Book Review: Shattering Ableist Narratives (JoSelle Vanderhooft, Ed.)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Like the inhabitants of Dr. Moreau's island, Shattering Ableist Narratives (Volume 7 of the WisCon Chronicles) is a strange animal. Part insightful analysis of the intersection of science fiction writing with disability, and part insider shop-talk, it does not quite seem to know whether it wants to burrow or fly. No doubt, there were a set of historical precedents constraining editor JoSelle Vanderhooft, and publisher Aqueduct Press making it tough for them to decide just who their intended audience was. That is unfortunate, because even as a special issue volume, Shattering Ableist Narratives includes the work of a number of writers – most notably s.e. smith, Nisi Shawl and Kathryn Allan – whose voices deserve to be heard by the disability studies community and whose work has much to contribute to disability literature.

For those interested in the importance of science fiction to the genre of disability literature, a great entrance into Vanderhooft's collection are the two essays by s.e. smith. In the first "Defining Disability in a World that Fears Disability", smith lays out a primer for those jumping into a world of disability for the first time. Despite the polemic implied by the title, its an even-keeled approach. As smith points out, the major bifurcation in disability discourse is between those who follow the medical model seeing disability as an individual problem and those who view disability as a social construction that surrounds impairment.

Smith takes pains to point out, however, that the disabilities community itself is not a monolith. A "queer woman of color who uses a wheelchair for mobility" is not necessarily on the same page as "a conventionally attractive white Deaf woman." Those who are capable of passing (i.e. being viewed by the non-disabled as "normal") may look at themselves as higher on the disability hierarchy while those with obvious visible disabilities may resent the former for representing themselves as spokespersons for the disability community. As with all movements that originate in attempts to advocate justice for those it represents and end up insisting on solidarity, "the disability movement can at times be prescriptive about the relationships individuals are allowed to have with their disabilities and does not provide room for people who feel differently." Acknowledging that it is not just a case of "let's all just get along," smith does make the case for a broader movement in which "there is no true way to feel about disabled bodies and the experience with disability." She has a point.

All of this is background – but necessary background – for her second essay in the book "To Go Where No Ism Has Gone Before: Disability at the Final Frontier." It is in this essay that smith begins to do with science fiction and speculative literature the kind of archaeology that disabilities scholars like Rosemarie Garland Thompson, Lennard Davis and David Mitchell have done for literature in general. As Thompson in particular has pointed out, ableism, often in the guise of science, has a history of eliminationism, that is, trying to wipe disability out rather than deal with it. Smith rehearses this history and also the origins of the disabilities rights movement that challenges it. The Utopian worlds that SF often pictures are continuations of the eugenics movements in which those with disabilities are simply absent. As Smith puts it "in a perfect world there is no place for imperfect bodies." When physical disability does appear it generally is done in such a way that it reinforces the old stereotypes of villains represented by their non-ableist bodies. Even in the rare instance of the protagonist who does have a disability like Miles Vorkosigan in the Louis McMaster Bujold Vorkosigan saga, he is "the cripple who won't let anything stop him…the isolated loner who doesn't want advice or help from anyone." He's the High Plains Drifter of the future. Utopian visions of the future, as conceived in SF novels, are predicated upon the notion that disability has been eliminated; it is only in those dystopias where the structure of society has broken down that disability still exists. As for disability in fantasy, smith points out that it is virtually absent, "unless a disabled evil villain is needed or a tragically disabled young girl is needed to drive the plotline." In either case, as Mitchell points out in his concept of narrative prosthesis, disability must be eliminated by the time the story ends.

If s.e. smith provides us with the general geography against which to look at disability and science fiction, Nisi Shawl and Kathryn Allan bring this point of view into a more local focus. In her short essay "Invisible Inks: On Black SF Authors and Disability", Shawl discusses the dual problem of inclusion for people of color in both disability studies and in science fiction writing. Repeating smith's refrain that difference is not monolithic, one also sounded by Chris Bell in the disability studies literature. Where disability and science fiction intersect, Shawl can come up with four names – Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney (who are or were dyslexic) and Nalo Hopkinson and herself, who have fibromylagia. Even for those that suspected as much, this is an unbelievably small list. It also puts pressure upon Shawl herself to make sure that her work represents her identity as a black woman with a disability. That is one of the things she has attempted to do in her short story "Deep End," the only actual piece of fiction included in the anthology.

