[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.]
__ __ __
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.
---. “Stumped by Genes: Lingua Gattaca, DNA, and Prosthesis.” Ed. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra. The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2006. 91-106. Print.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1968. Print.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. Print.
---. Staring: The Way We Look. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol. Columbia Pictures, 1997. DVD.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.
---. “Winters Market.” Burning Chrome. New York: Eos, 2003. Print.
Goodley, Dan, and Mark Rapely. “Changing the Subject: Postmodernity and People with ‘Learning Difficulties.’” Disability/Postmodernity. Ed. Mairian Corker and Tom Shakespeare. London: Continuum, 2002. 127-42. Print.
Graham, Elaine. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002. Print.
Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.
Iron Man 3. Dir. Shane Black. Paramount Studies, 2013. Film.
Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2013. Print.
Kanar, Hanley E. “No Ramps in Space: The Inability to Imagine Accessibility in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Ed. Elyce Rae Helford. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. 245-64. Print.
McCaffery, Anne. The Ship Who Sang. New York: Del Rey, 1969.
McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.
Michalko, Rod. The Difference That Disability Makes. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2002.
Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006. Print.
---. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000. Print.
Mixon, Laura. Proxies. New York: Tor, 1998. Print.
Moon, Elizabeth. The Speed of Dark. New York: Del Rey, 2002. Print.
Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Ballantine, 1976. Print.
Quayson, Ato. Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation. New York: Columbia UP, 2007. Print.
Roddenberry, Gene. “Lt. (J. G.) Geordi La Forge.” Star Trek: The Next Generation Writer/Director’s Guide. Web. 20 Aug. 2013. http://leethomson.myzen.co.uk/Star_Trek/ 2_The_Next_Generation/Star_Trek_-_The_Next_Generation_Bible.pdf.
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.
Smith, Angela M. Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.
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.
Source Code. Dir. Duncan Jones. Summit Entertainment, 2011. Film.
Star Trek: Nemesis. Dir. Stuart Baird. Paramount Pictures, 2002. DVD.
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.
Wendell, Susan. “Feminism, Disability, and Transcendence of the Body.” The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996. 165-79. Print.
Davis, Lennard. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London: Verso, 1995. Print.
---., ed. The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
---. The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2014. Print.
Einstein, Sarah. “The Future Imperfect.” Redstone Science Fiction. June 2010. Web. July 15 2013.
Goodley, Dan, Bill Hughes, and Lennard Davis, eds. Disability and Social Theory: New Developments and Directions. New York: Palgrave, 2012. 91-111. Print.
Grosz, Elizabeth. “Naked.” The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. Ed. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2006. 187-202. Print.
Hall, Kim Q., ed. Feminist Disability Studies. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 2011. Print.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-107. Print.
Kerr, Anne, and Tom Shakespeare. Genetic Politics: From Eugenics to Genome. Cheltenham: New Clarion, 2002. Print.
Longmore, Paul K. “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People.” Social Policy 16 (Summer 1985): 31-38. Print.
---. Why I Burned My Books and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003. Print.
Moody, Nickianne. “Untapped Potential: The Representation of Disability/Special Ability in the Cyperpunk Workforce.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 3.3 (1997): 90-105. SAGE.
Nussbaum, Martha. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006. Print.
Peace, William J. “Slippery Slopes: Media, Disability, and Adaptive Sports.” The Body Reader. Ed. Jean Moore and Mary Kosut. New York: New York UP, 2010. 332-44. Print.
Shakespeare, Tom. Disability Rights and Wrongs. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Shapiro, Joseph. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Three Rivers, 1993. Print.
Squier, Susan Merrill. Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.
Titchkosky, Tanya. The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011. Print.
Titchkosky, Tanya and Rod Michalko. Rethinking Normalcy: A Disability Studies Reader. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’, 2009. Print.
Vanderhooft, JoSelle, ed. The WisCon Chronicles: Shattering Ableist Narratives. Vol. 7. Seattle: Aqueduct, 2013. Print.
Wald, Priscilla. Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008. Print.
Watson, Nick, Alan Roulstone, and Carol Thomas, eds. Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.
Weinstock, Jeffrey A. “Freaks in Space: ‘Extraterrestrialism’ and ‘Deep-Space Multiculturalism.’” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York UP, 2006. 327-37. Print.
Wills, David. Prosthesis. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995. Print.
[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.
Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day (or BADD for short), and this is my first year participating. For those of you new to my blog and my work, when I’m not running Academic Editing Canada, I’m busy with my independent scholarship in disability studies and science fiction. I recently wrote a post about my disability identification, “Fragments: Disability, Community, and Me,” if you’re curious, and many of the posts on this blog deal with my reflections on being a chronically-ill graduate student, and how that experience informs my research today. I also edit science fiction (SF), and I want to mention some good news right away— because I’m super proud of it—that Accessing the Future, an anthology of disability-themed speculative fiction stories that I co-edited with Djibril al-Ayad, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly!
There are many things that I could write about when it comes to my experiences of ableism, but I thought I’d share some of my observations as an independent scholar invested in bringing disability studies into science fiction studies. At the moment, I am frustrated with the genre academic community's engagement with disability—it is still such a marginalized conversation outside the handful of us who work at this intersection (mostly grad students and recent PhDs).
There are many oversights and microagressions I have witnessed or encountered in my role as scholar and writing about them in any specific detail feels unsafe and “unprofessional.” I know that this is ableism at work. I can say that I have felt devalued in my interactions with a few journal editors. I have made requests for accommodation on presentation times that were entirely ignored. And I’ve had to withdraw an accepted paper at a conference because its scheduling was so mishandled. These are just a few incidences that have affected my ability to fully participate, and I have heard many, many more examples of ableism from my disabled academic friends and peers. It is extremely common to hear, for example, in all kinds of academic and casual conversations, professors using ableist language, like “lame” and “crazy,” to describe unpopular or unusual ideas and people. This language hurts.
Articles addressing disability in any meaningful way are infrequent finds in genre journals—and, if they do appear, most of them are locked behind paywalls where I (and everyone else who lacks access to university journal databases) cannot read them. While I appreciate the difficulty of scheduling large, multi-track conferences, it is frustrating that the few papers about disability are often placed on panels about “otherness” or monstrosity (this has happened twice to me). It seems that genre conferences do not know where to effectively place a disability studies paper and this is a problem. It makes talking about disability in a sustained, critical way (that intersects with feminist, queer, anti-racist, and such other important concerns) that much more difficult.
While Disability Studies is becoming less marginalized in science fiction studies, there is a long way to go for it to move from a momentarily interesting “hot topic” to an actually active and engaged conversation that does not rely on a small handful of people to constantly bring it up. Since I started presenting on disability in SF at conferences (though I am not able to attend more than one or two a year I do follow what’s going on online), I have learned just how new and marginal disability studies is in the academic genre community. For example, the Science Fiction Research Association’s annual conference theme this year is “The SF We Don't (Usually) See: Suppressed Histories, Liminal Voices, Emerging Media.” Although many axes of identification were included in the original call for papers (CFP), there was no mention of disability! It took the wonderful Ria Cheyne to point out its absence before “disability and ability” were added to the CFP. Furthermore, there are no papers, from what I can tell from their conference program, that directly address disability. This is an all too common scenario that I have seen played out too many times.
Additionally, in a practical sense, there needs to be more people talking about disability and calling out ableism because so little is actually happening to improve the working conditions for a countless number of disabled graduate students, adjunct/sessional and tenured faculty, and administrative staff. Just check out some of the stories on PhDisabled (which is an amazing resource for disability recognition and advocacy). Conference organizers need to work harder in ensuring that their venues are fully accessible and in developing clear policies around accommodations for people with disabilities. Journals need to be open access and available on a variety of platforms.
I can’t speak to how other academics are trained in graduate school, but I know that for me, the process of interrogating cultural truths was held up as a foundational goal. I also know that when I see an absence of knowledge, especially one that causes or reinforces existing harm, I feel an obligation to speak up and say, “this is something we need to be talking about.” This is how I feel about the representation of disability in science fiction. There are very few popular SF texts that show realistic depictions of disability, whether it be physical or cognitive disability, chronic illness, or neurodiversity. It is a niche topic in terms of academic study but literature and film (and all media) show us what is and what is not possible. SF is an important place where cultural producers and consumers think through what kinds of lives matter and who gets to take part in creating the future world. I believe that genre scholars have a responsibility to meaningfully and significantly engage with disability—both theoretically and practically—sooner than later.
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!
As the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellow, I am busy finalizing the travel plans for my research trip to the University of Oregon's feminist science fiction special collections. I am going to spend 10 days in the archives, pouring over the letters, papers, and research notes of some of my favourite feminist SF authors. To say that I am excited is an understatement--receiving the fellowship is a huge honour and marks a major milestone in my scholarly life. This will be my first time performing this kind of archival research, so I've been making sure to read up on the archive's holdings and narrow down my research goals as much as possible.
I would like to thank the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship and its sponsors (Center for the Study of Women in Society, Robert D. Clark Honors College, and Knight Library Special Collections and University Archives) for providing me with this amazing opportunity.
What follows is an excerpt from my research proposal to give everyone an idea of my project and what I hope to discover in the archives.
“The Other Lives”—Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction
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
Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars—the other kinds of men, the other lives?
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness
My research at the Knight Library’s feminist science fiction (SF) special collection will form a central chapter on utopian feminist SF in my upcoming planned monograph on disability and temporality in SF. Starting with the so-called Golden Age of SF in the 1950s and extending into today, I want to trace the ways the genre has reflected the Western cultural attitude towards disability and people with disabilities, a vision that, while often well-intentioned, is condescending and ableist. Disability studies theorist Tobin Siebers notes the temporal tension inherent in discourses of disability: “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). I believe that the utopian feminist SF of the 1970s (and, to a lesser extent, the 1980s) helped shape the conversation of disability in SF, either through the problematic “defeat” of disability (seen in the genetic engineering of the Whileaway women in Joanna Russ’ The Female Man) or through an insistence on recognizing shared vulnerabilities while celebrating bodily difference (as exemplified by the Gethenians in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness).
Alison 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). My research project arises out of my growing curiosity to explore this question through the critical study of disability in SF (with a special focus on feminist SF). I am interested in the Knight Library archive’s holdings—in particular, the research notes, essays, and personal correspondence dating from the mid-1960s through to the 1980s—for Suzette Haden Elgin, Sally Miller Gearhart, Joanna Russ, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Active during and after the civil rights movement, these four prolific authors created utopian feminist SF that theorized and advocated new ways of being for women and the LGTB community. My proposed archival research will focus on the (self-identified) politics that inform their work throughout the 1970s and 1980s, seeking out lines of inquiry or attention in the differently abled body. To date, most discussions of these feminist SF writers address their engagement with the sexed and gendered body (and, to a lesser extent, the raced and classed body), but I am keen to discover if there are threads of disability awareness, or even overt advocacy, in their personal correspondence and research materials. To my knowledge, my proposed project will be among the first to investigate the archives with a disability studies framework in mind.
Given their progressive engagement with “deviant” bodies in their works (both fiction and non-fiction), the archives of Elgin, Gearhart, Russ, and Le Guin are ideal sites for this line of inquiry and will significantly inform my proposed book’s chapter on feminist SF, “Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist Science Fiction.” From her early novels such as Communipaths to her celebrated Native Tongue trilogy, Elgin’s oeuvre shows a sustained interest in the way language shapes our perception of people with different abilities. Well-known as an activist, Sally Miller Gearhart also explored the construction of cognitive and physical difference, most notably in The Wanderground, where an open narrative follows the telepathic (and flying!) “hill women.” Russ’s The Female Man, with its contrasting worlds of dystopian suffering and utopian genetically-engineered perfection, directly raises a conversation about the role of technology in shaping humanity. I am particularly interested in Russ’ correspondence with fellow SF writers—such as Samuel Delany, Marge Piercy, James Tiptree Jr., Vonda McIntyre, and Suzy McKee Charnas—where I hope to find mention of disability rights among the passionate debates about SF, minority rights, and feminism. In her Earthsea series, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed, to name only a few titles from her large body of fiction, Le Guin takes special care in giving non-normative bodies agency and self-direction by placing them at the centre of the text. Through examination of her newly archived papers—along with the holdings for Elgin, Gearhart, and Russ—I would like to identify material to support my reading of these feminist utopian SF texts as foundational in creating a space to openly discuss dis/ability in a genre that often elides positive recognition of people with disabilities.
Last year, I took to saying that 2013 would be my “debut year” as an independent scholar. After transitioning away from academia, establishing Academic Editing Canada, delivering conference papers, writing articles, and editing a book, I felt that I was finally starting to see my new (portfolio) career path solidify ahead of me. I could not have predicted, however, just how exciting this year would turn out. The publication of my collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, this past August was a big deal for me—I’m still in wonder that I made that I made a book happen. I haven’t yet come across any published reviews of Disability in Science Fiction, but positive appraisals have begun reaching me by word of mouth, so I can’t be any happier about that whole project. With the edited collection alone, 2013 was shaping up to a significant year in my professional life.
Until two weeks ago, I had no idea that I would be achieving another major milestone: on November 8, I was named the first ever Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellow. I cannot express how deeply honoured I am to have received this award. The fellowship is a $3000 grant to perform research at the University of Oregon’s Knight Library Special Collections and Archive, which houses an amazing treasure trove feminist SF papers. The title of my proposed project is "'The Other Lives'--Locating Dis/Ability in Utopian Feminist SF" (which I will blog about more soon). It isn’t the money that I am excited about here (although it is certainly extremely helpful), but that other people think that my scholarly work is important and has an impact on the field of feminist SF studies. I still cannot quite believe my good fortune.
This past weekend (Nov. 8-9), I attended the Sally Miller Gearhart “Worlds Beyond World” Utopian Feminist Science Fiction symposium (held as part of the celebration of the U of O’s The Center for the Study of Women in Society’s 40th anniversary celebration). Even if the I wasn’t chosen as the inaugural Le Guin Feminist SF fellow (which was officially announced before Le Guin’s keynote reading and interview), I still would have made the trek to beautiful Eugene. An event like this one doesn’t come along too often these days. In attendance were many of the feminist SF writers I’ve long admired: Vonda N. McIntyre, Sally Miller Gearhart, Molly Gloss, Kate Wilhelm, Suzy McKee Charnas, L. Timmel Duchamp, Hiromi Goto, Andrea Hairston, Larissa Lai, and, of course, Ursula K. Le Guin. In addition, there were many wonderful feminist SF scholars in attendance. I was pleased to meet (or reconnect with) Margaret McBride, Alexis Lothian, Joan Haran, Liz Henry, and Grace Dillon, along with all of the keen and dedicated grad students too numerous to individually name here. It was a real treat to inhabit a space that was full of intelligent and passionate talk about feminism, science fiction, and fandom.
In a word, I found this weekend overwhelming. In the best possible way. In an if-I-think-about-it-too-long-I-start-crying kind of way. Because graduate school was damn difficult and painful. Because the past three years have been full of hard decisions and sometimes unbearable loneliness. During the panel I was on (focused on current feminist SF research), I said that attending this symposium felt like “I was coming home.” It has been a very long time since I last felt such ease at being part of something larger than myself. I’ve enjoyed my time at fan conventions, and I certainly have a fondness for academic conferences like ICFA, but none of those gatherings have been as welcoming, stimulating, and just plain right as the feminist SF symposium. Over the past few years, I have often felt too fannish for the academics and too academic for the fans. At the Worlds Beyond World symposium, however, I didn’t feel that I had too much or not enough of some intangible quality to belong. I wasn’t the only feminist in the room (far from it). I didn’t have to defend being an independent scholar (in fact, people wanted to know more). It was a celebration of everything I love about science fiction, feminist and otherwise.
There were so many amazing and surprising experiences I had during the symposium that it is going to take me a few weeks to process everything. I definitely want to share more of my thoughts, so I will write more posts as soon as I can about what I learned at the symposium, about my fellowship, and my current/upcoming research activities. Things are good!
I haven't been posting lately because I've been going back and forth between overwork and recovering from overwork. I really, really need to break this ridiculous cycle! Anyways, that's a topic for another post--this one comes courtesy of upcoming4.me, a great online magazine about speculative fiction. They invited me to write a guest post for their "story behind" column and this is what I wrote:
_ _ _
When I left academia after the completion of my PhD in 2010, I wasn’t sure where I was headed. I did know, however, that my dissertation—Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk [available for download in my "about me" box above]—was not the end of my research into the ways that technology and the body intersect in science fiction. I was proud of my thesis, but there were avenues of inquiry that I wish I had been able to follow. One of those underdeveloped approaches was reading science fiction with a disability studies framework in mind. I was acutely aware of how little published (academic) work there was on reading disability and the disabled body in science fiction. Given the vast number of characters with disabilities (plus all of the plot devices of idealized “cures,” transformative surgical interventions, genetic therapies, and fantastic prostheses) in the genre, I was having a hard time watching and reading anything science fiction(al) without critically interrogating the representations of disability I saw playing out time and again. Unable to let go of my academic interests, I decided to transform myself into an independent scholar and jump into the world of academic publishing.
My edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, was a germ of an idea that finally took root during Renovation (the 2011 WorldCon). After receiving overwhelming positive support for the project from new friends and like-minded people, I returned home from the con and sent out a “call for papers” the very same week. By the end of the winter, I had 13 contributors preparing innovative and interdisciplinary readings of disability (with a focus on prostheses and the posthuman) in science fiction.
At this point in time, I should note, I had zero publications to my name. Dealing with chronic ill health and limited resources throughout my graduate career meant that I had no time or energy to pursue publishing opportunities while I was in academia. I wasn’t sure that anyone would want to publish an essay collection by a first time editor with no publishing track record. Nevertheless, I was determined to find the best press possible for Disability in Science Fiction because I believed in the value of the interdisciplinary critical analysis that it was presenting. After weighing distribution capability, promotional assistance, price point, and speed of the peer review process, Palgrave Macmillan was one of the first few publishing houses I approached. I sent my book proposal to them old-school style: I followed the directions for submissions listed on their website and, forking out the extra money for tracking and express post, mailed in my pitch. I was worried that some intern would simply shred my package on arrival, but my proposal was successful! Three weeks later the publishing house contacted me and told me they were interested in the collection (contract to be offered once the full draft was complete).
All in all, in took two years from conception to publishing the edited collection. The process of editing an academic essay collection is not a speedy one, but I think that my position as an independent scholar helped me move through the process faster than it otherwise might have gone. I selected essays that were on popular films and novels—such as George Lucas’ Star Wars, James Cameron’s Avatar, Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, and Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark— and instructed everyone to write in accessible academic language, so that (non-academic) fans of science fiction interested in the topic would also be able to read and engage with the ideas in addressed in the collection. I kept in frequent contact with the book’s contributors, gave out a lot of direction and praise (the first is easy to come by in academia, the second…not so much), and went through several rounds of drafting. Each person who wrote a chapter for Disability in Science Fiction brought a unique perspective to the questions that I previously had been working through alone. Editing this book gave me the opportunity to collaborate with scholars from across the globe, and it is an experience for which I am grateful.
Throughout the two years I worked on this project, I received amazing feedback and advice from both the academic and fan communities of science fiction. It was that support that helped me write and edit through pain flares, injuries from overwork, and fatigue. Editing the essay collection taught me that it is possible to have a voice as an independent scholar and that there is a whole community of people out there who are as passionate about the same stuff as I am. Disability in Science Fiction is one piece of the on-going scholarship that brings together science fiction and disability studies. My hope has always been that the book brings greater critical attention to the all too often negative and damaging stereotypes of people with disabilities perpetuated by science fiction, a genre that, despite its flaws, I and so many others love and take comfort in.
So you find yourself on the outside of the ivory tower (either by choice or not) and now you want to become an independent scholar. First off, a definition for you to consider: an independent scholar is actively pursuing knowledge (and presenting/publishing it), is tangentially or not associated with a university, and does not have funding/financial support for their scholarly work. If you are still thinking “sounds good,” then here are some questions you should ask and answer before spending your time, energy, and financial resources pursuing independent scholarship:
Why do you still want to do academic research and writing when you no longer have to?
