Miles Vorkosigan and Physical Disability in Science Fiction

CONTENT ADVISORY: While this post isn’t particularly disturbing, in my opinion, there are aspects of the book series which may come up in discussion that are. Read the comments at your own risk.

I will never forget meeting Lois McMaster Bujold at the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention some years back, when she was the year’s Guest of Honor. I stood in line for a long time to get books signed and shake her hand, and thank her for the way she writes disabled people. There were probably about two hundred people in line, grand total, and about half were using some kind of visible aid: canes for the blind, walking canes of different types, wheelchairs, hearing aids, ASL interpreters, aid dogs of various kinds, were just some of the different assistive accommodations I saw in line that day, (Brief note: for those who don’t know me, I am an on-and-off user of some of these myself; my mobility level ranges from “I require a wheelchair” up to “I can walk without assistance as long as it’s not too far or too steep.” At the time, I was using a walking cane and a number of braces on both arms and legs.) I spent most of the wait time talking with the women directly in front of and behind me, and we shared our reading experiences and why the books had really hit home to us:

“I bet you had athletics trainers who were just about that understanding, didn’t you… yeah, me too.”
“That pressure, not to disappoint people by the things you can’t do. That, yes, I know that one. She really nailed that.”
“The moment when your health makes you watch your career flash before your eyes and vanish. God. That was painful to read because I recognized it so thoroughly.”

If you aren’t familiar with the books, the protagonist of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is Miles Vorkosigan, eldest son of a noble and powerful family, third in line for his planet’s seat of power… and severely physically disabled, in a culture with a military-nobility caste. He’s also a hyperactive and bipolar genius with an amazing capacity for getting into trouble… and, fortunately, for getting out of it again, though not entirely unscathed. The books start out mostly fun romps through a cool sci-fi space opera mystery, unless you happen to identify just a little too closely with the main character (let me tell you, it was a spectacular experience, reading that first book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, while laid up wearing leg braces from ankle to hip, but probably not the best life choice I’ve ever made, and not one I would have made had I known just what I was letting myself in for). Later books are harder to take, and a few, such as her novel Memory, are frankly a kick in the teeth, though also brilliant – there’s a reason this book won pretty much every award for which it was eligible. I’ve never forgotten the exact words of the description I heard that day: “Reading Memory was like having my world torn apart and put back together again from tiny shreds, and realizing it was bigger than I’d realized.” Brilliant, yes, but also extraordinarily painful to read. Every time I reread the series, I ask myself whether I should skip this one… but I never do.

A large part of this experience, for me, is the compassion and respect with which the author handles the main character’s disabilities. They are crucial to his decision-making processes, and to the mechanisms of his daily life. They affect parts of his life ranging from simple self-care to romance to long-term career planning. The physical and mental are intertwined as well; while his disabilities are primarily physical in nature, there are major psychological and psychiatric issues that result directly from them. At the same time, his disabilities do not define him, as much as his society would really like them to. He is tremendously successful, though not without difficulty – but then, nobody in this series accomplishes anything that’s both really major and really worth doing without some challenge, kind of like in real life. Miles’ disabilities just give him a different set of challenges from those faced by others in his world, and often they are a set of challenges that others have trouble understanding because they are so far beyond the realm of their own experiences. But, and this is also key, there are wonderful people who make the effort to try. They don’t always succeed, but if there is one thing that Bujold captures better than any other author I’ve ever seen, it’s the importance of having those around you try to understand the challenges you face.