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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Elizabeth Bear on Writing Disabilities

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from the incredible Elizabeth Bear! – Sarah Chorn

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. This, coupled with a childhood tendency to read the dictionary for fun, led her inevitably to penury, intransigence, the mispronunciation of common English words, and the writing of speculative fiction. She lives in Massachusetts with a Giant Ridiculous Dog. Her partner, acclaimed fantasy author Scott Lynch, lives in Wisconsin. You can learn more about her books by visiting her website. On April 8, 2014 Elizabeth Bear released the third and final book in the Eternal Sky trilogy, Steles of the Sky.

On Writing Disabilities

by Elizabeth Bear

It’s kind of funny to realize as I write this that I originally wasn’t going to submit a piece to Sarah’s blog series, because I didn’t feel like I had much to say about writing disabled people in science fiction. But after the second colleague suggested that I would be a good fit for the series, I had to stop and consider why they would think so.

And I realized that it’s probably because I write a lot of disabled protagonists. From Jenny Casey and Genevieve Castaign in Hammered and the sequel books–an amputee with neurological damage and a girl with cystic fibrosis–to the aneurotypical Michelangelo in Carnival from Matthew Szczgielniak with his maimed hand and congenital adrenal hyperplasia sufferer Lily Wakeman in Whiskey and Water to Tristen and Perceval Conn in the Jacob’s Ladder books, one of whom has albinism and the other of whom has lost the power of flight–now that I actually stop and think about it, it seems like most of my protagonists are “imperfect” in some way.

I have written characters with forms of epilepsy and characters with bipolar disorder. I have written anxiety sufferers and paraplegics and I have helped invent entirely new, science fictional syndromes. I have written more than my share of characters with post-traumatic stress disorder. That last, frankly, is because I don’t know how to write people who don’t have PTSD.

I’ve been trying to learn, though. You all are so unpredictable.

And the thing is, I have never once, until now, thought of any of those fictional people as belonging to the category, “person with a disability.” But they are; I am in that category too, though it’s not an identity I claim for myself. What I have thought about, with each of those characters, is how their particular limitations influence their choices as a person. How they influence what they can and can’t do. How they will make some things harder for them–and possibly, some things easier.

So what I want to talk about is representation, nuance, respect, politics, and awareness. And what these things mean to me.

First: writers are going to get it wrong, and that’s okay.

They (we) can in fact get it perfectly right for one person, and completely wrong for another. With the same character in the same piece of work. This is because people with disabilities are not all the same. They (we) have different lived experiences–even with the same disability. They have different coping strategies. And different character strengths and flaws.

A problem arises because if you are not used to seeing yourself portrayed in fiction, you will tend to want to identify with that character when they do arise, and you may feel very disappointed if that identification is thwarted. Or if you feel as if the fictional person in whom you have invested is mishandled in a bunch of typical ways.

The solution as I see it is not less representation but more. Saturation. More. If I see people like me everywhere, if I’m not treated as exceptional, then I’m more likely to be getting that need (and it is a need; story is a hunger) met somewhere and I’m less likely to be come angry when a particular story fails me.

We all need narratives. As a species, stories are how we parse the world.

More: a character with a disability is not a problem to be solved. This should seem obvious, and yet too often we forget it. They are not in the story to serve as an example of nobility or endurance, or to overcome their disability and somehow live a full life anyway. A character with a disability who is only there to serve as a heroic inspirational cripple or as the lynchpin for a message story is an abomination.

They are a character with challenges to be navigated. They are a person, with all the complexities that implies. Good character writing is a form of method-acting, for me at least. I need to try to understand what that person’s world view is–and so far, I’ve only ever written two characters who had worldviews much at all like mine.

People with disabilities are people with agency and their own lives. They are the heroes of their own stories; not anybody else’s. Some disabilities are visible; some are invisible. Some are permanent and some are transient. Some are acute and some are chronic. And some are accrued over the course of the story.

I’m not going to say that a character with a disability is just a person like any other, because lived experience affects our worldview. My disability informs mine, for sure. It affects how I interact with people and how I think.

But a disability is not a characterization. A disability is not a character. “Being blind” is not a character description any more than “being female” is. Unless you think all women actually are Smufette. In which case I cannot help you.

