An interview with Kathryn Allan about “Accessing the Future”

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%5D “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

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

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.

Upcoming Interview with Kathryn Allan About Accessing the Future on September 17

Kathryn Allan is an academic editor, an independent scholar of science fiction and disability studies, and has just launched an indigogo campaign to create a collection of science fiction featuring disability and people with disabilities titled Accessing the Future. As you can imagine, Kathryn Allan and I share a tonne of interests and I feel very fortunate to be able to interview her here on Speculating Canada.

Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:

Kathryn Allan: “I’ve always had an interest in the relationship between technology and the human body.”

Kathryn Allan: “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.”

Kathryn Allan: “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?”

Kathryn Allan: “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).”

Kathryn Allan: “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”).”

Kathryn Allan: “I want representations of disability to be realistic and dynamic.”

Kathryn Allan: “More voices and more awareness means the better future(s) we can work towards!”

Check out our full interview on September 17th and check out the Accessing the Future campaign at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/accessing-the-future

 

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

Accessing the Future Campaign image courtesy of Kathryn Allan.

 

Predator and Prey Relationships

A review of Suzanne Church’s “Mod Me Down” in Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction (Edge, 2014).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Suzanne Church's "Elements" courtesy of http://edgewebsite.com/

Cover photo of Suzanne Church’s “Elements” courtesy of http://edgewebsite.com/

Suzanne Church’s “Mod me Down” takes readers to the limit of the human experience, exploring that critical moment when culture bleeds into instinct. In a future where an attempt to prevent global warming has initiated an ice age, the American government has become totalitarian and given people a choice: be shot or take a shot of animal DNA to become something semi-human-semi-animal.

The modifications to the human body have been forced on the populace… or at least the less wealthy members of society. The richest of the American population are able to stay human and travel further south to be saved from the coming Ice Age, but everyone else is required to undergo genetic shots to transform them into human-animal hybrids. This transformation is also tiered, with the wealthy able to become predators, while the poor have to become prey animals, primarily vermin like rats and bugs. Suzanne Church highlights the issues with wealth stratification in “Mod Me Down”, literally turning the rich into predators who prey on and consume the poor much as the current economic system treats the poor as vermin and food for the wealth-generating machine.

Yet, her story also has a very personal quality. Lucas and Mary have been lovers for some time, yet haven’t been married, not seeing the point of it. But, when they receive their genetic modification assignments, Mary is told she will be a cockroach while Lucas is told he will be a rat. They are to be separated into different colonies since rats prey on cockroaches. Church tests the limits of the human when lovers meet the predator-prey relationship and love is tested against hunger.

To find out more about Elements and other Edge books, visit their website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/ .

To discover more about Suzanne Church, visit her website at http://suzannechurch.com/wordpress/ .

 

The In-Between Space

A Review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince (Edge, 2005).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

The Reetions and the Gelacks, two branches of the human race that were separated from Earth due to temporary losses of space travel. The Reetions developed from the first group of people to leave Earth and settle in a colony. Connections to Earth were lost, and they developed into a divergent civilisation. They developed an egalitarian system of government with open policies, public access to information, and general public engagement in decision-making processes.

The Gelacks developed from a second wave of human space travel. They too lost contact with Earth. The Gelacks were a civilisation that had been changed by the intervention of genetic technology, technology that changed certain people to better sustain the biologically damaging effects of space travel. This group became stronger, smarter, and better at healing than the regular human population. Because Gelack population had both genetically modified humans and unmodified humans (as well as interbred populations), a class system developed along feudal lines. The genetically modified populations attained positions of superiority and hegemonic control.

The Reetions and Gelacks had met before, and the results were devastating, with misunderstandings and miscommunications on both sides. Now, both sides have discovered that traders are making jumps between their civilisations and it has become clear that they may need to make formal contact again. In The Courtesan Prince, Lynda Williams explores the diversity of cultures and the misunderstandings that can come from cultural difference. She illustrates to readers that a large part of conflict comes from misunderstandings and the more diverse the populations are, the more effort needs to be put into understanding the cultural gap and communicating effectively with others.