Of all the questions here, this is the “big” one to puzzle out--and the one that leads into all the other questions (and late nights second guessing yourself). When you first leave the academy, chances are you are leaving with some baggage about what it means to succeed as a person with a PhD. If you have made peace that a tenure-track job is not in your future, then take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself: “Am I wanting to keep researching/writing/publishing simply because that is the kind of work familiar to me?” Transitions are hard. Transitioning out of academia into the non-academic working world is particularly difficult for many people due to the insular and cultish culture of academe. After x number of years carrying out academic duties, it is possible that you are still caught up in academic definitions of what constitutes worthwhile work.
Doing scholarship without a formal system of support is a whole other game. Do you actually love researching? Or is it just what you are used to doing? Distinguish between feelings of obligation (“I should be doing what I’m trained for”), expectation (“everyone expects a PhD to publish at least something”), fear of being seen as a failure (“if I don’t keep up scholarly appearances, everyone will think I suck”), safety (“this is all I know what to do”), and passion (“research is what keeps me going everyday!”). I’ve worried my way through all of these feelings and, admittedly, they all contributed to my decision to become an independent scholar in some small way. At the end of the day, however, it is a passion for learning, higher education, and seriously engaging in the genre of science fiction that continues to motivate me to spend my time and limited income on my independent scholarship.
Do you see scholarship as a hobby or as a part-time (unpaid) job?
As you’re figuring out why you still feel the desire to keep up your scholarly pursuits, (1) accept that independent scholarship pays no money and then, (2) ask yourself about how much time you are willing to commit to it. If it’s something that you only want to do on some evenings and weekends when the mood moves you, then it might be more difficult for you to meet the demands of academic publishing (which is something you may or may not be interested in…we’ll get to that issue soon). Good scholarship involves a lot hours—make sure to factor in how much time it really takes to research, read, write drafts, revise, submit, etcetera. I treat my independent scholarship as a part-time job and include it in my schedule as I would any paid work task.
Who is your audience? Do you want to publish inside or outside of formal scholarly publications?
You need to decide whether you want to even bother with academic publishing. Unlike non-academic publications that don’t require the same peer-review process, academic publishing takes forever and a day. Do you want immediate gratification from your writing? If yes, then you don’t want to go the scholarly route. Get your thoughts out there by writing for magazines, blogs and the like—just be cognizant that if you don’t have peer-reviewed publications, many academics won’t consider your work as on the same level as theirs. This may or may not be a problem for you (see next question).
Does academic acknowledgement of your work matter to you?
If you want to be a noticed voice in your field, then you are going to have to publish at least some peer-reviewed work and present at conferences. If you don’t care at all about academic acknowledgement of your scholarship, then perhaps you don’t actually want to be an independent scholar. And that’s okay. Be an awesome freelance writer or blogger or [fill in position here] instead. Being an independent scholar, however, does mean that you need to be actively engaged in scholarship—and this involves being in some sort of conversation, for at least part of the time, with fully ensconced (TT and all the rest) academics.
Is your particular field of study open to contributions from independent scholars?
Some disciplines have a long history of positively valuing independent scholarship, while others regard a lack of university affiliation with great suspicion. Knowing the landscape of your field will help you determine where your work will get the best reception and if it is worth your effort to pursue independent scholarship in the first place. By all means, be a trailblazer, but keep in mind that it’s often thankless (and expensive) work. See “Who is your audience?” above.
What are you hoping to gain from independent scholarship?
And finally, what is the payoff of independent scholarship for you? Remember, it’s probably never going to be money. Stop hoping for money! (Note: I’m still hoping for money). It might, however, be a way of finding an interesting career path that you never considered, or it might mean developing new relationships that will challenge and support you in your future endeavours. For myself, I’m still not completely sure what I want from my independent scholarship in the long term (like 10 years from now), but I do know that I have no intentions in stopping anytime soon. I have my next year of scholarship already planned out. I know that I want to write a book. I want to keep identifying the hidden corners of my field and help open them up to exploration. I want to start discussions, not end them.
When you are an independent scholar, you are essentially a university of one: you need to dig deep for motivation to finish projects, meet deadlines, and justify conference expenses.
Ultimately, being an independent scholar should make you feel happy and fulfilled. If, after mulling over all these questions, you do decide to become an independent scholar, please make sure to represent and rock out the title with pride!
My edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan August 8, 2013. It is available for pre-order from most major North American and European booksellers!
Book description: In science fiction, technology often modifies, supports, and attempts to "make normal" the disabled body. In this groundbreaking collection, twelve international scholars – with backgrounds in disability studies, English and world literature, classics, and history – discuss the representation of dis/ability, medical "cures," technology, and the body in science fiction. Bringing together the fields of disability studies and science fiction, this book explores the ways dis/abled bodies use prosthetics to challenge common ideas about ability and human being, as well as proposes new understandings of what "technology as cure" means for people with disabilities in a (post)human future.
Additional note: I edited this collection for both scholars and serious fans of SF. The analysis is academic, but the language accessible (i.e., we avoid esoteric terms & explain any complex theoretical ideas).
For anyone interested in what's inside, here's a sneak peek:
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction, Kathryn Allan
Theorizing Disability in Science Fiction
1. Tools to Help You Think: Intersections between Disability Studies and the Writings of Samuel R. Delany, Joanne Woiak and Hioni Karamanos
2. Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s “Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo,” Ria Cheyne
3. The Many Voices of Charlie Gordon: On the Representation of Intellectual Disability in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, Howard Sklar
4. The Metamorphic Body in Science Fiction: From Prosthetic Correction to Utopian Enhancement, António Fernando Cascais
Human Boundaries and Prosthetic Bodies
5. Prosthetic Bodies: The Convergence of Disability, Technology and Capital in Peter Watts’ Blindsight and Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, Netty Mattar
6. The Bionic Woman: Machine or Human?, Donna Binns
7. Star Wars, Limb-loss, and What it Means to be Human, Ralph Covino
8. Animal and Alien Bodies as Prostheses: Reframing Disability in Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, Leigha McReynolds
Cure Narratives for the (Post)human Future
9. “Great Clumsy Dinosaurs”: The Disabled Body in the Posthuman World, Brent Walter Cline
10. Disabled Hero, Sick Society: Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze, Robert W. Cape, Jr.
11. “Everything is always changing”: Autism, Normalcy, and Progress in Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark and Nancy Fulda’s “Movement,” Christy Tidwell
12. Life without Hope? Huntington’s Disease and Genetic Futurity, Gerry Canavan
My time at the Eaton/SFRA conference last week was well spent. After almost cancelling my trip (due to a heavy workload), I am so glad that I stuck to my plans and made the journey to Riverside, California. As an Independent Scholar, I was in good company: there were many inspiring papers by non-traditional scholars that held their ground with those by senior academics. My own presentation, “Reading Disability in Star Trek” (focusing on the last TNG movie, Nemesis) was an overall success. I am extremely pleased that I was able to demonstrate the productive possibilities of bringing Disability Studies (DS) together with science fiction. Genre studies in general can really benefit from a framework that interrogates the dis/abled body. Every time I had a conversation about addressing disability in SF with someone who had not previously thought about it in any depth, we both came away with new ideas to flesh out and texts to read. I only hope that I continue being a worthy ambassador of DS in the academic SF community.
I also have a renewed motivation to seriously start the research process for my planned monograph (which is, of course, fancy talk for “book”). From my plane ride down to the late night hours after the closing banquet, I was challenged by insightful questions and pushed to think about temporality and disability (the broad topic of my interest) in ways that I hadn’t yet considered. Between ICFA last month and Eaton/SFRA this one, I’ve truly had the full conference experience. I am already looking forward to the SF: The Interdisciplinary Genre at McMaster in September (fingers crossed my paper is accepted, but I will attending either way).
Without a doubt, I am on the right path. Do I know where that path leads yet? No. But I am so happy to find myself in a community of people who are supportive and excited about my scholarship. And I have made new friendships over the past year that have helped fill a gap in my life that has been there for too long. When I was ill during my graduate studies, it felt as if my peer community disappeared. The loss that I experienced at that time was incredibly painful and I have been searching for a place to belong since then. SF has become that home for me.
