As a disabled immigrant with limited resources who is also a caregiver, I attend cons very sporadically. But at every single convention until just a few years ago, as well as online, I have had multiple versions of the following conversation:
Me: “Let’s discuss disability representation in SFF literature.”
Person: “Miles Vorkosigan!” or “You should try the Vorkosigan Saga!”
I explain that I have read all the books in Lois McMaster Bujold’s many-volume space opera epic, and reread the earlier ones multiple times so much that I can quote them verbatim, but I’d rather not have repeated discussions of the main protagonist Miles as the model of disability representation. Miles Vorkosigan is the physically disabled scion of a noble family, and his father is a major military and political figure. I believe that we have centered Miles to the exclusion of other disabled characters in Bujold’s work (and probably elsewhere). My problem is that Miles’ disabled existence and his triumph as a disabled person rest on a foundation of immense privilege. I do not believe that he would be a hero (not in the same way, at least) if he did not have these seemingly endless financial and social resources: access to money, power, connections, and education. His problems accessing resources available to his noble, affluent, abled male peers are a large part of the story. I want to read about disabled people who are not the ruling class.
I have gotten so many responses to this, often repeating: Miles is larger than life and that’s what stories are about; royalty and privileged people in general are often protagonists in SFF; this is the only/best/most extensive representation we have; better this rep than no rep; it is done well, so it does not matter that Miles is privileged; as a disabled person on Barrayar, Miles would have died without privilege.
The response I am never getting and which I’m always hoping for: “But what about Sergeant Bothari?” Considering how much bandwidth Miles has been getting over the years in SFF, I think it’s especially important to talk in-depth about Bothari, a commoner soldier who becomes Miles' bodyguard and manservant. From my perspective, Bothari presents a raw, gripping, and illuminating look at disability in the Vorkosiverse. It is also painful to read and hard to touch. I am going to touch it in this essay. Please note the trigger warnings at the beginning of this essay.
Not all disabled people on Barrayar die without privilege. Bothari survived. He survived badly. He survived as a criminal. This matters and needs to be discussed.
Konstantine Bothari is born and raised in the slums—the caravanserai area of Barrayar’s capital. He is a child of a sex worker and an unknown father. As a child, he is a victim of human trafficking: his mother sells him to her customers until he is old enough to hit them back and escape.
The juxtaposition of Miles and Bothari in terms of socioeconomic privilege is unrelenting. When Miles is shown to order bespoke spacesuits custom-made to his disabled body, Bothari is shown to deliver a baby during a siege with nothing more than a borrowed jacket—Bothari’s “mother used to do a spot of midwifery. Sometimes she'd drag me along to help” (Barrayar). As a young adult, he enlisted to escape the slums, and now he is a mentally ill veteran. Bothari himself thinks about the privilege differential: in Cordelia’s Honor, Bothari tells Cordelia that he mistrusts and hates the noble Vor class.
In Cordelia’s Honor, Bothari serves as a batman to Ges Vorrutyer, a high-powered, noble, affluent, corrupt politician and the commander of the Imperial fleet. Vorrutyer abuses him. In Vorrutyer’s service, Bothari becomes a torturer, the person who is ordered by Vorrutyer to rape and who commits or attempts crimes of rape in the narrative. When Ges Vorrutyer is “done” with Elena Visconti, a prisoner of war, Bothari asks Vorrutyer for her catatonic body and “takes care” of her in his cabin (Cordelia’s Honor). We learn the details of this horror from a dialogue between Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia. Aral presents Bothari’s treatment of his victim as “insanity.” We learn that Bothari obtains medical supplies from Vorkosigan in order to take care of Elena’s injuries. But he does more than nurse her back to health:
"He took care of her in his cabin—fed her, dressed her, washed her—all the while keeping up this whispered dialogue. He supplied both halves. He had apparently worked out this elaborate fantasy in which she was in love with him, married in fact—a normal sane happy couple. Why shouldn't a madman dream of being sane? It must have terrified the hell out of her during her periods of consciousness."
"Lord. I feel almost as sorry for him as I do for her."
"Not quite. He slept with her, too, and I have every reason to believe he didn't limit that marriage fantasy thing to just words. I can see why, I suppose. Can you imagine Bothari getting within a hundred kilometers of such a girl under any normal circumstances?"
Yes: the series’ hero, Aral Vorkosigan, who knows about this situation but does nothing to stop it, “can see why” Bothari would abuse his victim: she is beautiful. The whole narration, in which Aral lovingly lingers on every detail of Elena’s torment, the insistence that it is not torture, the ableism in the wording, are deeply upsetting to me as a reader.
Bothari is redeemed, in the books, by his service to the Vorkosigan family. When Ges Vorrutyer orders Bothari to rape Cordelia Vorkosigan, he refuses (she is “Vorkosigan’s prisoner”) and executes Ges Vorrutyer instead. He is a devoted armsman to Aral Vorkosigan. He obeys Cordelia when she orders him to execute Vidal Vordarian in Barrayar, even though he has a mental breakdown immediately afterwards (I have to question whether this order qualifies as abuse: Cordelia knows about Bothari’s PTSD and other mental health breakdowns; with her Betan psychology insight, she could assess how hard and triggering this order would be for him; the possibility of such an order is not discussed with Bothari beforehand.) Bothari is devoted to Miles. He is Miles’ bodyguard, protecting him from street harassment and bullying on Barrayar. After Miles fails military academy admission tests due to his disability, Bothari accompanies Miles offworld. At the culmination of his arc, Bothari is executed by Elena Visconti, the woman he has victimized. Fandom Wiki describes this passage as the following: “Bothari was killed by Elena Visconti, who failed to understand that he was not one of the torturers but a fellow victim.” No. Bothari is both torturer and victim. He is a rapist and also a victim of rape and abuse. He is mentally ill and benefits from access to medication for his mental illness; he does better and is calmer when he “takes his medication” (Barrayar). I am not sure if any other Vorkosiverse characters are portrayed as taking meds.