"Deep End" posits a future in which prisoners are punished by having their minds uploaded to bodies creative from the genetic materials of their captors and having their original bodies destroyed. In the story, its protagonist, Wayna experiences intense pain rising unexpectedly from the body into which she has been uploaded for which according to the doctors monitoring her there is no explanation. Reflecting on the origins of the story in her own body, Shawl comments in her essay:

the inexplicable pain I go thorugh has changed my relationship with my body, made me simultaneously more and less identified with my physical self. Intensity of sensation forces me to acknowledge that I don't just have a body, I am a body. Yet the mysteriousness of my disability's origin alienates me from my experience.

It's an ingenious metaphor for alienation.

With a single exception, Shattering Ableist Narratives represents the thoughts and work of women writers, and in "Theorizing Vulnerability in Feminist SF" Kathryn Allan has the perfect venue for discussing the role of women in science fiction. Early in her essay, Allan makes the connection between the feminist scholars that early on brought their voices to bear on disability studies and the feminist sci-fi writers that she studies by pointing to Susan Wendell's influential Rejected Bodies. Allan argues "Given that much of the existing criticism of the body in popular SF surrounds the issue of corporeal transformation or transcendence, corporeal feminism, influenced by feminist disability studies, offers a productive framework for investigating the anxieties that surround the cultural construction of the body." This is a pivotal idea and one that warrants further exploration in literary studies.

From this initial position, Allan's essay is basically divided into two parts. In the first, she calls on the work of Margarit Shildrick and Elizabeth Grosz to provide the theoretical foundation for the concept of corporeal feminism in light of which she wants to explore the possibilities for feminist contribution to science fiction. It's heady stuff that probably eludes even some of the anthology's contributors, but it also gives Allan's work credibility in the more ethereal realms of scholasticism.

Allan divides the work of female SF writers into two groups. Older work is represented by Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Octavia Butler's Kindred in whose work she sees the grounds for positing the body as a cultural construction, one that, especially for women of color, is visibly vulnerable. A surprising omission from this part of the discussion is Joanna Russ' The Female Man. Granted, Russ is not a woman of color, but her work certainly challenges concepts inherited from the male-dominated world of hard core sci-fi. Allan then discusses three feminist post-cyberpunk novels. Laura Mixon's Proxies, Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robbers and Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl are all novels that in some way attempt to respond to the fiction of the 19870's and 1980's and their visions of transcendence of the material body through technology. Allan asserts that feminist SF denies the reader the luxury of a better tomorrow as it is often only better for some because it will not deny the social, political and environmental problems of the time. It recognizes and accepts corporeal differences and vulnerability. In staking out a role for feminist SF, Allan concludes:

These narratives provide us with a starting pint in which disparate bodies might come together to tackle the increasing technological, political economic, social and environmental woes of today. It is only after we see ourselves in the vulnerable other that we can begin to fully appreciate our shared diversity and adaptability as we continue to evolve towards an uncertain future.

I've focused in this review on the work of the three writers discussed above because they illustrate, not only the importance of science and speculative fiction – too often discarded by scholars in the same breath with pulp fiction – as a potential wellspring from which to analyze social attitudes about disability, past and present, but as a genre that given its futuristic and alternative scenarios orientation is particularly positioned to counter negative images of disability in the future. Smith helps to give us the lay of the land that we need to explore, Allan provides us with a theoretical rationale for alternative ways of viewing, and Shawl shows us how to do it. They're a powerful triumvirate. Even so, there are a number of other selections in Vanderhooft's anthology that readers may want to take a look at.

Of all literary genres, science fiction is perhaps the one most adapted to making use of visual media – a field of great interest to disability scholars as well – and several writers in Shattering Ableist Narratives address portrayals of disability film and television. Lisa M. Bradley takes a look at how disability is handled in the television show, The Supernaturals, a show that Bradley notes from the outset is woven of gruff machismo. Her focus is on the wheelchair users in the show, and while it is a forgone conclusion that the only alternative for a real man in a wheelchair is to overcome his disability, her analysis is particularly interesting in its comparison of Bobby, the "good guy," and the villain Horseman Famine. Famine, "the rich predator enjoys luxury, including the top-of-the-line wheelchair. He is accommodated. He beams." while Bobby "denies himself emotional comfort or any physical accommodation beyond the bare minimum required for the job. He adapts. He never smiles." 'Nuff said.

