Aug 15 2013 2:00pm

Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (Excerpt)

Kathryn Allan

Disability in Science Fiction Kathryn Allan In science fiction, technology often modifies, supports, and attempts to “make normal” the disabled body. In Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, 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.

The collection is edited by Dr. Katharyn Allan, an independent scholar of science fiction and disability studies and author of the blog Bleeding Chrome. Below, we are pleased to share an excerpt from Dr. Allan’s introduction to Disability in Science Fiction.



“Curing” the Disabled Body


Throughout both fictional and lived experiences of disability, the disabled body is treated as contaminated or unruly and therefore in need of control by others (Shildrick 73). And more often than not, whenever there is disability in a SF narrative, there is the parallel trope of “cure.” So dominant is the concept of curing any instance of perceived disability, DS theorists return to it repeatedly, giving cure a twofold meaning. The first evocation of cure is the most obvious, common in both medical discourse and fiction, as in “curing” or “fixing” the disabled body of its perceived lack of normality and health. The second use of cure reframes the discussion of disability in SF texts by moving away from a simple determination of whether a disability is being represented as in need of cure to a more expansive and critical consideration of how the cure narrative is performing in that text. In other words, what does it mean to cure the disabled body, what are the cure’s outcomes, and are they desirable?

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. Quite simply, as Moore and Kosut state, “The larger message conveyed in the media is clear. If you have the means and the desire, your body can be potentially made more perfect than its natural or embryonic state” (6). Of course, the perfect body is an illusion that no one is capable of maintaining (as all bodies inevitably become ill and die at some point). Nevertheless, the idea of curing the body of its infirmities is a powerful trope repeated throughout the entire history of the SF genre. From utopian SF that sees an end to disability (like the alternative feminist future world in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time) to dystopian SF scenarios of failed cures (seen in Rupert Wyatt’s recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes) or cures that are only available to the wealthy few (a la Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca), SF is quite an experienced practitioner in reflecting the ideology of the “perfect body.”

We can see an evolution of the representations of “cures” or “fixes” for disability on the SF screen, for instance, with the example of Star Trek’s Captain Pike. In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “The Menagerie” (1966), Pike (played by Jeffery Hunter) is severely injured during battle, leaving him confined and dependent on a wheelchair unit (operated by his brain waves) that encases his body, leaving only his badly burn-scarred face visible. To communicate, Pike’s chair is equipped with one large light that blinks once for yes and twice for no. This Original Series Captain Pike is pitiable, and Captain Kirk—the very embodiment of masculine health and vitality as played by William Shatner—struggles to gaze on Spock’s old mentor. Fast forward to 2009, when director J. J. Abram’s glinting reboot of the Star Trek franchise hit the screens and reimagined the iconic disabled figure of Pike (now played by Bruce Greenwood). While still injured in battle, Pike clearly earns his wounds as a hero and is shown in the final scenes of the movie in a simple wheelchair, smiling, and fully functioning aside from his inability to walk. The 2009 Captain Pike is a far cry from the 1966 version—the representation of his character’s disability demonstrates the change in cultural attitudes toward people with disabilities (i.e., less monstrous, more heroic), as well as highlighting the advancement of the technological “fixes” for disability to be less visible. Despite the gains we see through the figure of Captain Pike, the desire to cure his injuries and return him to—or get him closest to—the idealized vision of the perfect/normal body remains (and, it should be noted, in Star Trek: Into Darkness [2013], Pike has traded his wheelchair for a simple cane and has no visible disabling injuries).

From reproductive technologies that further eradicate and limit the reproduction of disabled people to prosthetics that replace missing limbs and extend the function of the body, technology is an essential component in cure narratives. As the Captain Pike example illustrates, technology is often the “fix-all” for whatever ails or deforms the body (whether it be a visible absence of an arm or the hidden vagaries of an “errant” gene). In utopian visions, when integrated into the able body, technology makes the human body better—an idealized version of itself. When technology is applied to the disabled body, however, all too often it is in an attempt to cure or normalize what is deemed “wrong” with the body. Take the technology away and the disabled body’s supposed lack remains.


From “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction” by Kathryn Allan
Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure © Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

Deana Whitney
1. Braid_Tug
Then there is Bujold's Vorkosigan saga. The man charter is physically disabled, but it makes him so much more interesting.

At the same time, her "uterine replicator" when from a "Well many use it on Betan Colony, but it's a personal choice." To "Why the hell would you risk a body birth?! Everyone needs to use the replicator! It's the only way to be safe and respectful of the mother! Body births are too risky!!!"

