Autistic Book Party, Episode 57: No Child Left Behind

Today’s Book: “No Child Left Behind” by Claudia Casser

The Plot: A visitor from a parellel universe creates a prep school for neurodivergent Earth teenagers and refugee teens from his home world.

Autistic Character(s): The author; Geoff, the main viewpoint character, is also a teen with ADHD.

This is a book that has some cool ideas, but that I really struggled to get into because of the writing style. It’s a book whose early chapters seem to flit from thought to thought without much sense of context, stakes, or how it feels to be the various POV characters.

I do like some aspects of the way Geoff is written. The way his mind races is very realistic for a teen with ADHD. For instance, here’s an excerpt from when one of the characters explains to him that people from their universe have electromagnetism-related psychic powers:

Holy cow. Holy cow squared. You could do a lot of stuff with electromagnetic bursts.

You could fry pacemakers and memory beads. Could you fry cell phones? I shoved mine deeper into the back pocket of my jeans. Could you fry neurons? Had Lord Kemp fried my Mom’s neurons when he shook her hand? Is that why she was letting me sleep over? How could I stop them from frying my neurons? Could I find something to fry their neurons if they tried to fry mine? My foot was tapping like crazy.

But this excerpt also exemplifies what I found frustrating, because before any of these questions is addressed or before Geoff can make up his mind to do anything about them, another topic comes up and distracts everyone. This is fairly typical of how exposition and character interactions are handled throughout the part of the book that I read.

It’s also not solely a feature of how Geoff is characterized. An adult from the other universe named Lord Kemp, also has POV time; the style in his chapters is very similar to Geoff’s style. He says and does zany things, and it’s vaguely shown what his motivations are (he wants to build a school on his estate and doesn’t understand why zoning laws prohibit this), but the scene still kind of flits around without much context or illustration of what he’s sensing or feeling, or why he reacts the way he does.

I mentioned a long time ago, in my review of “Kea’s Flight,” how modes of communication that are natural for non-neurotypical people – like, in that case, infodumping – are sometimes classified as bad writing by neurotypicals. It can be worthwhile to push past that initial impression to understand what that communication style means for the characters. (I’ve reviewed other books in which I felt that long infodumps worked particularly well for building the characters, including “2312” and “Experimental Film.“) I feel bad that I couldn’t follow that advice with “No Child Left Behind.” For a reader with ADHD the aimless flitting around might feel exhilarating and relatable. It just happens to be something that I personally bounced off of pretty hard, and that made it a struggle for me to keep reading or to emotionally invest.

After I reviewed the very triggery “Mirror Project,” I decided to make a rule that I was allowed to DNF (did not finish) Autistic Book Party books if I wanted to. (I had also previously DNFed “Dance For The Ivory Madonna,” which was not triggery but just very badly written.) “No Child Left Behind” isn’t full of triggers, and it isn’t entirely bad the way “Dance For The Ivory Madonna” was. But it’s not working for me, and in the interests of getting to other autistic books in a reasonable timeframe, I’m going to put it down.

DNFed in chapter 6.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I didn’t like it

Disclosure: I read this book because Claudia Casser offered me a free review copy. This is the only interaction I have had with the author.

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

Cover of the "Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019" anthology. The title and the names of the editors (Carmen Maria Machado and John Joseph Adams) appear on the cover. The art on the cover is a woman in a dress, with suggestions of planets and galaxies around her, holding a luminous sphere.

Things have been hectic and I am more than a week delayed in announcing this, but the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019 anthology is out, including my story, “Variations on a Theme from Turandot,” which was first published in Strange Horizons. I’m honored to be included in such excellent company.

And check out that beautiful cover art! I’m only partway through reading the anthology and I don’t know what, if anything, the cover was intended to illustrate; but I can easily picture it as Liù, from my story, holding the Prince’s soul in her hands.

(I am also continually amused to have been included in this anthology from way up here in Canada, but apparently “Best American”‘s official policy is that it includes both Canada and the US. Ok!)

A Note For Dreamwidth Friends

Hello, Dreamwidth friends! I have been terribly, horribly negligent about the plugin I use that has been mirroring my posts from WordPress to Dreamwidth, and I somehow failed to realize that I had changed my password and that the mirroring stopped working. In, like, April. Whoops. Like, I was still reading my Dreamwidth friends list but just… not posting anything that showed up.

