"writers are going to get it wrong, and that’s okay"
April 17, 2014 2:24 PM   Subscribe

"This is specifically challenging in science fiction and fantasy, where there are often so many ways to heal someone–from super-science to ancient sorcery. And yet there are issues with miracle cures in fiction. For one thing, they rob disability of its narrative power. For another, they play into the problematic narrative that people with a disability somehow “deserve” it." -- Elizabeth Bear talks about writing characters with disabilities in science fiction and fantasy in a guest post for Sarah Chorn's Special Needs in Strange Worlds column.
In this SF Signal column, Sarah Chorn explores how fantasy and science fiction treat disability, through reading lists, author interviews and the examination of characters with disabilities like Tyrion Lannister.
posted by MartinWisse (26 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

The Arisians consider all most every race to be disabled. So in a sense all science fiction characters are disabled in one way or another. From a certain fictional alien viewpoint.
posted by sammyo at 3:25 PM on April 17, 2014

posted by happyroach at 3:27 PM on April 17, 2014

How well is this addressed in other media? I'm thinking characters like Joker in Mass Effect, Barbara Gordon in the Batman comics, Vriess in Alien 4, etc.

These three seem to be ok, from what I remember (as much as I've tried to blot Alien 4 from my mind), but I have a suspicion that generally, special needs characters get short shrift in TV and Movies of all genre, SFF included.

I would also mention Gestra Ishmethit from Excession. He has extreme social anxiety and is happiest by himself. He is offered a "miracle cure" that would allow him to feel more comfortable with groups and feel less of a desire to be alone. He refuses this, realizing that it would fundamentally change who he is and instead chooses to live by himself in what is essentially a giant mothballed ship hanger, happy to spend his days alone.

happyroach, that just made me twitch. (I remember where it is from)
posted by Hactar at 4:14 PM on April 17, 2014

I was totally on board the first 75% of her essay but I don't get where she is coming from on the "deserve" part. How does possessing the technology to cure many disabilities imply that people with disabilities deserve it any more than our ability to use casts implies that you deserved your broken arm?
posted by Justinian at 4:25 PM on April 17, 2014

How does possessing the technology to cure many disabilities imply that people with disabilities deserve it any more than our ability to use casts implies that you deserved your broken arm?

It's the "miracle cure" thing that I think she's talking about - that the narrative provides a great and miraculous healing for the people who play through the storyline, so to speak, so anyone who doesn't obviously just doesn't want to be healed enough to be bothered. A civilization where the cure is common enough to avoid that trap tends not to be one with the concept of "disability" in that area at all.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:44 PM on April 17, 2014

I like her point about Tyrion - and Miles Vorkosigan: they are interesting characters because their disabilities are not erased by either science or magic. They have to strive and deal with their disabilities, which make for good stories.

I'm interested in more books about characters like that. Not blind seers who just might just as well be sighted but actually disabled characters whose physical or mental differences present serious challenges to their lives. Recently I read a good historical novel about someone with aphasia following a stroke - just as happens today, his inability to speak is taken by many as an indication that his cognition is impaired, and he has to fight for recognition that he's still there.
posted by jb at 6:02 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Everyone is disabled in some way - we all know people who have abilities we covet but do not have - and that mix of what we can and cannot do is part of our character. Disability as part of our culture kicks in when the majority of people can do something that the disabled cannot.

Science fiction, I think more so than fantasy, is about differences. It's about cultural disjoints, about the normal set against the strange, testing the given against the unknown. It is the proper house literature of the surreal. How disabled was Neil Armstrong on the moon? If that ascent engine had failed, he and Aldrin could no more live there than a quadriplegic could survive a flood. The Apollo project selected for as near as dammit perfect humans for that task, and then put them into a place where they were crippled, utterly dependent. That's pretty surreal, and Apollo was straight out of hard SF.

Which is to say, I don't think well-written SF has any more problem with or responsibility towards representing the disabled than any other form of fiction. Which is to say, it has problems and responsibilities it does not meet well, in general, but I can't really see that there's a specific bone to gnaw here. Good SF, on the other hand, has its own chances to do something rather good in terms of depicting the nature of disability in the human character, because that's what it can make of any of us, in ways that other literature perhaps cannot.
posted by Devonian at 6:18 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think that the development of a panacea that eliminates all possible sources of disability regardless of origin or economic disparity is roughly on the same order of handwavium as interstellar travel within a narrative frame. I do think that in many cases, cybernetics will offer different abilities and perspectives. Some of those perspectives may be superhuman in some respects, but still awkward in ways in a world built for a human-normal majority.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:28 PM on April 17, 2014

CBrachyrhynchos: "... regardless of origin or economic disparity ..."

There's a paragraph in Neuromancer that does a nice quick job of implying a world and the economic side of its "corrections", I reckon.
The bartender's smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it. The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic. "You are too much the artiste, Herr Case." Ratz grunted; the sound served him as laughter. He scratched his overhang of white-shirted belly with the pink claw.
posted by barnacles at 8:08 PM on April 17, 2014

Everyone is disabled in some way - we all know people who have abilities we covet but do not have

This is a very idiosyncratic and I feel inaccurate definition of disability. The gulf between being able to do something that someone, even many people can do (e.g. read music), and being unable to do something that you are expected to be able to do is gigantic.

In my experience disabilities define you in a way lack of ability does not.
posted by smoke at 8:32 PM on April 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I mostly agree but I'd say "affect you" rather than "define you". Someone missing a leg is greatly affected but not necessarily defined.
posted by Justinian at 8:46 PM on April 17, 2014

All this moralising about disability makes me very angry. Disability doesn't define you; it's an inconvenience. That's what was nice about the Joker scene in Mass Effect 2, where he has to get out of his seat and walk a short distance to save the ship. I can point to that scene and say there you go, that's what it is to be disabled - a lot of frustration. That and well-intentioned people talking about experiences they haven't shared and what they 'mean' in a manner I find really quite degrading. The real problem is the people who make the definitions and decide what's normal. They're the ones that define you.
posted by chrisgregory at 9:04 PM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I just came here to moon over Miles, that insanely chaotic genius dwarf with charisma.
posted by infini at 1:27 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

The real problem is the people who make the definitions and decide what's normal. They're the ones that define you.

Apologies if my comment was misconstrued; this is precisely what I meant - society defines.
posted by smoke at 1:30 AM on April 18, 2014

I just came here to moon over Miles, that insanely chaotic genius dwarf with charisma.

God, I love Miles. But I am sort of glad I can put his books down because I feel like he is also the most exhausting person in the universe. I am still amazed that Bujold created a wife for him who feels totally realistic and possible and is actually a good match for him.
posted by kalimac at 2:37 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure much of the latter bits of the series are various people up to and including the Emperor finding ways to channel Miles' exhausting troubleseeking behavior in productive fashion. As much as I love the series I think the whole Imperial Auditor thing is a little contrived. How convenient that there happens to exist a position which exactly and precisely provides a niche into which Miles perfectly fits.
posted by Justinian at 2:46 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

A central conflict of the Vorkosigan universe is that there is a cure for Miles's birth condition (cloning and brain transplantation), but it's regarded by the protagonists as deeply immoral.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:52 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mark's very existence being the perfect example of that moral dilemma and that his "mother", being Betan, simply accepts him as her son, immediately.
posted by infini at 5:31 AM on April 18, 2014

At this point I have to give a shout-out to the Escape Pod story "Inappropriate Behavior". It does a good job of showing how an autistic child could see the world, and the great barriers to communication with NTs they face, even when a life is on the line.
posted by happyroach at 7:15 AM on April 18, 2014

I don't think there's any ambiguity regarding Mark's (a clone of series hero, Miles) humanity. A big moral theme for Bujold is that people have rights regardless of whether they've been cloned, genetically engineered, and/or birthed from a uterine replicator, and those technologies are the foundations of some of the cultures encountered. Mark doesn't come close to the weirdest human in Bujold's universe, except psychologically. Any reticence regarding family membership comes from the fact that he's the equivalent of a long-lost bastard (not to mention crazy and dangerous.)

I think Bujold retcons the issue of healthy siblings for Miles from "could not" to "did not for the sake of Miles." There's just too many reproductive alternatives described over the course of the series, especially after we're introduced to Lord Dono's vat-grown testicles.

While infanticide is given a tiny bit of respect as a relic of darker times, there's not any sympathy given for rich guys who kill their clone-children for the sake of getting a new body.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:36 AM on April 18, 2014

Am I the only person who got a little sick of Miles? He's disabled -- but he's brilliant, and rich, and generally likeable, and able to get what he wants, and manages only to sleep with gorgeous women who are absolutely not disabled.
posted by jeather at 8:37 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sergeant Taura might fall under the differently abled category.
posted by infini at 9:11 AM on April 18, 2014

we're introduced to Lord Dono's vat-grown testicles

Made me smile thinking of Ivan's horror ;p
posted by infini at 9:12 AM on April 18, 2014

Disability doesn't define you; it's an inconvenience.

Yes and no. My diagnosis of an ASD refers to traits that were pretty pervasive in the development of my personality, and while the environmental sensitivities are a bother, as is the inability to get some social cues right ever, my ability to perceive things as fun and pleasurable is also determined by how my brain assembled itself.

I do find the way that autistic people are depicted in stories tends to drive me up the wall. We're all written so impossibly droney and repetitive in our own heads, like the idea of some of the communication patterns are turned up to 11, while our behaviour tends to get this quirky "aw, the wicked neurotypicals don't understand the little innocent rock sorter!" in fiction. As if ASD people have no capacity to be petty and malicious. We have perception differences, we're not robot pixies.
posted by Phalene at 1:00 PM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yep, disability ranges from a minor inconvenience to cripplingly life-altering. Disability is a range of conditions not one thing.
posted by Justinian at 1:07 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really liked how, just as Miles was finally coming to grips with his challenges and things were getting (too?) easy, Bujold threw him for a loop with a new challenge.
posted by jb at 8:16 AM on April 19, 2014

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