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MIND MELD: Disabilities in Speculative Fiction

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

Sarah Chorn’s highly successful Special Needs in Strange Worlds column…the recent Kaleidoscope anthology…the upcoming Accessing The Future anthology… Fiction focusing on discussions of disabilities, different abilities, special needs and different needs are increasingly important in the speculative fiction community.

With that in mind, here’s what I asked our panelists:

Q: What are some examples of speculative fiction titles where disabilities and disabled characters have been handled the right way? Are there specific disabilities that you’ve yet to see written into a speculative fiction story in a positive way?

Fabio Fernandes
Fabio Fernandes is a SFF writer and translator living in São Paulo, Brazil. Fernandes has several stories published in online venues in the US, the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, and Brazil. He also contributed to Steampunk Reloaded, Southern Weirdo: Reconstruction, and The Apex Book of World SF Vol. 2. Co-editor (with Djibril al-Ayad) of We See a Different Frontier, an anthology of colonialism-themed speculative fiction for The Future Fire Magazine. Alum of Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2013.

Some examples of speculative fiction titles where disabilities and disabled characters have been handled the right way:

A classic is Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon – Charlie Gordon’s voyage into another level of self-awareness (which would probably be named today “post-humanity”) is done with an acute perception of a “mentally disabled” mindset. It’s still a reference work.

Robert J Sawyer’s WWW trilogy – Caitlin Decter’s blindness is not treated as disabling, even though the whole point of the narrative is to restore her sight via an implant.

A most recent case is John Scalzi’s Lock In – Haden’s Syndrome is fictional, but his Scalzi’s portrayal of the Hadens, their lives, and their daily struggles aren’t that much different of what quadriplegics have to endure, for that matter.

A specific disability I’ve yet to see written into a speculative fiction story in a positive way? In a nutshell, neurodiversity. The concept itself is an attempt on the part of several organizations (I’m referring here particularly to the National Symposium on Neurodiversity held at Syracuse University in 2012) to recognize and respect differences as human variations instead of disabilities in the bad sense of the world. How does one portray Dyslexia, Tourette’s Syndrome, ADHD, or bipolar disorders in a positive way? Doing research. As a neurodiverse myself (having being diagnosed as dysthymic a number of years ago), I’ve been able to live what is considered a normal life, even though I have lots of bad, stressful days – just like every other human being in the world.

It’s utterly important that these disabilities are recognized and treated – both medically and socially. But as conditions, not as impairing and/or potentially damaging. I live a beautiful life – even if sometimes this life can seem to be too much, or too little. But storms are part of the weather, and the eco-system (both on nature and on our minds) can’t seem to live without them. I just would like that people would focus on our bright, sunny days as well.

Kathryn Allan
Kathryn Allan is an academic copyeditor & coach, and independent scholar. She is editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Cure (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellow (2013-14). She is Associate Editor and Reader of The Future Fire, and she blogs and tweets as Bleeding Chrome. Her current project, with Djibril al-Ayad (of Futurefire.net Publishing), is co-editing a forthcoming anthology, Accessing the Future, that will explore disability—and the intersectionality of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future. Please pre-order the anthology and help the editors pay a professional rate to all authors (campaign ends Sept. 16th!): igg.me/at/accessingfuture.

As somebody who spends a lot of time reading and thinking about disability in science fiction, it’s actually more challenging to come up with examples of realistic, “right” depictions of disability because I’m usually critiquing all the bad ones! Nevertheless, I do occasionally read a story that I feel represents or treats disability issues in complex, three-dimensional ways. While Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga has long been the flag-bearer example, I recently wrote a guest post for Pornokitsch on 5 “positive” representations of disability in SF, where I recommend newer, less familiar texts: Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl, Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, Morgan J. Locke’s Up Against It, James Patrick Kelly’s “The Promise of Space”, and Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine. I’m also currently reading Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, and it has reminded me how adeptly Butler writes about the social aspects of disability: individuals (or entire communities of people) who are marked as “different” constantly struggle against a larger society that makes assumptions about their abilities and attempts to control or “fix” them. Butler’s characters are never just one-dimensional; they are complex (sometimes likeable, sometimes not) and speak to a variety of marginalized/oppressed identities. A lot of the time, realistic depictions of disability in an SF text emerge with other intersectional concerns (such as race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, class, etc.).

In terms of specific disabilities that I’d like to see well-written into a SF story, I don’t have an answer other than “all of them!” I really want to see more SF writers take up disability (visible and invisible; physical and mental) in thoughtful, realistic ways, and not just replicating reductive and harmful stereotypes (like the disabled person as “inspirational” or the need to “cure” everybody all of the time).

Alisa Krasnostein
Alisa Krasnostein is editor and publisher at independent Twelfth Planet Press, whose most recent project is the Kaleidoscope anthology. She is a freshly minted creative publishing PhD candidate researching the potential for political editing and publishing, She is also part of the thrice Hugo nominated Galactic Suburbia Podcast team. In 2011, she won the World Fantasy Award for her work at Twelfth Planet Press.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I had a really hard time coming up with a list (or any) examples for this. On the one hand, I don’t think I’m necessarily the cross the board arbiter of such a thing – it’s difficult to speak for all people everywhere. On the other hand, I couldn’t really think of any examples of glasses wearers, for example, that were handled particularly well in fiction. I mean, anyone who wears glasses will tell you that you can’t just step out into the rain, peer over a balcony or bridge, eat soup and read a book at the same time, or see which bottle is which in the shower like a non-glasses-wearing person. But more often than not, glasses are used as a shorthand for “nerd” or “brains” or whatever in the character description and that’s pretty much it. I very rarely see that done realistically, so I don’t even hope to see a character with Crohn’s Disease depicted accurately in fiction. I’ve definitely come across more people with the disease in real life than I have done in speculative fiction. I guess it’s inconvenient to be all “I can fight crime, except on flare up days.”

Wanting to see disability handled in positive, more accurate and realistic ways was one of the driving forces behind Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy which I coedited with Julia Rios this year. There are several stories in this anthology with disabled characters, including Holly Kench’s “Every Little Thing” which tackles what life looks like when you have chronic disease – you might not be able to go to all the parties and do all the things. But also, that doesn’t have to stop you from having friends and adventures. In Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Cookie Cutter Superhero”, she explores the question of whether a prerequisite of being a superhero is to be physically “whole” and whether, given the choice, would/should someone who has lived (and adjusted to life) without part of a limb choose to be made whole, should that opportunity arise. Roberts, being the writer that she is, explores this sensitive and contentious idea playfully with humour and warmth to keep it light whilst being pointed.

I’d like to see many more stories that better reflect the diversity that actually surrounds us in the real world. The world is made up of lots of different people who live and experience the world in unique, and interesting ways. These experiences make for compelling, complex and colourful stories and I think in the future, we will see more of these published.

Zachary Jernigan
Zachary Jernigan is a 34-year-old, typically shaven-headed writer and narrator from Northern Arizona. He has lived in AZ since 1990, with relatively short stints in Utah, Oregon, Maine, and Chile. His first novel, No Return, is a science fiction/fantasy tale filled with sex, violence, looming middle-age angst, and muscular people in weird skintight costumes (including one capricious god). It came out from Night Shade Books in March of 2013 in hardcover and July of 2014 in paperback. Generous reviews have appeared in a lot of cool places, written by people much cooler than him. The sequel, Shower of Stones, is forthcoming in 2015, also from Night Shade Books. He released his first short story collection, The Bottom Of The Sea, independently at the end of 2013 to more favorable reviews than he deserves. Visit him at http://zacharyjernigan.com

Well, the term disabled is interesting, isn’t it? It — and its somewhat more acceptable (to some) neighbor term, differently-abled — still manages to communicate “physically impaired” despite years of advocacy to try and change perceptions. There are a hundred thousand ways to be impaired, each of which requires its own ingenuity, grace, or simple stubbornness simply to achieve the same ends as someone who is considered fully-abled (which is itself sort of a myth, by the way, but we won’t get into that). When we read for sympathetic views of those with disabilities, I think it’s important that we not make the issue more simplistic than it is.

I mean, sure, it’s easy to point at the Vorkosigan books (and it’s perfectly fine to do so, obviously), but there lies a huge spectrum of experience that goes unrecognized. I want greater inclusion in the genre, always, but I also don’t want people to throw up their hands and say, over and over again, “No one writes about disabled folks!” Because that isn’t even slightly true. There are so many nearly forgotten works waiting to be rediscovered — by you, by me — that represent a greater spectrum of disability than we might imagine if we only listen to the cynical folks, and that should be an exciting prospect. It should inspire us to insist, YES, MORE LIKE THIS, PLEASE.

I’ll list the two that come immediately to mind:

Canadian author and poet Phyllis Gotlieb’s Flesh and Gold (1998), in my opinion one of the strangest and most compelling space operas ever written, features an older protagonist by the name of Skerow — a representative of a race, I should clarify, that resembles dinosaurs. This particular dinosaur, who strikes such a sympathetic, human pose, experiences the pain and occasional indignity of old age. We see through her familiarly alien eyes what it means to be impaired by the normal processes of life: arthritis, failing sight, the simple failure of her muscles as she attempts to lift herself from her bath. We’re reminded, in that peculiarly awesome way only science fiction can remind us, by revealing the human in the alien, what it means to be vulnerable. We’re all subject to wounds, often of the variety that exist unknown from the moment we’re born.

At the same time, we’re reminded that being in some way infirm is not the same as being weak. Goltieb infuses Skerow with so much grace that one can’t help but read her narrative as one of triumph.

In Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn (1994), Bascule the Teller’s narrative is told phonetically and in first person: “Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.” The technique, apart from being really fun to read, helps the reader understand Bascule’s unique mental state, which is never fully clarified but which surely lies outside the generally accepted norm. Even within the odd world Banks paints, Bascule is a compellingly fractured oddity.

This oddness is beautiful, more so because of the way in which his character views events. It is a reminder of how narrow our outlook can be. The assumptions we make are important to confront, because not every “illness” is actually an impairment. Sometimes, an illness is an advantage — often painfully arrived at, but no less advantageous in certain situations where a more singular perspective is called for. We must not forget that, and celebrate it while still acknowledging the pain and prejudice attendant to disability.

Jim C. Hines
Jim C. Hines‘ latest book is Codex Born, the second in his modern-day fantasy series about a magic-wielding librarian, a dryad, a secret society founded by Johannes Gutenberg, a flaming spider, and an enchanted convertible. He’s also the author of the Princess series of fairy tale retellings as well as the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy. His short fiction has appeared in more than 40 magazines and anthologies. Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He’s currently hard at work on Unbound, the third book in the Magic Ex Libris series. Online, he can be found at www.jimchines.com.

One of my favorite examples is the movie version of How to Train Your Dragon.

The blacksmith, Gobber, has lost an arm and a leg, and the movie does the “Look at all the cool weapons and toys I can plug into my wrist” bit with his character. But with Toothless and later Hiccup, disability is presented more seriously, without either minimizing the pain and the work or going overboard with Very Important Messages About Overcoming Adversity.

