Even in science fiction and fantasy, ‘real world’ characterisations of disability are still stereotyped, where they exist at all.
As a fan of science fiction and fantasy – genres which most often ask ‘what if?’ in more playful and profound ways – Leah Hobson asks, where are the ‘good’ disability stories?
Our humanity is something we expect to see reflected and explored when we dive into a story. We want to see all the elements of our lives writ large – the happy, sad and the strange. Sometimes we want to ask the kind of ‘what if?’ questions that can’t be answered by real life. We should then expect to see disability, as a part of life, reflected in all of our stories with just as much complexity and diversity as every other human experience. But it isn’t. And as a fan of science fiction and fantasy – genres which most often ask ‘what if?’ in more playful and profound ways – I notice the dearth of ‘good’ stories about disability.
Science fiction and fantasy depictions begin with ‘real’ humans and their ‘real’ stereotypes. If a character is portrayed with any sort of disability, a realistic depiction means you’re typically male, and you’re typically either bound to a bitter and/or evil existence with a good dose of sexual openness thrown in just to really show you’re evil (for example, Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones and Scorpius from Farscape). Alternatively, your loss of ability leads you to be that little bit more heroic and pitiable (like Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer after he loses his eye to a psychotic priest, or the blind empath in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn, or the ink-feeling, sonically enhanced Daredevil).
You’ll notice another distinction here: not only are we in a genre where men have visible disabilities and women mostly don’t, we’re also facing a trope that says physical disability sends you evil but blindness makes you good. Disability hierarchy, anyone?
Of course, not all disabilities are visible, and sci-fi and fantasy do recognise that. There are a lot of mental health issues shown in both genres, and on the surface gender equality seems to reign supreme. I’ll see your Gaius in Battlestar Galactica, your Davros in Doctor Who, and raise you a River Tam in Firefly and a River Song in Doctor Who. They’re all a little bit mad, though you could argue that River Tam has an acquired brain injury and post traumatic stress, not a mental illness, and who knows what’s actually causing Gaius’s hallucinations?
But the big difference I see is in the way men and women handle their altered mental states: the men go for power, whether that’s taking over the colony or taking over the universe Voldemort style, and the women retreat from it, almost literally swapping Jane Eyre’s attic hideaway for a spaceship hold or space prison. Men also tend to go mad in ‘logical’ ways: they succumb to the idea that science or machinery will solve their problems (Cybermen, Frankenstein’s monster) while women are overwhelmed by emotional concerns or a lack of power. Bad Willow in Buffy experiences both.
I wanted to segue here to something about fantastic reality, which is my way of describing ‘the knack Terry Pratchett has for beautifully capturing real life in a completely unreal setting’, but then I started to try and think about the disabled characters in Pratchett’s books. And I realised that – although I haven’t read all the Discworlds – I’m coming up short.
You have the beggars, including Blind Hugh, who can see gold, and Crumbling Michael, who gets a promotion in the Beggar’s Guild because he has a non-contagious skin disease. They add a lot to the medieval feel of the books, but you don’t see any major characters with disabilities, full stop, let alone disabilities which are incidental. You could say the orcs and trolls have intellectual disability, and they’re integrated into, um, the police force. You could talk about Angua’s disability as a werewolf-cop. You could possibly describe the Librarian as having a communication disability because he’s an orangutan, but somehow that doesn’t seem to count either. The truth is, everyone in Pratchett novels is slightly off-kilter, but very few characters in the pantheon seem to be actually disabled.
It’s a bit like the trope of ‘no disabled passengers in a colony ship’. I mean, come on. As if you’d want people with disability on a ship going to build a new world! Nobody is going to acquire a disability and then need the valuable insight a person with lived experience might provide. You certainly don’t find people with disabilities out there who have in-depth knowledge in fields like astrophysics that might come in handy on a colonising mission… nope, you wouldn’t pick Stephen Hawking for a job like that. (Even that’s a trope – mind only wins over body if you’re incredibly smart, just like Bean in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Even then you don’t win the way fully able, totally unambiguous, heroes do.)
So our ‘real world’ characterisations of disability – among those who are basically human, basically on Earth – are pretty stereotyped, where they exist at all. Is it different when we start asking ‘what if?’ questions in science fiction in particular? Surely that’s where you should get some interesting and complex discussions of disability as we look at the divides between humans and genetic creations, humans and machines, humans and downloadable consciousness.
You’d think so, anyway.
