Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Paul Weimer in praise of Miles Vorkosigan

There are a few book reviewers online that I think are far and away above pretty much every other book reviewer on the planet. One of the best, in my opinion, is Paul Weimer. When I think of Paul, I tend to equate him with a genre prodigy. He is always up for a good discussion, thoughtful comments and insights into many (tons, really) of different books. He reviews on the infamous (and Hugo nominated) SF Signal, as well as Functional Nerds and is a frequent podcast guest. Besides all that, he’s one hell of a nice guy. If you ever have genre questions, or want to read some incredibly high quality reviews, you want to look for Paul.

That being said, I’m sure you can understand why I was beyond thrilled for Paul to write something for this event. I admire him, and his reviews, so much that I’m incredibly confidant that you will appreciate what he has to say as much as I do.

About the Author

Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota for the last 9 years, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to his reading and gaming interests, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, the Functional Nerds, the SF Signal Community, Twitter, Livejournal and many other places on the Internet. And one day he will write his own “trunk novel”.

In Praise of Miles Vorkosigan

Barrayar.  A planet struggling with its past as an attacked and conquered planet. A planet struggling with past and present fears of mutation and deformity. A planet struggling with its feudal culture as well, where physical strength and power are what are most respected, even in a high tech environment. A planet still making its way after a long and brutal occupation.

Meet Lord Aral Vorkosigan, regent to the 5 year old Emperor Gregor. A high profile position, and one that makes Lord Aral very many enemies indeed. He and his  wife, Cordelia Naismith, is attacked while pregnant with their son. The attack does not kill Aral and Cordelia, but rather the poison gas attack deforms the child she is carrying in the womb.

Enter Miles Vorkosigan. Despite the objections of his very traditional grandfather (Barrayaran policy towards crippled offspring is abortion or infanticide) he is allowed to grow up, despite his deformity..Even after repeated corrective surgeries, he is still fragile, and all of four feet nine inches tall. Hyperactive and hyperintelligent, Miles Vorkosigan is not going to let these physical disabilities get in his way.

Barrayar doesn’t know what hit it. And neither does the rest of the universe.

Miles Vorkosigan is the main character in most of the Vorkosigan novels by Lois M Bujold. In the series of novels, Bujold not only shows us the difficulties and challenges that a disabled character has in a society that actively fears and loathes people like Miles, but shows how Miles overcomes those challenges–and sometimes doesn’t. While Miles is intelligent, creative and determined, he is not a superman character.  He sometimes just can’t over that wall, no matter how hard he tries. And sometimes he is faced with his nature, and the legacy of his culture, in direct and poignant ways.

His very name reminds Miles of who and what he is. Before the poison gas attack, his name was to be Piotr Miles Vorkosigan, naming him after his paternal grandfather. After his grandfather attempts to kill his deformed infant grandson, believing that his family cannot have a deformed scion, the infant is instead named Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. Their relationship over the years as Miles grows  is challenging, difficult, and true.

In the story “Mountains of Mourning”, he is sent into the rural backcountry of his family’s lands to deal with a case of infanticide based on a practice that could have killed him just after birth. And instead of just being able to ban the practice, Miles has to navigate the thorny thicket of his own nature, the local culture, and come to a justifiable and just verdict.

In the early set of novels, starting with The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles gets around, as best he can, the prejudice and fear of mutants on Barrayar, and his own limitations by inadvertently winding up with a secret identity as the leader and admiral of a group of mercenaries.

While his physical limitations are still there and still a problem, we get to see Miles shine when he is an environment where prejudice is not added to the mix. Even stranger, the distinct personality Miles develops as leader of the Dendarii Mercenaries as “Admiral Naismith” provides a rich inner life to the point of a possible split personality, adding a psychological twist to Miles’ disabilities.

Many of the other novels in the sequence, if not all of them, continue to explore Miles, his limitations, and what happens when the universe pushes back on a character who doesn’t ever stop pushing. Ever.  Whether he is the hyperactive Admiral Naismith, or an Imperial Security officer still dealing with the culture of his home, Miles has a rich tapestry of problems, external and internal, to show us how a disabled character makes it happen.