You see Toothless’ frustration and fear when he’s unable to fly, and an admittedly condensed process of Hiccup building and fitting the prosthetic tail, then the two of them learning to use it to fly together.

But what really works for me comes after the final battle. Hiccup is injured and loses his leg. You see him awaken back home in his own bed, start to sit up, and realize what’s happened to him. He has a wood-and-iron leg now, built by Gobber.

Skinny though he might be, Hiccup is still a Viking, so you’re not going to get a lot of outward grief. But you see the sadness and loss in those few seconds before he stands. He takes one step and starts to fall, only to have Toothless dart in to catch him. The two of them together make their way toward the door, giving the viewer a silhouetted shot of Hiccup’s new foot and Toothless’ prosthetic tail. The whole sequence is less than a minute long, but it’s one of my favorite scenes of the whole movie.

Sarah Chorn
Sarah Chorn has been a compulsive reader her whole life. At a young age she found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is a freelance writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, two-time cancer survivor, and mom to one rambunctious toddler. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never-ending pile of speculative fiction books. You can find her annoying people on Twitter as @BookwormBlues, and on Facebook. She runs Special Needs in Strange Worlds through SF Signal, and reviews books on BookwormBlues.net. She is currently working on her first collaborative novel to be published later this year through Antimatter Press.

It seems like in recent years I’ve read a lot of really good interpretations of disabilities in speculative fiction. There are a lot of situations where disabilities aren’t explained away or magically healed (Which I applaud. Not everyone needs to be “fixed.”). However, there are a few newer books that stick out in my mind for their representation of disability in the genre, and just how disability in speculative fiction is changing from something never done, to something that is being integrated into books more frequently so well.

  • Gemsigns by Stephanie Saulter is a social sci-fi series that deals with genetic modification of humans for specific reasons. What I really liked about how Saulter dealt with all of these different genetic modifications is that every modification had a “effect” of sorts. For example, one character who is incredibly good at all things electronic – basically plugged in all the time – is functionally autistic in real life. Another person who was altered to grow extra organs for doctors to harvest is physically deformed. There is a sliding scale of disability, and no two people are the same. However, Saulter makes their struggles heroic and her entire book focuses around these people striving – yearning – to be seen as human and viable members of society. It’s very well done, and incredibly touching. She takes a very human struggle and makes it magnificent and poignant and her characters are incredibly memorable.
     
  • Afterparty by Daryl Gregory is another example of a recent book that does disabilities well. Set in the near future, in a world where just about anyone can make their own designer drugs, Gregory thrusts readers into a situation where designer drugs have mind altering, permanent side effects. All of his main characters struggle with some sort of horrible side effect that has impacted their lives from a drug they have taken and probably been addicted to. Gregory really gets into the mental state of his characters, and fills the book full of hallucinations and plenty of other confusing states. His characters have to navigate those side effects and wade through the intricate plot that Gregory has laid for them. However, he never apologizes. In the end, the book is so wonderful because of his characters mental states, and there’s nothing to fix. His characters are more compelling for their flaws, and his book is more poignant and powerful.
     
  • Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is a book that I’m always kind of hesitant to put in this category, but I always mentally lump it in with books that deal with disabilities. Miriam Black is one of the most powerful characters I’ve ever read, and the whole reason why she’s so powerful is because of how Wendig has dealt with her ability to see how people die. He takes this ability, and shows just how it would completely alter a person’s psyche. Miriam Black is completely shut off, shut down, incapable of normal relationships, almost completely incapable of functioning normally in society. She’s reclusive, she’s unstable, has no home, constantly wanders, and she has this raw sense of humor and lack of a mental filter that keeps everyone at arm’s length. It’s all due to her ability, and I really have to hand it to Wendig for how he deals with that. So often in books additional abilities that characters have make them stronger, and while Black is a phenomenally strong character, she’s also completely broken. Reading Miram Black books is an experience. It’s an emotional journey because it’s so real, and Wendig’s use of Miriam’s ability is realistic and completely unique in a genre where so many authors seem to be afraid to show how characters break under the strain. Miriam is broken, but she’s so incredibly powerful despite that.
     

For those who are interested, I do have a shelf on Goodreads called Special Needs in Strange Worlds which I am constantly updating with books I read/have read that fit into this category.

Tim Susman
Tim Susman has published over a dozen novels and short stories under various names, writing about fantastical creatures with human problems. He has researched both animal and human behavior and has worked as a database analyst, a project manager, and a product manager in the high-tech world of Silicon Valley. Currently he lives with his husband in California and blogs at timsusman.wordpress.com.

I have to admit that when I saw this question, my first thought was, “Wow, when have I seen disabilities written well in spec-fic?” I have one example ready to mind, but that was a short story (I’ll use it anyway, but last), and generally I keep up with novels better than short stories, so I was curious about which of the hundreds of novels I’ve read might handle disabled characters “the right way.”

And that led to my second thought, which was, “what is the ‘right way’?” For my purposes, I’ll say that it’s a way that acknowledges the disability without making the character less of a person or limited in other areas because of it. But in that context, is it then all right for part of the story to be about the character struggling with their disability? Overcoming it if it stands in the way of their goal? Living with it if it doesn’t? In the end, I chose two books and one short story that treat the characters’ disabilities in different ways that I think are positive.

In the least speculative of the fictions I chose, Madeleine L’Engle’s YA book The Young Unicorns, Emily (a twelve-year-old girl) has been recently blinded by a futuristic laser-type device during a robbery. We meet Emily on page 11, and though there are little clues to her blindness (her friend ‘steering’ her through traffic, asking if she knows which coat she has on), we are not specifically told that she is blind until page 17, by which time we’ve seen her help a younger child with his boots, walk through streets, and arrive at her piano lesson, just as any sighted girl might. The book also includes a lamp and a genie, and when Emily and her friends encounter him, she asks the genie to restore her sight, which leads one of her science-minded friends to knock the lamp out of her hands.

Despite that early crack—what twelve-year-old girl wouldn’t want her recently-taken sight restored?—Emily accepts her blindness and is a full and active participant in the book’s adventure. When her disability is an obstacle, she navigates it with confidence, never letting it diminish her. The only speculative elements of the book are the laser device (the Micro-Ray) and some drugs; otherwise it takes place in a fairly recognizable 1960s New York.

A more solidly speculative book is the fantasy A Pride of Princes, the fifth in Jennifer Roberson’s epic Cheysuli series about a family of warrior shapechangers and the land they rule. A Pride of Princes features Brennan, a young man with claustrophobia, which he feels to be a form of cowardice, and his brother Hart, who can change shape to a hawk until he loses his left hand, which robs his hawk form of the power of flight. Brennan’s claustrophobia is perhaps not at the level of a disability, but he does regard it as one, a weakness that can be (and of course will be) exploited by his enemies.

Hart’s loss of his hand is more problematic. Cheysuli warrior code dictates that maimed warriors be banned from their clan and their family, and there is a great deal of discussion in the book about the origin of that stricture, as the characters question the need to follow it. They point out that Hart is still a useful person and indeed a useful warrior, that he can live a normal life and be part of the family. It is worth noting that Hart is also presented with the opportunity to restore his hand, but he refuses this bargain.

Last in my series of examples is a story in the new anthology Kaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios with the mission of emphasizing diversity in YA protagonists (full disclosure: I have a story in the anthology). The first story, “Cookie Cutter Superhero,” by Tansy Rayner-Roberts, stars Joey, a young girl with a missing hand. Unlike my other two examples, she’s had this disability her entire life, and also unlike the other examples, it’s not the focus of the story, though it is a large part of it. She doesn’t think about her disability much anymore, but her friends are protective of her and other acquaintances ask whether her upcoming transformation will give her a new hand. She views the disability as part of who she is, part of her identity, and she doesn’t want a new hand. In the end, the disability doesn’t affect her ability to do what she needs to, only the perceptions of others.

If there’s a common theme to the above, it’s the struggling of the protagonists to accept their disability versus the perception of the world around them. In some cases the world reassures the protagonist of their worth; in other cases she must reassure herself. But all of the stories focus on the person, with the disability as much a part of their character as a hot temper or a love of running. My perception of the above stories is that they are all positive, showing the struggles of disabled people without making them pitiable or defined only by their disability. Emily is brave and devoted to her adopted family; Hart is loyal and just as brave; Joey is worried about what people will think of her post-transformation, but not about whether she’ll be able to do the job.

All of the above are physical disabilities, which are more common to read about than mental disabilities. Depression has been in the public spotlight recently, but I haven’t read a novel with a depressed protagonist or even side character (not a spec-fic novel, anyway; there are countless mainstream fiction books in which the protagonist battles depression, but in that case the depression is the focus of the book). Other mental illnesses rarely make an appearance; characters with physical limitations but sound minds are easier to write and easier for readers to relate to (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time being a famous exception), because we still think of the mind as more central to a person’s identity than the body. John Scalzi’s recent novel Lock In focuses on the plight of people with sound minds whose bodies have failed them and addresses many questions of disability—all physical. Brennan’s claustrophobia, which probably would not even be catalogued as a mental disability, still stood out to me among characters I’ve read.

Things I would like to see more of: protagonists with a physical disability that is not the focus of the story, that doesn’t need to be healed or overcome in order to have a happy ending (as in “Cookie Cutter Superhero”). In most of the examples I’m aware of, the protagonist is disabled over the course of the story and has to cope with his/her new state of being. But there are many people who have already gone through that part of coping with a disability. It would be nice for them to see a hero who has moved on from figuring out how to live with a disability to simply living. I’m not qualified to write that story by any means, but I’d be happy to read it.

Rahul Kanakia
Rahul Kanakia is a writer whose first book, a young adult novel entitled Enter Title Here is coming out from Disney-Hyperion in Fall ’15. Additionally, he has stories appearing or forthcoming in Clarkesworld, The Indiana Review, Apex, and Nature. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and a B.A. in Economics from Stanford, and used to work in the field of international development. Currently, he lives in Oakland, CA and makes his living as a freelance writer and content creation consultant. If you want to know more about him then please visit his blog at http://www.blotter-paper.com or follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rahkan

There’s a whole genre of science fiction that uses the disability-as-ability trope: these are stories in which the disabled person is compensated for their disability by being given some other ability. For instance, in John Varley’s “Persistence of Vision,” a group of blind and deaf people builds a town and develop their own style of communication that allows them to be much closer and more intimate than sighted and hearing people. Or in Greg Egan’s “Reasons To Be Cheerful,” an extremely depressed person is given an implant that allows him to consciously override and reset his own preferences—his likes and dislikes.

Although I have a fondness for these stories, they’re probably not the best representation of disabled characters, because they seem to override the reality of disability, which is that it imposes some sort of cost. These disability-as-ability stories seem to represent a form of wishful thinking wherein disability doesn’t really hold a person back.

For the purposes of this Mind Meld, it seems more productive to examine science fiction stories that try to examine the nature of disability.

The first and best of these stories that comes to my mind is Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed Of Dark. This book, a Nebula winner for best novel, is a near-future story that’s told from the first person perspective of an autistic man whose independence is threatened when the program that employs him—one that receives a subsidy for employing autistic people—starts pressuring him to undergo a treatment to cure autism. And it is amazing. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. The main character’s narrative voice is so raw. He really struggles to make the best of his life, but he’s so confused by the senseless way that people act. Over the course of the book, he makes slow moves to find friends and expand his horizons, but he routinely has to face the fact that he lives in a world that does not value him and has no place for him.

What makes the book brilliant is that it doesn’t gloss over that struggle. It doesn’t go ahead and say, “Oh, of course all people have value, so this guy’s brain is just as good as anyone else’s.”

Instead, you can feel the book struggling to build the case that the main character should remain the way that he is. In the end, it doesn’t provide easy answers, and I suspect that the ending will be more controversial to today’s readers than it was even a decade ago. However, it’s very worth reading. I’ve never seen anything else like it. This is a book that deserves to be read a century from now.

Another book that comes to mind is a bit older. Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang is a mosaic novel about a physically disabled child who’s encased in a steel column and hooked up to the control systems of a starship. In a sense, the ship becomes her body.

If there’s anything that science fiction is good at, it’s literalizing metaphors. In this case, we have an allegory for a person who is mentally the equal of anyone else, but who’s completely incapacitated on a physical level. Technology allows her to build some kind of life in the world, but it’s a life that’s very different from a non-disabled person’s, and one that leads her down a different developmental path. It’s been ages since I read this novel, and I can’t make any promises as to the quality of the writing (the last McCaffrey book that I revisited turned out to have unbearably bad writing), but I did really love this book (and its sequels) when I was a teen.

The third novel I’ll recommend is Caitlin Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl. Here, the protagonist is a schizophrenic woman who is living on her own—she’s recently broken up with her girlfriend—and is haunted by conflicting visions that she knows can’t be entirely true, but that nonetheless have some kind of truth in them. This novel did something so amazing that it’s hard to even describe. The book uses this woman’s mental state to examine what it means to be haunted by something: an image, a vision, an experience. And, through the careful accretion of experience and memory, it starts to bring out the psychological truth that underlies this woman’s experience of life. In the end, we realize that her visions are more true (on a literal level) than we’d initially thought, but that’s not really the important thing. Instead, the important thing here is why she was haunted by these images. And I, at least, couldn’t help but think of similarly haunting moments—images that had stuck with me for years after they happened. In this novel, Kiernan has teased out and analyzed an aspect of the experience of being alive that I had never even noticed. It’s an approach to writing about mental illness that’s very different from the ordinary. When you’re writing about people who have delusions, it’s so easy to say that we see reality and they see fantasy. And even if a writer avoids that trap, they risk coming off patronizing when they veer in the opposite direction and pretend that insane people are only seeing their own, unique truth. The Drowning Girl avoids both of these pitfalls by doing its best to isolate the way in which the main character’s experience represents a heightened reality. It’s a level of psychological analysis that most books are afraid to engage in.

Anyway, those are my three top picks. There are also books that don’t do much to interrogate the nature and the concept of disability, but which feature kick-ass disabled protagonists. And those are well worth reading as well, simply because it’s important for everyone, disabled and non-disabled, to remember that disabled people have their own stories—stories that don’t always (or even usually) revolve around their disability–and are just as capable of being heroes as anyone else. The characters who come immediately to mind are Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan and George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion. But, of course, most readers of this post are probably already familiar with those two.

And to answer your last question, I’m sure these exist, but I’ve yet to read a novel that’s told from the point of view of a blind or a deaf person. It might be difficult to do, particularly for a non-disabled person, because it would mean eschewing the normal details, but it feels like something that ought to be done.

Lori Selke
Lori Selke is the author of The XY Conspiracy (Aqueduct Press) and the co­editor of Outlaw Bodies (Future Fire Press) with Djibril al­Ayad. She lives in Oakland, California.

I’m going to have to talk for a bit about what I think the term “disability” means first before I name some names and recommend some writing. What counts and doesn’t count as a disability is determined in large part by the way society is organized. I know that people react badly to this idea, but bear with me. A species of cavefish with no eyes isn’t “disabled” just because they can’t see; in other words, disability not about abstract capabilities or lack thereof, it’s about how bodies fit in with “the norm,” however that’s constructed or perceived. In the U.S. right now, legal definitions are quite important in determining the scope and the limits of the category “disabled.”

So, for a real­ life example, my poor eyesight doesn’t make me disabled, even though it’s a visible marker of difference ­­ I wear glasses every day. It’s not stigmatized. My repetitive stress injuries aren’t severe enough to trigger a legal declaration of disability. But when I was pregnant, my high blood pressure was enough to get me designated disabled and eligible to receive government services…temporarily. There’s a huge ongoing debate, in fact, about whether pregnancy should be counted as a temporary disability at all, and it’s clear that a large part of the resistance to the idea is because disability is a stigma, and it seems like a bad idea to stigmatize pregnancy. If disability was a neutral category, the debate would be entirely about legalese.

Note that there are also ideas of “natural” and “unnatural” embedded in there ­­ pregnancy is a “natural” state, and the implication is that disability is not. Disability is not treated as a natural state for a body. I would argue that this a foundational assumption of the category, in fact.

So, for an SFnal example, a society of space dwellers whose bones have decalcified and turned soft and whose muscles have atrophied aren’t “disabled” until they find themselves in an environment where that condition is a) not common and b) stigmatized as a disadvantage in some way. This is the kind of story I would like to read more often. I would like to read about the issues of passing as normal versus being visibly different.