I believe I’ve fixed the problem. I believe I am also THE WORST at this. If you’ve missed me, here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been up to these past six months.

First of all:

A few things I wrote around the web as promo for THE OUTSIDE:

Other new work:

Autistic Book Party posts:

Cool Story, Bro:

Enjoy! It should be back to normal from here on out on Dreamwidth.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 56 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

AJ Odasso, “Tables Turned” (Stone Telling, Issue 8, August 2012)

[Autistic author] This poem describes a complex and uncomfortable power dynamic that many autistic people will recognize: an able-bodied person pitying and trying to comfort the narrator, out of a hidden discomfort of their own, when the narrator would rather that their strength be seen. It’s not specific to disability: the same dynamic might occur with a narrator newly growing in confidence with any number of parts of their identity. But I suspect autistic readers are going to like this one. [Recommended-2]

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Bogi Takács, “The Merry Knives of Interspecies Communication” (Angels of the Meanwhile anthology, 2016; reprinted as a free Patreon reward)

[Autistic author] Flash fiction in which communication with aliens requires a painful telepathic ritual, and a masochistic crew member cheerfully volunteers. It’s very short even for flash, but the way ongoing consent to the communication process works is interesting, and the ending is cute. It comes with an even shorter, equally cute story, “One of Our More Atypical Invasion Plans”, which is one sentence long. [Recommended-2]

*

A.C. Buchanan, “A Spell to Signal Home” (GlitterShip #41, 2017; I read it reprinted in Transcendent 3)

[Autistic author] A dreamy poignant story about witches, strandings in space, and siblings. The narrator in this story is nonbinary and AFAB, and I really like the way the story depicts the tensions between the narrator’s need to not be treated as a woman, and their cis sister’s wish to highlight and celebrate women. Reconciliation and understanding might just be what brings this narrator safely home at last. [Recommended-2]

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R.B. Lemberg, “These Are The Attributes By Which You Shall Know God” (GlitterShip, March 2019)

[Autistic author] A surprisingly trippy story about architecture, aliens, and Spinoza. The Ruvan, super-powerful aliens who have conquered Earth, believe only in reason, logic, and straight lines. A human with an interest in imagination and beauty must hide their thoughts, and oddly, succeeds – even after the aliens seem to have transformed them into something rational, post-human, and under their control. (There’s also a brief, cheerful queering of the story of Noah’s Ark, which I enjoyed.) [Recommended-2]

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Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Now Watch My Rising” (Fireside, May 2018)

[Autistic author] In this metamythical tale, a wolf is told that their purpose is to eat the sun at the end of all things. The wolf disagrees and hunts through a myriad of other tales for an alternative. I found that this one drives its point home almost too hard, but the point – in which an often-vilified character rebels against the stories that are told about them, and strives to define their own stories instead – is one that many marginalized readers will need. [Recommended-2]

*

Rivers Solomon, “Blood Is Another Word For Hunger” (Tor.com, July 24, 2019)

[Non-neurotypical author] A young slave murders her masters, and the resulting shock waves in the spirit world cause her to give birth to a new, undead found family. This is an unsettling story about community, freedom, and what is necessary in order to defend them. I especially like the grumpy/sunshine contrast between Sully, the protagonist, and Ziza, her firstborn; and how the story portrays trauma and depression in a way that feels hopeful while resisting cures and other easy answers. [Recommended-2]

*

Nyla Bright, “Spectrum of Acceptance” (Escape Pod 689, July 2019)

[Non-neurotypical author] This is a very interesting setup for a story – an #ownvoices tale about a planet of autistic people, told from the perspective of one of the few neurotypical teenagers who lives on that planet. I have very mixed feelings about it; there’s a lot that it does well and a lot that makes me leery.