The opposite of the heroic cripple is the disabled character who is sort of a character by courtesy, but really exists in the story only as a sort of object-to-be-saved. Where the entire narrative revolves around somehow “fixing” the disabled person. This is complicated by the fact that some disabled persons do not care to be “fixed.” They consider their disability–whether it’s a sensory deficit, neural atypicality such as ASD, or a physiological impairment– to be part of their identity.

Others would be totally on board with getting “fixed.” (If I could wake up tomorrow with healthy brain chemistry? Show me where to sign.)

This is specifically challenging in science fiction and fantasy, where there are often so many ways to heal someone–from super-science to ancient sorcery. And yet there are issues with miracle cures in fiction. For one thing, they rob disability of its narrative power. For another, they play into the problematic narrative that people with a disability somehow “deserve” it.

This idea–that people “deserve” what they get–is a form of magical thinking for which I have absolutely no time whatsoever. Staying positive does not cure cancer, and eating your vegetables will not prevent a heart attack. (It can lower risk, sure, but that’s a different story. Statistics are not individuals.)

Our brains will grasp at anything in order to feel like we can control scary uncontrollable things, and the more random and chancy they are the more we need to control them. Staying positive won’t prevent cancer, and our lucky shoes are not going to win us the bowling tournament.

We need to respect the personhood of our characters with disabilities, and not blame them. Likewise, we need to be aware that people with disabilities exist, and reflect that existence in the worlds we create as part of fair representation of the world we live in.

24 Comments on [GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Elizabeth Bear on Writing Disabilities

  1. If you’re writing near-to-medium term SF that isn’t apocalyptic (that is, not involving a discontinuity in what you might call the “long-term trend”) then we can reasonably expect biology (and the subcategory we call genetics) to be essentially solved problems within the next century. Those fields are just entering the steep upward part of the typical technological S-curve.

    That’s the maximum probability barring a drastic disruption; you’d have to do some fancy dancing to have any other result without one. I don’t think aging itself (the ultimate “disability”) will be fully understood anytime soon — not in the next thirty years or so. It’s extremely complex.

    But I would be very surprised if it wasn’t fully analyzed within fifty to one hundred years, and if a strong beginning hadn’t been made on counteracting it. Some species don’t ‘age’ in our sense, so it’s physically possible, just hard. The incentives are extremely strong.

    This means that essentially there won’t -be- any “disabled” people in our sense in a future which continues the long-term trend.

    Genetic problems will be detected before birth; many already are, the tests are getting faster, more reliable, less intrusive and cheaper. Pretty soon getting a complete genome for an individual will be quick and easy and nearly everyone will do it.

    Gene therapy is in its very early stages, but there’s no reason to believe it won’t progress rapidly.

    Likewise, repairing postnatal damage will get easier and easier, whether done with biology or ‘cyber’ solutions.

    Many types of deafness are already partly correctable now; experimental treatments bypassing damaged optic nerves have already shown proof-of-concept, as have direct brain-electronic interfaces. Fairly soon “telepresence” will include direct neural-sensory hookups and artificial organs will increasingly be -better- than the “natural” ones.

    Not to mention interim measures already in place; in the UK, where they keep careful records, approximatly 92% of fetuses with Down’s Syndrome are already aborted, to name just one category.

    Which means that the number of people with Downs will be drastically fewer there within a generation(and here, though to a slightly lesser degree). At least 92% fewer, in fact — that’s already mathematically inevitable. Those people aren’t being born -right now-.

    Identifying the relevant genes in the parents will soon be possible.

    So if you want to have people with disabilities appearing in SF, you have to destroy/set back civilization or introduce some sort of wild card for it to be plausible.

    In other words, we’re heading for a historically unprecedented situation — which is supposed to be SF’s speciality, though in fact people usually shy away from them because they’re so hard to do.

    In fact, this sort of thing is one of the (many) reasons I don’t write near to medium term future SF. Too many wild cards; environments get too alien, and consciousness with them.

    • Bartimaeus // April 17, 2014 at 5:29 pm //

      Nice try, but that’s not going to WORK. What about things like Asperger’s where they don’t have a known genetic cause, and there’s no ‘damage’ to repair? Just a person with a neural network that’s… different.

      Then there’s a friend of mine. She is missing most of her left leg. She was born perfectly healthy, then caught bone cancer. Either the leg came off, or she would have died. While prosthetic legs are certainly a thing, my friend is going to be living with the aftereffects of being minus a large chunk of her natural body, and for the rest of her life.

      I think what I’m getting at is your conception of ‘disability’ seems rather shallow, and does not account for the broad spectrum of events [good and bad] Nature can apply unto the individual.