I am so glad, by the way, that the question is not phrased around “positive” depictions of disability, because that’s not what I’m interested in reading (or writing), even if it doesn’t devolve into what disability activists dismiss as “inspiration porn.” I am interested in reading complex depictions of disability, not oversimplified cheerleading.

OK, enough chatter. Speculative fiction that I’ve enjoyed that has the complexity around nonstandard bodies that I seek include all of Shelley Jackson’s work, her novel Half Life and her short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy in particular. Jackson has a strong surreal and nonlinear bent, not to mention a fascination with the less tidy aspects of human bodies, so she won’t be to everyone’s taste. I also like the similar visceralness of Hiromi Goto’s work in Hopeful Monsters. The fact that Goto also deals with themes of motherhood and pregnancy (and breastfeeding) doesn’t hurt in my book.

Elizabeth Lynn’s fantasy novel Dancers of Arun features a one­ armed main character adopted by a troupe of dancers. I read this when I was much younger, when it first came out, and I still wish there were more character­ oriented high fantasy books like this one. Le Guin fans will appreciate Lynn in particular, I would think.

Octavia Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” collected in Bloodchild and Other Stories, is a story about a unique and devastating genetic disorder that’s incredibly rich and thought ­provoking, the kind of work that packs so much meaning into its confines that someone could write a dissertation or three on it.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t confess that reading X­Men comics in the 1980s has probably thoroughly saturated my subconscious when it comes to these sorts of issues ­­ is a superpower mutation a disability of an enhancement? In some cases, it’s clearly both, and that informs how the characters move through the world. Plus, of course, Charles Xavier in a wheelchair. As Stan Lee likes to say, ’nuff said.

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at https://littleredreviewer.wordpress.com/ where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.

12 Comments on MIND MELD: Disabilities in Speculative Fiction

  1. David Gillon // September 10, 2014 at 8:15 am //

    Oh, God, The Ship Who Sang? Possibly the worst book about disability ever written. Helva is an adorable character, and I think that, and lack of familiarity with disability, is why many people assume it is a positive book about disability.

    In fact Ship Who Sang features:
    Eugenics – any disabled child who doesn’t meet the needs of the State is killed.
    Infantilisation – any disabled child who _does_ meet the needs of the State is deliberately stunted in a way echoing the worst facets of the Ashley/Pillow-Angel (God, that term revolts me) case.
    Locking the crip away in the attic: Not just once, in the shell, but then twice in the avionics of the ship or city or whatever. Clearly we’re not fit for polite company.
    Slavery: Helva and all the other ‘shell people’ are the indentured slaves of the State until such time as they buy themselves free (assuming their job actually allows for that).
    Sterilisation: Playing off the eugenics, infantilisation and locked away themes, no shell person is in a position to have either sexual relations or children.
    Derision for Disability Rights Activists: The few people who do see the problems of the system are actively derided in the opening chapters.

    I don’t think McCaffery did this deliberately, she was writing before the Disability Rights Movement gained widespread traction (though I do have to wonder about those scenes with the activists), but it would be difficult to consciously write a more offensive book. Loveable as Helva may be, Ship Who Sang is ultimately cut from the cloth of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not Twelve Years a Slave.

    I don’t know what percentage of the panel identify as disabled, but as a disability rights activist there are several points here I find wrong-headed, if not verging on the offensive. People managing their disabilities being dismissed as non-representative, an overwhelming perception of disability as negative, of disabled life as a struggle because of the disability, not because of the failure of society to accomodate our needs (if you aren’t aware of the Social Model of Disability you probably shouldn’t be trying to write about disability). Which is not to say there aren’t some insightful comments, but here’s a thought, if this had been asking about representations of People of Colour, or the LGBT community, then wouldn’t you have sought out people who are active in the equality struggles of those groups and who understand the political structure within which that group exists? Because, honestly, as a disabled person, I’m not seeing that understanding of my world here.

    • David – as one of the contributors, and as someone who has certainly put his foot in it more than once, I just wanted to say thank you for this comment.

    • I’m in Jim’s camp. I contributed to this. Hell, I run an entire column on this stuff (which I’d absolutely LOVE you to talk to me about sometime… please, PLEASE shoot me an email), and I truly appreciate your comment.

      I feel kind of weird getting personal in a comment on a public and popular website, but I guess I’m going to throw caution to the wind and get down and dirty with my bad self and whoever else reads this.

      I am disabled, though it is relatively minor in the scope of things and it is what some would consider an “invisible” disability (IE: Not obvious to look at me, but it is certainly there and it will be noticed). I have physical limitations due to a severe joint disorder. I was paralyzed for a time and had to learn to walk again, and I just moved to the point where I don’t need to walk with a cane anymore about a year ago, and I’ll be working with PT and occupational therapists my whole life to figure out how to achieve the same things that other people can achieve in the ways that my body will allow me to. I do need accommodation from places due to my mobility issues. My limitations aren’t obvious (well, sometimes they are), but there certainly are things in the real world I can’t do, and I won’t ever be able to do and my life has been dramatically impacted by it.

      I’m adjusting. The past few years of my life have been sort of hellish with an explosion of health issues, including three rounds of cancer and ten surgeries to fix joint issues – my eleventh is coming up in two weeks, and I’m just now getting past it, able to breath a little easier, and finally get my body and my emotions past Survival Mode and into Life Mode. There’s a process to this, and right now, for me, it’s a mental one, which is why I seem to be attracted to books with characters that are dealing with the mental aspects of disability – of trying to reconcile who they are, and what they can do, to a world that might not understand any of it. That’s where I’m at on a personal level. It has taken me some time and a lot of introspection to realize that I’m not “broken,” just different, and that’s okay. My mobility might be limited, but that doesn’t mean my ability is limited….. I’m still coming to terms with those lessons, but that’s probably why I’m highlighting, and attracted to, the type of books I am currently attracted to. It helps to see the emotional and mental struggles I’m currently facing in the literature I read. It’s important to not feel so alone in this, and books help with that.

