deal well with lack of agency.
And for a while there, the quaddies were being treated so cruelly that it was roiling my stomach. Bujold does an impressive job of showing troublesome treatment without going into great detail. Instead, she lingers on the mindsets that make such treatment possible, and that is even more upsetting. Watching the process of dehumanization and some of the horrible things it makes possible is a difficult read.
This is loosely (extremely loosely) a Vorkosigan book, as I understand that Miles runs into the descendants of the quaddies in some books, but it takes place long, long before that. The quaddies are part of a genetically engineered workforce for space, with two sets of arms, one set replacing the legs, which are much more useless in freefall. They're brought up by...well, that's not true. I was going to say that they were brought up by people who think of them as less than human, but that's wrong. The initial scientists on the project, and the few who remain from those days, are deeply attached to the quaddies, and the people who took care of their upbringing also see them as people. It's those who come after, who replace the initial people who had contact with them, who insulate themselves with paperwork and trying to assert their position in a company, who see them as less than human.
And Bujold creates a truly loathsome avatar of this in Bruce Van Atta, the engineer sent up to oversee the project. He's an asshole, pure and simple. And takes advantage of the quaddies in almost every way they can be taken advantage of, including the squicky. He also doesn't understand why the psychiatrists can't assure him of perfect obedience - they've been shaping the quaddies since birth, after all.
Others in the company carry irrational hatred for mutants, and see their genetically engineered charges as abominations. This all sets the stage for disaster, as first the company tries to regulate their sexual and social interactions to disastrous effect, and then as they become superfluous when artificial gravity is developed. The plans the company have for the quaddies are chillingly plausible.
Luckily, they have a few allies, and are not without resources of their own. With their new engineering teacher, they come up with an audacious plan to remove themselves from the control of the company.
This is not an easy book, in content if not in prose. But I do so enjoy it when people manage to stick it to the man.
I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees