Book Review: Disability in Science Fiction (Kathryn Allan, ed.)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Until recently, disability studies has pretty much ignored science fiction both as a field of study and as an endeavor in which to write. Under the guest editorship of Ria Cheyne, Britain's Journal of Disability and Cultural Studies did devote some space in the introductory section one issue to science fiction and disability”, and even more recently, Joselle Vanderhooft edited Shattering Ableist Narratives, an anthology whose contents summarized a WisCon conference dedicated to exploring the intersection of disability and SF. As important as both of these publications were, both had their drawbacks. Cheyne's effort was limited simply by having to confine her work to what could be included in one issue of a journal; Vanderhooft's, by the uneven nature and quality of the conferences submissions. Fortunately for those interested in the tremendous potential of science fiction for disability studies, Disability in Science Fiction (Palmgrave, 2013) edited by Kathryn Allan has now made its appearance.

Allan could have taken one of two possible approaches in setting up her book. The first would have been to place science fiction within the context of disability literature generally, investigating representations of disability in classic SF literature as reflections of the cultural attitudes of the societies that created them. The second was to position the book at the fork in the road where technology has now placed disability. Disabilities scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thompson has described this fork as one where we are either led into the future by a new eugenics or one in which we embrace difference and equality. In adding her subtitle Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, Allan spells out the choice she has made.

After Allan's introduction, the book is divided into three sections, each containing four essays. The first section looks at some ways of theorizing Disability in Science Fiction, the second at the implications of prosthetics, and the third about narratives of future cure. What keeps these individual essays fresh and interesting is that far from being Laputan academic arguments, they are investigations and explications of contemporary science fiction narratives as embodied in specific novels and film. Through making explicit the hidden attitudes towards disability in the media that we are consuming, they force readers to confront the nature of the future they hope to create.

"Tools to Help You Think," the title of the chapter one essay by Joanne Woiak and Karamanos, might well apply to the entire first section of the book. The premise of this section is that not only can science fiction be used as a tool for understanding the relationship between disability and society, but, in a kind of reciprocity, it is also a tool for investigating the way in which writing about disability itself can reveal the implications of the techniques used by literary writers in their own creations. The Woiak/Hioni essay and the essay that follows, Ria Cheyne's "Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies," in particular provide rich fodder for conceptualizing approaches to disability fiction.

"Tools to Help You Think" focuses on Samuel Delaney's novel, The Einstein Intersection. As a gay, black science fiction writer with dyslexia, Delaney is well situated to view life from the margins, and, as Woiak and Karamanos point out, to view disabilities from the point of view of social construction rather the linear medical model employed in most science fiction novels and in much of the imagination of society as a whole. They quote Delaney/s contention from "The Necessity of Tomorrow" that the purpose of science fiction is to help you think about the present: " a present in which change itself assures there is always a range of options for actions, actions presupposing different beliefs, different efforts," one that "presents alternative possible images and presents them in a way that allows you to question them as you move along."

The major character in The Einstein Intersection, Lobey, is a character who feels himself marked by physical and mental differences but the reader is not given a context in which to situate Lobey. As a result, his disabilities, i.e. his differences become manifest only when he travels from one culture to another because those differences are relational - Delaney's point being that disability is not an absolute identity but a social construction. Various constructions of identity and difference are going to lead to varied visions of the future. The implication Woiak and Karamanos draw from this has two prongs. The first is that we have to keep the future open, which means that we can not restrict the uses of our technology to a singular vision. The second is that fictional writing about the future also needs to be structured to be open-ended and inconclusive. This second prong fits in nicely with David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's concept of narrative prosthesis and the thesis that traditional narrative structures force disability into the position of having to be cured or overcome to restore the established order by the end of the story. The essay points out Delaney's technique of writing from the margins. It's one that Delaney uses in Dahlgren as well. Delaney purposely confuses the reader by not allowing the reader to always know exactly who is speaking nor from what point of view. Thus, in The Einstein Interscetion, Lobey's story is also commented on at times by musings from a "Writer's Journals" and frequently comes across as a palimpsest in which he is writing over something that was written previously. If there is no definitive point of view, then there is no "right way" to interpret. Any story, depending upon its reader, should be subject to diverse, equally valid interpretations.

Delving into Delaney's work is a heady beginning for an anthology but by placing it first, Allan signals the mindset that she hopes to establish for the remainder of the anthology. It also lets us know immediately that we are not dealing with Buck Rogers or traditional hard SF with a culturally masculine viewpoint in its tow.

The essay that follows in the book, Ria Cheyne's "Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies" also dovetails nicely with Mitchell and Snyder's work in disability fiction, but in an analysis that is at once both revelatory and easier to grasp than Delaney's novel. Cheyne's essay takes up an interesting problem in John Varley's short story "Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo." Though always looked at as being a bit on the fringes, Varley is a writer who fits more comfortably into mainstream fiction than Delaney, so it is not surprising, that once revealed, the problem that he is working with is a more straight forward one. As with Delaney's work, though, Varley's fiction addresses both the issues of representation of disability and of how to craft fiction to counter those representations.

