ICFA--my favourite conference (and the only one I now attend)--is coming up next month. This year I have a full slate: in addition to participating on an archival research panel, I will be moderating a discussion panel I organized on "Fantasizing Disability," and presenting a paper on the character Ripley from the Alien franchise. Despite my apprehension around the current US political climate, I'm looking forward to being at ICFA and continuing important conversations about disability representation in genre (because facism is antithetical to disability rights). My abstracts follow:
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Genres of the fantastic present opportunities to explore worlds fundamentally different than our own, where bodily norms are questioned and disrupted. Fantasy in particular has the potential to create novel relationships to and characterizations of disability. While fantastic worlds frequently imagine diverse bodies (from elvish to gigantic to alien) interacting with each other, the genre often reduces disability to a symbolic medium and disabled characters to one-dimensional stereotypes. Fantasy (as well as science fiction and horror and all of their subgenres) abounds with disability tropes such as the curse of disability, the magical cure as a reward, the disabled villain, the disabled guru who helps the hero, the triumph narrative, and the trope of the “supercrip” (a person who gains compensatory powers for their disability). Given the necessity of integrating inclusive and realistic depictions of human diversity in genre narratives, this panel will address the representation of disabled people and disability in the field of the fantastic. How has disability representation changed since the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales of Rumpelstiltskin and wicked stepmothers? Why has disability become a mark of a character’s evil-doing or, alternatively, pure innocence (and how can we challenge these readings)? In what ways do disabled bodies act as sites of identification for the audience? What opportunities do various fantastic subgenres—from steampunk to fairy tale re-tellings—offer authors and readers in depicting and understanding disability? Located in an intersectional disability studies perspective, this panel will explore both the reductive tropes and transformative potentials of disability representation in the field of the fantastic.
Panelists: Sara Cleto, Derek Newman-Stille, Nisi Shawl, Fran Wilde Moderator: Kathryn Allan
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Beautiful on the Inside: The Alien Perfection of Ripley
Science fiction film has long explored medical science’s quest for perfection of the human physical form. Released in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien launched one of the genres most successful franchises (spawning four other films) and created the iconic feminist action hero, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver). Drawing on feminist disability studies, my analysis of the Alien films will focus on the character of Ripley and trace the ways her narrative revolves around the anxiety of what lies unseen within the (imperfect) human body and how to achieve an ideal form. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, in her foundational work, Extraordinary Bodies, coins the term normate, which refers to “the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings” (8) (often in antithesis to the disabled or the “freak”). I argue that Ripley, at first, is this social figure, but by the end of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 installment, Alien: Resurrection, her body has simultaneously become more ideal and more horrible as she transcends normate humanity (from the inside out) to achieve an alien perfection.
Garland-Thomson further writes that: “When our embodied ways of being in the world come to be understood as disabilities or when we understand our way as disabled, we then enter the category” (“The Story of My Work”). Applying this framing to my reading, I am particularly interested in such moments of recognition in the Alien films: when, and in what ways, does Ripley see herself in the alien, as being something other than “normal”? In my discussion, I will address how Ripley relates to the non-normate bodies of the androids (as represented by Ash, Bishop, and Call) and of the aliens—each body offers a possible design for human physical perfection but differs in their interior authenticity (e.g., blood) and organic function (e.g., reproduction). In a universe where the alien body is declared perfect (as repeated throughout the films by various agents of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation), what then constitutes the ideal human? Through my analysis of Ripley, I hope to continue demonstrating the generative potentials of bringing a disability studies framework to science fiction in exploring the social and medical definitions of humanity, as well as in expanding the future possibilities of disability identity.
Last month I presented a paper on disability in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner at ICFA. If you know me, then you know that ICFA is my favourite conference (and the only one I faithfully attend). Instead of letting my paper sit forgotten on my computer, I am posting it here to share with anyone interested. Since I wrote this as a conference paper, it is not as polished as a formal article for publication. To help with readability, I've included a few notes to help clarify any "off-script" moments and have cited the dialogue of the two clips I showed.
"I want more life”—Disability as a Generative Narrative in Blade Runner
Previously, in the few instances when disability studies scholars have taken up Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, they have read it as a film about cure (Johnson Cheu) or about the consequences of genetic engineering (Michael Bérubé), arguing that it recuperates ableist narratives of disability. Indeed, the dominant narrative of most SF films (and other SF texts) cast disability as an unwanted fate of the other, as something to be cured and eliminated from an idealized human future. As Alison Kafer, in Feminist, Queer, Crip, asks: “What is it about disability that makes it a defining element of our imagined futures, such that a “good” future is one without disability, while a “bad” future is overrun by it?” (10). One of the earliest disability studies readings of Blade Runner comes from Jason Cheu. In his essay, “De-gene-erates, Replicants and Other Aliens: (Re)defining Disability in Futuristic Film,” Cheu argues that:
The replicants can be considered “disabled” from several standpoints. At its base, such a storyline reaffirms some common stereotypes of disability. First, disabled people are overcompensated in one sense when another is deficient…The replicants make up in superior strength and agility what they lack in emotional depth and lifespan. Second, disabled people are bitter about being disabled, causing them either to be depressed or angry, and are consumed by the desire to be “normal.” After all, what threat do the replicants pose? The replicants are only a problem when they desire to escape the boundaries of their fate, their enslavement, their bodies and be more human, more “normal.” […] Third, if one cannot be “cured,” it would be better to die. Death is preferable to being disabled. It is not that the replicants want to die, rather that this idea is imposed by humans whose response to the replicants’ desire to be more human is to use Blade Runners to kill them. […] In this Utopia, replicants are considered second- class citizenry and stigmatized as much. (Cheu, 204)
Cheu’s reading of the replicants in Blade Runner is compelling but I found that it never sat well with me (especially his classification of the film as a utopia). I have always thought of Blade Runner, perhaps not as a hopeful film about disability, but as one that expanded the possibilities of what it means to be disabled in the future. In her book, Disability and Popular Culture, Ellis addresses the concept of the “producerly text,” which is a popular text (like a movie or comic book) that “offers itself up to popular production,” and that can be considered “simultaneously disabling and enabling” (10-11). A producerly text, then, is one that encourages its readers and consumers to “rewrite” it and “make sense of it” on their own terms (10), to create counternarratives. Producerly texts both recreate and subvert ableist narratives. For example, Ellis notes that while James Cameron’s Avatar has been rightfully criticized for its stereotypical depiction of a wheelchair user, at the same time, it has also introduced “optimism around technology while critiquing the disabling impact of corporate values” and militarization (78).
I believe that Blade Runner [note: I am discussing the 2007 “Final Cut”] is an excellent example of a producerly text, one which is open to multiple counternarratives that go well beyond the dominant readings previously put forward in disability studies literature. While I agree with Cheu’s conclusion that the replicants in Blade Runner (like the disabled today) “are considered second-class citizenry” (204), I want to problematize this straightforward interpretation by reading the relationships between the replicants as generative of a more diverse disability narrative. While it is true that many popular SF narratives focus on the cure or elimination of disability, Blade Runner places emphasis on the inhumanity of removing individual agency in the process of urbanization, commodification, and medicalization (all process which rely on an unequal and hierarchal distribution of power). I propose that the audience is forced to confront the experience of disability as more than impairment, as a social construction when we read for the counternarrative of reciprocity. By recognizing the replicants investment in developing relationships based on reciprocity and the recognition of autonomy, it becomes clear that each individual is worthy of “more life.” By moving the normate/able body out of the centre in favour of the replicant, and by reading for the counternarrative of reciprocity, the ideal but unrealized outcome in the film is in the proliferation of disability, not in its eradication.
So what do I mean here by reciprocity? I am drawing inspiration from last year’s ICFA SF theory roundtable (chaired by Dr. Grace Dillon). We were reading Colin Scott’s “Science for the West, Myth for the Rest? The Case of James Bay Cree Knowledge Construction,” which addresses the indigenous concept of knowledge as reciprocal in nature (i.e., both entities in a relationship observe and share/develop knowledge with the other) [note: I have a lot more to say about the productive relationship between Indigenous Nations Studies and Disability Studies, but that is a conversation for another paper. My apologies for not doing Scott’s excellent article full justice here]. This discussion of reciprocity made me wonder: What if I was to approach the relationship between the observer and the observed, or the self and the other, or the Blade Runner and the replicant, with the question: “What knowledge is shared?” By reading for a relationship of shared disability knowledge, of reciprocity, I found that I could explode the dynamic of exploitative human and impaired replicant. This kind of reciprocity places emphasis on shared knowledge between replicants and humans, and ideally, shared care. It involves the radical project of mutual respect for mutual survival. When approaching Blade Runner with the counternarrative of reciprocity in mind, the replicants become an inexhaustible resource of more possibilities about disability, of more disabled futurities.
In my most recent viewing of the film, I was deeply struck by the immensity of the built physical spaces of the city. The minutes-long sequence of Deckard’s approach to the Tyrell Corporation is particularly notable, the blazing cityscape juxtaposed with its reflection in an eye. Scott’s expanded cityscape scenes emphasize the dehumanization of its citizens and the near impossibility of relationships built on reciprocity and mutual recognition. For example: Leroy is interviewed across a huge table in room without distinct boundaries in the massive towering buildings of the Tyrell Corporation. When Deckard kills Zora, he chases her through streets crowded with people. Zora is dressed in a plastic coat as she crashes through store displays—the obvious message that she is a commodified, disposable body. While this scene can be read a signalling out of Zora as the expendable other, when considering it alongside the other scenes of the city that Scott presents us, Zora becomes like all of the other citizens (both human and replicant): completely consumed by the massiveness of the city’s buildings, numerous barriers, and its unrelenting pace of expansion and ultimate decline. Even the favoured replicant, Rachel—designed to not know or feel herself to be a replicant—tells Deckard: “I’m not in the business. I am the business.” In the scale of the city overshadowed by the Tyrell Corporation, all bodies are made small and expendable—it is against this background of oppressive urbanization and commodification that the replicants, in particular Roy, Rachel, and Deckard, become catalysts for renewal and an alternative future as they seek out new ways of belonging and mutually beneficial relationships.
The most dominant narrative in Blade Runner that I am reading against is that of medicalization. Cheu (and others) specifically refer to the use of the Voigt-Kampf test, noting that the replicants are objects of and subjects to the medical gaze. Early on in the film, the audience learns about how Blade Runners are able to identify replicants—who, we should remember the Tyrell Corporation markets as “more human than human”— through the application of the Voigt-Kampf test. The test is designed to determine emotional response, as most replicants used in service in the outer colonies are, by design, limited in their emotional development. Throughout the film, however, Deckard is challenged by the replicant Rachel on the appropriateness and reliability of the Voigt-Kampf test, asking him: “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” and if he has ever taken the test himself. Even Leon upsets the straightforward “proof” of difference that the Voigt-Kampf test is supposed to identify. As he fights with Deckard, Leon clearly expresses a range of emotions borne out of his unique experiences. He tells Deckard, “Nothing is more painful than living in fear.” Additionally, throughout the film, the replicants are also shown grieving for the loss of personal items and the deaths of their friends. Although the dominate narrative of the film demonstrates that the replicants are medicalized bodies who have little control over their well-being, the counternarrative of reciprocity—focusing on what the replicants are actually saying about their lives—illuminates the many challenges they raise to their medical classifications and reveals the depth of their legitimate emotional beings.
Further deepening the importance of having relationships built on reciprocity, J. F. Sebastian uniquely bridges together the experience of the replicant and the experience of the human. After meeting Pris, Sebastian explains that he has a medical condition, "Methuselah Syndrome," which causes rapid aging and marks him as unsuitable for off-world colonization. It isn’t until Roy joins them that Sebastian identifies Pris and Roy as replicants, and tells them that he helped design them and that’s “there’s some of me in you.” Roy later agrees that they do share embodied experience, that, “We got a lot in common: cellular decrepitude.” Although it is possible to simply read these declarations as underscoring the undesirability of the replicants’ disabled status (as Sebastian is undeniably a disabled human in his world), I prefer to read these statements as indicative of a diverse disability identity. Being disabled in Blade Runner is not a reductive state, characterized by a specific set of limitations: like Sebastian, each replicant has a distinct personality and set of skills. They are all more than their impairments. When he denies Sebastian’s request that the replicants “show him something,” Roy reaffirms his equal right to an autonomous life by saying: “We are not computers Sebastian, we’re physical.” In other words, “We are not less than, we are equal.”
All of these events lead up to the moment when Roy (Batty) finally faces Dr. Eldon Tyrell, telling his creator (who he notably calls “father” in the final cut version [he calls him “fucker” in the original theatrical release]) that he wants more life. As you view this scene, keep the idea of reciprocity in mind [here are the lines of the scene I showed]:
Batty: I want more life…father.
Tyrell: [Tyrell explains to Roy why he can't extend his lifespan] The facts of life... to make an alteration in the evolvement of an organic life system is fatal. A coding sequence cannot be revised once it's been established.
Batty: Why not?
Tyrell: Because by the second day of incubation, any cells that have undergone reversion mutation give rise to revertant colonies, like rats leaving a sinking ship; then the ship... sinks.
Batty: What about EMS-3 recombination?
Tyrell: We've already tried it--ethyl, methane, sulfinate as an alkylating agent and potent mutagen; it created a virus so lethal the subject was dead before it even left the table.
Batty: Then a repressor protein, that would block the operating cells.
Tyrell: Wouldn't obstruct replication; but it does give rise to an error in replication, so that the newly formed DNA strand carries with it a mutation - and you've got a virus again... but this, all of this is academic. You were made as well as we could make you.
Batty: But not to last.
Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy. Look at you: you're the Prodigal Son; you're quite a prize!
Batty: I've done... questionable things.
Tyrell: Also extraordinary things; revel in your time.
Batty: Nothing the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you into heaven for.
In the face of Tyrell’s dismissal, Roy’s desperate violence becomes understandable. Despite Roy’s willingness to work with Tyrell towards a way to extend his life (and that of the other replicants), Tyrell shuts down any possibility of reciprocity, positioning science/medicine as the only possible way to view the replicants’ experience. Tyrell relies on medicalized language and the positioning of Roy as “a prize” (one that is supposedly to be used and discarded) to defend his inability (or disinclination) to help. Bereft, Roy kills Tyrell and, most likely, Sebastian, seemingly being the one-dimensional villain the dominate narrative of the film sets up.
But, like the other characters, Roy’s trajectory is neither flat nor certain. He too is capable of change and growth, which is no more powerfully demonstrated then during his last fight with Deckard. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is like to be a slave,” Roy says, as Deckard dangles from a building top. After choosing to save Deckard’s life, Roy sits down in the pouring rain, dove in hand, and says: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.” Roy then dies, the dove flies away. While he could have easily let Deckard fall to his death, Roy chooses, not only to save him, but to pass on his awareness of what it means to live fully. Roy emphasizes the importance of his learned experience; his memories are real memories (not implants), and their loss matters. Despite his Christ-like stigmata, Roy’s death is not in sacrifice for others—rather, it represents the final passing on of his knowledge, his last attempt to seek a relationship based on reciprocity, of mutual recognition that all deserve more life. The (likely mechanical) white dove flying into the perpetually dark, rainy sky is an obvious sign of hope that other futures are possible.
In the final scenes as Deckard returns home, he encounters Gaff, who tells him: “You've done a man's job, sir. I guess you're through, huh?” to which Deckard responds, “Finished.” Then Gaff says, lines of which are repeated at the film’s end, “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” This ambiguity has fuelled many interpretations of Blade Runner and of the fate of Deckard and Rachel. In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Kafer asks: “How is the category of disability used to justify the classification, supervision, segregation, and oppression of certain people, bodies, and practices? Addressing these questions requires a recognition of the central role that ideas about disability and ability play in contemporary culture, particularly in imagined and projected futures” (10). If we only read disabled bodies in the dominant narratives presented by cultural texts, it becomes difficult to move beyond disability as impairment and disabled bodies as exploitable bodies. If we instead read these cultural texts with reciprocity in mind, with the understanding that the disabled body and the normate body are in reciprocal relationship to one another, then it becomes possible to move away from evaluating disabled people as productive (or not productive) or as threats to able-bodied normativity, and instead frames disability as an equal, unlimited resource of knowledge and understanding.
