In Robert J. Peterson’s Omegaball, sixteen-year-old wheelchair-using Laurie plays the world’s most dangerous sport on the Darknet, a massive virtual reality, where she’s legendary. When she gets invited to play on a team in the real world without the benefit of the Darknet, she has to decide whether to reveal her identity (and her disability) to the world or content herself with being the best anonymously in VR.
That same week, while she’s debating her decision, she’s invited to join an intergalactic hacktivist (terrorist?) group by its infamous leader Mr. Chalk, Scared that he’s singled her out, and confused at what he could possibly want with her even if she is a computer and engineering genius, she bolts and runs directly (and seemingly on a whim) to her try-out for the Omegaball team. But her twin sister, Helen, secretly volunteers with Mr. Chalk in her stead, on the condition that he helps her destroy Laurie’s life. (Yes, you read that right.)
The book follows Laurie’s journey to playing Omegaball in the real world and Helen’s increasingly dangerous “partnership” with Mr. Chalk. The two plotlines come together when Helen inadvertently helps Mr. Chalk take an entire Omegaball arena – where she and Laurie are facing off on opposing teams – hostage.
Laurie uses a wheelchair because of a congenital spinal cord injury on her C-5 vertebra caused by a birth defect. The exact nature of her disability is different from mine (I have a neuromuscular disease, not a spinal cord injury), but we share many similarities. We both have congenital disabilities. We both use power wheelchairs and have done so essentially all our lives. And we both have limited strength and range of motion.
While I was intrigued by the virtual-reality premise and cautiously hopeful for the disability representation, I’m sorry to report that this book is a case study in how not to write a wheelchair-using character, from ableist self-loathing to the resentful abled sibling trope to a medical “cure” and beyond. It’s also a veritable hotbed of misogyny throughout, though it manifests differently in each of the three points of view – Laurie, Helen, and Glenn, the Omegaball coach who recruits Laurie. There’s a lot to discuss here, so I’m going to split the review up into sections for easier reading.
Internalized Ableism and Self-Loathing
The book begins with some promising moments. The opening scene finds Laurie in a crowd of people all angling to meet the star player of Laurie’s favorite real-world team. When the athlete spots her, the attention of the crowd swings to her. Laurie’s reaction is wildly relatable:
…they’re all giving me the same look, that same condescending, oh isn’t she brave wide-eyed stare I get from able-bodied twits who operate under the assumption that being disabled is the worst thing in the history of the universe.
A few pages later, after an embarrassing interaction with the famous player (which involves a wholly unnecessary and demeaning moment where Laurie’s dad, instead of offering a pen for autographing, accidentally hands the player a spare pee-stained tube designed to collect Laurie’s urine), Laurie takes control of the crowd by indirectly shaming them.
“Hey Dad! Do I have lobsters crawling out of my ears? …Then why are all these ladies staring at me?”
The effect is instant and awesome. Dozens of cheeks turn red. Heads swivel away. Horrified apologies are muttered. It’s glorious, but nevertheless, their words ring in my ears: it must be so hard.
Trust me, it isn’t. It’s just me, just my life.
But I’ll admit: sometimes this crap gets to me. Sometimes.
Laurie’s internal and external reactions in this section all ring true, if a little on-the-nose. She’s used to the ableist microaggressions she’s received all her life and has a go-to method for addressing them, but she also acknowledges that it hurts and affects her. Given the context of the scene, I originally interpreted that last line about how “sometimes this crap gets to me” as referring to ableism. I was hopeful we’d get a character navigating an ableist world with a range of realistic emotional responses. Unfortunately, as the narrative progresses, it’s clear that by “this crap,” Laurie actually means her disability itself, not ableism.
Laurie is a fundamentally self-loathing character. The narrative insists otherwise via the occasional assertion of “believe it or not, I don’t hate myself” or “there’s nothing wrong with me,” but those statements lose any weight when taken with the never-ending stream of self-hating thoughts. Here’s a sampling:
A nasty voice inside me affirms this fear:
You’re a horrible, deformed monster and you know it.
Reflecting on their mother’s death:
[Helen] came out first. Mom was fine.
Then I came, all gnarled and stunted, like a branch growing in on itself.
Mom wasn’t fine after I came out.