"Tango Charlie" offers two representations of disability presented in a scenario of the future. The first involves Galloway, a teenager who, after breaking her neck and becoming paralyzed is fitted with a gold filigree exoskeleton, which provides her with new capabilities that catapult her into stardom, making her rich and famous. This depiction counters the traditional notion of disability as a tragedy by replacing it with an image of enviable success. Pity is replaced by respect. In the second representation, a pair of twins – the Myers – are punished for murder by being placed upon amparole, a condition in which their arms are amputated to keep them from further crime and will be returned to them when their sentence is up. This representation of disability echoes past traditions in which visible physical disability or difference is equated with moral depravity – think Captain Ahab or Caliban.

Cheyne's insightful explication of the story reveals it to be one in which Varley is struggling with two genres of fiction, each of which is predicated upon a different trajectory. The first is the detective story. Cheyne, quoting Lucy Burke, points out that "Thematically and structurally, detective fiction depends on the formation of a concept of normalcy and its putative relationship to law, order, and social acceptability." It also employs stock character such as the villain, visible by the outward disability that reflects his negative character. In such a scenario, both the middle class reader and the structure of the story demand a return from aberration to normalcy by either the elimination or the curing of the disabled character. This is precisely what happens to the Myer twins in Varley's story.

In science fiction, however, alternative endings are possible. Cheyne writes, "Galloway and her extraordinary body exemplify the possibilities SF offers for alternative, nonoppresive ways of conceptualizing." Galloway can have an extraordinary body and be viewed as worthy of full respect. Situating this in the context of current visions of the future, Cheyne goes on to discuss its real life implications. Just as in one need not address the presence of disabled characters in fiction by killing them off, a single path using the dual tools of technology as cure and elimination of difference through eugenics need not be the only vision of the future.

If this review seems to have spent a disproportionate amount of space on the first two essays, it is because they set the stage for the remaining two sections of the book – the implication of prosthetics and narratives of technology as cure. Both of those sections themselves hold myriad surprises for the reader.

The connection between prosthetics and disability requires little explanation. While many Americans may have found it easy to mentally relegate people with congenital disabilities to the shadows of society, as befitted some kind of "other," the recent influx of war veterans returning from Afghanistan requiring prostheses now puts these images in prime time, connecting them to those who are supposed to be lauded for their dedication and bravery. The man with the prosthetic arm is no longer Ratz from William Gibson's Neuromancer, but someone's next door neighbor. What might have seemed to preoccupy only SF fanatics is now a presently real phenomenon with implications for the future.

While the questions surrounding prosthetics are many, one of the core questions that it forces us to consider is just how we define what it means to be human. If this seems a stretch, think only of the controversy surrounding the decision to allow Oscar Pistorius to compete in Olympic races on his prosthetic legs – a controversy enhanced by the visual appearance of legs that clearly did not resemble those of the other candidates. The sense of unfairness that some people felt with the decision arose from a feeling that somehow racing against Pistorius was racing against someone who was not quite human.

Allan brings in four writers to discuss "Human Boundaries and Prosthec Bodies:" Netty Mattar, Donna Binns, Ralph Covino and Leigha McReymolds. Each of these scholars uses an analysis of a science fiction novel, short story, film or television series as a springboard into the discussion. Mattar offers as a definition for prosthesis, "any artificial intervention that alters the 'normal' operations of the body, where 'normal' is understood to be a culturally specific and variable idea."

At its most basic level prostheses serve to repair or replace a damage or missing body part, and this is how it functions, according to Covino in his analysis of the future as depicted in Star Wars. Star Wars represents the medical model of utopia. Wounds can be healed almost instantly, so that what would seem to be fatal injuries to a soldier of today barely cause a Star Wars inhabitant to take a deep breath. Prosthetic devices return a disabled character to normalcy. In such a future, disability is a threat.

Of course any mechanical device used in place of a natural body part, is going to manifest itself as difference in the body of which it is part. It is the extent to which this difference threatens identity that Binns is interested in her discussion of Jaimie Sommers, better known as "The Bionic Woman." In the television series, Sommers becomes bionic against her will and the immediate difficulty she has in functioning with her new body causes an existential questioning of who she is. She sees herself as a cyborg – a hybrid of human being and machine, but even that is complicated by the fact that the machine parts of her are owned by the agency that created them.

