News Ticker

[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Michael J. Sullivan on Being Atypical in HOLLOW WORLD

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Michael j. Sullivan! – Sarah Chorn

Michael J. Sullivan is the author of The Riyria Revelations, The Riyria Chronicles, and his recently released science fiction thriller, Hollow World. He’s been published in just about every way there is including, small presses, self, and the big-five. He spends part of his time trying to help aspiring authors learn the intricacies of publishing through a regular column on Amazing Stories, and soon he’ll be featuring author interviews on Adventures in Science Fiction Publishing. Michael has written twenty-three novels, published nine, and has been translated into fifteen foreign languages. His works have appeared on more than eighty-five “best of” or “most anticipated” lists including those compiled by Library Journal, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and

Being Atypical in HOLLOW WORLD

by Michael J. Sullivan

I’ve been a big fan of Sarah Chorn for a really long time. Not just because of her amazing reviews, although that is reason enough, but because of her resiliency in weathering storms in her own life. Luckily for me, she’s a fan of my writing as well, and I’m grateful for her years of support. With the approaching release of Hollow World (April 15th from Tachyon Publications and Recorded Books), she invited me to do a guest post. So here I am.

I guess I should start out by setting the stage. Hollow World tells the story of Ellis Rogers, who travels far into the future (much further than he intended) in search of a cure for a recently diagnosed terminal illness. What he finds a world where disease, war, and even death has been eliminated. It sounds like utopia, and for some people it very well may be, but there’s a cost…isn’t there always a cost? In the case of Hollow World, genetic engineering has advanced to the point where everyone is identical, and trying to establish individuality in such an environment breeds its own set of problems.

Writing this post made me think a bit about disabilities and what it means to be “different” than everyone else. Ellis, like those with physical disabilities, doesn’t “blend in.” I can only imagine how tiring it must be to see people lean heads together and talk quietly every time a physically disabled person walks into a crowd. They know it’s not because one of them just remembered a hot stock tip. They know they are the topic of conversation and for no other reason than they aren’t “the norm.” If you’ve never had a chance to see Whoopi Goldberg’s 1985 Direct from Broadway video, I recommend you check out this link and watch from 51:00 to 57:30. In her one woman show, Whoopi portrays a number of really interesting characters, providing insightful commentary on a wide spectrum of topics. While the entire show is worth watching, the segment I pointed out shows a person that is physically handicapped and how, as Whoopi puts it, “Normal is in the eye of the beholder.”

One of the characters in Hollow World is atypical but in a way that is not externally obvious. In a world where everyone is genetically identical, this person could best be described as neuroatypical.

For those not familiar with the term it basically indicates a person whose brain isn’t like everyone else’s. Its roots go back to the word neurotypical which was coined in by the Autistic community to describe someone with a “normal” brain. Those described as neuroatypical would include people with a bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s disease, dyslexia, dyspraxia, as well as those with schizophrenia and other such conditions. I won’t go into detail about makes the brain of my character atypical (I don’t want to spoil the book), but suffice to say this individual’s condition presents both challenges and opportunities.

Speaking of challenges, opportunities, and disabilities, I would like to take just a minute, to talk about some firsthand experience I have on the subject. I’m referring to my daughter, also named Sarah, who is severely dyslexic. Notice I didn’t say, “She suffers from dyslexia,” because I’ve come to learn that dyslexics, while challenged in the reading and writing departments, have incredible strengths in other areas. My daughter is incredibly artistic, intelligent, and an inventive problem-solver…traits shared by many with her condition. If you’ve ever had a chance to listen to an interview with business leaders Charles Schwab or Richard Branson, you’ll hear how their dyslexia has been instrumental in their successes. In meetings where their brightest employees struggled to solve complex, multi-faceted problems, they are able to see through the clutter and discover the solution while those with neurotypical minds floundered. There’s good evidence to suggest that Albert Einstein’s genius wasn’t in spite of his dyslexia but because of it.

