Disability in Science Fiction

Ria Cheyne

Changing Capacities, Changing Identities: Disability in Science Fiction

Ria Cheyne Changing Capacities, Changing Identities ppt-1

As a lecturer in Disability Studies whose background is in English Literature, I’m going to give a slightly different perspective on the issues we’re exploring today.  My research focuses on representations of disability and illness in fiction, especially popular genres such as science fiction, romance, horror and crime.  I’m interested in how these fictional representations of disability reflect and shape wider public conceptions of health, disability, and illness; the effects they might have upon the world; and their usefulness (or otherwise) for disability activists and allies trying to challenge social barriers and inequalities.


In line with the theme of “changing capacities, changing identities” I’m going to focus on a particular fictional genre that is very much engaged with those themes: science fiction.  I’ll suggest that science fiction offers a space where alternative conceptions of ‘ability’, ‘disability’ and what constitutes a ‘normal’ human body can be explored.  I’m going to focus on two particular tropes that map neatly on to the ‘changing capacities, changing identities’ theme.  The first is the idea of the alternative environment – a setting that’s distinctively different from our own, whether it’s an alien planet or a virtual world.  The second is that of technological enhancement of the human body: bodies transformed by the addition or application of technology – another staple of science fiction.  Focusing on written science fiction, I’ll talk about some works that illustrate the potentials the genre offers for thinking about disability, health and illness.  The final part of my talk will address the ‘so what’ question.  Why should we care?  What is the use of this type of fiction, and this type of analysis, for people with disability or illness, activists, and allies?

Changing Capacities: Alternate Worlds

Long and tedious battles have been waged over how precisely science fiction should be defined.  Rather than go into that in any depth, for today, I’m going to assume that, to some extent, we know it when we see it.  The one thing I would add is that the science fictional world is in some way always distinctively different from our own: it may possess more advanced technology, Earth may have been in contact with aliens, or humans colonised other planets.  Often it’s some combination of these things.


Another way we might express this is that all science fiction texts depict alternate worlds of one kind or another.  The story might be set on another planet, in an artificial environment like a spaceship, or on an Earth where conditions are radically changed from the way they are now.  What this means is that there’s a lot more potential to depict different environmental conditions than in most other types of fiction – including those in which the ‘normal’ human body is ill-adapted.  (For example, everyone is functionally impaired in a world with much higher gravity than we’re used to, as seen in Hal Clements’s 1954 novel Mission of Gravity.)  Alternatively, science fiction may depict environments that are enabling for those with bodily configurations or capabilities outwith the norm.


We can find an example of this as early as 1904, in H.G. Wells’s classic short story “The Country of the Blind.” PPT  Although critical work has tended to focus on other aspects of the story, it describes the environment created by an isolated community who have, over generations, lost their eyesight.  Lost to the outside world for centuries, the community is discovered by a sighted explorer, Nunez.  There’s lots I could talk about with regards to this story – including some things that are pretty problematic from a disability studies perspective – but what I want to focus on is the description of the environment that this blind community has created.  Here’s a quote:  PPT


“It was marvellous with what confidence and precision they went about their ordered world.  Everything, you see, had been made to fit their needs; each of the radiating paths of the valley area had a constant angle to the others, and was distinguished by a special notch upon its kerbing; all obstacles and irregularities of path or meadow had long since been cleared away; all of their methods and procedure arose naturally from their special needs.”


Here we have an environment made to be accessible.  The alternative world in this text is one where what is ‘normal’ is to be visually impaired; and it is Nunez, the sighted character, who is ultimately unsuited to it despite his assumptions of superiority.


In other texts, space exploration provides a different sort of enabling environment.  The notion of a zero or low gravity environment as a space in which people with disabilities or health conditions might choose to live appears in a number of texts. PPT  In the 1954 novel Islands in the Sky by Arthur C. Clarke, for example, the commander of a space station is an amputee, having lost both his legs on an earlier mission.  Yet in the zero gravity environment of the Station, Commander Doyle is “perfectly adapted to his surroundings” and “the most agile man in the Station” (178, 43).   There’s also a space hospital where the zero gravity environment provides a quicker rehabilitation and more effective treatment for certain conditions.  In a more recent example, in Amy Thomson’s Through Alien Eyes (1999) one character chooses to live and work in a zero gravity environment after becoming paralysed, stating that it is a place where he isn’t “reminded of all the things he couldn’t do anymore” (142).


As well as enabling environments, SF texts also depict those in which people we would read as nondisabled are functionally impaired.  To give another early example, from Rex Gordon’s 1956 novel No Man Friday (also published as First on Mars): In this novel, a British astronaut on a mission to Mars is stranded on the surface of the planet.  Having assembled a device that renders the Martian air breathable, the astronaut is forced to confront his assumptions about the superiority of the human bodily form:  PPT


For it came to me instantly, [. . .] that I was not the ‘highest’ life on Mars.  On the contrary, I was a highly ill-adapted being.  I lived with difficulty and by machines.  I was no better adapted to survive on Mars than was a child on Earth that had been stricken by infantile paralysis and confined to an artificial lung. (96-7)

The comparison here is telling: the astronaut, though able to survive, imagines himself as disabled by the hostile Martian environment.