An insistence on reciprocity, then, creates a future of mutual survival for all bodies, for all peoples. By removing the stress of unequal comparison—who gets more life— and instead pursuing an inherent, inexhaustible relationship of sharing, we can create a truly inclusive society. The ending line of Blade Runner— “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”—becomes not simply a big hint that Deckard is a replicant as well, but it becomes an acknowledgement of, perhaps not sameness (as Rachel and other uncontrolled replicants are still marked for an intentionally early death), but of a shared sense of communal belonging. By leaving the film’s ending ambiguous, Scott opens up the possibility for multiple counternarratives, ones in which the proliferation of disability offers the most hopeful of human futures.
[Author's Note: This article was first published as "Disability in Science Fiction" in SF 101: A Guide to Teaching and Studying Science Fiction. Eds. Ritch Calvin, Doug Davis, Karen Hellekson, and Craig Jacobsen. Science Fiction Research Association, 2014. Ebook. The original intended audience was science fiction scholars not familiar with disability studies (as such, the language may not be accessible for everyone). I retain the rights to this text and I want to make sure that more people have a chance to read it. Since the time the article was published, my research has grown and changed but I think that what I wrote is still worth sharing.]
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What is at stake, supremely, in the debate about the implications of digital, genetic, cybernetic and biomedical technologies is precisely what (and who) will define authoritative notions of normative, exemplary, desirable humanity into the twenty-first century.
— Elaine Graham, Representations of the Post/Human
It’s a crip promise that we will always comprehend disability otherwise and that we will, collectively, somehow access other worlds and futures.
— Robert McRuer, Crip Theory
In “Disability and Narrative,” Michael Bérubé observes that the genre of science fiction, with its plethora of “mutant supercrips” and “posthuman cyborgs,” “is as obsessed with disability as it is with space travel and alien contact” (568). He goes on to note that “sometimes disability is simply underrecognized in familiar sci-fi narratives” (568), and points to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (with its Voigt-Kampf empathy tests to identify rogue androids, or marking “specials,” neurologically injured people, to prevent them from reproducing) and Gattaca (“which is not only about eugenics but also about passing as nondisabled,” 568). Bérubé’s appraisal that “sometimes” disability in SF is underrecognized is extremely kind—given the overwhelming number of characters with disabilities and scenarios of cure and modification in SF, there really should be more published analyses of disability in SF scholarship. The lack of attention to disability in SF studies is a problem. For one, the exclusion of the study of disability in SF extends the cultural sidelining—theoretically and practically—of people with disabilities in the academic engagement with genre; and second, it also neglects to condemn the repeated instances of the erasure, “curing,” prosthetization, and negative marginalization of people with disabilities in SF novels and films. When people with disabilities are turned into props and tropes (or left out completely) in narratives of a collective human future, it is imperative that SF scholars begin to call out—as we do for instances of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia—outdated, humiliating, and harmful images of disability.
Disability Studies Basics
Disability studies (DS) concerns itself with the social and cultural construction of disability; it is interested in challenging, questioning, and undoing the aura of deficiency and lack that attends different kinds of bodies in our popular cultural representations. Lennard Davis explains that “[i]mpairment is the physical fact of lacking an arm or leg. Disability is the social process that turns an impairment into a negative by creating barriers to access” (Bending Over Backwards 12). Impairment itself, as many DS scholars point out, is also a normative construct—as bodily or cognitive difference should not be equated with the sense of deficiency that attends the word—but Davis’s definition is a useful starting point. Access, in the context of DS, refers not only to the physical and environmental barriers around which people with disabilities must navigate, but also to the social, economic, cultural, and political forces that limit the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities to be active agents in their own lives. The distinction between impairment and social process is central to DS because, as a field of inquiry, it seeks to expose the ways in which some bodies are construed as “problem bodies” (Chivers and Markotić),[i] “visibly vulnerable” (Shildrick),[ii] “extraordinary” (Garland-Thomson),[iii] deviant, and non-normative. By construing the “abnormal” body as disabled and in need of medical intervention, cure, or rehabilitation in order to make it “normal,” we elide the fact that human bodies exist along a spectrum of variation and ability.
Tobin Siebers articulates how DS seeks to expose the systems of social meaning that establish who gets to be a “quality human being”:
Unlike the medical approach, the emerging field of disability studies defines disability not as an individual defect but as the product of social injustice, one that requires not the cure or elimination of the defective person but significant changes in the social and built environment. Disability studies does not treat disease or disability, hoping to cure or avoid them; it studies the social meanings, symbols, and stigmas attached to disability identity and asks how they relate to enforced systems of exclusion and oppression, attacking the widespread belief that having an able body and mind determines whether one is a quality human being. (3-4)
SF has long commented on what characteristics determine a “quality human being;” from the outset of the genre, novel and visibly different bodies are marked as monstrous (think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster) worthy of either fear or pity, while rehabilitated or technologically-imbued bodies become superheroes (e.g., Marvel’s Professor Xaviar of the X-Men, and Star War’s Luke Skywalker) or supervillans (e.g., Magneto of The Brotherhood of Mutants, and Darth Vader). When interpreting SF texts—whether literature, poetry, film, comics, music, or graphic novels—it is important that critics, as Rob Michalko states in The Difference That Disability Makes, approach disability “as something to think with rather than about” because “disability is mimetic. […] Society is reflected in disability in terms of how society interprets disability” (168). Additionally, in the analyses of disability in SF, Ato Quayson cautions his readers: “To say that the literary model [of disability] provides an analogue to reality does not mean that it is the same as that reality” (30)—in other words, when scholars make arguments about the representation of disability in SF, they must also be cognizant to not ignore or discount the lived realities of diabled people.
DS Looking at SF
In their foundational work, Cultural Locations of Disability, Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell argue that: “Alternative ways of comprehending disabled bodies and minds are often best explained within experiential forms, such as personal narratives, performance art, and films, rather than in the objectifying realms of ‘research’ about disabled people” (4). Synder and Mitchell read SF films—such as Gattaca, Unbreakable, X-Men and X2—as “counter discursive forays” into the presentation of disability on film (167). Unlike the typical non-SF flick, where viewers watch various freak encounters being played out, Synder and Mitchell argue that in SF, disability is central to the plot (167). Focusing on disability in classic horror film, Angela M. Smith, in Hideous Progeny, also speaks to the negative portrayals of atypical or unusual bodies figured in genre film. While perhaps not as overt in the films of today, disability has long been the marker of all things unpleasant and unwanted in genre cinema. Discussing films such as Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), and Freaks (1932), Smith emphasizes the eugenic propaganda that equated physical and cognitive difference with moral and racial deviance: “Consequently, the films hint, race, devolution, and deformity may be artificially created rather than biologically determined. They are material certainly, but forged in the somatic exterior, a eugenic fiction sedimented at the level of body signifiers” (154).