    • You’re too wrapped up in the medical model of disability. Already, today, there are couples who, already having to go IVF, are attempting while they’re at it to increase the odds of having a Deaf child. And Deaf people aren’t the only ones who might be more interested in the social or cultural aspects of disability than the medical ones.

  2. “Likewise, we need to be aware that people with disabilities exist, and reflect that existence in the worlds we create as part of fair representation of the world we live in.”

    — frankly this seems sort of strange.

    I thought the point of SF and fantasy was to create worlds which are -not like- the world we live in and hence don’t “represent” it.

    Representing it is what ordinary mimetic fiction tries to do, and that’s another kettle of genre altogether.

    For example, created worlds in which there’s only one gender are a staple of the SFnal field from the 19th century down through Russ and on to the present. That isn’t a ‘fair representation’ of the world we live in at all. Plenty of SF world’s don’t have human beings at all — I just finished one by Charlie Stross in which everyone is a robot.

  3. “And yet there are issues with miracle cures in fiction… they play into the problematic narrative that people with a disability somehow “deserve” it.”

    — I don’t see that.

    Disability is like most misfortunes; all you need is to be unlucky. You’re walking along, and an anvil drops on your head, or not. There are things you can control, but many more you can’t.

    More things can be controlled than used to be the case — as Marx said, the purpose of civilization is to free us from the determinism of nature — but still many more can’t.

    Unless you believe in fate or some other form of the supernatural, it comes under the “***t happens” category.

    If there’s something you can do about it, that’s just luck too.

    I’ve survived appendicitis with complications and several bad bouts of childhood pneumonia. A century ago the appendicitis would very probably have killed me and the pneumonia would almost certainly have done so. Getting them was bad luck, having effective treatment on hand was good luck, both completely outside my control. Eventualy something -will- kill all of us.

    My paternal grandmother’s ship hit an iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and sank; my mother’s mother was bombed by zeppelins in London during WWI; one of my grandfathers was gassed at Passchendaele in 1917 (and died of it 20 years later).

    What does any of this sort of thing have to do with anything that could be called “deserving” something?

    Life damages you more and more, then you die, then you get to be dead for a very long time.

    • S.M. Your responses seem to me to be somewhat naive about the stigma and reality that people with both mental and physical disabilities experience as this culture still has ingrained Calvinistic attitudes that bad things happen out of the person “deserving it” which I believe is what Elizabeth is referring to. Religious and philosophical variations and trajectories are arising out of current thoughts and behaviors and are also a valid science fiction material, that I would hope you would engage with in your thinking about your characters, S.M.

      I find it difficult to imagine a future where there are no human anomalies or “defects” and of course, especially as a metaphor for the racial conflicts of the sixties in particular, they were fodder for science fiction like stories where disease or imperfection is no more. In plants the decreasing diversity is threatening survival as it limits available responses to change in environment.

      People with mental illness particularly are frequently still treated as if they are week willed and perhaps morally week to boot.

      As an interim procedure 92%(!) of downs syndrome fetuses are now aborted, just in the direct sense doesn’t improve anything as it is a genetic anomaly but is not inherited, yes that is an “accident” and no one is to blame, but what you are describing in glowing terms is also eugenics. As C Baker pointed out deaf parents are selecting to improve their chances of getting a deaf child. In China there are huge numbers of fetuses aborted because they are female. There is every reason to think that the skyrocketing autism and ADHD rates are multivalent environmental factors arising out of our technological impact and “marvels”.

      I have a dwarf client who has spiraled out of control through fear, resentment and rage as politicians and journalist blithely talk about eliminating any fetuses with dwarfism. It is part of his engagement with his whole life, and he has stated it questions his whole right to exist.

      I can think of many other examples of real human beings, but for me the bottom line, I am skeptical that there will come a time in the near future where there aren’t freaks and outliers, the only thing static and “perfect” is the complete order of the end of time. Let alone I think our current cultural, environmental and economic trajectories are untenable.

      Are you recommending elimination of all fetuses that might develop depression or other mental illness, or perhaps see as a positive mandatory sterilization.

  4. I’d add that I don’t read fiction to see people like me. If I want to do that, I just walk into the bathroom and turn on the light while facing the mirror.

    That’s also why I don’t read novels about middle-aged BoBo writer-guys living in the Southwest…8-). Or write them.

