Book Review: Accessing the Future (Kathryn Allan and Djibril Al-Ayad)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
Anyone who has an interest in the nexus of science fiction and disability probably knows the work of Kathryn Allen. In an essay for Joselle Vanderhooft's Shattering Ableist Narratives she applied feminist studies to concepts of embodiment in science fiction, and as the editor of Disability in Science Fiction, she gathered together essays that explored representations of technology as cure in science fiction fiction and film. Now teaming up with Djibrial Al-Ayad, Allan raises the ante in Accessing the Future by presenting portrayals of disability in speculative fiction* that passes their litmus test.
In making choices about what kinds of stories to include, the editors follow one of the basic axioms of current disability studies scholarship that "disability is located, not at the site of the individual, but at the site of culture and society." While this criterion in itself would be enough to eliminate many stories that include individuals with disabilities, Joselle Vanderhooft in her preface to the anthology includes two more, both of which follow from critical research in disabilities fiction generally. The first is the elimination of any character with superpowers (known more generally as supercrips); the second is the barring of stories in which disability or disabled characters serve as metaphors. Each of these is a failure to look at people with disabilities as real human beings. If these criteria sound as though the stories might only be of interest to niche readers, Vanderhooft reminds us that "much of science fiction is, at its heart, the story of the search for accessibility or what happens when something we can't access now…becomes accessible to us"and further that "life itself is a constant search for accommodation in an unaccommodating universe." Flowing from the concern for representing physical and cognitive differences in a genre that has traditionally been the province of straight, white, middle-class males is the anthology's determination to represent humanity in all of its variety.
Anthologies by their nature are going to encompass a wide variety of work. Some pieces are going to appeal to a particular reader more than others. That's true of Accessing the Future. I will admit my bias right up front. I have never been a fan of fiction that reads like an action flick — writing about battle prowess, getting the bad guys or winning the race. In science fiction especially, I want something with a new point of view, an idea I have never thought of, or at the very least writing that teaches me something I did not know previously. In other words, I want a story that makes me think. That is why some tales in the volume such as "A Sense of Her Own,"whose basic purpose is to show that a woman with a disability can race "with the big boys" hold little interest for me (though it may for someone else). I've accepted the basic premise before the story starts so it has nothing to tell me. On the other hand, stories like Sarah Pinsker's "Pay Attention"do.
The narrator of "Pay Attention"is a young woman named Acacia whose severe ADHD prevents her from achieving the academic success she needs to be able to have a career in medicine, notwithstanding the amount of effort she puts into her studies. To assist her, Acasia's school asks her to take part in a pilot project. This requires a devise to be implanted in her brain that will allow her to have exceptional focus. In a nutshell, it works. I won't ruin the story by filling all of the details, but what the narrator later learns that she has been "used" by a for-profit company. The story is layered with ethical questions, particularly since as an individual, she has achieved a status she would not have had she never been taken advantage of. One need not think any further than the infamous Tustegee syphilis experiments on black men to understand the implications of the situation.
Another story that makes an interesting discussion group prompt is "Better to Have Loved" by Kate O'Connor. It follows the classic science fiction formula of changing one small variable about reality and keeping the rest of the world as it is. While the ending of the story is predictable, the story's premise is tantalizing. It posits a future where after the death of a loved one, doctors routinely prescribe a pill that allow those close to the deceased to bypass all of the grief and emotional trauma that results from their loss. The trade off is that this is accomplished by eliminating the memory of that person. The question it poses of, course, is whether the protagonist should take the pill or not. Here again, the ramifications of the situation and how it is answered, go far beyond the story itself.
One of the most accomplished pieces from the point of view of craftsmanship is A. F. Sanchez's "Lyric." Sanchez writes from a second person point of view. Though more common than it once was, it is still infrequently used and very difficult to master. In the case of "Lyric," the point of view is warranted because it is an attempt to force the reader into taking on the viewpoint someone who has difficulty speaking for herself — a narrator with autism. At one point in the story, the protagonist — who clearly not the narrator — enters words into a computer called Lyric and receives the following message:
"The keywords you have entered are 'I' and 'damaged', question mark.
The use of multiple quotations from other character to tell the story and very infrequent, one word quotes from the protagonist (who, being "you"is never named) are an objectification of her/his/your isolation. Only the unquoted portion of the text lets the reader know what is going on internally.
Al-Ayad and Allan recognize that any kind of anthology in the field of disability literature is going to be confronted with the question of how it defines disability. They wisely skirt this potential trap by stating "there is no one way to be disabled." Instead they challenge the desirability of a definition by asserting that what they are concerned with is "how disability interacts with other aspects of disadvantage, privilege, discrimination and bigotry including gender, race, sexuality, class and so many more of the facets that make us each unique." Indeed, the range of characters in the book's stories and artwork, and biographies of the contributors at the back of the book confirm that Accessing the Future is following through on its commitment. If there is a white, able-bodied male in the volume, he is well hidden. Nevertheless, this diversity obscures one question that might be asked. Given the current heat taken by contemporary film and theater productions that employ able-bodied actors to play the parts of people with disabilities rather than allowing them to represent themselves, why did the editors not stick totally with writers who had disability themselves. A variety of answers are possible, but in a work whose subtitle includes the words "disability-themed literature," it is a fair question to ask.
One interesting aspects of the anthology is the way that it makes room for disability-related art. While the book limits itself to black and white drawings and prints — no doubt to keep the price of the anthology affordable — there are a wide variety of styles, and some pieces such as Fabian Alvarado's "Julian the Technician"seem quite accomplished even to the untrained eye. What is perhaps most admirable about how the art is used, however, is the recognition by the editors that to a person using a screen reader or whose only access to the book is auditory, illustrations in themselves mean nothing. To remedy this, on the back side of each page containing a drawing is a detailed, paragraph-long, description of the work. It is an instance of when a technique created to make a work more accessible for certain members of a population, actually benefits everyone.
It is one thing to roll out critiques of the representation of disability in speculative fiction and quite another to come up with actual alternatives. By in large, Accessing the Future fulfills the commitments its editors make in the introduction. The stories avoid characters that beg to be read as metaphor or who become heroes by virtue of their disability. None of the the pieces employ a narrative arc that resolves disability by eliminating it. As promised, the stories offer a wide variety of style choices from Joyce Chng's haibun-like "The Lessons of the Moon to" to testosterone-scented tales with their obligatory panoply of four-letter words. Given the position of the Accessing the Future as a first of its kind, it is an important achievement and one that surely deserves a spot on any disability literature shelf. It shows us what disability writing has to offer speculative fiction and provides a baseline against which to measure all future efforts.
Title: Accessing the Future
*While technically, science fiction is a subcategory of speculative fiction, I will be using them interchangeably in this review since there are no cases in Accessing the Future where only one of these terms would apply.