Johnson Cheu’s essay, “De-gene-erates, Replicants and Other Aliens: (Re)defining Disability in Futuristic Film” is an oft cited text that addresses disability in the context of utopian (or, depending on your outlook, dystopian) SF narratives. Discussing the films Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Gattaca, Cheu writes:
If disability, as a social construction, exists on more than a theoretical plane, disability should be present as a social stigma in the future. This is not to suggest that bodies are immaterial in Utopian societies. Quite the contrary, bodies exist in Utopia which occupy a social stigma of being unfit, sub-human, inferior, that shows the very existence of disability as a social construction. (202)
Cheu’s attention to narratives of utopia speaks to the pervasiveness of the notion of the “ideal body” or, to again borrow Siebers’s phrasing, “quality human being,” throughout SF—SF scholars can (and should) read for disability in SF texts where disability appears to be a non-issue. Alison Kafer, in Feminist, Queer, Crip, performs an insightful reading of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, pointing to the significance of what is unsaid or assumed about disability in the creation of an ideal feminist utopia. “Disability and the disabled body,” Kafer writes, “are problems that must be solved technologically, and there is allegedly so much cultural agreement on this point that it need not be discussed or debated [within the narrative]” (74). She then underscores one of the main tensions surrounding disability in SF: “Utopian visions are founded on the elimination of disability, while dystopic, negative visions of the future are based on its proliferation” (74). Regardless of whether SF is utopian or dystopian, the presence or lack of disability in a text often speaks to its implicit assumptions of what constitutes the ideal future human.
Common Categories of Disability Representation in SF
Given the dearth of book length works that focus on disability in SF, scholars who currently pursue this intersectional work draw on a diverse number of literary and theoretical texts to guide their readings. One of the most recent influential studies of disability coming out of literature studies is Aesthetic Nervousness by Ato Quayson. Preceding his discussion of “high culture” novels by Samuel Beckett, Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, and J. M. Coetzee, Quayson identifies nine main categories of disability representation in literature:
1. Disability as null set and/or moral test
2. Disability as interface with otherness (race, class, and social identity)
3. Disability as articulation of disjuncture between thematic and narrative vectors
4. Disability as bearer of moral deficit/evil
5. Disability as epiphany
6. Disability as signifier of ritual insight
7. Disability as inarticulable and enigmatic tragic insight
8. Disability as hermeneutical impasse
9. Disability as normality (52)
All of these categories are also present in SF and, as such, offer the uninitiated SF scholar a way into critiquing disability in the genre. In addition to using Quayson’s formulation to frame disability, Snyder and David Mitchell offer the theory of “narrative prosthesis,” which proposes that disability acts “as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight” (Narrative Prosthesis 49). In my experience studying SF with DS in mind, I have begun to trace the ways SF shapes these disability categories/narratives in specific ways that are unique to SF. For the purposes of this essay—and to further address the gap in critical literature on the topic—I have formulated a list of (sub)categories of disability representation in SF. My list is in no way exhaustive, but it nevertheless offers a way to begin the serious work of analyzing the ways in which people with disabilities are defamed and de-humanized in SF. In SF literature and film (broadly defined), I observe the following common categories, or “narrative prostheses,” of disability representation:
1. Disability as a condition in need of cure
2. Disability as a condition to transcend
3. Disability as out of sync (with normative time)
4. Disability as creator of the cyborg or posthuman
5. Disability as creator of the superhuman (the “super crip”)
6. Disability as distinction of the non-human
Disability as a Condition in Need of Cure
In the vast majority of SF texts, wherever there is disability there is the attendant narrative of cure. As I have previously written in the “Introduction” to Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure:
the medical characterization of the disabled body as requiring cure—in order to become “normal”—has become part of our larger cultural construction of disability. There is a great deal of pressure to rehabilitate, or to “make normal,” the disabled person or otherwise risk condemnation from both the medical and social communities. The ideology of the perfect body—and our ability to make imperfect bodies perfect through medical intervention—is woven throughout our various social discourses, and the onus to be a perfect body rests on both the abled and disabled alike. (Allan 9)
The move to “cure” the body of its various differences, however, speaks more to the normative anxiety of controlling “the problem” body than to satisfying the desires and goals of people with disabilities. Margrit Shildrick, in her exceptional work, Embodying the Monster, states that: “Regardless of ethical intent, those on the receiving end of (limited) beneficence are never able to claim equal agency while their vulnerability remains. Vulnerability is positioned, then, as that which impairs agency in the ‘damaged’ other while inspiring moral action on the part of the secure self to make good the perceived lack” (77). “Curing” disability, therefore, is a process that serves to maintain and create “quality human beings” (Siebers), and SF is a genre that continuously reiterates cure narratives with scant ethical or moral reflection. Of the six disability-in-SF categories that I have identified, disability as a condition in need of cure is the most complex and wide-ranging.
Within the basic structure of a cure narrative, there are the following specific kinds of cure (again, this is not a complete list, but a starting point for further exploration): genetic testing and eugenics (this includes the use of reproductive technologies used to identify and eliminate potential disability); neurological enhancement for cognitive difference; and prosthetic and surgical correction of physical difference (as well as modifying dis/abled bodies to better suit alien environments).
Genetic testing and eugenics: Snyder and Mitchell comment that “the updated eugenics of the present day, called genetics, examines conditions in bodies that are classed as ‘mutant,’ ‘tragic,’ ‘coding errors,’ ‘suffering,’ ‘unhealthy,’ ‘deviant,’ ‘faulty,’ and ‘abnormal’” (19). Looking at Gattaca, Unbreakable, X-Men, and X-Men 2, they argue that these “films foresee a dystopic future where various incarnations of the gene police provide evidence of a new eugenics on the near horizon of our social context” (167). This kind of eugenic policing is evident throughout SF novels (e.g., Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), and even in the explicitly socially-conscious subgenres like feminist SF—both Piercy’s Women on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man celebrate the “defeat” of disability through the use genetic engineering. In addition to the elimination of disability in utero, many SF texts explore the possibilities of genetic therapy. Davis refers to genetic therapy as a “sci-fi scenario” (101), whose process “carries a weighty signification. The defective race must be infected, invaded, and altered by a disease to correct a disease. Thus the invisibility of the prosthesis become linked to an invasion/contamination scenario that we have seen before in countless sci-fi films [such as Alien]” (“Stumped by Genes” 102).
Neurological enhancement for cognitive difference: Despite the recent popularity of characters with Asperger’s (or Asperger’s-like) traits on mainstream TV (e.g., Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, and Abed on Community), most SF narratives that feature individuals who are “neuroatypical” are usually singled out for “curing.” In Elizabeth Moon’s Nebula-winning The Speed of Dark, the lead character, Lou Arrendale, is autistic and leads a productive life; despite being a valued community member, however, Lou ends up choosing to undergo an experimental surgery to make him “normal.”[iv] A similar type of neurological “cure” is performed on Charlie in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon; like Moon, Keyes relies on the reader’s sympathy and expectation that people with intellectual disabilities want to be better versions of themselves. Dan Goodley and Mark Rapely comment that, “we need to be attentive to the challenges posed by people with the label of ‘learning difficulties’/intellectual disabilities. Such sensitivity is enabled by a view of the world which does not separate impairment and disability as binary oppositions but throws both into the dynamic world of discourse and practice” (“Changing the Subject” 139). Whether encountering obviously negative representations of people deemed to have intellectual or cognitive disabilities (e.g., The Lawn Mower Man) or “kinder” approaches taken under the guise of beneficent cure (e.g., The Speed of Dark, Flowers for Algernon), DS seeks to undo the language that casts people into the medicalized model of disability as bodies to be rehabilitated and cured.
Prosthetic and surgical correction of physical difference: The use of prostheses or surgical interventions to make people with unusual bodies “normal,” or, in many cases, extraordinary, is particularly favoured in SF. Throughout SF’s myriad of subgenres, writers have envisioned bodies that are transformed, modified, and re-made through the use of technology. For example, James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” features P. Burke, a “deformed” and suicidal teenager who, once “saved,” receives advanced technological implants that allow her to control the physically beautiful, but brainless, Delphi. Or, in a more recent turn on the theme, William Gibson’s Lise, in “The Winter Market,” is a sick drug-user who needs to be “propped up in her pencil-thin polycarbon prosthetic” (128). Even young adult SF reiterates the notion of being “cured” through surgical correction: consider the widely-popular Scott Westerfeld series, Uglies, where teenagers undergo an extensive series of physical (and neurological) surgery to become “pretties,” the desired normal (and easily controlled) bodies of the future. When reading this particular disability-in-SF category, it is important to keep in mind the lived mundane and difficult realities of using prosthetics or undergoing (plastic) surgery, because, as Vivian Sobchack observes: “As an effect of the prosthetic’s amputation and displacement from its mundane context, the animate and volitional human beings who use prosthetic technology disappear into the background—passive, if not completely invisible—and the prosthetic is seen to have a will and life of its own” (23). A DS reading of prosthetics and other medical modifications in SF must be careful not to idealize the transformative potential of such technologies while neglecting a discussion of the bodies most often targeted for and affected by such interventions.