      I understand where you’re coming from, and I agree whole heartedly with you. I honestly just think that the books I chose reflect my mental state and my emotional struggles right now more than anything else. That, like you said, is not representative of the whole and quite possibly offensive. I meant no offense. Please believe that.

      Anyway, I hope that maybe this explains a little of where I came from and the reasons why I chose what I chose.

      • David Gillon // September 10, 2014 at 1:35 pm //

        Sarah, and Jim,

        Thanks for responding, though the points I took issue with really occurred elsewhere in the piece. Most of the books mentioned I don’t know well enough to comment on, but The Ship Who Sang I unfortunately know inside out, and I regard the way it is regularly cited as a positive representation of disability in SF as deeply problematical.

        I think Sarah actually hits the nail on the head when she says “I’m not “broken,” just different”, though I’d phrase that as ‘I’m not broken, just another kind of normal’. The perception of disability as normal, and non-negative, is one a lot of non-disabled people (and some disabled) just don’t get and unfortunately that seems to come through quite strongly in some of the contributions here.

        Unfortunately there is a disconnect between non-disabled people’s understanding of disability and disabled people’s own views, occasionally to the extent of disabled people being told their experiences cannot possibly be true (BTDT). Meanwhile the politics of the disability movement are fully as developed as those of the Civil Rights movement and LGBT politics, yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen a discussion of disability in SF that actually references the politics of disabled people. Too often we see disability in SF talked about through the misconceptions of non-disabled people, and inevitably GIGO applies. Unfortunately I don’t feel I’m wrong in saying more effort would be taken to assemble an informed panel on PoC or LGBT issues in SF than on disability in SF, because that is the reality I see time and again.

        It does take time to develop an understanding of disability politics, particularly if you are doing it while dealing with acquired disability. It may seem bizarre if not wrong-headed for me to talk of disability as non-negative when dealing with the grief of loss, but when you realise that the alternative is to regard a disabled person as somehow a lesser being, the need to reconstruct the conventional view of disability becomes clearer. I identified as disabled for about ten years before I really got this, but most of this comes under the ‘do the research’ label for people trying to write on SF and disability from the outside, whether as fiction or within the sphere of criticism. If you don’t recognise ‘Nothing for us, without us’, if you don’t understand the difference between the Social and Medical Models of Disability, if you don’t appreciate different positions on curing disability within different groups of disabled people, then you aren’t in a position to discuss disability issues in the way politically aware disabled people would reasonably expect. And doesn’t having the same respect for disabled people you would expect to show when talking about PoC or LGBT issues really demand that understanding?

        I will get in touch, but my email and web access is going to be iffy for the next fortnight, so I may not be able to contribute much more here

        • Hey David,

          I just wanted to say quickly that I appreciate your comments as well, and find them a valuable (critical in both senses of the word) addition to this piece. Thank you.

    • There was an open call for this on Twitter, but I figured I wasn’t what they meant by disabled and I found it a stretch to think of any novels to recommend (I enjoyed some of the ones listed here, but I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend them on the representation front… the brain ship series being one I enjoyed, but I’m painfully aware of the flaws). There may have been others that thought the same on seeing the call. It’s easy to end up self-selecting out of these things, even if in hindsight I don’t think I should have done.

      On the content though, I’m uncomfortable with saying that superpowered individuals, vampires, demi-gods, or whatever else, are metaphors for disability. Especially in cases where they’re dangerous and have killed people. It plays into the stereotypes of certain types of disability making people dangerous, by making it a fact in those worlds that they’re dangerous and should be feared. But in the real world, it’s the reverse. Disabled people are far more likely to be harmed by non-disabled people than vice versa.

  2. Really interesting Mind Meld! I found several books to add to my TBR. I also wanted to mention for those interested that Martin Millar’s “The Good Faeries of New York” features a significant character with Crohn’s Disease. Millar also has a series about a female werewolf who deals with anxiety and depression.

  3. David mentioned the social model above, and I think it’s worth thinking about the social, cultural and political aspects of disability when you’re worldbuilding. Who decides what counts as a mental or physical disability? Who decides how it is to be managed? What kind of model of care are you using, who benefits from that system, and who does it harm? How much time and money is society willing to put into this situation, and who gets to decide how those resources are used — the person themselves, their family, the state?

    I’m not going to touch on euthanasia, selective abortion, sterilisation, guardianship and power of attorney, the way people on disability benefits are often slandered by politicians, or how people with learning difficulties are often systematically mistreated; I don’t have the spoons to deal with that level of fury and despair right now. Instead, I offer a selection of ideas, hoping to spark more ideas and different ways of looking at this than just ‘oh those poor, brave people, trying so hard to overcome their tragic disadvantages’ (Ugh!).

    So, a situation that’s sort of improving lately, in some areas: Gay people, trans people and intersex people were (and still are) labelled mentally ill, and given so-called ‘treatments’ that often could be classed as torture. But the biological basis of sexual orientation and gender is itself cultural. There are cultures and religions that allow same-sex relationships; that allow people to live as trans or intersex or third gender; there are languages with more than two gender pronouns.

    Many children (and adults) with disabilities were (and still are) taken away from their families and institutionalised, in preference to providing care and support to the family to keep their family member at home. But keeping someone with complex needs at home can sometimes destroy families and individuals who have to provide care, if they don’t have sufficient support and respite.