C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur series features the hani, non-human viewpoint characters whose norms form the narrative background.  Though humanoid, hani bodies have some key differences from the human norm, such as claws and fur.  When a human character joins a hani ship, he is unable to operate the controls for the simple reason that they are recessed, designed to be operated only by beings with claws at the end of their digits, as described in 1986’s The Kif Strike Back (The Chanur Saga 529).  To function as part of the crew, he has to use prosthetics, as would any human.  This is an environment where all humans are functionally impaired.

The transformations of impairment status that characters undergo in these novels – from non-impaired to impaired, or vice versa – though the body itself has not changed, demonstrates the extent to which impairment is created by features of the physical environment.  As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “Stairs disable people who need to use wheelchairs to get around, but ramps let them go places freely” (524).  As a tool for political change, the social model of disability insists that rather than being something inherent to the individual, disability is created by barriers in society which disable a person.  The disability is created by barriers in the environment – which can include attitudinal barriers as well as architectural ones.  What I’d like to suggest is that the alternative environments presented in some science fiction offer opportunities to depict the social model in action – that these texts offer, in some sense, a literalization of the social model.  By demonstrating that a person’s, or community’s, status can change from impaired to non-impaired, and vice-versa, depending on the environment they are placed into, these texts show clearly that disability is not only a matter of individual bodies, but about the relationship of bodies to particular environments.

Changing identities: technological enhancement

If what a person can and cannot do might be changed depending on the environment they are in, another cause for change might be through changes to the body itself.  Advanced technology is a staple of the science fiction genre.  The modification of bodies by the addition or application of technology, whether to enhance physical abilities, adapt to particular environments, or simply to express individuality, appears from the very earliest pulp magazine stories to the present.  Transformed, augmented, and sometimes transcended, human bodily form is unstable in science fiction.  In William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), one character features only as an electronic recording of his personality, a new form of existence that leaves the body behind.  In Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1997), most of the human race have left the physical world and live in virtual “polises,” able to change their avatars at will.


Sometimes these bodily transformations come in the context of disability – Luke’s bionic hand in the Star Wars films being one obvious example.  But while prostheses often become simply invisible, restoring the character to ‘normal’ status, I’d like to talk about a couple of examples where that’s not the case.


Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide (1991) features a character whose eyes have been replaced with prosthetic ones after a laser accident.  Not only do his artificial eyes allow Olhado to see again, but he also chooses to have a jack implanted in one of them, meaning that he can record anything he sees and download it onto computer for others to watch.  Like Oscar Pistorious and his cheetah foot prostheses, such depictions challenge our ideas of what constitutes ‘disability’ and the values associated with it.  If the person with an impairment, using a prosthesis, has an ability that is potentially or actually superior to the ‘normal’ human body, what does this do to the way we think about disability?


PPT ‘Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo’, a short story by John Varley from 1986, also features hi-tech prosthetics.  As the story progresses, we learn the history of one of the secondary characters, Megan Galloway – this is a quote: PPT


“Megan Galloway had broken her neck while still in her teens.  She became part of the early development of a powered exoskeleton, research that had led to the hideously expensive and beautiful Golden Gypsy, of which only one was ever built.  It abolished wheelchairs and crutches for her.  It returned her to life, in her own mind, and it made her a celebrity.”


The celebrity part arises from the fact that learning to use an exoskeleton develops particular skills: an extraordinary ability in a new technology, ‘emotional recording’, that is at the heart of the future entertainment industry.  The disabled people who have learned to use exoskeletons become stars, and PPT ‘The world was briefly treated to the sight of quadriplegics dominating a new art form’ (380).

Here we have a situation that unsettles the negative connotations of disability, where the combination of disability and prosthesis endows a person with a superior ability to their ‘able-bodied’ counterparts.  In her landmark study of disability in literature, Rosemarie Garland Thomson responds to the overwhelmingly negative conceptualisation of bodies that differ from the norm by terming such bodies “extraordinary bodies.”  Thomson’s choice of language offers an alternative way of conceptualising physical difference: the disabled body not as deviant or defective but as unusual or remarkable, with the difference from the norm understood positively rather than negatively.