Disability as a Condition to Transcend
Another popular and prominent representation of disability in SF is the use of technology, usually cyberspace or virtual reality, that projects the “inner self” out of and away from the sick or disabled body. To find examples of this particular narrative, one only has to look at (pre- and post-) cyberpunk: Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (everyone still on Earth uses the Penfield mood organ to dictate their mental state); Gibson’s Neuromancer (Case plugs into his cyberdeck to escape from the pain of the timed lethal poison in his body); and Laura Mixon’s Proxies (children with multiple disabilities are sealed into crèches, living out the rest of their days in virtual reality and through synthetic proxy bodies). The move to imagine a simple (technologically-mediated) transcendence from the body “by ignoring or discounting its needs and sensations is generally a luxury of the healthy and able-bodied” (173) states Susan Wendell in The Rejected Body. She goes on to propose that:
We cannot speak only of reducing our alienation from our bodies, becoming more aware of them, and celebrating their strengths and pleasures; we must also talk about how to live with the suffering body, with that which cannot be noticed without pain, and that which cannot be celebrated without ambivalence. We may find then that there is a place in our discussion of the body for some concept of transcendence. (Wendell 179)
Taking a DS approach to analyzing transcendence in SF means considering the material conditions and kind of body that is being “left behind.”
Disability As out of Sync (with Normative Time)
SF classics, from Planet of the Apes to Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, speculate on potential futures (and pasts) through bodies that fail to match the ideal of their present time. Kafer importantly asks in Feminist, Queer, Crip, “Why is disability in the present constantly deferred, such that disability often enters critical discourse only as the marker of what must be eliminated in our futures or what was unquestionably eliminated in our pasts?” (10). The language of time and futurity, an essential characteristic of SF, is present throughout the cannon of disability studies.[v] As Snyder and Mitchell state:
In a culture that endlessly reassures itself that it is on the verge of conquering Nature once and for all, along with its own “primitive” instincts and the persistent domain of the have-nots, disability is referenced with respect to these idealized visions. As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to a human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without “deviancy.” (Cultural Locations 32)
There is a refusal to situate the disabled body in the present; only the normative able-body can claim that position, as disability in SF is often shown as a genetic step backwards or as a condition to erase from the future. As the genetically “imperfect” Vincent Freeman concludes in Gattaca: “For someone who was never meant for this world, I must confess I’m suddenly having a hard time leaving it. Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving, maybe I’m going home.” Vincent sees himself as a product of a bygone age before genetic screening, and as such, is best at home with the ancient stars.
Disability As Creator of the Cyborg or Posthuman
From classic television shows (e.g., The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) to blockbuster films (e.g., Robocop) to novels (e.g., Martin Caidin’s Cyborg and Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix) the idea of the injured or disabled body remade stronger, better, faster has intrigued both fans and academics alike. Commenting on Donna Haraway’s problematic use of the paraplegic as cyborg—“Perhaps paraplegics and other severely handicapped people can (and sometimes do) have the most intense experiences of complex hybridization” (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 178)—Kafer argues that “the term ‘cyborg,’ rather than entailing a critique of existing categories and ideologies, is used to perpetuate distinctions between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ bodies, distinctions that have material consequences involving discrimination, economic inequalities, and restricted access” (110). Such criticism resonates throughout DS readings of disability as a condition that creates cyborgs (or posthumans) both in and out of SF.
One of the most cited novels for a claimed positive representation of a person with disabilities being an exemplar cyborg/posthuman is Anne McCaffery’s The Ship Who Sang. The human protagonist, Helva, “born a thing” (1), is turned into a “brain ship.” While many scholarly readings of this novel exist, as Ria Cheyne points out, none of them attend to the ableist assumptions that underlie Helva’s supposed freedom as cyborg. Cheyne writes: “Rather than an exemplar of the liberatory possibilities of a cyborg existence, then, I read Helva as a pitiful figure: not because of her initial physical impairments, but because of what is done to her without her knowledge or consent, her lack of freedom, and the limitations her conditioning places on her thought” (145). Many SF narratives portray the “overcoming” of disability (through technological enhancements) as a way to realizing a posthuman future, but, in doing so, they end up eliding the real and damaging ways people with disabilities are characterized as something other than “normal.” As Sherryl Vint comments in Bodies of Tomorrow, “Technological visions of the post-embodied future are merely fantasies about transcending the material realm of social responsibility” (8). A DS approach to reading the cyborg or posthuman figure in SF should take into consideration issues of access: who gets to create, navigate and make use of potentially transformative technology?
Disability As Creator of the Superhuman (the “Super Crip”)
Echoing the racist stereotype of the “magical negro,” Colin Barnes describes the “super cripple” (or super crip), as: “the disabled person [who] is assigned super human almost magical abilities. Blind people are portrayed as visionaries with a sixth sense or extremely sensitive hearing. Alternatively, disabled individuals, especially children, are praised excessively for relatively ordinary achievements” (12).[vi] Barnes might as well be addressing the “super crips” of the Star Trek universe. With its insistent optimistic transhumanism, people with disabilities are shown constantly striving for, and often exceeding, “normal” achievements; for example: the deaf, but telepathic, mediator Riva (ST: TNG episode, “Loud as a Whisper”); the exo-skelton clad, brilliant scientist Melora (ST: DS9 episode, “Melora”);[vii] and T’Pol, a Vulcan who struggles to overcome neurological damage that inhibits her ability to control her emotions (ST: Enterprise). The Next Generation’s Geordi LaForge, however, is perhaps the most recognizable character with a disability in Star Trek. In the introduction of the character, Gene Rodenberry describes Geordi as: “racially black and birth-defect blind—although with prosthetic super-high tech artificial ‘eyes’ which can detect electromagnetic waves from all the way from [sic] raw heat to high frequency ultra-violet, making other crewpersons seem hopelessly ‘blind’ by comparison. […] Because of his ‘eyes’, Geordi can also perform some of the functions of a tricorder” (7). In this well-intentioned description, Roddenberry creates the superhuman stereotype: the bulk of Geordi’s character description is dedicated to his disability and technological superiority. By classifying disability as a condition that creates superhumans or “super crips,” SF writers contribute to a culture that sets up people with disabilities with unrealistic standards, and then condemns them when they cannot or do not want to meet them.
Disability As Distinction of the Non-human
The last disability-in-SF category that I want to highlight is disability as a defining quality of the non-human, and, as a result, a threat to the normative, able-body. This category can be located in the earliest examples of SF: H. G. Wells plays with it in The Time Machine, as the misshapen and brutish Morloks (the “working class”) are revealed, in fact, to be advanced humans, and the Eloi, with their lack of human compassion and intelligence, become another kind of dreaded otherness, a failed people, to the Time Traveller. Elaine Graham states:
Monstrosity has long been a trope for invasion, contamination, assimilation and loss of identity, the ascription of monstrous and subhuman traits serving to rationalize xenophobia and prejudice. That which is different becomes pathologized as “monstrous” and thus inhuman, disposable and dangerous; the monster is personified as a threat to purity and homogeneity. So women, racial and sexual minorities, political radicals or those with physical or mental impairments are designated inhuman by virtue of their non-identity to the white, male reasoning able-bodied subject. (Representations of the Post/Human 53)
The narrative hook of characterizing people with physical and mental disabilities as inhuman and threatening to the (usually white, male, straight, able) protagonist repeats itself throughout SF: the mistreatment and containment of the physically and cognitively different, yet gifted, “precogs” in Dick’s “Minority Report;” the beautiful, but stutter motioned, crèche grown Emiko who needs Anderson Lake to save her in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind Up Girl; or, in the Doctor Who universe, home of the ultimate antagonist and creator of the dreaded Daleks, Davros, who is visibly scarred and in a body-encasing wheelchair. Regardless of whether the audience feels sympathy or disdain for such “monsters,” all of these SF narratives dictate clear messages about how much difference is acceptable, who controls their own lives, and, ultimately, who gets to be counted as human.