    Boooooring! Give me robots or the inhabitans of Westeros or the Shining Prince or Jirel or Lin Daiyu.

    • Paul Weimer // April 8, 2014 at 7:42 am //

      I’m sorry, Steve, but I disagree. For me, especially in a SF universe, to see people who aren’t you is an implication, however unintended, that people like you don’t exist in that SF universe.

      Its like photography, or filmmaking. Where does the camera point? What is it looking at? That is the universe of what is in the picture, or the film. If the camera never points at people like you, people you can more easily identify with, that’s an unspoken message and not a positive one.

      • “to see people who aren’t you is an implication, however unintended, that people like you don’t exist in that SF universe.”

        — so? This is bad… why, exactly?

        There are no people like me on Russ’ “Whileaway” (no males, like “Herland”) and no people like me in Stross’ “Saturn’s Children” (no humans, like countless SF and many fantasy books).

        There aren’t any English-speakers in the “Tale of Genji” or the “Dream of the Red Chamber” either (two of my favorite novels), and the people of Westerors are -violently- unlike 21st-century Americans.

        People “like me” in most senses -don’t- exist in those science fictional or fantasy universes, or at least in the parts of those universes in which the story is set. Or the books from far away and the distant past.

        Doesn’t bother me one little bit. Why should it?

        I don’t have any problem identifying with the women or robots, either. You just have to put a little effort into it.

        As a more general aside, going looking for people like me sounds powerfully like narcissism, or some other serious problem.

        My own existence is not dependent on anything I read in a book, nor do I need a book to tell me who and what I am. I read fiction (and for that matter history) to get -outside- my own head and to someplace very different.

        As I said, I live with someone exactly like me 24/7, and that’s quite enough.

        A newborn thinks it is the universe, a baby thinks it’s the most important thing in the universe, and an adolescent thinks the emotions roiling through his or her breast are vastly significant.

        Growing up is, to a large degree, a process of realizing how basically unimportant you are in the larger scheme of things.

        You’re born, you live a little while, you die, and for the most part the only significant thing you do in your life is serve as a bridge between generations.

        “Vanity of vanities says the preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

      • “If the camera never points at people like you, people you can more easily identify with, that’s an unspoken message and not a positive one.”

        — or, short form, why should I assume that everyone with a camera (or a word processor) is interested in people pretty much like me? Or that I’m relevant to their fictional purposes?

        • Paul Weimer // April 8, 2014 at 12:44 pm //

          Let me come at this another way, since I am not being clear. My apologies.

          You know what is one of the cool things in your Island in the Sea of Time trilogy? We get a loving, positive relationship between Swindapa and Marian. You see that, even today, infrequently, and its refreshing to read that, and people whose preferences fall that way, its a windfall of identification.

          Yes, I can identify with people and characters extremely different than me. Any reader or filmwatcher worth their salt, can. [“I’m canceling the Apocalypse!”] I don’t need to just read novels with white men as the protagonists. I DO happen to benefit from the fact that a lot of genre fiction has male white protagonists.

          However, people, be they disabled, minorities, or even just women, who are frequently marginalized in narratives as characters and protagonists shouldn’t always have to do that “Extra work”.

          • “We get a loving, positive relationship between Swindapa and Marian.”

            — well, that’s kinda my point; I wrote ’em because I wanted a different perspective(*).

            Note that the same book contains Alice Hong, who’s also bisexual, but demented and sadistic.

            Marian is black and a lesbian, because she comes from a society that categorizes certain physical appearances and sexual acts in those terms.

            Swindapa is blond and pink-skinned, but she isn’t “white” because her society -doesn’t- have that as a social category. She isn’t a lesbian either, though she’s in a monogamous relationship with a woman. Her culture just doesn’t think in those terms, either. On the other hand, in the setting she grew up in your opinions about astrology are -really important-.

            “I DO happen to benefit from the fact that a lot of genre fiction has male white protagonists.”

            — why? I read fiction because it’s -interesting-.

            And as I pointed out, the more a fictional character is like me, on the whole and generally speaking the less interesting I find them. A character who’s a lot like me has to be -very- well done to catch my attention.

            I already know about me, and I have already been me. Being me is easy, I do it every day whether I feel like it or not.

            Note also that those are rather odd categories.

            As I noted above, “racee” is a social construct; race doesn’t actually exist in the way racial ideologies posit. Nobody in Rome in 0 CE was white or black; Romans just didn’t categorize people that way. They noted that there were regional differences in physical appearance, but those basically didn’t mean much to them.