I’m always cautious of “reverse oppression” stories, and “Spectrum of Acceptance” is more or less set up that way. Ada, the neurotypical main character, constantly corrects her own thoughts and feels that her neurotypical social and emotional impulses are “wrong.” This is not only the result of being different from those around her, but a result of actual therapy in which autistic people tell her that her neurotypical speech is wrong and hard to understand. In some ways it’s good and clever to show an NT character engaging in this kind of self-correction – it illustrates that feeling “wrong” in this way is a result of social control, rather than necessarily a sign of being objectively wrong. But while reading the story, I was constantly raising eyebrows at the kinds of things Ada is told are wrong, including using metaphor and being able to read facial expressions. (Where are the hyperempathic, hyperverbal autistics in this universe? Meh.) Like some other fictionalized autistic communities I’ve seen, it seemed to present a limited view of what autism is. Or maybe that’s part of the point of the story – showing that, even in a community purporting to free a group from oppression, restrictive social norms may arise which don’t completely match that group’s actual needs.

“Spectrum of Acceptance” also partially subverts some aspects of the reverse oppression narrative. While Ada feels out of place in autistic society, she learns that NT society is also imperfect, and in some ways even worse. I liked this part of the plot, but I felt that it, too, was somewhat oversimplified. One of the traits that horrifies Ada is that people from Earth ask for things even when they don’t need them, thereby “using” other people. Perhaps this is only a social norm of Ada’s planet, but I feel that it presents an overly optimistic view of autistic community; autistic people are by and large good people, but I’ve seen plenty of us making the same mistakes around demands for emotional and caregiving labor that others do.

Overall, this didn’t quite work for me, but I did find it interesting and thought-provoking and I’m glad I tried it. I feel like this is the kind of worldbuilding question that we need to discuss much more and from many more angles. [YMMV]

Cool Story, Bro: My Favorite Short Works From July and August

Megan Arkenberg, “The Night Princes” (Nightmare, Issue 81)

This is a story about war, trauma, helplessness, and the stories that one young woman tells, Scheherezade-like, in order to make it through the night. But what really fascinates me about it are the intricate ways that the world of the story and the “real” world echo each other, sometimes obvious and poignant, sometimes resisting easy interpretation.

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Isabel Cañas, “No Other Life” (Nightmare, Issue 82)

This is everything I want in a vampire short story: romantic, darkly sensual, wistful, and queer.

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Theodora Goss, “The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly” (Uncanny, Issue Twenty-Eight)

I have seen a lot of twists on the story of Cinderella before, but I hadn’t yet seen THIS one. Nicely done.

*

Ali Trotta, “The Magician Speaks to the Fool” (Uncanny, Issue Twenty-Eight)

A powerful Tarot-themed poem about life lessons, complexity, and courage.

*

D.H. Kelly, “The Furious Chisel” (The Future Fire, Issue 2019.50)

I really like this novelette about a disabled woman who reprograms her caregiver robot, and the robot who may be slowly gaining self-awareness as a result. I like the way the human and the robot have a helpful and respectful relationship instead of being pitted against each other, even when they’re faced with difficult conflicts of interest. I like how it resists easy answers about what sentience and personhood mean, what rights accompany them, how you can tell they’re there, or what should be done as a result – but how the narrator is deeply thoughtful about these things, and respects the robot’s ability to choose in the limited ways available to her.

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

I’m so happy for all the people, including some people I know and some authors I am a huge fan of, who won at the Hugo Awards this weekend! (And if you count everyone who participates in AO3 as a co-winner then that’s even more people, gosh. I’m happy for them, too.)

I have been staying at home doing my own, non-Worldcon things, but I do have a happy little announcement for those who haven’t seen it yet: my story Variations on a Theme from Turandot will be reprinted in the BASFF 2019 anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams and Carmen Maria Machado.

This is a huge honor and I’m very pleased. In the meantime, if you haven’t read Variations yet, it’s still up in Strange Horizons where you can see what the fuss is about for free. 🙂

Autistic Book Party, Episode 56: Ghost in the Machine

Today’s Book: “Ghost in the Machine” by C.E. Kilgore

The Plot: Orynn, a Vesparian – a member of a powerful, secretive race of empaths – falls in love with an android named Ethan, while the two of them are assigned to a diplomatic mission in space.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I’ve been noticing (partly thanks to some intrepid commenters!) that although I have my mainstay favorite autistic SFF authors, most of whom are traditionally published, there’s also a lot going on with autistic SFF in the indie publishing world. And while I’ve read and recommended self-published books before (including “Failure to Communicate,” my first and so-far-only Highly Recommended novel), I’m often only barely aware of what goes on in that side of the industry. Plus I was looking for a happier read, so I decided this time around to branch out into something much less familiar to me – an indie SF romance. I listed several speculative romance options for my Patreon backers, and this was the one that generated the most interest, so I gave it a try.

In “Ghost in the Machine” we meet our heroine, Orynn, who is a complex, multifaceted character and easily my favorite person in the book. Young by Vesparian standards, caring and in many ways unsure of herself, Orynn is bound by a set of strict cultural rules aimed at keeping her people safe, including the requirement that she erase herself from non-Vesparians’ memories after working with them. In some ways, she is fabulously powerful, able to influence and command the minds of everyone around her and to disguise herself effortlessly, taking on an endless series of contrasting cover identities. In other ways, she is very fragile – both emotionally and physically, as she requires hidden assistive technology even to deal with the gravity that humans and other races consider normal.

Most of all, Orynn is afraid of the consequences of her power, which can be used very destructively if she lashes out and loses control, and which can also be a security risk for other Vesparians; part of the reason why they’re so secretive is because they were brutally enslaved and used as weapons in the past. But the requirement that no non-Vesparian should ever remember her weighs heavily on Orynn:

At almost two hundred years of age, Orynn was still considered young by her people’s standards, and so her lapse in emotional control from time to time had to be expected. It wasn’t the real reason Tersai was having second thoughts about taking her on the mission, and Orynn knew it. The largest concern, or rather the largest disappointment, continued to be Orynn’s desire to exist.

Vesparians are so secretive that the word “exist” has a special meaning for them – meaning, roughly, to have a prolonged acknowledged presence in the minds of non-Vesparians, without being disguised as a member of some other race – and is forbidden.

Orynn isn’t an autistic character, but she’s a kind of escapist fantasy that I think will appeal to many autistic women. Many of us can relate to being social chameleons, or to being hyperempathic and very aware of others’ cues, and Orynn has both those abilities to a deliciously exaggerated degree. Her fragility and vulnerability, behind her many public faces, is equally relatable. Many of us know well what it feels like to be afraid of what we’ll do if we melt down, or to worry that in some sense we aren’t real people the way everyone else is. Orynn carries an exaggerated, escapist version of these fears as well, and all in all she feels like a romantic heroine designed for us.

I was less thoroughly won over by Ethan, the android (or Mecha, as they’re called in Kilgore’s universe). He’s all right; he’s intelligent and has a wry sense of humor. Although the back cover copy makes it sound otherwise, Ethan is already capable of a basic range of emotions when the story begins. We see him amused, annoyed, fond of his friends, fearful, even angry; many Mecha are capable of these things, although Ethan is particularly “evolved.” He is also sexually active, having a long string of casual encounters with random women who are sexually curious about Mecha. But he’s never been sexually or emotionally attracted to anyone before, and his feelings for Orynn are so incomprehensible to him that at first he mistakes them for her having somehow empathically tampered with him.

I’m not aromantic, but I know the trope of an android learning to love can be problematic for aro readers, especially if romantic love is somehow privileged or separated from other emotions. Ethan’s arc doesn’t lean very hard (as far as I could tell) into the worst aspects of this trope, but it still is this trope at its heart, and it doesn’t subvert the trope’s potentially acephobic traits, nor does the book ever show self-awareness by pointing out that ace/aro orientations exist in humans or that they are okay ways to be. (It’s also very much not a story arc about demisexuality/demiromanticism, as Ethan’s feelings for Orynn appear very suddenly and at a time when he doesn’t know her well.)

The story’s romantic arc in general feels a bit overwrought to me, piling up every possible reason for the characters to be anguished about themselves and each other at once, and often not addressing or resolving those reasons well. And as soon as the largest of those reasons are at least somewhat resolved, both characters leap quickly into a very extreme level of romantic commitment to each other. I know instant lifelong commitment is a trope some romance readers really enjoy, but it’s one of my least favorites and I wasn’t super happy with it.

Speaking of romance and tropes, I’m only a casual reader of romance, but I know there are fairly strong expectations in romance about happy endings. I was startled to discover that “Ghost in the Machine” lacks one. It’s the first in a series, and even after Orynn and Ethan romantically commit to each other, the book manages to partially undo that and to end on a very anguished cliffhanger.

There were a few other things I didn’t like, including some moments of casual misogyny and slutshaming that go unchallenged, and a very tropey physically disabled villain who is introduced at the last minute.

Overall, this book didn’t really work for me, but I’m glad I met Orynn. If you like romantic space opera with lots of feels, and you’re not bothered by the tropes I complained about here, then you might try it out.

The Verdict: YMMV

Disclosure: I have never interacted with C.E. Kilgore. I obtained an ecopy of this book by “buying” it from Amazon (in quotes because it was being offered there for free).

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Fairest of All

I have a new novelette, “Fairest of All,” out in the Jubilee 50th issue of the Future Fire.

I originally began to write this back in 2016, with a fairytale-themed anthology in mind, but it quickly ballooned out much too large for that anthology’s requirements. It’s a story that fought me every step of the way and I’ve often outright hated its existence. It’s also one of the most intensely, obnoxiously #ownvoices short stories I’ve ever written. The characters are autistic, they’re polyamorous, they’re abuse survivors; at least two are queer, and one is genderqueer (and also a talking anthropomorphic otter, long story); they make a lot of mistakes but are trying their best to find love and community with each other and to escape the multiple different structures that have hurt them.

This story isn’t based on an existing fairytale, but it plays with many familiar fairytale themes: simple language, kindnesses repaid, arbitrary fairy rules both beneficial and malicious, the importance of a heart’s desire. Changeling folklore, including its more violent aspects, also explicitly plays in to how this story works. (If that’s of interest to you, you might read the story in parallel with my small rant about changelings at the beginning of this review.)

(In case you couldn’t tell from the above descriptions, there is a lot of abuse in this story, both in the form of child abuse and of abusive adult relationships. Proceed with caution if this is triggery for you. The first scene is the worst; if you make it through that one, you’re probably okay.)

As a longer novelette, there aren’t a lot of markets for fiction of this length, and I’m grateful to The Future Fire for taking a chance on this weird, personal, deceptively simple but difficult story.

Disability In Star Wars

I am disabled, and I love Star Wars. It’s a series that’s captivated me since childhood, with its space magic, plucky rebels, massive spaceships, tough-as-nails princesses, and striking costumes. Star Wars left an impression that still influences me as a reader and writer today. But loving something this much is no reason not to analyze it. When I first encountered Star Wars, I was too young to know I was disabled. I didn’t have any particular personal reaction to its disabled characters, because I didn’t think of that content as being about me. Coming back to the series as a disabled adult, my perspective is different.

The Star Wars films have quite a few disabled characters, and what’s most interesting is that the films use disability symbolically in very consistent ways. Different disabilities, and different degrees of disability, are coherently used to imply different things about a character’s moral status.

Unfortunately, when it comes to their implications for disabled viewers, most of these things are not great. Losing limbs in Star Wars makes a character less human; disfigurements can mean that the character is not morally human at all. Functional disabilities can be present in heroic characters – but many of those characters are only there to help the abled heroes, and if their disabilities prevent them from fighting, they can be left to die. Finally, mental illness has a clear presence, but is almost never labeled or discussed. Let’s take a deeper look at each of these.

Darth Vader: More machine than man

I adored Darth Vader as a child. Darth Vader is cool. He’s a space wizard, expert pilot, ex-Chosen One, wielder of a fearsome red lightsaber, and one of the most powerful people in the Empire. His costume – the black mask and flared helmet, the blinking lights, the billowing cloak – makes him one of the most recognizable characters in cinema. Even the sound of his breath is iconic.

Darth Vader is cool – and Darth Vader is severely disabled. He’s a quadruple amputee and burn survivor. The limbs underneath those gloves and boots are prosthetics; the suit with its blinking lights includes a complex life-support system. His breath sounds that way because he needs an air pump to breathe.

In a list of famous disabled characters who are powerful, who are cool-looking, who have agency and aren’t afraid to use it, surely Darth Vader comes in near the top. But Vader’s disability is also intensely problematic. Like a long line of other disabled villains – Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Doctor Strangelove, Dr. No, the Phantom of the Opera – Vader’s disability is used in the films to suggest that he is missing some part of his humanity. His assistive devices make him look frightening, even to officers on his own side. When he isn’t wearing them, the camera lingers on his scarred skin, framing it as shameful and eerie. “He’s more machine now than man, twisted and evil,” Obi-Wan Kenobi laments about Vader in Return of the Jedi; he leaves out that he’s the one who cut off Vader’s limbs and left him for dead on a lava planet in the first place.

