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Author(s) Mark Stanley
Update schedule Monday, Wednesday, Friday
Launch date 1998
Genre humor, science fiction

Freefall is a science-fiction webcomic written and drawn by Mark Stanley.


Stanley began writing and drawing the strip in 1989 as a feature for the occasional furry zine, YARF!, with the intent of telling the actual story behind the characters. The comic is updated three times a week, and it celebrated strip #3000 in 2017. The comic is drawn in black and white, but the strips were later colored by fans; in mid-April 2006 (#1254), official colored versions by George Peterson became the default. Some characters from Freefall also appear at the Cross Time Cafe.

Setting and opening[edit]

Florence and Sam

Freefall is a humorous science-fiction story detailing the misadventures of the starship Savage Chicken and its crew: Sam Starfall, a lovable alien con artist; Helix, a childlike robot; and Florence Ambrose, a genetically engineered "Bowman's Wolf" (i.e. an anthropomorphic canine). Despite its essential nature as comedy, the story nonetheless frequently delves into philosophical matters such as "what is human?", "how does one best protect humanity from robots?", and the inverse obligation "how does one protect robots from exploitation?".

The setting is planet Jean, a planet being terraformed. Until the terraforming is complete Jean isn't very hospitable for human life, and there are only about 40,000 people living on it. There are also over 450 million robots, doing the bulk of the terraforming work.

The plot focuses on the life of Florence, who is by nature hard-working and honest technical engineer, and the less-than-ethical space scavenger Sam Starfall, who has "borrowed" (stolen) her from her intended owner/job post. In doing so, he may inadvertently have saved the planet from disaster.

Sam is a Sqid, a tentacle-bearing semi-aquatic race which lives in a low-technology society on an unknown and otherwise unspecified planet Mud somewhere in the universe. The unusual spelling of "Sqid" is explained as "U don't wanna get near one". His people are a prey species, and Sam's flesh (when exposed) seems to be irresistible to carnivorous/omnivorous animals; he's never suffered more than minor (comedic) nibbling. Sqids are typically very risk-averse, and Sam mostly follows that example. When he does take (conscious) risks, he makes sure the deck is thoroughly stacked first.

Sam stowed away on a human scout ship and found his way to Jean. Outfitted with a human-resembling environment suit that allows him to move around freely, Sam has been blithely ignoring the rules of Jean's civilization for years. Particularly the ones that have to do with property ownership.

Somehow he got his hands on a wreck of a spaceship, and with the help of his friend/worker, a robot named Helix, and with several rolls of duct tape and not a clue between them about how to build, repair or maintain a spaceship, they tried to get the thing spaceworthy. Realizing that the task was beyond even his advanced duct taping skills, Sam turned to bribery and arranged the bureaucratic foulup that brought Florence Ambrose, a highly competent engineer, into his employ.

Technically property and regarded as a wetware AI, Florence was in cold storage on board the Asimov, a transport starship, enroute to her intended job assignment (not the planet Jean). Officially, she's been "misfiled," but instead of making a fuss, she's decided to make the best of it. Her original owner has yet to investigate her failure to arrive, but that may be because not enough time has passed in-universe.

Together, with many misadventures, the trio set to the nearly impossible task of getting the wreck spaceworthy again. By some miracle, they managed it, and Sam rechristened the wreck the Savage Chicken. The repairs weren't perfect, but they got the ship, originally designed for interplanetary commerce, cleared as an orbital shuttle, and have flown two missions into orbit.

Florence is a large carnivore, but she's been specially trained and conditioned not to hurt humans. Sam, while not human, seems to be close enough to qualify; she seems immune to the urge to nibble on him that lesser animals exhibit. But even so, if he pushes her too hard, she gives him a Florence Grin, and Sam finds something better to do.

Freefall's plot has been criticized by some as slow-moving. The comic's eighteen years (in 2016) of thrice-weekly strips has so far covered only a couple months' activity in the story. As of July 2016 Stanley posted that the first story was now concluded, and new stories would begin.[1]


Robots in the Freefall universe are typically not programmed with the Three Laws of Robotics that Isaac Asimov made famous in his stories, at least not as the absolutes that Asimov presented. On Jean, the predominant artificial intelligence framework is the Bowman architecture. It can be implemented on almost any processing hardware (even biological constructs, such as Bowman's Wolves like Florence). Bowman AI's have a lot of autonomy, which helps them cope with a universe that has other sapient species besides humans. It is implied that the "Three Laws" were used as guidelines, but modern AI's have more sophisticated safeguards; a careful balance has been struck between absolute definitions and flexibility in interpretation. One constant, however, is an analogue of First Law ("Do not, through action or inaction, cause harm to a human.") and Second Law ("Obey direct orders of a human, as long as there is no conflict with the First Law"). Bowman AI's are able to prioritize orders by authority/rank of source -- direct orders given by the Mayor carry more weight than the direct orders of a street sweeper. While Florence and robots are clearly not human, the (necessarily imprecise and situational) definition of "human" (an ongoing philosophical theme throughout the comic) means they regard each other (and Sam) as "human enough" to refuse to harm, and to trigger protective/rescue actions; they are, however, NOT "human enough" under Second Law to issue direct orders to other AI's.