            OTOH, whether you were a Roman citizen or a slave or a freedman was -really important-. Whether you’d incurred ritual pollution was -really important-. Your class standing and the recorded deeds of your ancestors… that stuff was -really important-.

            And half the human race are of either gender (with insignificant exceptions).

            (*) my publisher of the time objected to the black gay protagonist, which I found odd, and I had to yank the book, pay back the advance and take the book elsewhere. His loss, it’s in its 27th printing, which is not bad for a mass-market paperback original in 1998, when most paperbacks vanished after a month or so.

            • For example, in Elizabeth Lynn’s “Chronicles of Tonor” series (really good stuff, highly recommended) there’s less action as the books go along — they start off with war and conflict, and get much quieter and ostensibly the stakes are lower as you go forward.

              In the opening chapters of the third book, there’s a long sequence where the p.o.v. character has a talk with someone, and then walks down to the waterfront and buys a fish for dinner.

              “Nothing happens” but the scene is riveting. That’s because the standard of the writing is very high, in an extremely subtle way.

              For me, reading about someone like me in a familiar setting is like that. It requires -really good- writing to be interesting.

  5. I’ve been at work all morning, so I’ve missed most of this really exciting discussion. I will say that I’m not exactly sure why this has you so flamed, S.M. That being said, this is the internet, and I think it is interesting to see numerous perspectives on an issue, so I do welcome your insight and perspective.

    I think your perspective might be a bit limited. First of all, if we didn’t relate, at least a little bit, with the people/things we read about in book, we would have virtually no interest in said books. That’s why the aliens have emotions, the worlds reflect, at least a little bit, to our own. I’m not reading books ABOUT ME, I’m reading books with characters that have emotions/features/whatever that I can understand and sympathize with. Without that sort of sympathy or even moderate understanding in the people/creatures/place I’m reading about, I have absolutely no interest in said story. Furthermore, I think it would be absolutely impossible for an author to not infuse their book with at least a little bit of who they are as they write it. There will ALWAYS be some sort of relationship there – whether between the author and the book, or the reader and the book, or all the above. That’s one reason reading can be so damn much fun. I learn a lot about myself through books and I’m sure authors learn about themselves as they write (or maybe not… I can’t speak for you guys…).

    The limited scope that I am talking about has more to do with your conjecture that future societies will get rid of disabilities. While that might be true, and I’m thinking that is the direction we are going, you have to take into account that there are ALWAYS outliers. In any one far flug society, you’ll probably (undoubtedly) have a society like the Amish who probably wouldn’t choose to have those medical procedures done. Or, you’d have the person who went for genetic modification for her child, and everything went wrong (absolutely nothing is perfect). Or whatever. So yeah, you’ll still have disabilities. They might be few and far between, but they will be there.

    However, that’s just PHYSICAL limitations. In a society like that, I think the paradigm would shift. There are just as many, if not more, mental limitations as physical. No matter how you cut it, someone out there will always suffer from crippling self-doubt. Someone will always struggle with depression, or will make a decision that will haunt them into uselessness for the rest of their lives. You can’t genetically test that stuff out – and even if you could chemically alter people so they never felt depression, or never had autism, or whatever else, evolution WOULD play a strong hand in things. We might not have the depression/autism/etc mental handicaps that we recognize now, but in a society where everyone is pretty close to perfect, there would be other issues. Things that we might not even recognize as issues, that would stand out like a sore thumb in that sort of society.

    Then there’s the clash of cultures. Someone will always fight someone else. There will always be wounds. Futuristic societies might fix the flesh wounds – regrow arms, etc. How do you fix the mental scars? And losing an arm would absolutely leave mental scars for some, even if they could regrow that arm. And that mental scar might be just as debilitating to that person as if they had lost an arm, and had to learn to function with only one arm.

    Utopia is boring. I think reading a book about a society where everyone is perfect, and everyone can be genetically altered to be disability free is absolutely bland. I want to read about that ONE person where the “fixes” didn’t work. Furthermore, I highly doubt any author would be able to tell a story about such a society without putting some broken, altered, self-doubt-filled (or something) character in there. You have to have some sort of conflict, both internal and external, for a book to be interesting – for a book to work for readers. That’s just literature. There isn’t a book out there that I’ve ever read that doesn’t have an internal and external struggle, and while those struggles would be vastly different in a far future society, they would still exist, and they could easily be just as limiting in the context of that society as it would be to have to navigate our world in a wheelchair.