Oh, Laurie. You’re so naive. So stupid. If he ever saw you in person, he’d feel sick to his stomach. You know that.
On not going to social events:
…where so many people can see how gross I am…
When meeting Glenn in person:
You’ve made a huge mistake coming here, leading him on. You should’ve told him the truth the second you met him, and now he’s going to tell you you’re a freak and a loser and you’ll never play for the Dreadnoughts or be a normal girl or have a boyfriend ever, ever, ever, EVER.
Granted, sometimes these thoughts are corrected on the page. For example, after that final quote, “a quiet, sensible voice” in her head says there’s nothing wrong with her. But again, those insistences feel hollow when there’s so much self-hatred overpowering them. Internalized ableism is absolutely something many disabled people struggle with, and which likely manifests in a similar way for many of us as it does for Laurie. The problem here is subtle and multi-faceted. First, the self-loathing stands out as the core of Laurie’s self-view, not the pithy and ultimately insubstantial positive refrains. But perhaps even more important is the fact that the worst of what Laurie thinks of herself is corroborated by everyone around her – and thus by the narrative itself. Her sister’s point-of-view is full of ableist hatred, insults, and emotional violence (which we’ll discuss soon). Her father says multiple times that Laurie’s disability has been hard on Helen and that Laurie needs to love her sister extra to make up for Helen’s hatred of her. And Glenn not only says “You are a fucking joke” when meeting Laurie in person, but it’s revealed later that he only ends up drafting her to the team because her disability and the team’s largesse in overlooking it will make a good story.
Finally, it’s crucial to realize that for disabled readers who struggle with internalized ableism, Laurie’s recurring self-hating voice could very well be triggering, or, at the very least, painful. If the narrative had countered or done a better job acknowledging the nuances of internalized ableism, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem; again, it is a difficult reality for many. But the narrative continually reinforces the ableism underlying Laurie’s self-hatred, signaling to disabled readers, however subtly, that Laurie should – that they should – feel this way.
The Intersection of Ableism and Misogyny
Let’s consider how often Laurie’s self-loathing is about how boys view her. It’s not that those thoughts themselves are unrealistic; I myself have written essays upon essays working through disability, desire, and dating. It’s that those thoughts happen constantly and in sometimes absurd situations. Take the climax, for example. Laurie is battling Mr. Chalk (who originally approached her as a “secret admirer”) in the Darknet while her family is being held hostage in the real world. She’s already handily dispatched his henchmen and dismantled his command center when she gives this monologue:
“Do you know what it’s like to be fooled into thinking you’re pretty?”
“You spend your life trying not to get your hopes up. Some boy looks at you, and you spend the whole day convincing yourself it means he likes you, and why it means he’s building up the courage to talk to you, and why it maybe means you should talk to him first…but then when you actually talk to him, reality drops a pitch-black curtain over everything. The whole world goes from color to black and white, and you’re looking at things as they are. And in the real world –the one that actually exists – he wasn’t looking at you, and he wasn’t going to talk to you, and you should never have talked to him, because when you do, it makes him sick to his stomach. Sick because all of a sudden, he has to think of a nice way to say ‘Please don’t ever talk to me again.’”
My hands are shaking. I go on: “For a few seconds, you made me think the curtain wasn’t going to fall; that the world was color, not black and white; that I actually existed for someone.”
To reiterate: this happens while her dad and sister and thousands of other people are being held hostage. I should also note that Mr. Chalk intentionally got her sister addicted to “mindbends” (a sort of virtual reality drug) in order to better manipulate her. But of all that, this is what Laurie brings up. Again, what’s she’s saying feels familiar and true to my own experiences, but the timing and context of this speech is a function of the misogyny that runs throughout the book. It’s shown time after time that Laurie’s foremost concern must always be how boys view her, even when lives are on the line.
Does the narrative ever counter that belief that Laurie is undesirable, though? That has a complicated answer that boils down to: yes, but in decidedly misogynistic and ableist ways.
Near the beginning of the book, we learn that Laurie’s best friend (and her primary way of accessing the Darknet because of the nature of the technology), Driscoll, has feelings for her. We also learn that Laurie doesn’t quite know how to feel about that or about him. Again, this was a promising start. Coupled with Laurie’s longing to be desired, being on the receiving end of an unrequited crush could inject some much-needed complexity to her interiority. It could show that while Laurie might be eager and even desperate for love, she isn’t desperate and willing to settle for the first boy who expresses interest. For a while, that’s how things seem to be going.
