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Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Quick Fixes Usually Aren’t

Earlier this year I successfully finished, for the second (and hopefully last) time, a battle with cancer. I was diagnosed in October of 2010, and I got my full body scan and official “all clear” from my doctor in April of 2013. I made it out alive, and that’s a lot more than a lot of people can say. Oddly enough, cancer didn’t just change me, or teach me more about myself and my capabilities, but it taught me a lot about writing speculative fiction. Specifically how disabilities are handled in speculative fiction. Despite the fact that books are often told about fictional people, authors draw upon real life situations to create their characters, worlds, and cultures. There are interesting parallels between how we handle our own hardships, and how authors allow their characters to handle their hardships and the character growth and development that results from their hardships and struggles – the personal and interpersonal battles they fought and won (or didn’t win).

The interesting thing about cancer is, the second you’re diagnosed, you change. I am not the same person today that I was in October of 2010. Not even close. Fighting cancer takes all of you and more. It takes strength you never knew you had. You aren’t just fighting a disease. You’re fighting yourself on a primal level that most people will never understand. The truth is, cancer isn’t a disability, but it certainly is disabling.

“It is an awful thing to be betrayed by your body. And it’s lonely, because you feel you can’t talk about it. You feel it’s something between you and the body. You feel it’s a battle you will never win . . . and yet you fight it day after day, and it wears you down. Even if you try to ignore it, the energy it takes to ignore it will exhaust you.” Every Day by David Levithan

My treatment (two rounds of it) wasn’t chemo, but the effect was much the same. I was very sick. I lost my hair. I couldn’t think and didn’t have the energy for many basic functions. I couldn’t drive. I hardly had the energy to walk down the stairs in my house. My mind was so fragmented that I’d literally get lost in my own neighborhood. My bones and joints hurt so bad I felt like I was on fire for weeks. I was an emotional wreck and had almost no appetite. I’d sit all day, for hours and hours, in one chair and never move, and at the end of the day, I’d be in tears because I was so weak, like I’d just ran a marathon. The emotional strain was a million times worse as I had to tell my child I was too sick to play with her. “I’m sorry, kiddo. Mommy’s too sick to play with you today.” That cuts a person, no matter how thick their skin is. However, feeling that sick, that broken, that emotionally strained, helped me evolve as a person. Consider it the equivalent of character development for the books we read. It was hard, but I did it, and I’m different because of it. The authors who tap into that struggle that we all face in one way or another are the authors that stick out to me. Sometimes life is hard, there aren’t short cuts, and that should be reflected in the books we read.

Fantasy and science fiction are genres that are only limited by our imaginations. Authors create worlds and destroy them. They develop cultures and societies and all the things those societies entail, including diseases. This is a double-edged sword. The ability to create a disease or illness also gives authors the ability to cure the disease, illness, or disability easily. The guy who gets his arm cut off ends up with a robotic appendage. The lady who is blinded learns she’s really a seer. While that’s all fine and good, that makes disability more of a means to an end rather than an actual disability.

Disabilities are limiting, but they are also empowering. Those of us who have been through, or are currently enduring, life altering circumstances can vouch for the fact that these situations are challenging, but they are also opportunities many of us use to grow and develop. We learn more about who we are and what we are capable of while we struggle than we do through quick fixes. Cancer was hell and I wouldn’t wish it on my worse enemy, but it taught me more about myself and the human condition than I could have learned otherwise. The books that tap into struggles, and the ways they can transform people, are the books that tend to speak to people on a soul-deep level. They are the books that people remember because they speak to all of us, and the parts of us that have been strengthened by hardships.

The thing about quick fixes is that they aren’t real. You can’t just zap away cancer, and if your arm gets blown off in a war, you don’t get fitted with a robotic arm and move on like nothing happened. If you’re blinded, you don’t get prophetic sight. There aren’t quick fixes in life. Sometimes bad things happen. Someone will feel pain from a phantom limb for his or her entire life. If you’re blinded, you have to learn other ways to function and live. It doesn’t go away. Some pains haunt us, and even if we grow and learn from the illness or disability, it will leave behind soul deep scars. For example, Miriam Black from Chuck Wendig’s series is absolutely isolated in her life because of her ability to see how people die. Her ability has become a disability in some ways, and Wendig takes pains to portray how that effects Miriam, often uncomfortably. It’s limited her, but it’s also changed her – not always for the better, but it has changed her, and he shows her character evolution and development. That’s one reason why his series is so amazingly powerful. Sometimes people hurt, and Wendig’s Miriam Black is a perfect example of that.