Let’s start with genetic or biological changes. There’s a preoccupation with not living longer than healthy youth will allow, and whether or not this is a good thing for future humanity. The creators of the Dome world in Logan’s Run seemed to think it was, and so did Glenn, the creator of the Crakers in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy. But neither story leads to explicit questions about that value judgement: the Dome people end up leaving the protection of their sphere for something intangibly defined as ‘better’, but that’s because it’s not stratified and doesn’t involve people ritualistically killing each other at the age of thirty. The Crakers don’t have to kill each other, they just drop dead, but after it’s first mentioned the fact never comes up again; it’s as though questions of mortality and the contrast in physical frailty between humans and Crakers are swept aside. Likewise, the children of the Logan’s Run dome leave their ‘die at thirty’ rules behind when they leave the Dome, but we don’t see anything of the ramifications except that they frolic around on the beach a bit.
So, how easy is it to talk openly about disability in sci-fi? It’s easy if you’re talking about magic solutions for medical problems, which is what transhumanism does.
Transhumanism can be one of several things: the merger between humans and machines is probably the one that’s been around the longest. Here you’ll find the Borgs and the Daleks, clearly ‘other’ than human, and imbued with a lack of individuality that is probably designed to make us feel better about their alien natures and perhaps less thoughtful about people with disability in the process. They are logical and all consuming because they lack compassion; what does that say about how our views of people with mechanically augmented hearing or vision or brain functionality will evolve? They’re also profoundly masculine, which reinforces the idea that if you’re a guy and you acquire a disability the only way to respond is by shutting your emotions off. The most notable example I can think of is when we see a Dalek humanised, its companion Rose Tyler who approaches it in the museum-cum-prison under Texas, not the fabled Doctor. Later attempts to merge ‘human’ traits with Dalek fundamentalism fail miserably.
Having said all that, the closer you get to integration with computers (and to ‘hard’ science fiction), the more creative the human and machine hybrids seem to become. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson features a paraplegic who morphs himself with a bus. I guess that’s one way of getting around inaccessible buildings. It’s also empowering: there’s a virtual world to retreat into if you want, but this character has made the choice not to do that.
Charles Stross’s Glasshouse takes it a step further: what if you could choose your body, and mend it at any given time? Special machines let you ‘die’ in battle and then upload yourself again. You can also do a complete bodily re-write: come back as man or woman, half beast or half machine. Nothing has been lost, it seems, except physical imperfection. What matters more is your consciousness, and even your memories can be re-written. Stross is incredibly good at looking at the ramifications of hiding your own trauma from yourself, and of the not-so-good adjustments you might have to go through in jumping from body to body. To say more would spoil the book, but if you want something that does future body perceptions without making it simply magical, this is a good place to start.
What Stross doesn’t cover is how you might have different levels of machine-human hybrids in place at once, and what it might mean for society. In Diaspora, Greg Egan builds a world with genetically modified but still embodied ‘fleshers’, Gleisners (human consciousnesses uploaded into robotic bodies) and digital only consciousnesses that inhabit digital cities, and exist only in computer operated machines. The story is told from the point of view of Yatima, a computer-only consciousness, who has no understanding of the fleshers and sees the Gleisners as clumsy and odd. Bodies are troublesome, they make us vulnerable, the story seems to say. Doing away with bodily imperfection is a good thing, and creates a divide that isn’t so much about advantage as vast differences; it’s a bit like the idea of us understanding apes. But there’s also no computer-based equivalent of disability: the artificial intelligences aren’t dealing with data decay because they re-write copies of themselves, or save at certain points. That means no experience can traumatise them. No imperfections need to be kept, and no computer based life form seems to choose imperfection or trauma as a way of enriching experience.
Is it fair to say that there will be no disability once consciousness or creating bodies is done by machines? I’m not sure it is, and I feel like the science fiction writing community is, by and large, taking the easy way out by not exploring it further. Is it fair to say that most people would choose to avoid the things that can lead to disability – trauma, physical imperfection – if they could? That’s probably more true, but it doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be anomalies. Anyone who has seen Gattaca knows that.
Hopefully the poor – and fairly stereotypical – attitudes towards disability will change in science fiction and fantasy as they change in the world as a whole, and as writers, producers and creators of the stories I love become more diverse in background. These days, consumers of science fiction and fantasy have some great ways to make sure their voices are heard: there are fan forums on the net for just about everything, fans themselves write fiction and some fans attend conventions where they get to speak to creators directly. If we want the genre to change, we have to make sure all of these options are accessible to real people with disabilities, not just the happily augmented, not just the easily pigeonholed.
Leah Hobson is a public servant, Labrador wrangler and wine drinker, usually in that order.Read the full story... (off-site)
- Accessibility, Access, Inclusion
- Leah Hobson~
- ABC Ramp Up
- Date published:
- Fri 18th Oct, 2013