After Driscoll confesses his feelings and Laurie rejects him, she hears her sister’s voice in her head taunting her:
Driscoll’s the best you’re ever going to do, Princess. You should lock him down before it’s too late.
Like hell he is. I’m going to become an Omegaball star, and then we’ll see what I can do.
It’s heartening to see Laurie assert that she can do better, but the fact that she believes she has to become a world-famous athlete to do so is telling, and it’s never countered in the narrative.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. At the very end of the book – well after Laurie’s climactic monologue, to be clear – it’s revealed that Driscoll is Mr. Chalk. He’s the villain. The guy who approached Laurie as a “secret admirer” to manipulate her into joining him. The guy who then got Laurie’s sister addicted to drugs and manipulated her into aiding a major terrorist attack. The guy who gave Helen all the ammunition she needed to make Laurie’s life hell. The guy who is supposedly in love with Laurie and, as Driscoll, has also been sleeping with Helen. That guy is the one boy to express any romantic interest in Laurie throughout the book.
(Though, at a party after Laurie undergoes a surgery that lets her walk – more on that soon – “everyone call[s]my name and tell[s]me how cute and hot and sexy I look,” which has its own set of problems.)
In light of the revelation about his identity, suddenly all the sad, self-pitying, self-righteous moments Driscoll has had throughout the book become much more sinister and calculated. And how does their final interaction play out?
“Tell me who you are,” I say, though I’ve finally figured it out.
He turns to leave, stops. “I’m so sorry about everything, Laurie. I never meant for any of this to happen. I want you to know you were never in any actual danger. I could never hurt you.”
“Hey,” I say. “Thank you for saving my life [in a much earlier scene where Driscoll saves her from drowning]. At Lake House.”
He smiles. “You’re welcome.”
I don’t see him leave because I’m on my knees sobbing.
She thanks him. She mourns him. He leaves on a triumphant note, having cancelled the terrorist attack he’d spent the book organizing in a supposed act of contrition after someone is killed (though he continues to defend the original intent of the attack). He’s never caught, suffers no consequences. Beyond one line about Helen going to rehab, we never hear anything more about her addiction nor the cause of it. Laurie never reflects on his endless manipulations and seems to consider his “love” for her to have been genuine. Her final thoughts on him are almost wistful.
The Resentful Sibling Trope
I’ve mentioned that Helen hates Laurie, and she specifically hates her for being disabled. Their mother died in childbirth, an event that both sisters blame Laurie for. On top of that, Helen resents the amount of attention Laurie received from their father growing up. Helen calls her sister “Princess” as a spiteful way to show she thinks Laurie is spoiled and selfish. Perhaps it’ll be more instructive to let Helen tell you what she thinks of her sister:
Princess stinks like an over-flowing Port-a-Potty. Natural side-effect of carrying around all your body’s filth.
I catch a nasty look from Princess. Aw, feeling bad because you’ll never have a boyfriend.
I would. Hell, if I were stuck in that chair, I’d kill myself.
When mistaken for her twin:
I’m instantly seeing red. How the effing eff could anyone mistake me for Princess? I mean, she’s a majorly mortifying freak-beast, and I’m a goddess on two feet. Two feet, you mouth-breather, not four wheels.
Helen hates her sister so much that, as mentioned earlier, she agrees to help a known and dangerous criminal in exchange for the means to ruin Laurie’s life. The means he provides is via the mindbends, which give Helen her own real-world Omegaball skills so she can surpass and humiliate Laurie in the area she loves most – and which also make Helen easier to control. Throughout it all, Helen’s purpose is clear: to make her sister’s life hell. When Laurie confronts Helen after the announcement that they’ve both been drafted, but to rival teams, here’s Helen’s response:
“You shouldn’t even be here. I was born first, and you were supposed to die. Happens all the time. Two twins, but one of them’s broken. One dies so the other can live, but you were so fucking greedy that you took mom with you and made it so dad can’t even see how awful you are. Of course I mindbent my way onto the team. I’m not like you, Laurie. I’m not just automatically good at everything, even though my body works.”