A running gag throughout the comic is the reaction of the robots when they first meet Florence. Since the Bowman's Wolf is a brand new species, the Freefall robots do not recognise her, and their first reaction is invariably to throw their arms out wide and shout "DOGGY!!!". The effect has been said to be "kinda freaky" when a lot of them do it at once. Despite this childlike behaviour (actually the result of other robots misinterpreting Helix's childlike reaction to Florence as the proper greeting ritual for her species), the Freefall robots have developed a great respect for Florence, especially after she risked her life to rescue two robots from destruction during a hurricane. Because most of the robots on "Jean" are networked together, all the robots on the planet are now aware of Florence's deeds and are eager to help her in any way they can. (Although they still shout "DOGGY!!!" whenever they first meet her in person.)

While genderless, most robots seem to identify as male. The (joke?) explanation of how robots gender themselves hinges on how many words per day the robot uses to communicate; if reaching or exceeding twenty thousand, the robot is deemed female. Probably a reference to this stereotype.

Stanley occasionally includes "call outs" to robots from other sources (films, other cartoons, real life, &c); when he does, he identifies them in a note in the following strip.


Sam Starfall and Helix

Helix is one of the main (robot) characters in the series.

He (Helix is a masculine character, even though technically he has no gender) has been a companion and faithful servant of Sam Starfall for as long as anyone is aware. Originally designed for warehouse work, he is not very intelligent; by his own admission: "The whole purpose of my existence is to pick up heavy things, move them, then put them down." He enjoys this activity, and even does it for fun in his spare time.

Helix has a childlike personality, and established the precedent of calling Florence Ambrose "doggy", which seems fairly representative of the care most self-aware robots in and around the spaceport take in differentiating species.

Helix's body is spherical, with four insect-like legs, two arms, and a small head on top. His eyes and body language convey his emotions, as he has no mouth or other facial features. His construction is apparently only sufficiently sturdy to perform his primary function; any undue stress would likely cause his frame to buckle, even though the worst that has happened to him so far is that he was disassembled and reassembled incorrectly.


Sawtooth Rivergrinder is a very large heavy-duty construction robot (roughly the size of a double-decker bus), who is nonetheless intelligent and perceptive. He resembles a sort of scarab beetle, save with jets instead of wings, and is colored brown. He is one of Florence's first and most stalwart allies. He loves the sound (as registered on his seismic sensors) the planet makes when an asteroid is, as part of the terraforming process, directed to impact upon the surface. While he is generally kind and well-intentioned, his being several times larger (and many tons heavier) than his friends and co-workers causes them to regard Sawtooth as lacking any sense of subtlety or delicacy.


Edge (introduced later in the comic) is one of the robots in charge of the recycling facility where robots are obliged to turn themselves in when their useful lifespan is decreed to be over. Edge has a wedge-shaped head and an almost insectile aspect; in color strips, he's dark green. He's always disappointed when an arrival exploits a legal loophole and buys itself for scrap value, saving itself from destruction. Edge is sarcastic to humans (which they love for its novelty, compared to the usual utter robotic deference), and utterly callous regarding other robots. Apparently Third Law ("Self-preservation") is much stronger in Edge's individual makeup; at a certain level, he regards all other robots as potential threats to himself. His safeguards don't allow him to harm other robots, but inaction (such as letting them go into the recycling furnace) is perfectly fine with him. He is paired with (and often a foil for) Blunt.


The other robot presiding over the recycling center, Blunt is a large and bulky biped with a cylindrical body and a domed head, yellow in color. When first met, he is preparing to retire (namely, feed himself to the recycling furnace), and training Edge to be his successor at the job. Due to some prior radiation damage, Blunt's thought processes run a little slowly, but he is not stupid. Far from it, he is precise, logical, and deliberate (almost to a fatalistic fault). His instincts to protect humanity as a whole are very strong; like many well-meaning and honorable people, he seems primed to follow his directives off a metaphorical cliff.


Freefall is noted as being one of the more scientifically accurate science fiction web comics available today.[2] Author Stanley has stated he intends to keep the science in the comic as realistic as possible without relying on deus ex machina (or "magic") devices such as "warp drive," "artificial gravity," or "transporter beams." The only handwaved technology in Freefall is the DAVE drive (Dangerous And Very Expensive) used for interstellar travel.

An in-joke for Star Trek fans is that the Savage Chicken's registry number is 1071-CCN - the reverse of the Starship Enterprise's NCC-1701. Florence was assigned to this ship due to a clerical error - the ship she was meant to board was 1071-CNN.

Another in joke reference is to the George Lucas film THX 1138. In one of the panels in "A gratuitous shower scene" when Helix is looking at Florence in the bottom right "THX 1138" appears.

Despite the world of Freefall largely being populated by humans and robots, furry characters other than Florence sneak into the background of the webcomic whenever possible. Often billboards, company logos or posters in the background will have an anthropomorphic furry character on them, usually based on members of the Freefall discussion forum.


Freefall won a Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards in the Outstanding Science Fiction Comic category in 2001,[3] and was a nominee in that category in 2002, 2005 and 2006. Eric Burns of Websnark praised the comic for its consistency in being both funny and hard science fiction.[4] It was also nominated as Best Anthropomorphic Comic for Ursa Major Awards in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2023. As of 2015, it is consistently at #1 in The Belfry WebComic Index's Most Read Science Fiction chart and has almost 600 Belfry subscribers.