One of my favorite quotes about the importance of being present in science fiction comes, not from a DS scholar, but from Brian Attebery in his book Decoding Gender in Science Fiction: “By using images of the future to describe the present, the popular media invite us to use futuristic scenarios as tests of viability. Any group that cannot negotiate a place for itself in the imagined future is already obsolete” (192). In the vast expanse of SF, there are so few positive representations of people with disabilities in the imagined future. SF scholars need to vocally and publically condemn SF narratives that exploit and humiliate people with disabilities. It is simply not acceptable to ignore films like Iron Man 3, where disabled war veterans are turned into weapons of mass destruction, or Source Code, which centres on the refusal to give agency to a severely injured soldier and where the director takes every opportunity to highlight the “evil scientist’s” use of a cane. DS scholars Snyder and Mitchell end their discussion of representation of disability on screen with: “It is in film that we encounter disability largely as a ‘plight to be conquered’ as long as when the lights come up, we don’t find the same bodies blocking the aisles” (181). While audiences can read the transformation or elimination of physical and cognitive disabilities in SF as an expressed hope that technology will be able to “fix” even the most “damaged” bodies, such stories elide the very real experiences of people with disabilities who constantly encounter a culture that would prefer them invisible or, at the very least, putting on an illusion of able-bodiedness. SF is a wonderful testing ground of viable futures; let us make sure that they are accessible to all.
Allan, Kathryn, ed. Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.
Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Barnes, Colin. Disabling Imagery and the Media: An Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People. The British Council of Organisations of Disabled People; Halifax: Ryburn, 1992. Web. 20 Aug. 2013. UK. .
Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. 25 Jun 1982. Warner. 2007. DVD.
Bérubé, Michael. “Disability and Narrative.” PMLA 120.2 (2005): 568-76. Print.
Chivers, Sally, and Nicole Markotić, eds. The Problem Body: Projecting Disability on Film. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2010. Print.
Cheu, Johnson. “De-gene-erates, Replicants and Other Aliens: (Re)defining Disability in Futuristic Film.” Disability/Postmodernity. Ed. Mairian Corker and Tom Shakespeare. London: Continuum, 2002.198-212. Print.
Cheyne, Ria. “‘She was born a thing’: Disability, the Cyborg and the Posthuman in Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang.” Journal of Modern Literature 36.3 (2013): 138-56. Print.
Crutchfield, Susan. “The Noble Ruined Body: Blindness and Visual Prosthetics in Three Science Fiction Films.” Screening Disability. Ed. Anthony Enns and Christopher Smit. Lanham: U of America P, 2001. 135-50. Print.
Davis, Lennard. Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions. New York: New York UP, 2002. Print.
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Russ, Joanna. The Female Man. Boston: Beacon, 1986. Print.
Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008. Print.
Shildrick, Margrit. Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: SAGE, 2002. Print.
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Sobchack, Vivian. “A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality.” Ed. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra. The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2006. 17-41. Print.
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Tidwell, Christy. “‘Everything Is Always Changing’: Autism, Normalcy, and Progress in Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark and Nancy Fulda’s ‘Movement.’” Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. Ed. Kathryn Allan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 153-68. Print.
Vint, Sherryl. Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science Fiction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007. Print.
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Goodley, Dan, Bill Hughes, and Lennard Davis, eds. Disability and Social Theory: New Developments and Directions. New York: Palgrave, 2012. 91-111. Print.
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[i] Chivers and Markotić use the term “problem body” to refer to all those bodies that exceed normative boundaries of the acceptable, and to place “an emphasis on the transformation of physical difference into cultural patterns of spectacle, patterns that replicate a range of pathologizing practices that oppress people” (9).
[ii] “What causes unease is not that those named as disabled are helpless—indeed the majority are far from it—but that the inviolability of their bodies, the inviolability that confers an aura of self-mastery, appears to have been breached. They are in other words visibly vulnerable” (Shildrick, Embodying the Monster 76).
[iii] “The meanings attributed to extraordinary bodies reside not in inherent physical flaws, but in social relationships in which one group is legitimated by possessing valued physical characteristics and maintains its ascendency and its self identity by systematically imposing the role of cultural or corporeal inferiority on others” (Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies 6).
[iv] In “‘Everything Is Always Changing:’ Autism, Normalcy, and Progress in Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark and Nancy Fulda’s ‘Movement,” Christy Tidwell compares the two divergent trajectories of progress for people on the autistic spectrum: in The Speed of Dark, surgical intervention leads to a more fulfilling, “extraordinary” life (as Lou becomes an astronaut), whereas in “Movement,” the main character Hannah celebrates the freedom of just being herself.
[v] To note another few examples: In her article, “The Noble Ruined Body: Blindness and Visual Prosthetics in Three Science Fiction Films,” Susan Crutchfield analyzes X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, Death Watch, Until the End of the World. Describing the disabled body in these films, she uses the phrase “body in ruins” for its “indication of a diminished physiology, but also for its connotations of an atavistic throwback, of a historical past now considered obsolete and therefore undesirable” (138). In another DS text that places the disabled body out of time, Tobin Siebers argues, “the ideology of ability makes us fear disability, requiring that we imagine our bodies are of no consequence while dreaming at the same time that we might perfect them. It describes disability as what we flee in the past and hope to defeat in the future” (Disability Theory 9).
[vi] In his list of commonly recurring media stereotypes of people with disabilities, along with “super cripple,” Barnes also identifies popular representations of the disabled person as: pitiable and pathetic; an object of violence; sinister and evil; atmosphere or curio; an object of ridicule; their own worst and only enemy; burden; sexually abnormal; incapable of participating fully in community life; and, normal (7-19).
[vii] There is a notable moment in the episode where Melora identifies the social construction of her disability: “I’m sorry if I seem overly sensitive, but I’m used to being shut out of the ‘Melora’ problem. The truth is, there is no ‘Melora’ problem. Until people create one” (DS9, “Melora”). See Hanley E. Kanar’s “No Ramps in Space” for a critical analysis of disability in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
I'm just going to pretend that it hasn't been 6 months since I last posted here. I have reasons!
My favourite conference (and the only one I go to these days), ICFA, is coming up in March. This year I decided that I want to present on one of my all-time favourite films, Blade Runner. Here is my paper proposal:
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“I want more life”—Disability as a Generative Narrative in Blade Runner
One of the pivotal moments of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) happens when the founder of the Tyrell Corporation, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, denies the replicant Roy Batty’s plea for “more life” by saying “the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long." In the face of Tyrell’s cruel dismissal, Batty’s desperate violence becomes understandable. Disability studies scholars have taken up Blade Runner as a film about cure (Johnson Cheu) and the consequences of genetic engineering (Michael Bérubé) as they focus on how it recuperates ableist narratives of disability. In her recent book, Disability and Popular Culture, Katie Ellis addresses the ways in which science fiction (SF) films are “producerly texts,” stories that depict stereotypes of disability but that also “offer the possibility of thinking differently about ourselves [...] and offer positive alternatives” (11). Following Ellis’ approach to articulating counter-narratives and using a disability studies framing, I consider Blade Runner as a SF text that unsettles our sense of what disability looks like and what it can be. While I agree with Johnson Cheu’s conclusion that the replicants in Blade Runner (like the disabled today) “are considered second-class citizenry and are stigmatized as such” (204), I want to problematize this straightforward argument by reading the replicants—as represented by Leon, Batty, Prim, Rachael, and Deckard—as generative of a diverse disability identity. Many popular SF narratives focus on the cure or elimination of disability, but Blade Runner places emphasis on the inhumanity of removing individual agency in the process of medicalization.