It’s amazing to me that dyslexia is still so misunderstood, and how far we need to go to educate the uninitiated. Sarah’s boss recently berated her for misspellings in a daily report saying, “Don’t use your disability as an excuse.” To her, Sarah was either stupid, lazy, or careless, when in fact she is the antithesis of all those things. Her boss doesn’t understand that Sarah works twice as hard as everyone else on written tasks, but even with all her intelligence and great care, mistakes are going to occur. As hard as it is to be dyslexic in the work world, it’s even worse for school children. There are many ways for humans to accumulate knowledge and articulate what they’ve learned, but our educational system only recognizes a certain type of intelligence which is incredibly restrictive and relies too heavily on reading and writing. Studies indicate that as many as 20% of the population may be dyslexic, and our current educational system fails these individuals. Given the creative and “out-of-the-box” thinking required to develop a curriculum that would work, I suspect it will be a person with dyslexia who solves this problem.

I want to thank Sarah for inviting me to do a guest post, and if you are interested in learning more about Hollow World, I do have an extended preview (first four chapters which is about 64 pages) available for free on those sites that provide for such a pricing model. If you are overseas or a nook reader, it is listed for the lowest price those venues allow, but I’ll send it for free if you just drop me an email at I’m really enjoying the Special Needs in a Strange World series and I’m glad that SF Signal is making it a regular segment. I’m looking forward to reading more.

7 Comments on [GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Michael J. Sullivan on Being Atypical in HOLLOW WORLD

  1. Thanks, Michael.

    One of the most powerful newspaper comics I ever saw had a short storyline where a geeky high school student helps figure out that the big tough bully isn’t developmentally challenged or intrinsically slow, he instead has dyslexia, and that learning disability can be met on those terms.

    You can probably see the sting–when the bully asks why the geeky student helped him and took the time to do this, the student replied simply.

    “You see, I, too, have dyslexia.”


    • Dyslexia is indeed a condition that many people have, and those who know them personally would have no idea. The shame of it is that so many cases go undiagnosed and they fall short on academic standards even though their intelligence and work ethic is very high.

  2. “Don’t use your disability as an excuse.”

    Which basically amounts to, “Don’t use the reason you can’t do this as a reason you can’t do this.” *facepalm*

    And I used “can’t” only to make a point of how supid that sentence is. I don’t mean to imply that she’s incapable of spelling correctly or anything of the sort. Mistakes definitely do happen, no matter how typically ones brain tends to work.

    “Her boss doesn’t understand that Sarah works twice as hard as everyone else on written tasks[…]”

    Amen to this, and I’m betting many people with disabilities or physical/mental challenges can relate to that line. Some things that come so easily to most require a buttload of work in others, and I hate seeing that go unappreciated and unrecognized. Results matter, sure, but they’re not the only things that matter, and someone who’s willing and capable of putting in so much effort to do one thing is typically willing and capable of putting in the same effort to do something else.

    • Thanks for commenting. It is a shame when people can’t understand the condition and how it manifests itself. A report with a typo that is still accurate and well-thought out conveys the information, which is the important point. The fact that a few words are misspelled doesn’t negate that fact.

      • Agreed. People without difficulties in reading or spelling make typos. Frequently. It’s not like it’s the end of the world, nor does it lessen the value of the information, as you say.

  3. Cheryl Holsonbake // May 1, 2014 at 10:54 pm //

    Hi Michael. Great post! As the mother of two young adult sons, one with severe Tourette Syndrome and one with moderately severe OCD (which both fall on the same neurological spectrum) I know exactly what it’s like to watch your children work ten times harder than their peers.

    Public schools were so hard for both of my boys (young men now) and honestly it was teachers and administrators who struggled with their “otherness” not their peers. Other students grew up with them and accepted them amazingly well. But teachers often thought they were making it up or doing it on purpose to get one over on them, despite formal medical diagnoses. My youngest with TS has the most obvious disability with severe movements and noises. But my oldest with OCD had a more hidden condition. Sometimes I think people in authority (bosses, teachers, etc) just don’t “believe in” the more hidden neuroatypical conditions. Yet, would they put down another person with say, diabetes, who was weak and had to excuse themselves from important meetings periodically? Hardly.

    All of that to say, embracing diversity is easy to talk about – it’s much harder to do. Thanks for reminding us all of the universal truth: treat others as you want to be treated. And thanks for thinking outside the “normal” box when creating your characters in Hollow World.

  4. Thanks Cheryl,

    I think it is true that “peers” seems to understand and accept more than “those in authority.” I’m not sure why, but it may have something to do with it’s easiest when everyone fits in neatly defined boxes.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: