In addition to running Academic Editing Canada, I'm an Independent Scholar of disability studies and science fiction (specializing in cyberpunk and feminist SF). I'm the proud co-editor (with Djibril al-Ayad) of Accessing the Future, a disability-themed SF anthology; editor of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure; and the inaugural recipient of the Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. My PhD thesis is awesome: Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk SF [pdf].
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.
The application period for the 2016-17 Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship is now open! If you have any interest in feminist SF or in the authors whose papers are housed at the University of Oregon's Libraries Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA), then I strongly encourage you to apply. These collections are a treasure trove of cool ideas.
Find out all the details about the Le Guin Feminist SF Fellowship (and the Centre for the Study of Women in Society) here.
This is also a good excuse to give an update on the state of my fellowship research, which is still on going. I admit that I wish I was further along but I've made peace with the fact that I only have so much time and energy to dedicate to my writing. That said, I am constantly picking away at the hundreds of (scanned) letters that I returned home with. I think that the biggest challenge--aside from finding the time when I am both well enough to work and not committed to my day job--is dealing with the affective aspect of the research. I was not prepared to be so emotionally undone by what I read in the letters (in particular those of Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Suzette Haden Elgin, and Sally Miller Gearheart). Finding a balance between a scholarly reading and a personal one has been tough, but I think I've finally found the approach that is right for me. Writing about Russ' letters for the WisCon Chronicles (link below) was a real turning point for me in this respect. I basically have realized (and embraced) that I am a creative non-fiction writer at heart (dare I say, an essayist!), so interweaving my own story with those of the women whom I am studying is how I can best honour their work.
My current project is still a book-length one, but instead of being a primarily academic text, it is going to be a series of essays tracing how I came to my disability identity through reading science fiction. My archival research will significantly inform several of the essays (as winning the fellowship was a watershed moment in both my scholarly and personal life). I hope to have this essay collection mostly drafted by year's end but I'm allowing a longer timeline. My writing pace is definitely a slow burn these days.
All this said, here's everything I have published to date relating to my Le Guin Feminist SF Fellowship research:
2015 Transcript of "Ethics and Methods in the Archive: A Roundtable Conversation at ICFA 36"
[published in the Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction, Vol. 3(1)]
2015 Letter, "Dear Tiptree, Dear Alice [with Notes]" in the award-winning Letters to Tiptree (Eds. Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce, from Twelfth Planet Press)
2016 (forthcoming) Essay, "Learning to Love Joanna: Letters on Feminism, Anger, and Courage" in The WisCon Chronicles (Vol. 10) (Ed. Margaret McBride, from Aqueduct Press).
I'm excited and keen to share more of what I learned from my archival research. I know that I am an infrequent blogger, but watch this space for updates in the future!
I am slowly teaching myself the art of origami. I only started learning it at the New Year so my skills are still rudimentary but I take great pleasure in every lopsided unicorn or too creased flower blossom I create. One of the most basic folds in origami is called the valley fold, which is quite simply folding the paper so that the crease is at the bottom, the paper pointing upwards on either side in a vee shape. When creating origami figures, this kind of inward fold can become quite complex as you make a series of folds on top of one another all in one smooth motion. While simple at the start, a valley fold is the beginning of something magical, lending hidden support to a narrow spine or mapping the way to the next folds to come.
Like a square of origami paper, I have been turning inwards. I have largely withdrawn from the world of internet chatter, specifically deleting my one social media account. After several years as a Twitter user, I found myself being both drawn to and devastated by the platform. It didn’t matter how well I culled my following list or muted people, I left every interaction with Twitter feeling worse than I had begun. Most discussions on Twitter (and wherever people gather virtually) seem to boil down to “us vs. them” and I was always worrying about which side I was supposed to be on. I’m not afraid of conflict but I long to see the person behind the words. The staccato effect of social media is too overwhelming, a stream of emotions mixed up the point where I lose context of what’s being said. I lose myself.
As I turn inwards, I am also moving away from identifications with large communities. When I left academia six years ago, I eagerly dove into the world of science fiction fandom and hoped that I would find a home there. I have not. I gave it a really good go--I went to conventions, I joined Twitter, I edited a short story collection--but fandom is not for me (at least not the way it is now). I think that I come off as too academic for fandom (and as too fannish for academia). As an independent scholar of science fiction, I confuse the categories. That’s okay, I get it. It’s just that I hate feeling adrift. I like being alone but I am tired of feeling lonely. I recently wrote an essay about Joanna Russ for the next issue of the WisCon Chronicles, and it helped me find comfort with my constant feeling of not belonging. Russ wrote about how she was always looking for, finding, and losing community. Of course I don’t fashion myself the next Joanna Russ but her letters poignantly describe the same fears and worries and desires that I have about community. And that shared identification is a form of belonging, is it not? I’ve now folded Russ’s words into myself and they give me encouragement to move forward.
At first I was worried that these mental valley folds signaled a larger retreat inside of myself that precluded growth and creativity and social connection. Since I left social media and rejected its illusion of connectivity, however, I feel so much better being alone. Instead of logging on to read a stream of strangers' tweets, I have been slowly writing emails to the people I am genuinely interested in. I’m always limited in energy but I’m making more of what I have. Most surprisingly, this inwards turn has caused a stream of words to spill out on to paper. There is so much that I need to write out, to explore and to explain. Something huge inside has finally shaken loose of anxiety and doubt and it wants out! I think writers call this “finding your voice” and it is wonderful.
Here I am. If you want to connect with me, I’d be happy to hear from you. Send me an email (I also have lots of paper and stamps and postcards)!
[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.
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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.