McReynolds introduction of the concept of an amborg raises the stakes of prosthesis as a physical difference even higher. An amborg as McReynolds defines it, is "the joining of two living bodies in order for one or both of the bodies to perform a specific task, where both bodies share agency in the task." She analyzes the implications of amborg in two films, one of which is Avatar. In Avatar, Jake Sully, a soldier in a wheelchair, enters a liminal state between that of human beings and Nav'i, an intelligent non-human life form. As such, he is neither human nor Navi'i but possesses attributes of both. Among the other conclusions that McReynolds draws from a seemingly fantastical situation is the need to consider the nature of a future which depends upon interreliant but different bodies. This vision of the future has to be examined against one other factor that McReynolds hints at and both McReynolds and Mattar develop more fully. That is the extent to which prosthesis as a product of scientific technology are tied to capitalism and the imperatives of those who control it. Whether or not capitalism is capable of sustaining a society that is fully inclusive is one of those interesting questions Allan's volume raises.

The third and final section of Allan's book takes up the question of cure (aka elimination) as a future solution for disability and while all selections merit reading, I am going to unfairly gloss them over by saying that in the argument of cure versus the cultivation of difference with respect to disability, the authors all come down on the side difference, in order to spend some time on the final essay, Gerry Cannavan's "Life Without Hope? Huntington's Disease and Genetic Futurity." Huntington's is infamous for two facts, it does not manifest until well into adulthood and it is always fatal. Given these facts, even if our society possess a Gattica-like ability to make decisions about future births, we would still be faced with the same question – who get to decide whose life is worth living? I'll put my own personal bias right on the table by saying that – at least in part – because Woody Guthrie's mother did not and could not know he carried the genes for Huntington's we have both his music and the legacy of his music, and I think that that the world is a better place because of it.

Cannavan traces the depiction of the lives of people with Huntington's diseases in several representative novels including Ian McEwan's decidedly mainstream Star Saturday and Kurt Vonnegut's lesser known Galápagos. What he reveals is that invariably these narratives depict negative, unhopeful lives. Cannavan finds himself up against what are essentially the same negative stereotypes that have traditionally dogged disability. Quoting Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, that "Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning – that meaning being invariably a moralistic one" Cannavan adds, "The 'significance' of Huntington's produced by these narratives' prohibition on producing children is in essence, an assertion of the absolute worthlessness of the life of any Huntington's sufferer.

One of the services this unit provides – and indeed this could be said of the entire anthology – is source material for future investigation by disability studies scholars. The three essays that precede Cannavan's each compare two narratives that look at some aspect of the cure/difference debate. The texts include Olaf Stapelton's Star Maker, Greg Bear's Blood Music, Sophocles Philoctetes, Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze, Nancy Fulder's short story "Movement" and, the work best known to disabilities scholars, Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark. It is Christy Tidwell's discussion of Moon's novel that I would like to briefly turn to because it makes an interesting comparison with and even more widely read work, Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" ingeniously analyzed by Howard Sklar in the first section.

Sklar investigates how Keyes is able to give the illusion of a unified point of view when, in fact, the story is told from at least from three distinct consciousnesses. He questions what he considers Keyes implicit assumption (or at least Keyes assumption of the reader's assumption) that existence of Charlie as he was after the operation increased his intelligence is preferable to the prior Charlie who had a more limited cognition. In Moon's novel, Lou has a chance, like Charlie to accept an operation that will transform him from a man with a disability – in this case autism – to a man with "normal" intelligence.

In her analysis, Tidwell criticizes Moon for letting her character decide to go through with the operation, arguing that this implies a devaluation of the Lou who was a man with autism. Given the tendency of traditional literature to kill off characters with disabilities, Tidwell's reaction as a disabilities scholar is a natural reaction, but to me this seems too easy an answer. Moon clearly shows that Lou was ambivalent about the decision, that he valued aspects of his life as a man with autism and knew that he would experiences losses with the change. What he is granted when he decides to launch into an unknown future is the same permission for an open-ended existence that Delaney argues for both for individuals and for social futures. If Lou had been a neurotypical man who wanted to take a risk and chose a new future, would Tidwell complain that he shouldn't allowed that choice? Then why shouldn't Lou have it?

It is hard to say enough good about Disability in Science Fiction. It is, quite simply, the single best resource for those interested in the intersection of SF and disability. Not only does it provide seed stock for future research in disability studies, but in the rich example of nexuses between disability and SF that it provides, it makes the case that no course in science fiction literature can afford to ignore a discussion of disability. The "Works Cited" section at the book's end is extremely rich, and the "Index" makes it possible for both casual reader and research to immediately hone in on those ideas that interest them most. In addition, the generous "Notes" section following each essay makes it possible to dig a bit deeper into that chapter's topics. No doubt there are articles and essays somewhere that Allan might have included in the anthology and did not, but the purpose of a collection like this is not to cover the entire field. In fact, the spawning of other collections is one of its major functions. While it may not be true that every reader is a science fiction fan, it would take someone with a great poverty of imagination of come away from Disability in Science Fiction without becoming excited by some idea it sparked.


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