Clearly some of her hate stems from her own insecurity about herself, but that neither excuses nor explains her intense ableism. The other characters seem to think it does, though. Here’s a snippet from Helen’s “redemptive” scene, which occurs after she and her father have been taken hostage:
“Daddy, I’m so sorry. Oh, god help me, I’m so sorry. I fucked up. I fucked up bad. Princess–Laurie. She just, she always got everything. Didn’t matter how hard I tried or worked or mindbent or fought, she always won. And she didn’t even need to move to do it. God, I remember watching you carry her around when we were little, and, and – you never held me that way. I mean, the only time you ever touched me was when you were yelling at me or telling me not to wear something because you were worried about me. But – but I’m so sorry. I hated Laurie so much. Hated her. I’m so sorry.”
“Honey, it’s okay.”
“No. It’s not. It’s not okay. It’ll never be okay.”
He holds my face. “Sweetie, it’ll always be okay.”
After some talk of what her mother was like, the scene continues:
“Do you ever…blame Laurie?”
“For what happened?” He nods. “Once or twice. For a little while. I’m not perfect. And neither are you, Hel. Being a kid sucks. It’s hard enough when you don’t have any challenges, much less when you’ve got a special-needs sister and a drunk for a dad… And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let you down.’
“You didn’t let us down.”
“No, not that. I’m sorry I let you down, Helen. When we found out about Laurie’s condition, I just naturally assumed she’d need more…well, everything. More help, more love. I was wrong. And I’m sorry.”
With that, Helen is exonerated from the consequences of all her choices and years of vitriolic hate, because according to her dad and the narrative, she was right all along: Laurie did suck away the love and attention and happiness that was rightfully Helen’s. This reinforces a supremely dangerous trope about disabled children and their abled siblings. We see this narrative so often: the deprived, burdened abled sibling who resents their disabled sibling for simply existing. It’s a narrative that’s rarely questioned, and one that leads to very real emotional and sometimes physical ableist violence.
Helen never apologizes to Laurie. This is as close as it gets, when Laurie sends a virtual message to Helen in the heat of the climax:
>Helen, don’t react. I’m on the Darknet.
Oh, god. Laurie. I’m so sorry. I wish you could hear me right now. Im so sorry.
The two of them don’t interact for the rest of the book. We never see Laurie deal with her sister’s role in what happened after the fact. We don’t see them reconcile (or not). We certainly don’t see Helen apologize to Laurie, Helen’s victim. Helen was victimized as well, make no mistake, but that doesn’t erase the violence she did to her sister. Violence that was distinctly ableist in nature and that the narrative implicitly supports or at least forgives, even as it denies the victim any chance to forgive for herself.
Medical “Cures” and Overly Convenient Technology
Much has been written about these tropes already, so I’ll keep this section somewhat brief. When Laurie is officially invited to join the Omegaball team, the offer comes with a condition: she must have an experimental, painful, and highly dangerous surgery that will allow her to walk via the use of an exo-suit fused to her central nervous system. Laurie begs her father to let her have the procedure done, mere pages after insisting that she doesn’t hate herself. In fact, she’s just finished explaining to Glenn, the coach, that she’s already engineered a “smasher” (the robots all players use for the position she plays) that she could pilot in the real world. And yet just a few pages later, she’s begging to have the surgery.
It comes with a fifteen percent mortality rate and a lifetime of excruciating pain. Her father (rightly) asks why she wants to do it. She asks herself the same thing:
…as much as I’d love to stick it to Helen (and half the school) by becoming a pro sports star, part of me wonders why I’m so keen to risk my life when my life is already pretty great. I’ve always used my wheelchair here. I’ve always had my disability here. And you know what? I hardly ever think about it. …by and large, my disability is just…me. It’s part of me. And I like me.
If part of me were to go away, would I still be me?
It’s a question that hangs there, never explored. This passage hints at some interesting, complex questions, but merely asking them in a throw-away manner isn’t enough, especially when it comes to this particular trope. Laurie never gives an answer to why she wants to do this beyond the fact that she wants to do this. And once she has the surgery, she never revisits any of the hesitations expressed here. Because of all that, this passage is nothing more than a surface-level, almost dismissive nod at the very real and complex issues surrounding this trope, which sets the tone for how the rest of the book will handle this plotline.
