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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Chris Beckett (MOTHER OF EDEN) on The Outside View

SpecialNeedsInStangeWorlds[1]

Chris Beckett is a British social worker, university lecturer, and science fiction author.

Beckett was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford and Bryanston School in Dorset, England. He holds a BSc (Honours) in Psychology from the University of Bristol (1977), a CQSW from the University of Wales (1981), a Diploma in Advanced Social Work from Goldsmiths College, University of London (1977), and an MA in English Studies from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge (2005).

He has been a senior lecturer in social work at APU since 2000. He was a social worker for eight years and the manager of a children and families social work team for ten years. Beckett has authored or co-authored several textbooks and scholarly articles on social work.

Beckett began writing SF short stories in 2005. His first SF novel, The Holy Machine, was published in 2007. He published his second novel in 2009, Marcher, based on a short story of the same name.

Paul Di Filippo reviewed The Holy Machine for Asimov’s, calling it “One of the most accomplished novel debuts to attract my attention in some time…” Michael Levy of Strange Horizons called it “a beautifully written and deeply thoughtful tale about a would-be scientific utopia that has been bent sadly out of shape by both external and internal pressures.” Tony Ballantyne wrote in Interzone: “Let’s waste no time: this book is incredible.”

His novel, Dark Eden, was hailed by Stuart Kelly of The Guardian as “a superior piece of the theologically nuanced science fiction”.

Dark Eden was shortlisted for the 2012 BSFA Award for Best Novel. Mother of Eden was released on May 12, 2015. You can learn more about the author on his website.

The Outside View

by Chris Beckett

I was brought up to think of myself as physically disabled. Specifically I was brought up to think of myself as having deformed feet. Actually I’m not disabled. I can walk perfectly well, but I’m not a great runner, and was bad at sports at school as a result. My mother, who was a doctor, attributed this to the fact that I have claw feet: feet that are permanently somewhat clenched with the result that I have unusually high arches (the opposite, essentially, of flat feet.) I was told once by another doctor, when I had to have a medical for a job, that my feet would have prevented me from joining the infantry. Luckily for me I had no such plans!

My mother meant to be helpful, but I’m not sure it was such a good idea to label me like that: it made me feel different, and a bit broken, and I gave up even trying at sport, even though I was big for my age and probably could have made up with brawn what I lacked in speed and finesse. You can see something of my feelings about all this (and indeed one or two other aspects of my relationship with my mother!) in my story “Jazamine in the Green Wood” (in my Turing Test collection), where the viewpoint character also has deformed feet.

In my Eden books, of course, there are lot of people with deformed feet. Everyone in Eden is descended from just two people. I’m told that, in reality, the genetic problems that would result would almost certainly be so severe that a viable population would not survive at all, but, hey, I write fiction and I’ve taken a bit of licence. A viable population has emerged on Eden, but they do have a lot of challenges resulting from their tiny gene pool. In Dark Eden, I specifically mention “slowheads” (Tina’s brother Harry being an instance), and “clawfeet” (see what I did there?), whose feet really are very twisted, so that they can only just barely walk and then with a lot of pain (Jeff Redlantern in Dark Eden, is a clawfoot, and so is Julie Deepwater in Mother of Eden). There are also “batfaces” (aka “holefaces” in Mother of Eden) who are people with cleft palates. In Dark Eden, John’s aunt Sue and his enemy David both have batfaces, as does Starlight’s friend Angie in Mother of Eden.

In Eden, these genetic problems are very common and very visible. There are no institutions where “slowheads” can be hidden away, no surgical procedures for the “correction” of batfaces and clawfeet. If you’re born with these things, you live with them, and people are very matter of fact about them (hence the somewhat blunt names).   This is not to say that other people can’t be cruel about them, though, or that clawfeet and batfaces don’t have special challenges to face. Batfaces get teased for being ugly, clawfeet miss out on physical games that other kids use to bond with one another. And, while there is no systematic discrimination in Dark Eden, in Mother of Eden, in the land known as New Earth, people who are ‘broken’ are seen as reminders of a kind of original sin committed by the first generation of Eden (when a brother and his sisters had no choice but to sleep with one another if there was to be another generation at all), and are excluded from all but the lowest ranks of society.

Although these people are prominent in the world of Eden because of that particular community’s genetic history, I think they have a wider significance. After all, here on Earth too, it is very much part of life that a significant percentage of the population has limbs that don’t function, faces that haven’t developed like other people’s faces, brains that work less quickly or in different ways than the brains of the rest of the population. If we’re not disabled ourselves, all of us know people who are.   I have relatives, for instance, who live with cerebral palsy, Asperger’s, and chronic depression. (Indeed I suffer a bit with the latter myself, which probably contributed to the sense of absence and loss which runs through Dark Eden). I have friends who need wheelchairs to get around, or are blind. Presumably this is true of most people: if you don’t deal with some of these challenges yourself, you almost certainly know others that do have to. And yet how many movies or books –not counting movies and books that are specifically about disability– routinely feature characters with disabilities of these kinds?

It seems to me that if fiction fails to reflect the fact that disability is commonplace, part of the fabric of life, it’s like systemically viewing the world from the perspective of only one gender, or one ethnic group, or one social class. It’s like looking at only half a world. And there’s another thing too. In Eden, batfaces and clawfeet may be common and visible, but they are still to some extent outsiders, and outsiders are uniquely valuable because they are not so immersed in a world that others take unquestioningly for granted. “My life was different from John’s because I was a clawfoot, and no one expected me to become a man,” reflects Jeff Redlantern (who is a key figure in both Dark Eden and a significant one in Mother of Eden, even though long dead).  He continues:

“Other boys ran and fought and kicked balls (even batfaces, however much they got teased), but if you were a clawfoot they left you out of all that. Other boys became men by putting on the masks of men, and shutting out of their heads all the things that didn’t fit with their masks, but if you were a clawfoot no one expected you to wear that mask, or to shut those things out of your head. That was why I saw things that other people didn’t see.”

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