The Miriam Black books by Chuck Wendig have made me look at disabilities in a completely different way. Whether or not you think Miriam Black is disabled, or just inconvenienced by her ability to see how people die, Wendig does a great job at showing how Miriam is basically incapable of functioning normally in society. Her additional ability has so overwhelmed her, that it has made her a complete loner, absolutely isolated, and incredibly caustically awkward. She can’t hold a job, or stay in one place. She has no home, no friends, no sense of security or stability. All of the things that we enjoy so much in our lives are absolutely absent from hers, and those absences have shaped her in very brutal ways that have left incredibly profound scars.
“Disability” is defined as a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. Miriam Black, according to that definition, is disabled by her additional and somewhat fantastic ability. This is, perhaps, where speculative fiction gives readers an incredibly unique insight into disabilities. So often we think of disabilities occurring because someone is lacking something a normal person has – a leg, an arm, sight, hearing, etc. However, through Miriam Black and characters like her, authors give us an incredibly important and rare viewpoint into how disabilities can occur from additional, or heightened abilities.
The interesting thing about disabilities is that they span an incredibly huge range, from physical limitations in their many forms, to mental, and often the two can affect each other. Through literature, authors give us a window into incredibly diverse and multifaceted aspects of disabilities. While we may focus on the limitations that cause disabilities, often times it is the additional abilities that can disable characters, too. Greta, in Ian Tregillis’ Milkweed Triptych, is almost socially useless, and sometimes cognitively useless due to her ability to see the future. The ability grows as the series progresses. By the time the trilogy is over, I was almost baffled by how her additional ability almost sucked out all of her humanity and made her more machine than human. She was a brutal, focused tool. Her additional ability stunningly carved out any hint of humanity from her.
The disagreement people may come to when facing characters like this is whether or not they are truly disabled, and that is part of why I wanted to write this column. I don’t want to just write Special Needs in Strange Worlds to orate to the masses from my soapbox. I also want to generate discussion so we can not only focus attention on how important disabilities are in literature, but also explore the multiple aspects of this important topic. A few years ago, Jay Lake wrote a post for my website about how cancer has impacted his writing. In his post he said, “Cancer isn’t a disability, but it is disabling.” Perhaps people will argue that these characters aren’t disabled by their additional abilities, but their additional abilities could be disabling, much like how Jay Lake described his cancer battle.
When it gets boiled down, what is the real difference between being disabled and suffering a condition that is disabling? These are all different ways of looking at the same issue. Speculative fiction, and the author’s ability to take readers where anything is possible, really allows readers to experience both disabilities and disabling conditions on a level that we may not really realize until we stop to think about characters like Greta and Miriam Black.
Let’s open this post up for discussion. Do you think characters with additional, fantastic abilities could be disabled by their abilities? What are some great speculative fiction characters that suffer detrimental effects from their additional abilities?