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Friday Five: 5 Positive Representations of Disability in SF

This week's Friday Five guest is Kathryn Allan, scholar, blogger and co-editor of the upcoming Accessing the Future (more on that below - or just click here and get to supportin'). As Accessing the Future is a new anthology themed around disability in SF/F, we asked Kathryn if she could provide any existing reading recommendations.

Salt Fish GirlIt is really easy to find examples of disability done poorly in SF: people with disabilities are constantly being “cured,” modified to be either “normal” or “superhuman” (see cyborgs), or erased from future worlds through genetic engineering (a.k.a., eugenics). It is much more difficult to find good examples of disability representation in SF, but there are notable stories out there and it’s important that we acknowledge them. Instead of playing “spot the disabled person”—which is often the starting point for people just beginning to think about disability in science fiction (or in any genre for that matter)—I want to highlight five stories that present atypical and non-normative experiences of embodiment in creative, engaging, and thought-provoking ways. Technology is not always wanted or accessible as a “cure all.” People with disabilities can be three-dimensional characters! Each of the five stories on my list of “good disability in SF examples” examines the complex diversity of human bodies and minds.

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai (2002)

Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl is a beautifully written exploration of difference, vulnerability, community, and biotechnology (cloning). The book starts with the snake-bodied Nu Wa (the creator goddess in ancient Chinese mythology) desiring to leave her underwater existence and walk amongst the people she created. Her transformation to a two-legged being is agonizing, and she navigates the human world in pain but with a curiosity to know the entire human experience (and so falls in love with a fisherman’s daughter). Nu Wa’s story intersects with that of Miranda in 2044 Canadian Pacific Northwest, who also is marked by difference: Miranda stinks like durian fruit. Her durian-odor seeps into all aspects of her family’s life, who love her but repeatedly try to rid her of her pungent smell. Miranda finds belonging (and love) among a group of cloned factory workers, who are themselves unusual bodies deemed (and ruthlessly exploited) as something other than human. Throughout Salt Fish Girl, Lai challenges the medicalization (and resulting dehumanization) of bodies that do not conform to idealized standards, and offers a vision of community that purposefully replicates difference.

Up-against-itUp Against It (2012) by Morgan J. Locke

Set in the far future, humans have colonized the reaches of space in Morgan J. Locke’s hard SF novel, Up Against It. In this universe, people are modified to live and work in extreme environments, and the human life span is now hundreds of years, but Locke takes care to demonstrate both the benefits and the dangers inherent in such a future. The novel’s main protagonist, Jane Navio (just over a hundred years old and in her prime!), is the resource manager of Phocaea, an asteroid colony under attack from a criminal organization. Jane must figure out how to save the main colony station from disaster as she tries to make sense of a voice that only she can hear. In addition to the compelling human drama, Locke weaves in a complimentary narrative of a “feral sapient” (an emergent AI), that further challenges the definitions of intelligent life. Ultimately, Up Against It is a fantastic exploration of autonomy, agency, and how we decide, as a community and as individuals, which lives get to be counted as worthwhile.

Ascension (2013) by Jacqueline Koyanagi

A fun, fast paced space opera that stars Alana Quick, a ship engineer (sky surgeon) with a chronic illness (the fictional Mel’s Disorder) who kicks ass, takes names, and fights her way through space with the crew of the Tangled Axon. From the start of Ascension, Jacqueline Koyanagi makes it clear that Alana’s body hurts, that her brain gets foggy, and that it’s only regular doses of a medicine that keeps her chronic disease from grounding her completely. Unlike so many other SF novels that might include one character with a disability as a nod to inclusion, Alana is not the only person in Ascension who lives with a disability: Alana’s aunt, Lai, also has Mel’s disorder: the Tangled Axon’s captain, Tev Helix, has a prosthetic leg (she was injured in a manufacturing accident); the ship’s chief engineer, Ovie, is a human/wolf; and the pilot has a body that literally fades in and out of existence. The crew of the Tangled Axon works together as a family unit, and a good part of the narrative involves Alana figuring out just where she fits in. Koyanagi’s debut novel shows that while chronic illness clearly impacts Alana’s life, it doesn’t have to dictate the choices she makes about her future.

“The Promise of Space” (2013) by James Patrick Kelly

A heart-wrenching story about watching a loved one slowly slip away, “The Promise of Space” places the cool technology of cyberpunk in the mundane setting of the hospital ICU unit. Using the structure of a disjointed conversation between a younger wife and her dying astronaut husband, James Patrick Kelly does an admirable job of troubling our ever increasing reliance on technology as a communication and documentation tool by opening up the moment when it can no longer act as a bridge between people. A wonderful gem of story that deals with end-of-life disability, go read it here.

Sister-mineSister Mine (2013) by Nalo Hopkinson

While Nalo Hopkinson has a number of stories, short and long, that would be well at home in this list, her recent novel Sister Mine is a great example of how a narrative can play with both disability and magic without reducing a character’s uniqueness to their atypical body or mind (like the stereotypical blind character who can “see” with a mystical sixth sense). Born as conjoined twins (who are surgically separated), Makeda and Abby are daughters of a celestial demigod father and a human mother. Each sister deals with a different disability in their particular half-human-half-god world: Abby has a limp and uses a cane to get around, while Makeda struggles with being closer to a “normal” human - in a family of gods, Makeda doesn’t have the same “mojo” as her sister. Desiring independence, Makeda strikes out on her own and encounters an outside world that offers her as many opportunities as it does challenges. It’s through the relationships she makes with the people (of all types of physical and magical ability) in her life that she discovers where her own talents and strengths lie. Sister Mine reminds the reader that we can be both strong independent individuals as well as interdependent members of a family (whether it be the one we were born into or the one we choose).

Kathryn Allan is an independent scholar of science fiction and disability studies. She is editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013, Palgrave Macmillan), and she tweets and blogs as Bleeding Chrome. Currently, she is running a crowdfunding campaign for a disability-themed SF anthology, Accessing the Future, co-edited with the fabulous Djibril al-Ayad (of The Future Fire). Please support their campaign here.