Alison Kafer, in Feminist, Queer, Crip, asks: “What is it about disability that makes it a defining element of our imagined futures, such that a ‘good’ future is one without disability, while a ‘bad’ future is overrun by it?” (10). Whether the viewer reads Blade Runner as a “good” or “bad” future (Cheu, for instance, calls it a utopia), depends on which characters are the most relatable. I propose that, through the ambiguous figure of Deckard, the audience is forced to confront the experience of disability as both impairment and as a social construction. By recognizing the replicants’ vulnerability and right to autonomy, it becomes clear that each is worthy of “more life.” I will discuss the ways Blade Runner engages with notions of shared human vulnerability and shared bodily difference. The ideal but unrealized outcome in the film is in the proliferation of disability, not in its eradication. By moving the normate/able body out of the centre in favour of the replicant, I hope to show the potential of SF films like Blade Runner to be generative sites of disability narratives about the future.
I'm a bit behind on this announcement but you can now buy ACCESSING THE FUTURE, a disability-themed speculative fiction anthology co-edited by me and Djibril al-Ayad (Futurefire.net Publishing, 2015).
Stories by Nicolette Barischoff, A.C. Buchanan, Joyce Chng, David Jón Fuller, Louise Hughes, Rachael K. Jones, Margaret Killjoy, Petra Kuppers, Toby MacNutt, Jack Hollis Marr, Kate O'Connor, Sara Patterson, Sarah Pinsker, Samantha Rich, A.F. Sanchez.
Internal illustrations by Fabian Alvarado, L.E. Badillo, Jane Baker, Comebab, Pandalion Death, Rachel Keslensky, Vincent Konrad, Tostoini
Cover art by Robin E. Kaplan
Preface by JoSelle Vanderhooft
Afterword by Derek Newman-Stille
Check out our press page over at The Future Fire, give us a like on our Facebook page. ACCESSING THE FUTURE is available for purchase (paperback or ebook) at Amazon, Smashwords, Lulu, and all other online retailers.
It’s time for a project update! I’m always kind of surprised that I manage to get scholarship and creative stuff done, but apparently it happens.
Last year started off with a research bang with my Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. I am finally ready to start delving into the 100s of letters I scanned. While it is true that I have been preoccupied with other work, the delay in getting back into this research was more due to the need to have mental distance from it. I was unprepared for how emotionally overwhelming I would find the research—the letters I was reading (from Le Guin, Russ, Tiptree, Delany, and many more amazing SF writers) brim with the lives of the people who wrote them. Given that I am an “emotional sponge,” I soaked up everything I was reading. Apparently, I needed nine months for things to get quietly sorted in my head so that I can now focus on drawing out conversational threads most relevant to my research interests. While I intend to incorporate some of my findings in a chapter on feminist SF in my planned book (more on that at the end of this post), I’m excited to see what other projects will spring from it.
One of those projects, actually, is an upcoming chapter titled, “Becoming Adult, Becoming Other: Anomalous Embodiment in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle.” I’ll post more details about that piece (and the edited collection by Sherryl Vint and Mathieu Donner that it will belong to) as the publishing details become finalized (as it is still in process). You can also read an interview I did with Alice Evans (of the CSWS) about the fellowship and my archival research.
In terms of notable scholarly publications in 2014, my “Disability Studies ‘101’” is in SF 101: A Guide to Teaching and Studying Science Fiction. It’s available as an ebook for a few dollars. [I’m also considering republishing it here on my blog, for free for all to read, if it doesn’t end up in the next issue or two of the SFRA Review—that decision will be discussed in an upcoming blog post]. For 2015, I am eagerly awaiting the April publication of Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media by awesome editors, David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu. I’m honoured to be a contributor with my chapter, “Re-imagining Asian Women in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk” (make sure to check out the super cool cover at the link). And while not a scholarly essay, I’m proud of the blog post I wrote about Misha’s Red Spider White Web for tor.com’s “That was Awesome: Writers on Writing” column last fall.
In just a few weeks, I am off to my favourite conference ICFA. I had originally planned on presenting a paper on disability in feminist SF along with organizing a panel on archival research in the field of the fantastic. Due to scheduling issues, however, I withdrew my paper and will be focusing my energies on the archival research panel. It feels a bit strange to not be delivering a paper this year, but I have good reasons (which are, again, being written up in an upcoming post).
Of course, the biggest news is Accessing the Future! Co-edited with Djibril al-Ayad, our disability-themed speculative fiction short story anthology is in the finishing stages. Accessing the Future will be published this summer (ah!) and it is amazing. While you wait for the summer publishing date to arrive, read one of the many blog posts Djibril and I wrote during our successful crowdfunding campaign. Working on this anthology has been life changing for me (and, yes, there will be posts coming about that too). Check out the awesome Table of Contents over at The Future Fire’s blog and look at the fabulous cover art by Robin Kaplan (below).
My next goal is to start, in earnest, writing a book on disability representation in science fiction once I am back from ICFA. I have set out two timelines for myself—one has me finishing a full draft by this time next year, and the other is accelerated, with a full draft come late fall. I do need to keep working (running Academic Editing Canada, which is work that I really enjoy, especially as I continue to receive more challenging and interesting client projects), so I’m keeping a flexible schedule of deadlines ahead of me. But still, a book! It’s hard to imagine such a huge undertaking coming together but since I also felt the same way about Accessing the Future (and Disability in Science Fiction), I know that it is possible.
I’m going to try to keep Bleeding Chrome blog better updated throughout this year. Writing leads to more writing, and it is helpful for me to keep engaged with other people and work out my thoughts in a more public space. So 2014, all things considered, was a darn good year, and 2015 is looking just as interesting and challenging. I’ll let you all know how it turns out!
Seeing as my independent scholarship is coming along better than I imagined, I proposed a paper AND a discussion panel for my favourite conference, ICFA (International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts). Both were accepted and I'm already dreaming of the Florida sun in March, smearing on ridiculously strong sun screen, chasing lizards, and swimming in the pool at the con hotel. And doing all that other fun conference stuff too. Below are the abstracts for the paper and the panel. The title of my paper is a play on James Tiptree, Jr's short story, "The Women Men Don't See." [UPDATE: I have withdrawn my paper due to scheduling issues].
The Disabilities Men Don’t See: Genetic Engineering, Medical Experimentation, and Institutionalization in Feminist Science Fiction
To date, most discussions of feminist science fiction (SF) address the subgenre’s engagement with the sexed and gendered body (and, to a lesser extent, the raced and classed body). Despite these necessary readings, I argue that there needs to be greater engagement with the representation of disability in feminist SF. In this paper, I trace some of the ways that feminist SF has shaped the conversation of disability in SF through narratives of genetic engineering (e.g., Joanna Russ’s The Female Man), medical experimentation (e.g., James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”), and instutionalization (e.g., Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time). Framing my discussion with disability studies theory, I will attend to Alison Kafer’s insistence that we must examine what is unsaid or assumed about disability in the creation of an ideal feminist utopia (74, Feminist, Queer, Crip). While the feminist SF writers of the 1970s (and the 1980s) often imagined the problematic “defeat” of disability in their visions of a “better” future, I propose that they nevertheless opened up a space to challenge what it means to be a visible “non-normative” or “deviant” body in a heteronormative and ableist society. More recent intersectional feminist SF works, such as Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl (2002) and Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2005), have since taken up the complex relationships that exist between disabled, gendered, and racialized forms of marginalization. This paper ultimately advocates for the integration of disability studies—and a rejection of any future founded on the (medical) exploitation and erasure of people with disabilities—in feminist SF scholarship.