Bothari dies while Miles lives on.
The narrative falls so neatly along class and other privilege lines it is terrifying. The slum-born, lower-class Bothari is disabled and criminal. On Beta, where everybody is comfortably middle class, disability does not seem to exist. Every possible birth defect is handily removed in utero. Finally, Miles is able to survive and thrive, with great difficulties to overcome and thanks to his character and relentless determination, yes, but also thanks to his immense privilege—multiple high-powered people, including Miles’ father, pull strings to get Miles admitted to the military academy even though he failed the entrance exams (Warrior’s Apprentice).
Miles, and his privilege, became the model of disability representation in SFF even though the books offer us more than one disabled person. The person without money and status is a “loyal servant” (a problematic trope, especially in its execution here) and a mentally ill abuser who ends up executed by his own victim and whose story nobody wants to touch with a very long pole.
I believe that Miles and Bothari need to be discussed together. We cannot lionize one side of this representation while conveniently silencing discussion about the other side—the narrative strand in which poverty, mental illness, and criminal activity are portrayed to go together; in which the mentally ill person is continuously exploited and discussed using ableist slurs; in which the person who takes medication is also the criminal, in which the only resolution to his story arc is his death.
Clement Koudelka—another Vorkosigan armsman who is not a noble – presents another portrayal of disability in the early Vorkosiverse. Koudelka is the son of a grocer and “pretends … to be an artificial Vor [a member of the nobility]” (Barrayar). Like Bothari, Koudelka is in Vorkosigan’s service. Injured during a mutiny, Koudelka uses a mobility aid (a walking stick) and has a very hard time adjusting emotionally and physically to the change. In Barrayar we see him become depressed, desperate, and worried not just about his mobility but about his sexual function. During one of the novel’s more problematic scenes, Kou apologizes for raping a woman, Ludmilla Droushnakovi (Drou). Drou is indignant—from her perspective, she was consenting. The scene in which the two have the conversation and find out Kou, the disabled person, thought he had committed a crime is moderated by everybody’s favorite therapist, Cordelia Vorkosigan, who tells him that “It doesn't look as though your self-accusation stands up in court.” Kou attempts to explain that he “never asked, never said a word.” The whole scene has a humorous undertone—how dare he, disabled Kou, think that he could have overpowered the mighty Droushnakovi against her will!—but it ends up reinforcing the message delivered by Bothari: disabled commoner men are rapists, while nobles are not portrayed in a similar way. Kou and Drou end up getting married.
After Bothari dies, Mark—Miles’ long-lost, mentally ill and abused clone – takes Bothari’s place as Miles’ mirror and the model of disability which is not propped up by Miles-level privilege. Unlike Bothari, Mark is more straightforwardly a victim rather than both victim and perpetrator (Mirror Dance). Unlike Bothari, Mark’s Vorkosigan parentage gives him place of power and privilege in Barrayaran society. Mark is a survivor and his battles are hard-won, but it is the Vorkosigan family that makes space for his healing, his growth, and his future. It is Mark’s familial connection to Cordelia Vorkosigan that gets him into much-needed therapy. Kareen Koudelka, the daughter of Kou and Drou (both in Vorkosigan service), becomes Mark’s lover and his emotional support (Mirror Dance; A Civil Campaign).
I cannot adequately convey how frustrated I am about this representation, which was my source of nourishment for so many years. I cannot convey how angry I am with the silence around the full picture of disability in Vorkosiverse. I want a discourse that acknowledges how important it was and still is to have multiple disabled people in the Vorkosigan Saga, while discussing the problematic aspects of representation.
One of the biggest struggles I have with Bujold’s representation models is that I am attached to them, as a reader who spent a lot of time in these worlds, and as a reader who needed and still desperately needs novels in which disability or mental illness are not the sole point of the plot—novels which are about the adventures and relationships, but which include disability representation. The power of Bujold’s work for me is in that she made me care about the characters—people—of her novels, and through them I came to care about their flawed, imperfect worlds. Representation tropes and problems hurt more when the stories are personally meaningful, and they hurt much more when there’s not a lot of choice out there.
I would like to see more and more books in which disabled people are not shoehorned into clichéd tropes; we need disabled characters who come from a variety of underprivileged backgrounds and who manage mental illness and physical disability without committing heinous crimes. If the connection between mental illness, socioeconomic class, and criminality is to be drawn at all, it must be done carefully. Thankfully, disability representation—including, importantly, disability #ownvoices representation—is becoming more and more widespread and supported in SFF. As more and more mental illness and disability #ownvoices work is published, representation will and is becoming more multifaceted and more nuanced; as a reader and a writer, I crave that.