Vader’s level of disability directly correlates with his fall to the Dark Side, on a kind of sliding scale of amputations. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin Skywalker – Vader’s former self – is still mostly on the side of good. But he’s behaved recklessly, massacred a group of Sand People, and entered an illicit relationship. He loses an arm in the film’s final battle, and the prosthetic with which he embraces Padmé is visibly mechanical. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin falls fully to the Dark Side, becomes a Sith, murders children (among others), and assaults his wife. His fateful battle with Obi-Wan happens immediately afterwards; at its conclusion, he is horribly injured, loses all ties with the other heroes, and is given his mask and suit. His acquiring a disability and his fall to evil are functionally the same.

Luke Skywalker’s flirtation with the Dark Side follows the same sliding scale. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke rushes recklessly into a trap against his teachers’ orders and learns that Darth Vader is his father. He, too, loses an arm. But Luke’s heart was in the right place, and his prosthetic is visually indistinguishable from a human hand. In The Last Jedi, an older Luke betrays his nephew and retreats to the island world of Ahch-To; in this film, his hand has become visibly mechanical like Anakin’s. The hand is a signal that Luke has fallen further from his ideals than before.

At the other end of the sliding scale is General Grievous, a cyborg even more reliant on machine parts than Vader, with only a few biological organs remaining. Grievous is portrayed as wholly inhuman: simply a monster to defeat, without any of Vader’s potential for redemption.

The characters themselves appear to be aware of this sliding scale. In Return of the Jedi, as Palpatine goads Luke to strike his father down, Luke spends a long moment looking down at his gloved prosthetic hand, and at the smoking wires of Vader’s prosthetic arm. He then tosses his lightsaber aside.

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” says Luke. Sharing a disability with Vader is a part of what helps Luke remember empathy and mercy. But mainly, it serves as a reminder of how close he came to falling like his father.

Palpatine and Snoke: The disfigured face of evil

While Luke, Vader, and Grievous’s bodies represent loss of humanity, a different disability – facial disfigurement – represents a more insidious evil.

When we meet Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, his wrinkled face isn’t necessarily disfigured; it mostly looks like the face of a very old man. But in Revenge of the Sith, we learn that Palpatine’s face changed markedly during his battle with Mace Windu, when his own Force lightning was turned back against him. Like Vader, Palpatine incurs his disability at the precise moment when his evil is revealed to the heroes. Unlike Vader, Palpatine seems to revel in the change, shouting, “Unlimited power!”

In The Force Awakens, we meet Supreme Leader Snoke, a manipulative tyrant who sees himself as Palpatine’s successor. Snoke is significantly more disfigured than Palpatine, his whole head appearing to be misshapen from an old injury. Like Palpatine, but unlike Vader, he seems not to have any other lasting impairments.

The trope of disfigurement as evil is a problem for disfigured people, who are often treated as morally suspect in real life. And there is very little nuance in how Star Wars uses this one. Vader can be redeemed, but Palpatine and Snoke’s appearances mean only that they are rotten in their souls.

Minor facial scars are given to other shady characters: Anakin in the first half of Revenge of the Sith; Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi; Dryden Vos in Solo. These characters are more human than Palpatine or Snoke, but their scars indicate that they aren’t to be trusted. (Luke incurs facial scars after a fight with a Wampa in The Empire Strikes Back, as a result of the actor being injured in real life; but, while evil characters’ scars are emphasized and made clear, Luke’s are visually minimized.) DJ’s stutter in The Last Jedi serves a similar purpose, marking to viewers that something is off about this morally ambiguous character.

Yoda and Chirrut Imwe: Disabled and holy

Star Wars also has disabled characters on the side of good. Yoda, the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, is nine hundred years old; he walks with a cane and occasionally rides a hover chair. Yoda heads the Jedi Council, instructs children, and teaches Luke Skywalker to use the Force. Rogue One’s Chirrut Imwe is blind, and is a member of the Guardians of the Whills, a small order of Force worshipers who don’t have the Jedi’s abilities. Imwe attaches himself to a ragtag group of heroes and forms their spiritual core.