    The point I am getting at is that, while the flaws and challenges will change depending on the world and societies authors write about, those flaws and challenges are, and will, always be there. It is those flaws and challenges that make books interesting. Maybe they won’t be “disabilities” as you or I define them for our world, but don’t underestimate the challenge, and the limitations that a person filled with self loathing will face. Don’t negate the struggle a character with PTSD faces. Those characters might have all their arms, legs, and five senses working just fine, but sometimes the inner struggle can be just as debilitating as any outward journey – and I think most every book I read is filled with that in some way.

    Anyway, there’s my novel. 🙂

    • “I will say that I’m not exactly sure why this has you so flamed, S.M.”

      — oh, I’m not flamed. Sorry if it seemed so; internet, low bandwidth for penumbras of meaning. I’m just interested in the different approaches to writing.

      “First of all, if we didn’t relate, at least a little bit, with the people/things we read about in book, we would have virtually no interest in said books.”

      — well, that’s necessarily true, but it amounts to saying that if weren’t interested, we wouldn’t be interested. That’s an interaction between the reader and writer. As I said, I don’t find people much like myself very interesting as fictional characters, but I’m willing to be drawn in if the writing is unusually good.

      “I’m reading books with characters that have emotions/features/whatever that I can understand and sympathize with. ”

      — well, that’s again necessarily true.

      But to take an example, in Mary Renault’s historical novel LAST OF THE WINE, a main and very sympathetic character comes across his father, who’s been stabbed by agents of the Thirty Tyrants ruling Athens after the Peloponnesian War. His dying words are “Avenge my blood.”

      His son grasps his hand and says; “Father, how could you think I would be so base of soul as to forgive my enemies?”

      This is a welcome and salutary shock, reminding us that our Post-Christian ethnics are not a law of nature, just a local habit. To Alexias, blood vengeance is not a wicked temptation to be resisted, it’s a -moral obligation-.

      “No matter how you cut it, someone out there will always suffer from crippling self-doubt.”

      — it’s true that humans as presently constituted will always suffer occasionally from crippling self-doubt; I never have, much, but it’s undoubtedly common.

      However, SF isn’t limited to humans, or to humans as presently constituted. We know that technological change can change the basic parameters of existence.

      For example, the majority of human beings are no longer peasants, but live in cities. Infectious disease has ceased to be the major cause of death — something that’s happened in only one long human lifetime. It’s now physically possible for us to destroy our own planet. All these are changes in things that were “always true”.

      In the future, it may well be — probably will be — possible to adjust mood precisely.

      This will change the parameters of human existence -even for those who don’t use it-, precisely because it will be a -choice-. If you’re depressed or suffer from crippling self-doubt it will be because you -chose- to do so, and that’s a different experience from having it imposed on you willy-nilly by circumstance.

      C.J. Cherryh is extremely good at this. FOURTY THOUSAND IN GEHENNA, for example.

      “How do you fix the mental scars?”

      — we don’t know how to do that. We don’t know how to regrow limbs, either. But both are probably possible. The brain is a physical object, after all.

      Incidentally, this is one big reason why I find near-future science fiction impossibly difficult to write. Presumably without our problems there would be new problems… but almost by definition, they’re impossible to conceive.

      This is why SF set in the accessible future ages so badly.

  6. First off, if I was Sarah or Elizabeth I would want an apology, but I’m not as nice.

    Second, as I said to Sarah before this column even started, EVERY book has a thing or person in it that we can relate to, or we will not read it. Every book takes place on a planet. Every planet has a landscape. Every character can move, etc. Ask yourself, should we do something just because we can? For example, I was born without the corpus callosum. If it was genetically fixed before I was born, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Even if I was genetically perfect, I could still be considered handicapped in many respects. The whole point of this blog is to talk about the fact that there are too many one and two-dimensional characters in books, not to talk about all the reasons disabled characters, people like me, don’t belong in books. That is wrong.

    Nobody is perfect.

    (Sarah interviewed me for this column a few months ago:

    • “First off, if I was Sarah or Elizabeth I would want an apology, but I’m not as nice.”

      — Dude, apology for what?

      Polite disagreement (and about writing technique, for Ghu’s sake) is not an offense. I’ve got opinions, you got opinions, all God’s chillun’ got opinions. Most of what we’re talking about is either aesthetic judgements (which are inherently pretty well totally subjective) or non-falsifiable hypotheses, like the relative plausibility of speculations about the future.

