There is much about Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension that has attracted the attention of a lot of people. It’s a science fiction book featuring a woman of color with an impoverished background, some homosexual relationships and — most importantly for this column — disabilities. Before I continue, I should mention that I have an interview in progress with the author that I am incredibly excited about, so stay tuned to Special Needs in Strange Worlds for more on that sometime in the near future.
Ascension follows the story of Alana Quick, a sky surgeon who barely scrapes by with the money she makes from repairing ship engines. An opportunity arises and she finds herself on the Tangled Axon, a ship with problems of its own. To keep from giving anything away, I will leave the plot there and let people find out what it’s all about as they read.
As mentioned above, the most important part of the book for this column are the disabilities, and I should say that Koyanagi did them all very well. Alana, for example, suffers from a chronic illness and her poverty keeps her treatment minimal. In fact, rather than treating her disease, she basically only has enough money to get the medication that allows her to tolerate the symptoms.
This thread of the novel spoke most intimately to me. Alana is dependent on medication, and Koyanagi really subtly highlights the fear felt by those of us dependent on medication. Alana is constantly touching her pill bottle, as if reassuring herself that it is present. She thinks about her medication a lot, with both relief and loathing. It’s a constant presence because the quality of her life is dependent on it and her lack of any form of wealth causes her to feel, and suppress, a good level of fear and insecurity.
As a person who is now dependent on medication due to my own battle(s) with cancer, I felt a distinct kinship with Alana and her personal struggles with the management of her disease. The “What if I don’t get my medication” thoughts are always a nagging pressure at the back of my mind and the comfort I feel each morning when I take my pill, knowing it’s another day that I get to live, is profound and very personal. Koyanagi acutely brings forward the emotional fight felt by those of us whose lives are dependent on pharmaceuticals, and while this is a subtle thread in the novel, it is an incredibly powerful and realistic one.
Not every disability or disease is physical, though most of them seem to manifest in some physical ways. Captain Tev has her own mental demons that haunt her, as well as some physical, mental and emotional scars from a bad past. The most interesting disability in my view was that of Marre, the pilot, who for reasons unknown, was physically disappearing and losing herself.
Koyanagi portrays all of these characters in multifaceted ways. In fact, one could argue that everyone in this book is disabled in one way or another, which only adds to the allure. The truth is, it isn’t the disabilities that really make Ascension shine, it’s Koyanagi’s use of disabilities to add realistic complexities to the plot that makes the novel stand out. This isn’t a book about space battles and colonization. It’s a book about relationships and change, both internally and externally. Furthermore, Koyanagi takes care to show that despite the fact that many of the characters are differently-abled, they are all very powerful, independent forces in their own right. Their disabilities have just made them more compelling, more believable, and more sympathetic. For example, despite Alana’s chronic illness and constant pain, she’s an absolutely capable sky surgeon. In fact, I could argue that the term “sky surgeon” itself shows Alana’s power over machines where she has almost no power over her own body. Her career gives her back some of the control she’s lost with her chronic illness. It’s profound, and details like that throughout the book really nicely round out the disabilities.
Another area where Koyanagi accurately portrays the struggles that those with disabilities face is in regards to their relationships. There is a love interest, but both parties have a lot of baggage (both physical and mental) that they need to fight through before they can really give into their feelings. Due to that, it’s a constantly evolving relationship. The kinship between Nova and Alana is complex. While they are sisters and fairly close, there is obvious tension there in regards to how differently they both handle and view Alana’s illness. There is also a tale of loyalty. The pilot of the Tangled Axon is literally losing herself, but through sheer force of will, the loyalty of those who love her, and her determination to stay as present as she can, she manages to mostly stay at her post despite her pain and obvious struggle to do so. The tale of staying true to oneself despite all odds, pain, pressure, and illness, is a tale those of us who have faced disabilities will understand well.
Decisions that Alana makes are also very humbling. Her impoverished background, and the drive and dedication to her work is what fuels almost everything she does. It’s not just because Alana loves what she does, but she works so hard and so doggedly because her poverty forces her to. She needs her medication, and working constantly is the only way she can (barely) afford it. It’s an interesting situation that she’s in, and it is one that will pull at almost anyone’s heartstrings. While this is a science fiction book, in this respect Ascension could be set in any time or place, and through her, Koyanagi tells the struggle so many of us face each month.
Ascension is one of those books that readers will remember for how determined Koyanagi was to give a voice to the underexposed segment of science fiction readers. This is a book full of powerful lead women of numerous colors and orientations. Almost everyone here is disabled in one way or another. That being said, Koyanagi doesn’t just have disabled characters for the sake of having disabled characters. In Ascension she deftly toys with the strain (and rewards) on relationships, both internally and externally, that disabilities can provide as well as the worries and fears that disabled people feel. In contrast, she also highlights the touching moments of love, and loyalty; as well as the excitement of overcoming all odds. In the end, Ascension is a novel about how human and powerful we are despite what limits us. This is a novel that will speak deeply with many readers.