Since I can’t afford to go to WisCon or WorldCon this year (sniffle), I’m going to make an extra effort to keep in contact with my new SF community on line (through guest blogging—give me a shout if you want me on your blog—and Twitter and emails). I’ll use this extended period of time at home to keep writing about SF as I grow my academic coaching and copyediting business. For the first time since I finished my PhD, I feel like I have a productive and positive direction in my career life. There are actual things to do (that I love doing)! There are clients to help and book reviews to be written. There are deadlines to meet and book launches to throw and films to see (looking at you Star Trek: Into Darkness). This year is off to a great start. Next project please!
Last year when I went to ICFA, my only hope was that people would be nice to me. It was my first time trying on the “Independent Scholar” label and I worried that no one would pay much attention to anything that I had to say. Happily, however, this was a groundless concern and I ended up having an extremely positive experience (which spawned this post). This year, I went to ICFA with a different set of hopes and fears (but mostly excitement).
Since last March, I have made some good headway in my independent scholarship, most notably my soon-to-be published (in August) edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. In addition to that book, I also have several peer-reviewed articles/chapters in process, as well as a few non-academic bits of writing floating about (my favourite being the Afterword I wrote for Outlaw Bodies). I viewed this year’s ICFA as the start of my official debut as an Independent Scholar (capital letters and all). I knew that I would be meeting and talking with a great deal of lovely people, but I still had some anxiety about the reception of my latest work. My previous papers had arisen out my doctoral research, all thoroughly vetted and evaluated by my thesis committee. My research and writing about disability in science fiction, though, has happened in the comfortable bubble of my home office. While I have had a passing conversation or two about disability studies in the past year--and obviously have been engaging with it in depth for my collection-- I hadn’t yet tested my new knowledge base on the spot, in front of a room of my colleagues. So I worried. What if I interpreted the theory wrong? What if everything I have read is embarrassingly out dated? What if nobody cares?
As usual, I was stressing about nothing. It turns out that I do know what I am talking about. Of course I still have so much more to read and learn, but I am definitely on the right track. One of the highlights of the conference for me was talking for hours with another disability studies and genre scholar, Derek Newman-Stilles (visit his wonderful blog, Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy). Next year, we want to organize a panel discussion on reading disability in genre literature. We both agree: The timing is right, the interest is there, and disability is an identity position that deserves greater engagement within genre studies. With such conversations in mind, I have left ICFA feeling a great sense of forward momentum in my scholarship. I have finally found my niche and connecting with so many supportive people warmed the long burnt out cockles of my academic heart.
I also left ICFA with a renewed sense of advocacy for graduate students and underemployed adjuncting PhDs. There is still a lot of work to do around raising awareness and developing plans for action around the job market (both academic and non-academic). I talked with at least 10 grad students who had no exit plan at the end of their degrees. Most were clearly struggling to fully comprehend the financial reality about to befall them once they left their programs. I also talked with many sad and angry adjuncts--far too few actually enjoyed their current job position or felt any optimism about their future as academics. Now that I am operating on the outside, the stratification of labour within the academy is even more obvious…and more appalling. I can no longer imagine being within that system and needing to fight a daily battle for fair and equitable employment. In the upcoming years, I would like to see some sort of panel discussion that addresses alternative work strategies for genre scholars. The science fiction and fantasy fan communities are robust and might offer previously unconsidered opportunities for MAs and PhDs wanting to engage with genre in a meaningful (and perhaps paying) way. This year I had several grad students and TT faculty directly ask me about my independent scholarship, so the interest in non-traditional academic career paths is definitely there.
Next week I am off to the Eaton/SFRA conference and I am feeling, overall, a lot more confident about my scholarship going into it. I still have some of the same groundless worries bouncing around at the back of my brain, but I am getting so much better at ignoring them. When I was in grad school I could not have imagined this life that I have carved out for myself. While I have no clear goals for the future outcome of my independent scholarship, I am starting to make long(ish) term plans (e.g. write a book). Whenever my anxieties creep up now, I remind myself: an uncertain future is also a flexible one. And thank Cthulhu for science fiction.