In Disability in Science Fiction, edited by Kathryn Allan, Allan says:

“Too often, disability is cast in a negative light in SF narratives; the use of a prosthesis signals a loss of humanity, or a perceived cognitive impairment necessitates technological ’enhancement.’ When we imagine a future world without disability, we end up erasing a significant group of people from our ideal vision of a collective human identity and history. It is important that we interrogate these outdated cultural frames of disability and seek new ways of reading and writing the disabled body so that we, as a human community, might move forward into the future together.”

That quote probably says what I am trying to say far better than I could ever say it. These quick fixes, these simple ways around complex, real world issues, might be a good tool for authors to use to gear their plots and characters to certain a end goals, but they aren’t real. The truth is, there are no quick fixes in life. Much of the human experience is gained and understood through our trials and challenges. We develop as people when we are pushed and pulled in uncomfortable ways. Life is one glorious, beautiful, complex, and often painful experience, and it’s those moments that make us who we are. We should celebrate that. Sometimes people hurt, or limp, or have cognitive issues. It really is that simple and the books we read and write should reflect that.

Disabilities are a reality to a vast swath of the global population, and not every disability is obvious. These impairments require hard work and real pain to cope with. Quick fixes are easy, they are a means to an end, but they aren’t accurate. Not every disabled person gets an awesome robotic appendage fixed with the most hardcore of all guns once they lose a limb, but every person who loses a limb will face a mental and emotional, as well as physical trial that will change them forever. It seems like more authors are realizing that disabilities in the books they write should be dealt with in realistic ways, and more of these quick fixes are biting the dust. It’s good that this trend is changing, because by changing it, authors are showing people everywhere that disabilities matter. Disabled individuals are important and they can and do serve heroic, and vital roles both in the real world and in literature. There is a place in the shining speculative fiction future for all of us. The increasingly prevalent portrayal of important characters realistically coping with limitations is proving it.

6 Comments on Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Quick Fixes Usually Aren’t

  1. Thanks,Sarah. Facile solutions are alluring but as real as faerie gold.

  2. One reader of my novel “Vampire Syndrome” (which chronicles the adventures of Jack Wendell, a vampire with Down Syndrome) actually asked me if the alien vampires could “fix” Jack’s chromosomal status with their advanced technology.
    I said “They wouldn’t want to,” for reasons revealed in the second novel of my trilogy.

  3. Great article.

    If there is a “fix” for my disabled characters, it isn’t easy, it isn’t foolproof, and it always has emotional consequences.

    Glad to hear you got the All Clear! 🙂

  4. DL Frizzell // December 12, 2013 at 8:29 pm //

    As a fellow cancer survivor, I can appreciate the struggle. I’ve never thought about it much until now, but I think having such a stark reality check in our personal lives grounds us in our writing style. We know there are things that simply cannot be avoided in real life, so why should they be in fiction? In fact, such things can do a great deal to enhance a story, not by simply revealing a character’s humanity, but by molding that character into a beacon for others to see.
    Great post, Sarah. I hope your success, both in health and writing, continues for a very long time.

  5. I like that you talk about people with disabilities being realistically portrayed. In the past, my experiences reading about people with various disabilities or health concerns could be placed into one of three categories: 1) [disability] is a terrifying traumatic thing that ruins your life and the best you can hope for is to be brave until you die; 2) young girl struggles with illness until she dies peacefully, prettily, leaving behind a handsome boyfriend who will forever mourn her; 3) playing up the Inspirationally Disadvantaged trope. When I got more into speculative fiction, I started to see more things along the lines of the disability superpower, like the blind seer, but hey, that was still something of a step up from the tragic pretty death of leukemia, right?

    But as I’ve experienced more in life and had my own battles with health problems and coming to grips with the fact that I’ve got some neurological issues that are never going away, if that was all that was out there in fiction, it would really cheese me off. And to have the quick fix option is just poor writing, poor planning. Sure, magic can do lots of cool things and technology will advance, but not everything’s got an easy solution. To just handwave disabilities away, to cast a spell or hand someone a pill and expect it all to suddenly be better… Well, the sudden ‘cure’ after a long time of adjustment brings with it yet more difficult adjustments. Few people bring that into fiction when they throw in the magic cure-all. The expectation is, “Wow, I’m no longer disabled, now my life is perfect and I’ll be happy and thankful forever!” The adjustment period is almost never written, never shown, and that’s unrealistic too. It ignores, or at best merely downplays the very real issues that people have to face on a daily basis.

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