Stephanie Saulter writes what she likes to think is literary science fiction. Born in Jamaica, she studied at MIT and spent fifteen years in the United States before moving to the United Kingdom in 2003. She is the author of the ®Evolution trilogy; her first novel,Gemsigns, was published in the UK & Commonwealth last year and will be released in the US next month. Its sequel, Binary, has just been published in the UK. Stephanie blogs unpredictably at stephaniesaulter.com and tweets only slightly more reliably as @scriptopus. She lives in London.
Thank you, Sarah, for inviting me to contribute to Special Needs in Strange Worlds! I’ve been a reader of the series and a fan of the thinking behind it for some time now. I’m really pleased to be able to join the discussion.
I guess I’m qualified to do so on two fronts. I’m the author of the ®Evolution novels, which are set in a near future in which human beings have been altered, some extensively, by genetic modification. The books deal with ideas of diversity, prejudice, physical appearance, and how extraordinary abilities and/or disabilities affect people’s notions of what it means to be human.
My other qualification (which probably has a lot to do with why I’m interested in those issues in the first place) is one I share with many other contributors to Special Needs in Strange Worlds: intense personal knowledge of what it’s like to live with a disability. In my case that’s because of my brother, Astro Saulter. Astro has severe cerebral palsy; he has virtually no fine motor control and has never been able to walk, sit up straight, speak, or do much with his hands. Communication is either via a spoken alphabet system (he hates alphabet boards), or a specialised computer interface that he controls with a switch mounted on his wheelchair’s headrest – because his head is the only part of his body over which he has meaningful control. It’s painfully slow, but with it he can read, write, call me up on Skype (I talk, he uses the switch to type), surf the web…
And he can draw. Boy, can he draw.
Astro is a talented digital artist – and not ‘for a disabled person’ either. In the past two and a half years he’s had his first solo show, accepted a couple of commissions, been selected for the National Gallery of Jamaica’s Biennial Exhibition and included in their subsequent New Roots showcase of emerging artists. His work is vivid, vibrant and beautifully observed. Click the links, and be amazed. But come back, because I want to talk about what this means in fictional worlds as well as the real one.
I’m still a bit startled by how thoroughly the experience of being Astro’s big sister has informed the world of the ®Evolution. I didn’t set out to write about disability; it was only when I was editing the Gemsigns manuscript that I realised how much of a theme it had become. It emerged as a natural consequence of the story I was telling: a story of the altered, the damaged, the differently abled.
While many of the gems in Gemsigns have extraordinary capabilities, and several are stunningly beautiful, many of them also suffer from illnesses that have been engineered out of the norm population. Many are dysmorphic – their anatomies altered to meet the requirements of some industrial process. Many have been left mentally impaired, or emotionally scarred. Some are all of these at once.
I knew I was writing about difference. I wanted to explore the levels of discomfort that human beings experience when faced with humans who are not like themselves. And few things seem to provoke more discomfort than being confronted by someone who is disabled, or disfigured. Few things prompt us to leap more quickly to conclusions – often the wrong ones. Few things are better at flipping that primitive monkey-brain switch that says ‘not my tribe, get out of my tree.’
Do I sound a little angry? I probably do, but it’s as nothing to how Astro feels. Because he can’t speak, one of the mistakes people most frequently make when they meet him is to assume that he is cognitively as well as physically disabled. Sometimes this is merely tiresome. But sometimes they speak of him as though he wasn’t there, in pitying or dismissive tones. Sometimes they ask why he isn’t in an institution. Often a stranger will talk to him in nonsense words, as though he were a baby.
He’s sharp as a tack, and thirty-five years old. It really, really pisses him off.
I wrote that disdain and incomprehension into the ®Evolution, because it’s real. But it’s more often down to ignorance and fear than malice, and I wanted to show that too. I think a lot of the standard tropes around disability that we see in fiction – that it befalls someone who has done wrong, and can therefore be understood as a punishment; or that with the loss of a sense such as sight a new ability such as clairvoyance is gained, suggesting some kind of fair exchange; or that the witch/wizard/wise scientist has a miracle cure up their sleeve; or that the disabled person is so patient and saintly they don’t actually mind either the disability or the slings and arrows they suffer because of it; or, worst of all, that said disability is the only thing of significance about them – are the coping mechanisms employed by those of able body and sound mind. They are a way of reducing people to symbols in order to codify our own fear; a way of reframing a complex reality into a simple narrative. And I realise now that as I wrote the ®Evolution I was challenging and subverting every one of them.
For all the disorders and damage scattered throughout the gem population, I do not honestly think readers will come away from Gemsigns with an impression of any character as being ‘the disabled one’ – at least not without being equally aware of the abilities and talents they do have. And I sincerely hope no one comes away thinking of any character – despite extremes of physiology or psychology, regardless of kindness or cruelty, generosity or self-interest – as being any more, or less, than human.
I don’t want my characters to serve as symbols. I want them to feel like people. I want them to feel like you, and your family, and your friends, and your enemies. And I don’t want them to feel real ‘in spite of’ their challenges. I want those challenges to be part of what makes them real.
After all, they’re part of what makes us real.
Here’s the thing about fiction. It’s one of the ways we understand the world. We tell ourselves stories to work out who we are, and to make sense of reality. Stories are incredibly powerful – and incredibly dangerous. By making things up you can tell the truth; or you can create, perpetuate and reinforce a lie. Simplistic, tokenistic ‘uses’ of disability in fiction – as though it’s a thing to be ‘used’ and not an intrinsic facet of the human condition – are a way of not telling the truth. And by not telling ourselves the truth in our stories, we make it easier to avoid the truth in our daily lives.
The truth is, every one of us is differently abled. Every single one.
Some of the differences are problematic enough to get labeled with a ‘dis’. There are practical reasons for that. But the most impractical is the way it lets the rest of us off the hook – as though we were somehow all the same, and safe, because we don’t bear that label. The way it lets us forget, or ignore, a fundamental truth of the human condition: that everyone’s needs are special, and everyone’s world is strange.