Autistic Book Party, Episode 43: Leia: Princess of Alderaan

Note: This review contains minor spoilers for “The Last Jedi,” though I’ve tried to keep all references to the movie’s events vague.

Today’s Book: “Leia: Princess of Alderaan,” a Star Wars tie-in novel by Claudia Gray.

The Plot: A teenage Princess Leia learns that her parents are a part of the Rebel Alliance – and, against their wishes, joins them.

Autistic Character(s): Amilyn Holdo, a girl Leia’s age who joins her on some of her adventures.

Ever since seeing “The Force Awakens,” I have been on a bit of a Star Wars kick. It’s not a thing I’ve mentioned in public much, but it’s been a thing. When I asked for Star Wars books for Christmas, I was expecting them to be escapist fun and to let me spend a little more time in the galaxy far, far away with my favorite characters. I wasn’t expecting to need to make an Autistic Book Party episode about it.

But “Leia: Princess of Alderaan” portrays a younger version of Amilyn Holdo, a sympathetic character from The Last Jedi, as very clearly non-neurotypical.

(Yes, we are talking about Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo, played by Laura Dern, although obviously, she doesn’t have that rank in this book. I’ve been told that other viewers noticed something non-neurotypical-looking about her in the film itself, but that went right over my head, so the book was a surprise.)

Amilyn Holdo in “Leia: Princess of Alderaan” has the following characteristics:

  • Atypical facial expressions, especially a habitually “glazed” look
  • Dresses and does her hair very eccentrically
  • Speaks in an “airy monotone”
  • Stares off into space
  • Cheerfully goes for the snacks at an important diplomatic function instead of networking or playing politics as the characters are supposed to
  • Has unusual interests at intense levels: for example, memorizing the astrological systems of various planets, in a universe where most people don’t believe in astrology
  • Has unusual emotional reactions, including being cheerful and enthusiastic about “mortal peril”
  • Is quite clever, and often figures things out before the other characters do, but is also too “guileless” to know important unspoken things, like why you shouldn’t say critical things about the Empire in the Empire’s apprentice legislature sessions
  • Habitually has communication difficulties, sometimes to do with being literal, but more often to do with using some odd metaphor or allusion that she thinks makes her thoughts perfectly clear, while everyone else scratches their head and wonders what she is talking about. This includes times when she is talking about one of the things that she’s figured out before everyone else – but nobody realizes she’s figured it out until later, often after she’s put the plan that she thought she explained into action. Towards the end of the book, Leia reflects that she is learning to “speak Amilyn” and is doing a better job than before of figuring out what Holdo means when she talks.

Holdo is from a planet called Gatalenta which has some strange cultural traditions, including using aerial acrobatics to meditate. While one might initially chalk up some of Holdo’s strangeness to being from Gatalenta, it is eventually revealed that her choice of clothing and other habits are very atypical for that planet, and that she doesn’t fit in there, either.

It’s not one hundred percent clear that Holdo’s neurotype is autistic; sometimes she veers into more generic, Luna Lovegood-esque kookiness. But she is definitely not neurotypical, and when you list her traits like I just did, they resemble autism – particularly the “female”* presentation of autism – more than any other condition I’m aware of.

(*In scare quotes because people with this presentation can have varying genders, but that is largely irrelevant to this post.)

Holdo is a sympathetic character with a lot to offer. Her cleverness, resourcefulness, and enthusiasm come in handy on many occasions. Two instances stand out to me, because they are helpful things of types that I very rarely get to see autistic characters doing. First, Holdo is a source of emotional support for Leia – helping her process her feelings about her family and the Rebellion by teaching her Gatalentan meditation techniques. Second, although Holdo is sometimes guileless about social dangers, she is sometimes able to solve them in her own way. In a wonderful scene toward the end, Leia and Holdo return from a dangerous mission and are intercepted by an Imperial officer who is suspicious about where they came from. Holdo uses her knowledge of astrology to come up with a plausible alibi, but she also socially misdirects the officer in a very striking way – deliberately staring into space, looking even more glazed than usual, and beginning to monologue enthusiastically about the astrological aspects of her travels until the officer gets embarrassed and waves her on through.

Other characters, including Leia, are also able to help Holdo when she needs it – bailing her out when she veers close to saying dangerous things in the apprentice legislature; being patient and learning to figure out her way of speaking, instead of demanding that she change it; giving her a space to talk out her own problems, such as her urge to rebel from Gatalentan culture. Leia and Holdo’s friendship – and, likely, the friendships between Holdo and other characters – is mutual and genuine.

The older Holdo in The Last Jedi is not as visibly weird as the younger one in this novel. In my opinion, this isn’t an inconsistency; it’s a change that could very plausibly have happened as the teenage Holdo got older and learned more skills, including the skills of military command.

Holdo being autistic also casts a very interesting new light on her actions in The Last Jedi. It’s not a light that I’m going to talk about here at any length; to do that, I’d need to re-watch the movie with the book in mind and give it its own, separate review. But it’s worth noting that the older Vice-Admiral Holdo’s conflict with Poe Dameron revolves, in large part, around her ability (or inability, or refusal) to explain her plans for the Resistance in a way that Poe will accept. If she has a pre-existing communication disability – even one that she’s worked on, over the years – then this adds a significant new layer to that conflict.

In short, Amilyn Holdo in “Leia: Princess of Alderaan” is a well-rounded and respectfully portrayed autistic character. Not at all what I expected to find in a Star Wars book – but something I was delighted to discover.

The Verdict: Recommended

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Claudia Gray. I read her book because I got a copy for Christmas. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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