In Mirror Dance, Miles gets to meet his double, a clone forcibly grown and deformed to look like Miles in an attempt by a terrorist to wreak havoc on Barrayar. Some of the most poignant reflections on Miles’ limitations and deformities come to light once Miles and Mark meet.

In Memory, Miles’ disabilities have tragic consequences, as a ill-timed seizure and an accident by Miles injures a courier in the service of Barrayar, and Miles’ subsequent dismissal from ImpSec plunges him into a deep depression.

And in A Civil Campaign, perhaps the lightest of the Miles novels, the disabled Miles Vorkosigan conducts a campaign far more difficult than anything he has faced as Imperial Agent or Admiral Naismith: Romance.

And throughout the series, we have Ivan, a well meaning, jovial second cousin  and best friend to Miles that shows Miles, and the readers, what could have been. Tall, handsome, athletic, charming, and waltzing in and out of plum positions and life in general, the physical and social contrast between Ivan and Miles is a recurring theme throughout the dozen novels of the sequence. In a sense, Ivan represents to Miles and to the readers what could have been, what Miles *should* have been.

And yet, even so,he is not a paragon,unlike the happily married Miles (by the time of the latest novel), for all of his charm and winning ways with women,  Ivan may wind up with the lonely life of a bachelor. The next novel that Bujold intends to write, much to the delight of her readers, is to finally and definitely see the universe from Ivan’s point of view. I especially am eager to see how we see Miles from Ivan’s point of view at novel length.

He’s not only my favorite disabled character in genre, Lord Miles Vorkosigan is one of my favorite characters in science fiction, period. And that’s how it should be.


Paul Weimer can be found many places online. Here are a few spots you can find him:

Blog, Jvstin Style
SF Signal
Functional Nerds 

(Note: Having never read this series I chose an image at random. It may or may not be the best book to put with this post. I apologize if it’s not).

9 Responses

  • Great post, Paul. Miles is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. A very minor correction: you said that Lois “intends to write” the new book about Ivan. Jo Walton mentioned on Tor.com recently that she’s read the novel and that it’s wonderful, so I believe the novel is actually finished and that ARC’s should soon be available, if they aren’t already.

  • Lovely post, Paul! 😉

  • Thought I had posted, seems what I said got lost, but great post Paul. Haven’t read any Bujold, but will look into it. Looks interesting.

  • Elizabeth Moon

    Bujold’s ability to see and portray the complexities in characters, in societies, in the way cultures shape (and misshape) individuals–including Miles (also one of my favorite characters) has kept these books on the “re-read” shelves here for years. Even though she won a string of Hugos and Nebulas, I think Bujold is an underrated writer when it comes to “grand scope” SF…her inventiveness with both tech and cultures is much greater than it generally acknowledged. (The Cetagandan breeding program alone…but then there’s Beta Colony, smugly morally superior, and Jackson’s Whole…and lots, lots more.)

    • BookwormBlues

      I really haven’t read enough Bujold. I’ve only read one of her books and I really want to branch out and read more, especially after all the praise she’s received from Paul’s wonderful post. I’m just aching to get to the library tomorrow, especially after this comment about how inventive she is.

      • Thank you, Elizabeth. Yes, the Miles universe is rich and diverse, and focusing on Miles and his disability is really only one portion of a rich tapestry. There are good reasons why Bujold keeps getting Hugo nominations and why any comprehensive genre reader can’t be considered as such without encountering her work.

  • Caryn

    The writing is sufficiently brilliant that until I saw this post I never thought of Miles as disabled: he was just Miles, Mr. Forward Momentum himself. Shorter than most, and more fragile, but so are a lot of women.


    I ended up channeling Miles at a job interview once — Ms. Shy herself turned into a passionate fast-talking future employee. I did get the job, too.

  • Ah, thank you, Stefan. I wasn’t sure where that process was, so thus the cautious ambiguity of my language.

  • Thank you, Teresa. When Sarah invited me to this project, it took approximately 5 seconds to decide on Miles as the topic, although I had a back-up topic in mind if someone else had already claimed Miles.

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