      “Second, as I said to Sarah before this column even started, EVERY book has a thing or person in it that we can relate to, or we will not read it.”

      — I don’t think that statement means what you think it means. All you’re saying is that we read the book because we can relate to something in the book.

      Sure, but -what- and -why-?

      Those are the meaningful questions.

      Otherwise you’re back to saying that we find interesting what we find interesting, which is not a very productive statement, however accurate.

    • “not to talk about all the reasons disabled characters, people like me, don’t belong in books. That is wrong.”

      — where on earth did you get that idea? I certainly didn’t say that.

      I have no objection to you disagreeing with something I -said-, but disagreeing with something I -didn’t say- is intensely futile and frankly, sort of weird.

      It’s really a good idea to read carefully lest you find yourself conducting a conversation with someone who doesn’t exist.

      Eg., in the series I’ve written beginning with DIES THE FIRE one of the important characters is profoundly deaf from birth.

      This has consequences throughout the books — the ethnic group she helps found all teach their children ASL, for example, finding that it’s very useful for reasons beyond talking with deaf people.

      This is perfectly appropriate because the books are set in an alternate, post-apocalyptic future branching off from ours in 1998.

      If I was writing a book set in, say, 2098 without something intervening to interrupt the process of technological change, I would personally find putting a deaf person in it highly implausible, roughly on the order of Heinlein’s gigantic starships doing navigational computations with slide rules. Or at least I’d have to do some fancy worldbuilding to justify it.

  7. Emma Bull // April 8, 2014 at 2:56 pm //

    Steve Stirling brings up what I think is one of the most important reasons for trying to make the cast of characters–particularly the point of view characters–in one’s fiction as diverse as possible.

    Fiction gives us an unparalleled opportunity to imagine ourselves as someone (and even something) else. We want the writer to pull us into the heads of the characters. At the mall, we may pass a boy who can’t walk, and have a vague notion of his experience. But George R. R. Martin can put us into Bran Stark’s life, make us feel his anger and frustration and pleasure and fear. The boy who can’t walk becomes real to us. He becomes part of ourselves and the things we care about.

    In the same way, Tyrion Lannister’s reaction to Bran’s injury makes us test our own response. If I were Tyrion, would I do the same? More? Less? And of course, Tyrion himself, a character the author demands I focus on and relate to, expands my awareness of Tyrion’s condition, the slights both large and small that he endures, and the elements of him that have nothing to do with his height. If I’m paying attention, I carry that awareness and that sense of the individuality of people with dwarfism into the real world.

    I think “what if” is only the first question that science fiction and fantasy ask. Theodore Sturgeon used to say, “Ask the next question.” I like best the kind of speculative fiction that then asks, “Why?” and “What will you do?”

    • Beautifully said. Bravo.

    • “Fiction gives us an unparalleled opportunity to imagine ourselves as someone (and even something) else. ”

      — yeah, precisely; and both reading and writing.

      • “In the same way, Tyrion Lannister’s reaction to Bran’s injury makes us test our own response. If I were Tyrion, would I do the same? ”

        — acute observation, both individually and on a larger scale.

        That is, we get to not only ask ourselves this question on the basis of what-would-I-do-if, but also what sort of a person would you be if you’d been born and raised in that very different setting?

        Westeros is a place that hasn’t undergone the history Western civilization has over the past four centuries; and its people have never been Jews, Christians or Muslims.

        They haven’t undergone the Industrial, Scientific or Sentimental Revolutions; nobody’s heard of the Rights of Man, and they’re familially oriented, rather than being individualists.

        A historian discussing contexts like that defined that sort of culture as “a world without pity”. Not literally — pity is a reflexive emotion, like love and hate and anger — but in the sense that empathy in that sort of setting is, by our standards, severely restricted.

        Getting inside the heads of people who live in different moral and perceptual universes is one of the hardest things to do. Hard for the reader, too, of course, but very hard for the writer.

  8. It seems extremely plausible to me that there will be cures (or ameliorations much better than we have now) in the future for some disabilities, and while it’s certainly possible to write bad stories about cures, it would be a shame if worrying about writing them discouraged people from writing good stories about cures.

  9. Allow me to suggest, with diffidence, a relevant recent collection of scholarly essays: Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, edited by Kathyrn Allan.

    Here’s her blog, which frequently touches upon disability.

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