The opportunities for the investigation of the role of SF and disabilities in film is illustrated in Andrea Hairston's look at Source Code in which the legless, armless torso of the barely surviving Colter Stevens, a helicopter shot down over Afghanistan becomes the portal through which a parallel universe can be accessed that allows military techno-wizards to be able to stop a terrorist from blowing up a train. None of this is under Stevens conscious control, his body is merely the medicalized and electronified site through which those with power and control are able to accomplish their own visions. As Hairston's title, "Disappearing Natives: The Colonized Body is Monstrous," implies, she sees Stevens' body as an apt metaphor for the exploitation of humanity by the monolithic capitalistic and technologically oriented society that is determined to make their vision, their story prevail. It's an enticing trope drawn from a fascinating movie scenario. Hairston's thesis:"The stories we tell (in every format) tell us how to be, shaping the stories we then tell." It is also a major postulate of disability literature as a genre.

Sixty percent of the anthology (three sections out of five) is taken up with matters pertaining to the WisCon Conference. These include guest of honor speeches, conference policies (particularly accessibility), and reviews of panel discussions. For those who bought the book based upon the promise of its title, this is likely to prove a major disappointment. Nevertheless, there are some pieces in these sections that readers who purchased the book under this misconception may still find worthwhile. Among the rehashes of panel discussions, BC Holmes piece "I was born the day I began to pass" is the standout exception. Holmes takes up the issue of passing in the transgender community. One of the most exceptional books to come out this year in disabilities studies is Jeffrey Brune's and Daniel J. Wilson's Disability and Passing (see the review in this issue). Despite the anthology's admirable breadth, however, Holmes' topic is one that Brune and Wilson do not pick up. They may want to contact that author when they are ready to do a book revision. More typical of the workshop write-ups was that by Ann Keefer and Josh Lukin. While much of it is of the "you had to be there" variety, readers who might be contemplating attending a future Wiscon conference can pick up a pretty good flavor of what being at a conference panel discussion is like and of the thoroughly anti-capitalistic atmosphere in which it takes place.

An unexpected surprise in the copy of the book I received for review was a CD of the book. Whether it was done as a money saver to include material that would otherwise be too costly to publish in a larger hard copy or because the editor was able to envision its use by non-sighted individuals who use screen readers, it has the bonus of including additional material not part of the print one. My favorite among these was Gillian Pollack's account of how her novel about a middle age woman facing problems was interpreted by one reader as a book about disabilities, specifically as a tale about severe depression.

It is unfortunate for disabilities literature that Vanderhooft's volume does not capitalize upon the opportunity to present more quality disability-related science fiction stories like Shawl's or more essays like those of Smith, Allan, Bradley and Hairston, but there is no point in blaming the editor for what was not her mission in the first place. What she does accomplish in Shattering Ableist Narratives is important. The book takes up a topic left far too long fallen between the cracks by disability studies scholars and provides them not only with a cadre of writers who can serve as colleagues and resources in future research, but also with a wealth of ideas that can be built upon in future literary endeavors. Vanderhooft allows deserves credit for one seemingly small decision that she makes in the "Contributor Biographies" at the back of the book. Despite the fact that the anthology strives to shine a light on the writing of women of color, she does not ask her contributors to identify by disability, gender or race as – though many have affirmatively chosen to do so in their essays and discussions.

One way of viewing Shattering Ableist Narratives is as a seed anthology, one that can lead to a profusion of new writing. It may even lead to future, more authoritative anthology of SF writing and disability, one that pairs short stories with the theoretical and critical essays that support them. Perhaps Vanderhooft herself can take up the challenge. Her experience as an editor suggests that she is up to the task.


Michael Northen is a Wordgathering editor and a co-editor with Sheila Black and Jennifer Bartlett of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poety of Disability.