    Some of the happiest schizophrenics in an international study weren’t Westerners dosed up on all the modern anti-psychotics, but people in so-called ‘third world’ countries who’d never seen a doctor and weren’t even labelled ill, just different. Because they stayed with their families and were looked after by the whole village and worked and married and just got on with life.

    Many women, children, and members of subordinate ethnic groups were (and still are) locked up in asylums and hospitals for various ‘problems’ that actually fall well within human norms, except that the family or the doctors or the priests or the politicians disapprove of that kind of behaviour from that person, or from that particular group of people. (See “Women’s Madness” by Ussher.)

    Many people with mental illnesses aren’t exactly ill, depending on how you define illness. Some ‘illnesses’ can be argued to be so situational as to be perfectly normal, rational responses to stressful or traumatic triggers, like severe abuse or bullying, bereavement, or PTSD or shellshock in soldiers. Depression rates match almost perfectly with rates of social inequality, for example. Women are more likely to be labelled depressed in countries with less equality for women, and women from subordinate groups are even more likely to be labelled mentally ill. Macho cultures result in more male suicides, because men and boys aren’t allowed to show weakness or ask for help.

    Medical care models are not always the best answer. We like to think of civilisation as an upward trend, but some of the ‘cutting edge’ treatments of a century ago are now recognised as ineffective, or even illegal. A hundred years in the future, people will look back on some of our modern and theories and point and laugh. (Probably at everything to do with schizophrenia, a lot of ADHD stuff, and many of our anti-depressant drugs and counselling methods.)

    America’s DSM is used internationally, and you can make a decent argument for mental illness effectively being caused by the DSM insofar as it has such a strong effect on how professionals are taught, which people are diagnosed, and how they’re treated.

    These are just some issues that are often debated currently, to give an idea of some of the issues you might want to think about when structuring a fantasy or sci-fi system full of differently-abled people. Be wary of simply replicating whatever system you’re most familiar with; it probably won’t match an SF/F society with significant cultural, political or technological differences.

    I said I wouldn’t touch on learning difficulties, but this one stuck with me: First Nations children in Australia were often considered educationally sub-normal, historically. A recent study in to how people learn discovered that a lot of these kids have a very strong visual memory, and a better memory in general, probably as an inherited survival skill. If you took the First Nations kids’ memory skills as normal, most of the European kids would be classed as educationally sub-normal in comparison.

    You have to take biology into account, obviously, but the big difference in how people are treated and how people can live — that’s all cultural, social and political factors. Disability is a social construct.

  4. Melinda Primrose // September 11, 2014 at 8:16 am //

    I’m blind, but I haven’t always been so. I think a lot of the problem, as a previous poster pointed out, is that when someone hears the way I live, which isn’t stereotypical, I get one of 2 reactions: 1. You’re amazing or 2. That can’t be right because it doesn’t fit the stereotype. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I hear variations of that second one. These stigmas about disabilities won’t be going away soon, unfortunately. It’s easier for people to live with the ignorance they know than to step out of that comfort zone.
    I think a lot of the reason we don’t have more disabled main characters is because the disabled aren’t *supposed* to be able to write and publish a book. The stigmas would prevent it. And when a diperson who is disabled does do something noteworthy, it is held up for all to see! For example, Ray Charles was a good singer, but would a book and movie be made of his life if he weren’t blind? My question is then why was it made just because he was blind? People with disabilities can’t just be people. We have to be inspirational because we do daily tasks differently than eeveryone else.
    It’s sad to say but I haven’t read any books where the disability was shown as just a part of life, like many disabled persons I know view it. It’s usually the little details that authors get wrong only because they don’t know the reality of having the disability they are writing about. Research can help to a certain extent, but it’s the details that one can only get from interaction with a person with that disability that is lacking. I can site many examples in all genres where the details of daily life are just wrong.
    Melinda Primrose

  5. I’d like to recommend A Wizard Alone by Diane Duane and This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman for consideration.

    Duane’s book is #7 or 8 in her “Young Wizards” YA series, and it may be helpful to read So You Want to Be a Wizard first, to get a sense of the structure of her world. But the story in AWA focuses on a young boy with autism who is offered the choice to become a wizard, and it’s not presented as a “cure” at all — his mental framework is part of who he is and how wizardry works for him. (He is also a recurring character in the later books in the series.)

    Friedman’s book is a stand-alone, and the two primary characters in it are a multiple and a high-functioning autistic computer genius, and not only do they get to have happy endings without being “fixed”, their abilities are crucial to the resolution of the plot. This is one of my Desert Island Books.

    I won’t absolutely guarantee that there are no problematic elements in either of these (because as an able-bodied, neurotypical person, I might not notice), but they both strike me as unusually positive depictions of non-neurotypical protagonists.

  6. I have chronic tic syndrome left over from childhood Tourette Syndrome (TS), a neurological disorder that probably stems from the abnormal metabolism of neurotransmitters. As a child and young adult, it was particularly disturbing to see facial tics depicted in literature and film because predominately they were used on weak or insane characters to signal shot nerves, anger, descent into madness, lying and emotional instability. Even now, in fiction and documentaries, people seem to focus on the symptom of coprolalia, which occurs in less than 10% of cases. Luckily I missed out on the ADD and ADHD (if I stay away from caffeine) and I do not see myself as disabled, just different. And I certainly do not spend much time thinking about trying not to twitch. Like many people with TS, I instinctively maintain control when in the company of others by postponing, hiding, disguising my facial and body tics. I don’t fit the stereotype, but the irony is most people who have TS are like me.

  7. Don’t forget Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo. The protagonist was essentially quadriplegic.

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