A post about Miles Vorkosigan

This post was commissioned by one of my Patreon backers, David Lamb. High-tier Patreon backers can have four pieces a year – flash fiction, poetry, or blog posts like this one – written to any prompt or topic that they like. You can check out this, and my other tiers of rewards, on Patreon.

Miles Vorkosigan is the protagonist of most of the books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar series. He is a disabled man, the son of an important Lord (or, later, Count) on a feudal planet, who cons his way into a mercenary fleet and has space adventures. (This is a woefully inadequate summary of the Barrayar series, which also includes feudal and interplanetary politics, mysteries, espionage, entire books that veer away from the military stuff in favor of quirky space romance, and a ton of thoughtful explorations of the societal impacts of biotechnology, among other things.)

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Miles is one of the most beloved disabled characters in all of science fiction. He’s often the first example people give of good disability representation. Too often, he’s the only example.

Miles’s disabilities are many. He has dwarfism, brittle bones, and a host of attendant complications from an incident with poison gas that happened in utero. (In later books, he also develops a form of epilepsy.) Miles is also non-neurotypical – I’m not sure if a coherent mental diagnosis is ever given in the books, but fans seem to agree that he is bipolar and has ADHD.

Bujold gives these disabilities the attention they deserve. Miles is never reduced to just a spokesperson for his disabilities, but they do consistently affect how he moves through the world, whether it’s being seriously injured by things that an able-bodied person would shrug off, submitting to yet another painful and tedious medical procedure, having atypical and alarming reactions to in-universe medicines, or simply dealing with the stigma of being visibly disabled on an intensely ableist planet. (And I do mean intensely – Barrayar was once decimated by a nuclear war, and many of its residents still live in terror of radioactivity-induced mutations, to the point of practicing infanticide for minor birth defects.)

Miles is hyperactive, often hypomanic, fearsomely clever, and has all the resources of a Barrayaran nobleman at his disposal. This makes him a delightful protagonist, the kind of person that you watch just to see how he gets himself into trouble this time – and how he creatively problem-solves to get out of it again, if not always in the manner his superiors would like.

In short, Miles is a tremendously good disabled character. But this is not to say that he is above criticism. One of the criticisms I’ve heard of Miles as disability representation is that, aside from the disability itself, he’s actually extremely privileged. He has all the money he could want for medical care and actual bodyguards, not to mention entire space fleets, to protect him. He is more or less literally royalty, not to mention all the other titles he accrues throughout the series. Ableism is still a thing that hurts Miles, and his health is always going to affect what he can and can’t do. But many of the difficulties and compromises that real-world disabled people make for their own survival never touch him.

This is less really a problem with Miles as a character – disabled people should get to fantasize about being royalty, too! – and more an example of the problem that happens when we try to hold up one character as the pinnacle of representation. People have been writing lately about how, when there’s only one female superhero, or one female whatever, she’s expected to be all things to all women – and, because that task is impossible, fails. Miles can’t be all things to all disabled people, either, and he shouldn’t be where the search for disability representation stops. No matter how cool Miles is, we won’t have real representation in science fiction until many other disabled characters, all intersectionally different and all also extremely cool, can be recognized alongside him.