This trope of wise disabled holy men is more flattering than disabled villains. It still places disabled characters firmly into a supporting role, centering their ability to help the abled heroes and not their own concerns. It’s an uncomfortable trope for real-life disabled people who are often expected to prioritize helping or inspiring abled people, to be innocent and childlike, or to have special talents that compensate somehow for their impairments.

In Star Wars, holy disability and evil disability are easily distinguished from each other, because they use two separate classes of disability. Yoda and Imwe aren’t amputees or disfigured: they have whole, organic bodies which happen to have lost some functionality. (Imwe’s eyes are visibly different from other characters’ eyes, but it’s a marker of his blindness rather than a disfigurement for disfigurement’s sake.)

This loss of functionality doesn’t stop them from participating in space battles. Imwe fights with a staff and bow, unerringly precise at sensing his opponents’ position. He has the unrealistically excellent hearing of many blind warriors in film, and although he is not a Jedi, he says things about the feel of the Force that suggest he may be Force sensitive. It’s not always clear what is his hearing and what is the Force, but in any case, Imwe’s blindness imposes no real limits on his fighting ability.

Yoda can also fight well. He performs incredible acrobatics in his fights with Count Dooku and Palpatine, flinging himself around the room like a rubber ball. Afterwards, he is exhausted, and his movement becomes effortful again. Although the wild leaping around can look comical, Yoda’s abilities are in some ways less unrealistic than Imwe’s. Like many real disabled people, he can use an emergency burst of energy – augmented by the Force – for physical tasks. But he can’t safely sustain that energy all the time.

Speaking of fighting ability, the other characters we’ve discussed so far have that, too. Despite the extent of Vader’s disability, he has a range of motion similar to that of most abled people; in areas where his motion is slightly limited, he’s adjusted his fighting style to compensate. Once he and Luke have their prosthetics attached, they can sword-fight and do stunts just fine. And it’s lucky for them that they can, because for characters in Star Wars who can’t, the outlook is grim.

Rogue One: Run or die

In our first introduction to Rogue One’s Cassian Andor, he meets a contact named Tivik with an injured arm. They are interrupted by two stormtroopers. Cassian shoots the troopers – raising an alarm – and then shoots Tivik, who cannot climb to safety, before making his escape. This is especially egregious because Tivik had already protested that he was about to leave. It was Cassian who made him stay in the alley where he could not quickly escape. So the first act we see from one of our heroes is to force a disabled ally to remain in an unsafe place, then to kill him because of how unsafe it is.

This is not to suggest that Rogue One’s writers think shooting disabled people is good. Cassian is portrayed as someone morally gray who does terrible things for his cause, and his face suggests that he feels guilty about the shooting. But in the end, he’s meant to be a sympathetic character. Shooting disabled allies is portrayed as unethical, but as the kind of unethical thing that just happens in a war, when warriors are under pressure. It’s also an action apparently without consequence, as no one ever mentions or asks after Tivik again.

The same logic comes into play for Saw Gerrera. Gerrera is a guerrilla leader who shares ideals with the Rebel Alliance, but is more violent in his methods. He is so ruthless and paranoid that his own fears of betrayal nearly end the heroes’ efforts before they begin. On the sliding scale of amputations, Gerrera is somewhere between Luke and Vader. His face is visible, but he has robotic legs and an awkward gait, walking with a heavy cane. He speaks in a wheezing voice and occasionally uses an oxygen mask. While interrogating Bodhi Rook, he reaches for his mask – and takes two breaths that, for a moment, exactly resemble Darth Vader’s. (When he uses the mask in front of Jyn Erso, on friendlier terms, it makes a different sound.) The symbolism is clumsy but clear: Gerrera is both physically and morally compromised, well on his way to becoming the thing he has fought.

Throughout his time onscreen, Gerrera seems willing to stop at nothing to defend his own cause and his Partisans. But when the Death Star is about to destroy Gerrera’s base, he suddenly declares, “I will run no longer.” There is no good reason why a character with Gerrera’s keen and ruthless concern for security would choose not to run from certain death – except, of course, that his legs make running difficult. “Save the Rebellion!” Gerrera calls to the heroes. “Save the dream!” Saving mobility disabled Black men is, apparently, optional.

