A Brief Exploration of Disability in Speculative Fiction
By Derek Newman-Stille
This post will explore some of the notions we examined in my panel at Can Con on Disability in Canadian SF. The panel went extremely well, and I hope to be able to share some insights with Speculating Canada readers who were unable to make it to Can Con.
The various speculative genres of fiction can engage with notions of the disabled body in a variety of different ways: through the notion of the medical cure or the augmented body of Science Fiction, the magically changed body of Fantasy, body horror and notions of disfigurement in Horror. Speculative Fictional engagements with the body are often problematic and disabling, much as the superstructure of our society is disabling in its construction of certain bodies as “problematic”. Through the absense of disabled bodies, or the treatment of the disabled as people who “need to be fixed”, SF can disable.
Disability is a socially constructed phenomenon, casting certain bodies as “unable” when the social structure itself is unwilling to accommodate bodily diversity. Texts (books, films, televisions, and other items of culture) can disable in the way they present certain bodies, re-affirming societal biases or reinforcing power dynamics. BUT, they can also disrupt these power dynamics. Literature has the power to change the way people think. It can reinforce or change social conditions. Speculative fiction, in particular, can SPECULATE. It can ask questions, encourage its readers to ask questions, and these questions can challenge social notions that are largely unchallenged and taken as unquestioned truths in our society.
Speculative Fiction has the power to present a different world of possibility where ideas about disability can be questioned, where disability is treated as a social issue, not an issue with the bodies of specific individuals. However, this requires a deep awareness of the issues and a desire to see social change on the part of SF authors.
As readers we can ask questions like:
-How is disability presented in this novel?
-Does this portrayal empower people with disabilities or does it disempower them?
-Is disability treated as a convenient plot device or is it a part of a wider narrative?
-Is disability portrayed accurately?
-What questions is the author asking about disability?
-Do I feel like the portrayal of people with disabilities is stereotypical.
Remember, as a reader, you can (and should) pose critical questions about what you read – interrogate it, challenge it, and question it. That is part of the enjoyment of reading and being an engaged reader.
As authors we can ask questions like:
-Have I consulted with the disabled community about this?
-What questions about disability does my work bring attention to?
-Do I construct disability as a “problem body” or as an issue of a society that is unwilling to accommodate bodily diversity?
-Have I made my character with disabilities a complete character or a walking symbol and plot device?
-Does my work challenge stereotypes or does it reinforce them?
-Have I considered how disability would relate to all situations or am I only applying issues of disability when it is convenient to my plot?
-What common tropes about disability do I want to avoid?
One of the most important things to consider is the axiom “Nothing About Us Without Us”. If you are an able-bodied author writing about disability, you should make sure to talk to members of the disability community about your characters. In the same way as you may research ideas of physics for your starships or the history of portrayals of the werewolf for your horror novel, consult with the experts about disability. This is even more important research than physics or mythology because it pertains to real people, and real readers that you may alienate or disempower through your writing.
Here are a few common tropes of disability that I observed when reading and watching portrayals of disability in Speculative Fiction novels, comics, movies, and television. I used these to create a disability trope bingo for the panel on disability at Can Con, and I thought I would replicate it here for you to explore:
Disability Trope Bingo
Mark your bingo card whenever you see a disability trope appearing on the slide. Feel free to mark multiple spaces if there are multiple categories that apply.
Here are the questions for each of the categories:
B1: My disability is a superpower
B2: “Better dead than disabled”
B3: The magical / technological cure
B4: Other senses magnified to “cope” with “deficit”
B5: Disabled person as inconvenience to others
I1: Disabled person as inspirational
I2: People helping disabled people as heroic
I3: Disability as burden on the social system
I4: Disabled person as perpetual victim
I5: Disabled in Distress (always needing to be saved by the Able-bodied)
N1: Exclusively plot relevant disability that is forgotten at other times
N2: The “Who is at fault for this person being disabled” trope
N3: The token disabled character
N4: Assuming disability means ubiquitously unable
N5: Disability as ugliness
G1: Disability only as contrast with perfection or to highlight the perfection of another character as the opposite
G2: Disability as moral weakness of character or villainy
G3: Assuming every emotional state of the disabled person relates to his/her disability
G4: Character angry at world because of their disability – defined by frustration
G5: “Heroic Disabled” able to “overcome disability”
O1: “Tragically damaged” former hero – often a person who is disabled in an act of heroism and is now unable to accomplish heroic feats
O2: Disability as only a state of mind – the idea that a person can overcome disability with enough willpower
O3: Cursed Disabled – victim of magic
O4: Disabled as mentor for hero
O5: Disability hiding other difference
Regarding the title of this post, as a disabled person, I am reclaiming (like many scholars of disability and people with disabilities) the term “crip” that has often been used to oppress and disempower people with disabilities.
This is only an initial exploration of the topic of disability in SF and should not be considered complete. It is used here only to open dialogue about disability in SF.
In writing Horth Nersal, a hero of the Okal Rel Saga, I was conscious of his culture mitigating his verbal disability because he was a spatial genius and Okal Rel rewarded the associated skills. Whereas if he’d been raised in a different culture he would have been disabled, not empowered. It seems to me each of us are enabled or disabled by the value our culture places on our abilities and disabilities. In SF that can apply even to severe disabilities in the right context. Like McCaffray’s “Ship Who Sang”.
A thought-provoking post — it makes me realize how little consideration I have given this in my fiction despite knowing and working with people with various disabilities on a daily basis. I do think the automatic assumption in sci-fi for, say, a physical disability is along the lines of “POOF — you’re healed!” — ie., it’s written off as something tech would just fix/replace in the future. One example I can think of where this wasn’t the case (not quite the same thing, perhaps), was in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, where Bones presents Kirk with a set of eyeglasses to correct his vision; the normal treatment was a prescription of a (futuristic POOF — you can see!) drug, which Kirk was allergic to.
I also think of Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, in which Corwin is struck blind by his enemies, and the way Zelazny showed this was different (for Corwin) than being born blind, like Vialle, Random’s wife; and in their brief conversation it seems the sticking experience for Corwin was not the memory of being blind but the PTSD from being blinded.