Archival Research in the Field of the Fantastic
As the field of fantastic embraces intersectional ways of reading, more scholars (at all levels) are engaging with interdisciplinary forms of pedagogy and research practices. Archives of fantastic literature (e.g., novels, zines, pulp magazines, etc.) and the personal papers (e.g., correspondence, fan mail, manuscript drafts, etc.) of authors in the field offer rich sites of investigation that still remain largely untapped. This panel will address issues around the growing interest in archival research, taking up such questions as: What collections are available and at which institutions? How does one develop a project that makes use of archival research? What are the funding opportunities available for archival research? What are the best research and pedagogical strategies to practice while in the archives? How does one make use of archival materials (e.g., navigating copyright/permissions)? What are some of the latest discoveries coming out of archival research in the field of the fantastic? As they discuss these points, the panelists (Kathryn Allan, Gerry Canavan, and Josh Pearson*) will also share some of the insights and findings from their recent and ongoing archival research projects.
*It is possible that another panelist may join us.
Accessing the Future's crowdfunding campaign was a success (closing at $8300). The Call for Submissions (CFS) is now out! In addition to the original CFS posted at The Future Fire, I have produced a version using plain language (see below). Both versions contain the same information but differ in format and word choice. If I can further improve this plain language version, please let me know in the comments.
Accessing the Future
Accessing the Future will be an anthology of speculative fiction short stories. The theme of the book is disability. Kathryn Allan and Djibril al-Ayad are the editors of Accessing the Future.
The editors want to receive stories from as many people as possible. The editors encourage submissions from:
- people with disabilities (this includes physical and mental disabilities)
- people with chronic illness
- people with mental illness
- people who are neuroatypical
- people who understand disability politics
- the QUILTBAG community
- people of colour
- non-North American writers
- people who are sensitive to intersectional politics
Stories the editors want:
The editors want to read stories that depict disability and people with disabilities in the future. The editors also want the stories to be mindful of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class. Stories can take place in virtual spaces (like the internet). Stories can also be set in outer space or anywhere on earth. Stories can deal with prosthetic technology (like brain implants or artificial limbs). Stories can also be about medical technology (like gene therapy).
Here are some questions the editors want writers to think about:
- How will people change the future world?
- What kinds of new spaces will there be to explore and live in? Who will have access to these spaces? In what ways will people use these new spaces?
- What kinds of technology will people use to make their lives easier in the future?
- How will new technology change existing differences in ability, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and race?
- What does an accessible future look like?
Stories the editors will reject:
- Stories where people with disabilities are “cured” or do not consent to medical treatment.
- Stories of people with disabilities as “extra special,” “magical,” or “inspirational” because of their disability.
- Any story that is racist, sexist, or homophobic.
- Any story that is insulting or harmful to any person or group of people.
Payment and Rights:
The editors will pay $0.06/word (six cents a word) for global English first publication rights in print and digital format. The authors retain copyright.
- Send stories to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight UTC on November 30th, 2014.
- Story length is between 2500-7500 words.
- No reprints or simultaneous submissions.
- Attach the story as a .doc, .docx, or .rtf file, with the author’s name, the story title, and the wordcount on the first page.
- The editors do not ask authors to identify themselves as a person with a disability. The editors respect anyone’s desire to self-identify.
About the Editors and Publisher:
Futurefire.net Publishing is the publisher of The Future Fire magazine. Futurefire.net Publishing also published Outlaw Bodies (2012, co-edited by Lori Selke) and We See a Different Frontier (2013, co-edited by Fabio Fernandes). Djibril al-Ayad is a historian and futurist. He co-edited both Outlaw Bodies and We See a Different Frontier. He has edited TFF since 2005.
Kathryn Allan is an independent scholar of feminist SF, cyberpunk, and disability studies. She is the first Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellow (2013-14). She is editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013, Palgrave MacMillan). Kathryn is an Associate Editor and Reader of The Future Fire. She tweets and blogs as Bleeding Chrome.
After months of planning and preparation, I am totally stoked to announce my next project: co-editing (with the amazing Djibril al-Ayad) a volume of dis/ability themed speculative fiction, Accessing the Future. I've been dreaming of this project for years now, so it's quite exciting to see it come to reality...well almost. We are fundraising on Indiegogo, so please visit our page and snap up one of the many great perks. We've already received a promising first reaction from our campaign supporters and allies, so we're confident that this campaign will be a success. Please help us cross the finish line and make Accessing the Future the next hit SF anthology! Visit our Indiegogo campaign to donate & get cool stuff, and help boost the signal over Twitter, and like our Facebook page. Awesome!
We are raising funds to publish a special anthology of dis/ability-themed speculative fiction, Accessing the Future, co-edited by Kathryn Allan (me!) and Djibril al-Ayad, to be published by Futurefire.net Publishing. Futurefire.net Publishing is the publisher of both The Future Fire magazine of social-political speculative fiction, and of two previous anthologies, Outlaw Bodies (2012, co-edited by Lori Selke) and We See a Different Frontier (2013, co-edited by Fabio Fernandes). Djibril al-Ayad, a historian and futurist, co-edited both volumes and has edited TFF since 2005.
This anthology will call for and publish speculative fiction stories that interrogate issues of dis/ability—along with the intersecting nodes of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future. We want people of all abilities to see themselves, as they are now and as they want to be, in our collective human future.
The Anthology Details
Inspired by the cyberpunk and feminist science fiction of yesterday and the DIY, open access, and hacktivist culture of today, Accessing the Future will be an anthology that explores the future potentials of technology to augment and challenge the physical environment and the human form—in all of its wonderful and complex diversity.
We are particularly interested in stories that interrogate issues of dis/ability—and the intersecting nodes of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both physical and virtual spaces. Dis/ability is a social construct, and all bodies do not fit into or navigate the material environment in the same way(s). Personal and institutional bias against disability marginalizes and makes “deviant” people with certain differences, but it doesn't have to be that way.
We want to ask:
- How will humanity modify the future world?
- What kinds of new spaces will there be to explore and inhabit? Who will have access to these spaces and in what ways?
- Given that we all already rely on (technological) tools to make our lives easier, what kinds of assistive and adaptive technologies will we use in the future?
- How will augmentations (from the prosthetic to the genetic) erase or exacerbate existing differences in ability, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and race?
- What does an accessible future look like?
Accessing the Future will be a collection of speculative fiction that places emphasis on the social, political, and material realms of being. We aren’t looking for stories of “cure,” that depict people with disabilities (or with other in/visible differences) as “extra special,” as inspirations for the able bodied, or that generally reproduce today’s dominant reductionist viewpoints of dis/ability as a fixed identity and a problem to be solved. We want stories that place emphasis on intersectional narratives (rejection of, undoing, and speaking against ableist, heteronormative, racist, cissexist, and classist constructions) and that are informed by an understanding of dis/ability issues and politics at individual and institutional levels. We want to hear from writers that think critically about how prosthetic technologies, new virtual and physical environments, and genetic modifications will impact human bodies, our communities, and the planet.
Slowly but surely, people are discovering Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. So far, the edited collection has received four positive reviews. I couldn't be happier. I really didn't know what to expect when the book was published. Would anyone read it? How would non-academic fans react? The response to date, after 10 months on the market, has been excellent. See for yourself (links listed in order of most recent to oldest):
"In her introduction to the collection, Kathryn Allan writes that she intends this book to be an opening round in the only just beginning conversation between SF studies and critical dis/ability studies. But I would argue that she has quite surpassed that humble goal, giving us instead an anthology that will remain a critical work for scholars and fans in both fields for years to come." - Sarah Sackville-McLauchlan, Canadian Journal of Disability Studies
"Disability in Science Fiction seems to present a selection of possibilities rather than an overarching argument (a sort of critical buffet) - though these possibilities can feed off each other in exciting ways. Other works and collections will hopefully build on some of what is here; Allan's collection is a good beginning." - Aishwarya Subramanian, Strange Horizons
"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 . . . While it may not be true that every reader is a science fiction fan, it would take someone with a great poverty of imagination to come away from Disability in Science Fiction without becoming excited by some idea it sparked." - Michael Northen, Editor of Wordgathering
"Disability in Science Fiction is an unusual collection of academic articles: it combines interesting scholarship with an remarkable degree of accessibility to the general reader . . . It is a very thought-provoking collection, and one I'm glad to have read." - Liz Bourke, Tor.com