Autistic Book Party, Episode 25: A Civil Campaign

Today’s Book: “A Civil Campaign” by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Plot: Characters from the Vorkosigan series take a break from the usual space opera to focus on romance and politics.

Autistic Character(s): Enrique Borgos, a scientist from Escobar.

I will say this up front. Bujold is my fave. And she is an author who, by and large, writes disability very well. Miles, the series’ protagonist, is physically disabled, bipolar, and epileptic, and is a fave of many disabled readers elsewhere. His brother Mark, another viewpoint character, has Dissociative Identity Disorder. (Also Miles’s love interest, Ekaterin, is the best portrayal I have ever seen of a woman struggling to navigate new relationships, or even the idea of new relationships, after leaving an abusive marriage. Thumbs up for that.) All these characters are well-drawn, well-rounded, and full of life.

It’s why I was a little disappointed by Enrique. He’s not a really bad portrayal. If you take all the characters in every book or TV show whose autistic traits are played for laughs, Enrique is one of the better ones. But in a book where several other disabled characters are consistently full people and worthy of empathy, Enrique seems to only intermittently transcend his stereotypes.

Enrique is a business partner of Mark’s. He has genetically engineered a type of bug that produces nutritious food for humans. He would like to cultivate the bugs and sell the results. He needs Mark’s help, though, because he is terrible at finances and marketing. Also, he is wanted by the government of Escobar for fraud.

Although the word “autistic” is not used, Enrique fits comfortably into the stereotype of an autistic scientist who is brilliant at science and terrible at everything else. His bugs do their job perfectly, but he cannot talk about anything but bugs, cannot understand jokes or irony, and forgets to bathe. He is clueless about many practical matters – for example, he mistakes expensive flowers from a florist for bug food. He loves his bugs passionately and believes they are beautiful, but has trouble convincing any of the other, more bug-phobic characters of his point of view.

Enrique’s portrayal at least contains a wider range of traits than those of many stereotype autistic scientists. Rather than simply being arrogant and rigid, he is shown having genuine practical difficulties in a realistic (though comical) way.

I also appreciate that Enrique is neither desexualized nor portrayed as a sexual menace / accidental harasser. He gets crushes on several women during the book, but his ways of approaching them, while odd (rewriting his dissertations’ abstract as a bug-sonnet, for instance), are not intrusive or threatening.

My biggest problem with Enrique can be summed up by a single paragraph of dialogue, in which Mark asks his girlfriend Kareen to help him and Enrique with their business project.

“Um . . . excuse us a moment, Enrique.” Mark took Kareen by her free hand, led her into the corridor outside the laundry room, and shut the door firmly. He turned to her. “He doesn’t need an assistant. He needs a mother. Oh, God, Kareen, you have no idea what a boon it would be if you could help me ride herd on the man. I could give you the credit chits with a quiet mind, and you could keep the records and dole out his pocket-money, and keep him out of dark alleys and not let him pick the Emperor’s flowers or talk back to ImpSec guards or whatever suicidal thing he comes up with next.”

I don’t disagree that a man like Enrique could benefit from practical help and supervision. What makes me uncomfortable is Mark arranging this behind Enrique’s back, and in an infantilizing way, without explaining to Enrique the true purpose of Kareen’s presence or asking what Enrique thinks of it. Mark’s treatment of Enrique sometimes veers close to the trope I discussed in Hawk, in which neurotypical characters use an autistic character for their skills, while hiding their true disdain and disgust for who the autistic character is as a person.

A few things soften the impact of these parts of the book and make them easier to deal with than Hawk. First of all, Enrique is genuinely a business partner of Mark’s. He is not doing the work for Mark’s benefit, or out of a deluded belief that he and Mark are friends. Instead, he will profit monetarily from the results the way Mark does. This is very important.

Second, unlike the secondary characters in Hawk, the cast of A Civil Campaign does not all agree with Mark. Mark is surly and misanthropic, and his remarks should be taken in that context. Other characters’ responses to Enrique range from annoyance to tolerance to kindness. It can be easy to miss, because the majority of the scenes with Enrique in them are from Mark’s point of view. But the female characters, in particular, seem more comfortable with Enrique and more willing to treat him the way they treat most other people.

“Oh, he’s brilliant about the things that get his attention. His interests are a little, um, narrow, is all.”
The Countess shrugged. “I’ve been living with obsessed men for the better part of my life. I think your Enrique will fit right in here.”

In fact, it’s heavily implied at the very end of the book that Enrique has struck up a functioning romantic relationship with a minor character. This is nice to see. However, despite all of this, no one ever actually questions Mark about the way he treats Enrique.

I also have questions about Enrique’s history of fraud, which is somewhat glossed over. Mark states that Enrique didn’t understand why he could not sell five times as many shares in his company as the company possessed. This is about as much as we ever hear about what took place then. I would very much like to know if Enrique did, in fact, understand the law. I would also like to know if anybody tried to explain the law to him at any point, or if it was another thing that Mark tried to handle for him without his knowledge. We don’t hear Enrique’s own thoughts on the matter, so I will have to stay mystified.

It’s not terrible, and is, in some ways, better than most. But with Enrique’s played-for-laughs status through most of the book, and with patronizing and controlling actions toward him going unchallenged, I cannot wholeheartedly give it a recommendation.

The Verdict: YMMV

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.