Galloway makes a fortune, and ultimately regains some mobility when neurological research she has funded makes a breakthrough.  The cure aspect of this story might lead us to dismiss it – though there are texts that explore the issue of ‘curing’ or eradicating particular conditions in a nuanced and sensitive way (I’m thinking in particular of Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark which explores a potential treatment for autism), in general texts which feature the erasure of impairment do so in a way that simply reinforces negative attitudes towards disability.  But there’s more going on in the John Varley story than this.  At the start of the story Megan Galloway has already had her treatment, but the first description of her is this:

‘her upper body was traced by quite lovely filigree of gilded, curving lines.  It was some sort of a tattoo, and it was all that was left of the machine called the Golden Gypsy’.

Galloway has chosen to have a physical reminder of the exoskeleton tattooed on her body – a choice to highlight, rather than conceal, the extraordinariness of her body.  Despite still having a degree of mobility impairment, there are presumably situations where Galloway could “pass” as nondisabled if she chose to do so. In deciding to have the tattoo, limiting her ability to pass, Galloway foregrounds her cyborg status and resists normalization.  Such a choice suggests a future where “disabled” is not a stigmatized label but a valuable social identity.  As such, Galloway is an illustration of the possibilities science fiction offers for challenging and reconceptualising disability and the values attached to it.


So what?

It’s easy to see how some of these representations raise the ‘so what’ question: why should I care?  What does this matter for me as a disabled person, an ill person, an ally, a family member?  There’s no denying that the disabled (human) characters in science fiction texts appear against a background quite different from our own.  SF’s disabled characters may belong to human cultures that interact with aliens, conduct research on the surface of Mars, or live in colonies on the Moon.  The disabled characters in SF may not be human at all.  Why, then, should those of us who are concerned with removing barriers in the real world care about what happens in a context so removed from our own, so determinedly unreal?


Firstly (and perhaps least interestingly), these texts offer a window into contemporary attitudes.  PPT I’ve highlighted examples where authors do interesting and thought-provoking things with their depiction of disability, but in a lot of science fiction works, disabled people are simply absent.  It is assumed that a society with advanced technology will have eradicated impairment – that in an advanced technology no one will need to be disabled.  The larger implication of this is, of course, that impairment is a problem in need of a solution, that no one would ever be impaired if they had the choice, and that nonstandard bodies are only ever a bad thing.  The fact that we are now seeing more texts with disabled characters featuring prominently – such as the novels of Lois McMaster Bujold – is an indication of a greater degree of awareness of disability as a social issue.


Secondly, while the scenarios and technologies featured in these texts may not be with us now – and in some cases will never exist – it is true that the genre offers a way of thinking through the implications of technological advances. PPT As a genre that asks ‘what if?’, it provides a space for thinking through the potential implications of new treatments, bodily modifications, new technologies.  This imaginative engagement, I think, can potentially make us better able as a society to deal with changes in the social systems around health and medicine – a space in which we can explore what the implications of new developments might be.


Thirdly, to read these books involves an encounter with an alternative normative system – PPT a world that thinks “disability” differently.  Science fiction isn’t straightforwardly predictive.  These authors aren’t suggesting that amputees or people with paralysis will live in zero gravity environments in the future, or that visually impaired people will have hi-tech prosthetic eyes – or that they should want to.  But the representations of disability we encounter in our day to day lives, including fiction, do have an influence on the world.  As David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder write, “Readers and viewers find their own personal interpretations of disability inevitably influenced by their imaginative encounters with disabled people in fictional works” (Mitchell and Snyder 42).


Where I think science fiction is particularly useful is that it’s a genre that’s founded on change – on presenting worlds that are different from the one the author is writing from.  As Sherryl Vint writes, PPT science fiction “is a discourse that allows us to concretely imagine bodies and selves otherwise” (19).    I’ve already suggested that these depictions can foreground the ways in which disability can be created by barriers in the environment.  More broadly, though, that encounter with a world where disability means differently is valuable because it encourages readers and viewers to reflect upon their own understanding of disability.  I’m not assuming a straightforward influence – read this book and your prejudices will disappear!  Rather, I’m talking about the potentials these works might have in terms of encouraging reflection upon beliefs and values that otherwise might not be questioned.  When I visited the Niet Normaal exhibition that forms the centre of this festival, it seems to me that what many of the works are trying to do is not to prescribe a set of acceptable beliefs – but rather to encourage us to reflect upon the ways we think about health, illness, and disability.  In their different ways, the books I’ve talked about today are doing a very similar thing – though their presentation of worlds where things work differently they encourage a critical reflection.  We also shouldn’t discount the fact that they do this for a broad general audience that isn’t necessarily already engaged with disability issues.  Writing not about disability in particular but about science fiction in general, Patrick Parrinder suggests that PPT “by imagining strange worlds we come to see our own conditions of life in a new and potentially revolutionary perspective” (Parrinder 4).  I think that anything that encourages that kind of critical reflection is worth valuing.  Thank you.


If you’re interested in exploring this further, on my final slide I’ve listed some science fiction books that I think do interesting things around disability and illness, and I’d be happy to talk about that with people individually later if they’d like.

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