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Special Needs in Strange Worlds – Discussion: When Abilities Becomes Disabling

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?

8 Comments on Special Needs in Strange Worlds – Discussion: When Abilities Becomes Disabling

  1. Sarah,
    I recently read Nameless and while the protagonist, Luna, is the only one who sees demons in the world; I read it at times as she was insane and/or had a drug problem, which really had an effect on me and my prospective of the novel. It can be read both ways each with an emotional impact.

  2. L Jagi Lamplighter (Wright) // January 27, 2014 at 12:54 pm //

    Reading this raises really interesting questions: What about a problem a person has that stems from something they have that others don’t, rather than something they lack. If we have an ability others don’t, it’s not a disability…but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be disabling…if it makes normal life impossible.

    And yet, we would not yearn to be without a gift. But we can yearn to have it and be in harmony with normal life.

    I think a lot of us deal with that in some way or another!

    I think genre fiction is filled with people who can see or hear things others can’t and get hounded for it. In fact, it was the mainstay of genre fiction in my youth. A.E. Van Vogt’s Jommy Cross from Slan, and Lessa in the opening of the Pern books, come to mind, but I know there are many others.

    Very intriguing!

    • A lot of the people who are reading science fiction and fantasy are already stepping to a different drummer. So these kinds of characters resonate strongly with the readership.

  3. My favorite book that explores this kind of thing is McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang. Strangely, it’s also one of the most romantic science fiction books I’ve read. Spoiler:

    her helpmate falls in love with her even though she has no functional body.

    For short story, I would go with Ray Bradbury’s “Tomorrow’s Child.” He must have known families with special needs because this is exactly how it feels.

    • L Jagi Lamplighter (Wright) // January 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm //

      I think a lot of McCaffrey’s books had this theme…someone with a quality that disables them, which often then turns out to be a gift.

      (And, clarification, when I mentioned Lessa, I was thinking of the very beginning of the first book, where she is a slave.)

      • Yes, her heroines have to remain strong in the face of cruelty. Again , something mirrored in her readership.

  4. Susan from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series springs to mind. Aside from her physical disability, she also has a multiple personalities disorder which is far more disabling than her paraplegia. Her split personalities sometimes come in handy, as one is far more violent and sneaky, the other one just normal. But violent sneaky also comes out to play when it’s not appropriate, and one of the major battles Susan faces throughout the series is the fight for control of her body.

    I have a couple of mages in my Fallouts series whose magic presents a great obstacle. The first’s magic is so broken that he can’t use it without risking killing everyone around him, and so leaves him unable to help in desperate situations. The other one can do neat things like open portals in space and stop time, but it’s almost a mathematical ability, and he’s so constantly preoccupied figuring out the physics of it that like Tregillis’s Greta he’s pretty much useless to talk to.

    Any kind of super power comes with a drawback. The more potent the power, the greater the consequence.

  5. Springboarding off of Tregillis’ (excellent) work, I am minded of The Boys, the satirical and filthy send-up of Marvel Comics. There are a HOST of characters who deal with disabling conditions and/or disabilities (I am not yet apt enough to feel comfortable distinguishing between the two), but the one who comes to mind most readily is the analogue for Wolverine, who is depicted as living with extreme autism and having two hammers for hands, rather than retractable claws between the knuckles.

    Additionally, the only word he says is “Gonna!” over and over.

    The comic is BEYOND RAUNCHY, but the hyperbole of the Wolverine character (and others – there are, for instance, brain-dead superheroes) sends-up the superhero trope in a very revealing way: writ large, Wolverine is so disabled by his condition that he lacks words and hands. Of course, they also depict Dr X as a serial child-abuser… but if you’re looking for representations of disability, there’s plenty to be mined therein.

    I remember other depictions of Batman as an essentially autistic character, though I can’t recall where. No, that’s a lie – it was Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, which, now that I think about it, is a better go-to for disabilities-in-superhero-tropes than The Boys.

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