Her dad ultimately consents, on one condition, and only one:
“You’ve got to promise to keep loving your sister, even when she’s being an asshole. When this [surgery]happens, she’s going to take it hard. And it’ll be up to you to keep loving her. Love her enough for the both of you.”
Once again, Helen’s needs and feelings are prioritized. Helen is under no obligation to love her sister because it’s hard to have a disabled sister. It’s up to Laurie to shoulder the entirety of the sisterly love. That’s her father’s condition to letting her have this life-changing, life-threatening surgery.
Laurie agrees. She has the surgery. She nearly dies during, but doesn’t. When she wakes, she’s in the promised excruciating pain and goes through months of physical therapy.
For most of the rest of the book, Laurie can walk. She glows orange as a side-effect of the exo-suit and occasionally mentions being in pain, but she’s effectively abled. During the climactic attack, though, she smashes through a glass window and ruins the suit. In the final pages, she mentions needing a 36-hour surgery to have it removed. She’s back in her chair.
And that’s okay. Glenn hired some engineers to outfit [her Omegaball suit]with some nifty tech that lets me pilot it from the real world. I don’t know how I feel about it all, and that’s okay, too.
That’s the only discussion we get on the matter. Of course, one wonders why the “nifty tech” couldn’t have been used in the first place. Surely it couldn’t cost more than an experimental, massively invasive surgery. (The reason is that Glenn wanted the story, remember? He needed her cured, not just playing.)
Even before the surgery, though, Laurie rarely encounters physical obstacles. She’s a genius engineer if you’ll recall, so she’d already outfitted her chair with a number of helpful inventions, including one that lets her climb stairs. Granted, she’s frightened of flights of stairs and avoids them, but the fact remains that she faces few physical barriers in the real world throughout the book. And, of course, she faces zero such barriers in the Darknet. In virtual reality, she can do everything physically abled people can. This might not have been an issue if we saw the effects of her disability more in the non-virtual world, but as it is, Laurie spends the large majority of the book either “cured” or effectively immune to physical obstacles.
First, while I’m not qualified to discuss whether the father’s alcoholism was handled respectfully, I should note that his addiction magically disappears when Laurie goes into surgery.
And second, I want to return to this issue of misogyny. I’ve already touched on how it affects Laurie’s storyline, but it’s also wildly prevalent throughout Glenn and Helen’s chapters. For instance, when we first meet Glenn, he tells us about a “skinmod” (essentially an internet app for his smart TV) he recently bought, which:
replaced [the news anchor’s]sensible khakis and button-downs with stringy little numbers that cling to a just-not-naked emulation of her body that’s built from amalgrams of a hundred X-rays taken from enough angles to generate a mo-cap replica of her in real time.
His point-of-view sections are full of these delightful comments. He thinks about a friend’s accent as being from the “Greatest Hits Album From Eastern Europe’s Sexiest Sexpots” and responds to flirting women with comments “specially designed to induce maximum amounts of giggling, all while putting the hardbody back on her heels a bit. Always keep ’em off balance.” He’s also fatphobic and ableist, neither of which should be a surprise, but which is nonetheless uncomfortable to read.
Perhaps worse, though, is the way Helen’s point-of-view sections are written: like the crudest male fantasy of a teenage girl. I’ll give only one example, from a dinner scene with Laurie and Helen, though there are many to choose from.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I twine my fingers and squeeze my boobs together, giving the [paparazzi]something to snap with his stealth-flash. Lick it up, perv.
She also “can’t blame” the teachers she’s caught “perving on [her]” and at one point is both “turned on and grossed out” by the possibility of a male school nurse “copping a feel” while she was passed out after a particularly rough mindbend.
Needless to say, all of this is massively problematic and plays directly into rape culture and the sexualization/predation of teenage girls.
Omegaball is, quite simply, a dangerous and harmful narrative from every possible angle. While there are a handful of realistic and refreshing moments, they come across as little more than lip service to good representation in light of the book’s many and massive problems. Wheelchair users are so rarely represented in fiction at all, so the fact that Omegaball follows in a long and ableist tradition of wheelchair-using characters who are self-hating, resented by abled family, and/or cured (even if only temporarily) is especially galling. Hopefully this review will serve as a warning for other wheelchair users to avoid this book, and a lesson for writers on how not to write wheelchair-using characters.