Obviously, Rogue One is a movie where everyone dies. It’s famous for that. But most of the able-bodied characters – and Imwe, who can fight like one – die heroically, in the final third, fighting a desperate battle to beam the Death Star’s plans to the Rebels. Gerrera and Tivik are discarded as dead weight long before that battle begins.

Mental health: Hidden in plain sight

All the disabilities I’ve mentioned so far are physical. Without robot arms or other obvious visuals, mental illnesses in Star Wars are more difficult to discern. It doesn’t help that no one in this galaxy seems to have a useful vocabulary for mental illness – or, if they do, they don’t use it on-screen.

The least ambiguous depiction of mental illness in Star Wars is a sympathetic one – Rogue One’s Bodhi Rook. Rook encounters a telepathic tentacle creature called a Bor Gullet which, he’s warned, can cause victims to lose their minds. Afterwards, he experiences catatonia and depersonalization and has to be reminded who he is. Rook consistently appears anxious, before and after this incident: wide-eyed, twitchy, stammering. It’s not clear how much of this is an after-effect of the Bor Gullet, how much is an anxiety disorder Rook may have already had, and how much is a normal reaction to how stressful his life has become. Either way, Rook struggles with anxiety while remaining a sympathetic character capable of great courage and cleverness.

Rook’s encounter with the Bor Gullet is the only time when a Star Wars character clearly marks the possibility of mental illness with words. Other mental illnesses are strongly suggested among both heroes and villains, but to analyze them requires headcanon and conjecture.

Here are some of my conjectures: Saw Gerrera, terrified of betrayal even when presented with considerable evidence it isn’t there, is fairly clearly experiencing mental health symptoms. In The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Finn’s abusive upbringing with the First Order leaves him with great fear and learned helplessness that affect his ability to help the Resistance. Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable outbursts strongly resemble the signs of a mental illness, which neither the heroes nor other villains know what to do with. Luke in The Last Jedi, sulking on Ach-To and waiting to die, seems unambiguously depressed. It’s commonly speculated in fandom that the fussy droid C3PO has an anxiety disorder, and that Obi-Wan has PTSD from the Clone Wars; certainly the Clone Wars series is grim enough to support the latter. Tie-in books indicate that The Last Jedi’s Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo is not neurotypical. I also read Padmé as having a suicidal breakdown at the end of Revenge of the Sith. She has “lost the will to live” as a result of immense and sudden emotional trauma, augmented by post-partum depression – a condition that totally baffles the medical droids, despite its prevalence in real life.

The lack of in-universe vocabulary makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the state of mental illness in Star Wars. It remains a state that isn’t clearly marked, and therefore a state that can be inferred or denied at viewers’ will. Whether you agree with my specific examples or not, mental illness in Star Wars is visible implicitly – hidden in plain sight.

That hiddenness even seems to contribute to some of the problems that Star Wars’ characters encounter. One wonders, for example, what would have happened if the Jedi Order of the prequels had a concept of mental illness or its treatment. Jedi are told to avoid strong emotions, but are never given healthy techniques for processing or regulating these emotions – leaving Force users in mental distress, including Anakin and Kylo, to struggle on their own.

Conclusions

Having to fit this into one essay means I’m only scratching the surface. Star Wars’ animated shows, tie-in books, and Legends canon have their own disabled characters, some of whom subvert the movies’ tropes. (Leia: Princess of Alderaan, for example, has Leia’s very sympathetic adoptive mother using assistive tech to breathe.) But the movies are Star Wars’ core, and are the only portrayal that most casual fans will ever see.

Star Wars gave us one of the most memorable disabled characters ever. But it also consistently uses disability in ways that cause problems. Missing limbs and prosthetics are a shorthand for moral dissolution; disfigurement is a sign of evil. Mental illness is ignored and left untreated. And disabled people on the side of good, if they can’t act able-bodied in an emergency, are left behind to die.

Star Wars can do better. The sequel trilogy and its spinoffs have already greatly improved the movies’ treatment of gender and race. Star Wars can and should improve on a disability axis, too. Its fans are already diverse and often disabled. By including disabled characters whose disabilities aren’t a moral shorthand, future movies could make these fans feel more welcome in this galaxy far, far away.