An interview with Kathryn Allan about “Accessing the Future” by Derek Newman-Stille
I had a great opportunity to interview friend and colleague Kathryn Allan, who shares my love of exploring representations of disability in Speculative Fiction. Kathryn and I have presented at several conferences together and I am excited to be able to share her insights with you today. Kathryn and her co-editor Djibril al-Ayad are currently running an indiegogo campaign to create a new collection of disability themed science fiction called Accessing the Future, which you can explore at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/accessing-the-future .
Speculating Canada: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
Kathryn Allan: I wear a bunch of hats—all of which are really flattering. I operate an academic copyediting and coaching business, Academic Editing Canada, and I’m an independent scholar of science fiction and disability studies. Since I left university at the completion of my PhD in 2010, I’ve been following my love of science fiction into interesting places: I’m the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow (2013-14) and the editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). As of this year, I’m also an Associate Editor and Reader of The Future Fire. I write for both scholarly and fan venues, and you can find me blogging and tweeting as Bleeding Chrome.
Speculating Canada: What inspired your interest in disability in science fiction?
Kathryn Allan: I’ve always had an interest in the relationship between technology and the human body. When I was in my second year of my PhD studies, two significant things happened: one, I discovered a deep love of science fiction (I’m a late bloomer), and two, I became quite ill. SF was not only a comfort to me when I was too tired and unwell to do much of anything other than read cyberpunk novels or watch Star Trek episodes, it also spoke to my curiosity about technology’s ability to transform, modify, and adapt the human body to new environments and events. I became acutely interested in reading feminist and disability study theories of the body (by wonderful scholars like Margrit Shildrick, Susan Wendell, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson), and so I ended up writing my dissertation on technology and the vulnerable body in feminist post-cyberpunk. I recognized that there was a huge gap in science fiction studies: very few scholars were addressing disability in SF. I wanted to—and still strive to—contribute to the necessary conversation about how disability is taken up in science fiction.
Speculating Canada: You are currently working on an anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction with Djibril al-Ayad titled Accessing the Future. Could you tell us a little bit about this anthology?
Kathryn Allan: The anthology is an intersectional one, focusing on disability, but also considering race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class in SF stories that explore the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future. One of our pitch lines for Accessing the Future is: “We want people of all abilities to see themselves, as they are now and as they want to be, in our collective human future.” We want stories that think about how humanity will modify the future world, ask what kinds of new spaces and technologies we will create, and, above all, answer the question: What does an accessible future look like? Both my co-editor (and publisher) Djibril and I love cyberpunk and feminist SF, so we’re hoping to see some stories that are inspired by those SF traditions. We’re currently running an crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, which ends on September 17th. The call for stories will open immediately after this fundraising campaign ends.
Speculating Canada: What inspired this collection?
Kathryn Allan: My desire to see SF stories where people with disabilities are represented as people and not as props or lessons! As much as I love SF, it’s tiring and upsetting to see people with disabilities being vilified, “cured,” or simply erased from the future (through things like genetic engineering). The community I live in is not homogenous; the friends and family I love are not all able-bodied. I want to read stories that express my reality and the reality of my chosen community. By editing a anthology of disability-themed stories, I hope that we can provide a space to as many voices as possible.
Speculating Canada: What are some of the problems that you have seen in the representation of disability in speculative fiction of the past?
Kathryn Allan: Ah! There are so many problems! Most of the representations of disability out there in SF are not good. As I mentioned above, people with disabilities are constantly being “cured” through medical interventions (whether they want it or not, rarely does the character in question have a choice in the matter). Prosthetics are idealized as a way to become super human…and then turn the person with a disability into an even greater threat to “normal” people. Visions of genetic engineering in SF are particularly awful: if a writer imagines a future world where disability is erased before birth, then that sends a terrible message to people with disabilities today (i.e., “you shouldn’t exist”). These kinds of representations are not only rampant in SF of the past, they continue to be proliferated today, which is why I feel so strongly in making sure that we encourage writers to create and engage with realistic depictions of disability.
Speculating Canada: What are some examples of science fiction that has done a good job of representing disability?
Kathryn Allan: The old standby answer is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, but I try to direct readers to more recent novels that they might not think of as being about disability. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a guest post on Pornokitsch [link: http://www.pornokitsch.com/2014/08/friday-five-5-positive-representations-of-disability-in-sf.html] “Five Positive Representations of Disability in Science Fiction,” where I talked about the Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl, Laura J. Mixon’s Up Against It, Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ancension, James Patrick Kelly’s “The Promise of Space,” and Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine. All of these stories take up disability in a way that does not reduce a character to their disability, their characters are both interesting and flawed (not just one-dimensional “inspirations” or villains), and they situate disability as a social construction (not as a personal “flaw”).
Speculating Canada: What do you hope to see more of in the representation of disability?
Kathryn Allan: Basically, I just want to see characters who have disabilities being awesome, boring, kickass, thoughtful, arrogant, funny, sexy, stubborn, clever, etc. I think you can see where I’m going here: I want representations of disability to be realistic and dynamic. Like, please, SF writers, stop curing everyone!
Speculating Canada: Disability Studies tends to focus a lot on realist fiction. What are some of the important things that can come out of looking at the representation of disability in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative genres?
Kathryn Allan: SF is a like testing ground for viable visions of the future. Writers get to try out new ideas in SF, as well as imagine possible futures that might come to be from the politics and events of the current day. Since so many people read speculative genres, I think it’s really important that the representations of disability in our “pretend” worlds have positive, realistic roles in them for everyone to identify with–and it’s also easier, in a way, to notice when those realistic roles aren’t present. When a writer creates a monstrous character, for example, what features are they using for monstrosity? When we start to read for and with disability in SF, all of the cultural assumptions about what makes a “good” worthwhile person comes to the foreground.
Speculating Canada: What things have really gotten you excited so far about the Accessing the Future volume you are working on?
Kathryn Allan: We’re still in the crowdfunding stage, but I’m excited about the level of interest we’ve had from both people with disabilities and able-bodied allies: stories are already being prepared for submission! As well, I’m quite happy that we’ve helped boost the level of conversation about disability in SF. Several able-bodied people have told me that they never thought about disability before at all, and are now reflecting on what they are writing and reading in terms of disability representation. More voices and more awareness means the better future(s) we can work towards!
Speculating Canada: Is there anything further you are interested in adding at the end of this interview?
Kathryn Allan: Signal boosts of all kinds are welcome. The more tweets, Facebook shares, and blog posts that people put out there, the greater visibility our campaign receives. We’ve done a solid job of speaking to the “diverse SF” community so far, but we need to the signal to be going out every day in creative ways, and to other genre communities as well. One of the ways that people can also participate is through our blog hop—you reflect on a short series of questions about disability and power in a current/recent story that you’re writing (or reading). You can find out more information about the blog hop here: http://djibrilalayad.blogspot.ca/2014/08/blog-hop-accessing-future-fiction.html
I want to thank Kathryn Allan for this brilliant interview and for all of her work looking at representations of disability in science fiction. I particularly want to give thanks to her for running an indiegogo campaign to fund Accessing the Future.