The Courtesan Prince follows the life of Von, a courtesan who seems to be more than he appears to be. Von’s life and understanding of the world is challenged when he encounters the Reetions, and, in particular Ann, who encourages him to understand her on a deeper level and get rid of some of his xenophobic fears and beliefs that human social relations can only be understood through a Gelack lens.

Simultaneously Ranar, a Reetion anthropologist is left among his research subjects, the Gelacks, and is forced to understand their way of life, even if it is both fundamentally different and even hostile to his own. The Gelacks are a fundamentally homophobic people, with a deep and violent hatred for queer-oriented people. Often this homophobia erupts into public torture of gays and lesbians, followed by their murder and the murder of any children they may have had. Ranar, a gay man, is left in a vulnerable position, having to hide his sexuality for the first time in his life. Among the Reetions, sexual diversity is respected and people are encouraged to accept themselves and there is never a question of sexual interest being either bad or problematic in any way. It is simply another form of relationship. With this openness of sexuality, Ranar has to quickly shift his own openness about his sexuality in order to keep himself safe. When one of the Gelack leaders Di Mon develops an attraction for him (an attraction that he hates in himself and that encourages violence from him), Ranar is confronted with the idea that his own sexuality could be harmful to a lover who is part of a system that systemically oppresses queer-oriented people. He has to keep his sexuality hidden not only for his own protection but to preserve the life of his lover, Di Mon.

Unlike many SF authors, Lynda Williams does not just stick to heteronormative SF, but presents homophobia as something that is socially created and that can be resisted. By contrasting two cultures with different treatments of queer-oriented people, she illustrates that our own homophobic culture has been created by our own social issues and is not something that is taken-for-granted (as it is often portrayed by people who espouse homophobic beliefs). By having one culture that has a healthy, open approach to sexual diversity, and another that has a deep-seated hatred of queer people, she illustrates that homophobia is a choice, not homosexuality.

Lynda Williams is willing to do deep cultural critiques, exploring the development of different cultural ideas and contrasting them in societies that essentially descended from the same roots. She is willing to interrogate politics, ideas of social equality, the complexity of sexuality, ideas of privacy, biological change, and technology. And she is unwilling to give the readers simple answers, but encourages them to interrogate these issues, think for themselves, and develop their own ideas. The Courtesan Prince is a pedagogical text in the best sense of the word, not because it gives answers (as many think that teaching does), but because it asks questions, opens things to debate, and encourages readers to be uncomfortable with any easy answers.

Gelacks and Reetions are contrasted with one another in a way that pushes readers into an uncomfortable intergalactic, in-between space, stuck in the limbo between different ideologies. And this is a hugely powerful creative space where readers are made aware of how much their ideas and thoughts are socially defined and they are encouraged to get rid of cultural trappings and question things freely. The Reetions focus on the idea of honesty, and everything being public… but with that comes the limitations on privacy and the sense of living in a panopticon where everything can be easily seen. The Gelacks are more private, but lying is culturally entrenched to maintain secrets. The Gelacks have a population with bodies that are stronger, heal faster, and survive better… but the power of these bodies have meant tight restrictions on mating practices and the social control of “common” people by a small minority of physically stronger people. The Reetions don’t genetically modify people to be stronger, which means they are able to attain an egalitarian civilisation… but because of this their pilots often have short careers, damaged by the ravages of space travel which destroys normal human bodies. The Reetions are more comfortable with technology… but this means that they are also willing to modify people’s minds through psychotherapy. Whereas the Galecks consider certain forms of technology taboo, which prevents healing adaptions… but they are able to reduce the construction of any weapons of mass destruction. Nothing is easy in The Courtesan Prince and neither civilisation is portrayed as the model of perfect human society. Both have flaws, and these challenges make Lynda Williams’ novel more complex, more rich in substance, and portray the idea that the struggle for perfection is culturally defined and that one person’s ideal may be another’s horror.

The Courtesan Prince is book 1 in Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel Saga, to find out more about it and other books in the series, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/index.html . To find out more about Lynda Williams and the Okal Rel universe, visit her site at http://okalrel.org/ .