And the gene cleanings that happens before the use of a replicator would prevent any “birth defects.” So the only disable they will be dealing with, will the results of trauma.
William C. Altreuter
2. William C. Altreuter
I want to think about this a bit, but the first SF portayal of disability that came to my mind was Robert Heinlein's "Waldo". Waldo uses technology to compensate for the weakness caused by his Myasthenia gravis-- he lives in a weightless state aboard a satellite, and has developed a self-named technology to allow him to manipulate objects. He objects to his space station being called "wheelchair", and lives in isolation from the rest of humanity. His physical limitations are compensated for by his technical inovations, but he is emotianally stunted -- until he finds a magical cure for his physical incapacity. This seems to fit Dr. Allan's paradigm nicely.
William C. Altreuter
3. PhoenixFalls
@1: But over the course of the series, Miles gets "cured" by technology as well -- all of his bones are replaced with synthetics that are more durable than human bone, so the only remnant of his disability in the current novels is his atypical height and proportions.
Shelly wb
4. shellywb
It seems to me that in a lot of sf the so-called normal human is represented as disabled, and improvement by genetic or tech modification is considered superior. So I see "cures" in sf as existing across a spectrum, and through it we learn that what can be considered a cure depends on where you're standing and what is most important to you. It has been a POV that has extended my understanding of what 'disabled' means.

There was an excellent short story on Tor just a short time ago that exhibited that very theme, Ken Liu's The Plague.
Michael Grosberg
5. Michael_GR
I find this article somewhat objectionable. This PC attempt to treat disability as if it was some sort of social construct, like sexual preference, gender or beauty standards... it's insulting. The biggest problem with losing a limb for exmaple, is not society's perception of the amputee as imperfect. The problem is the lack of ability to climb stairs, play football or ride a bike. It's not about being "normal", it's about being able to do things. And to speak of treating disabilities as a "trope" and, not, you know, as a real thing that happens in real life... and to speak of it using language that conveys the impression that it was something forced on the disabled by a society that doesn't understand their wish to remain legless or armless or blind... it's just... I just don't understand it.
William C. Altreuter
6. TheMadLibrarian
I can think of an entire spectrum of humans augmented by technology, either to compensate for something that restricts their interaction with the rest of society, or to improve over the original, unimpaired:

Helva, from McCaffrey's Ship Who Sang. Through neural interfaces her brain controls a starship, although her body is barely functional. McCaffrey's crystal singers are altered by exposure to the environment of the planet where they harvest crystal, sometimes beneficially, sometimes not.

Geordi LaForge, from ST:TNG. He is blind, but the VISOR provides him with sight superior to a standard human's, although the interface is painful. Later technological improvements can give him human-appearing eyes, or even regenerate them completely.

ST:TOS had Khan Noonian Singh, the genetically augmented 'superman', with superior intellect, reflexes, strength, and other benefits.

Several of Vonda MacIntyre's short stories dealt with humans who had voluntarily or involuntarily been modified, with wings, artificial hearts, special vision, etc.

Spider Robinson's Stardancers live in interstellar space because they have accepted a symbiote that lets them do so.

There are people who breathe water, or have hands instead of feet because they live in weightlessness. There are entire cultures where the sighted person is an aberration, or to be bound to one gender is unheard of, and nevermind the worlds full of aliens or mutants who are completely different from humanity. The current euphemism for disabled is often 'differently abled'; science fiction takes that thought and runs with it.
William C. Altreuter
7. Tura
It reminds me of a short sory by William Gibson where there is a man with a bionic, prosthetic arm, that is in many ways superior to a human arm, and also allows his nerves to be connected to a computer directly, so he can use directly a robotic manipulator to fix things too small for human hands. Bionic, better than human, eyes for a blind character are nearly a trope. So under the cover of curing disability, the authors also explore human/machine interfaces and extended abilities through technology.

I also find the "curing" in brackets to be a curious affectation. Yes, there have been various ways to see or not to see disabled people, but with the exception of some deaf people, how many disabilities are there that people would not gladly accept a cure for? Or a "cure"? As other commenters have said, it is not about making the disabled more "acceptable" to abled (or what are we?) people, but to allow people to do things they want to do. I read about a girl with severely stunted arms, thanks to thalidomide, that had to wear prosthetics to appear normal as a child, prosthetics she soon abandoned because they were useless and stopped her from using the real hands she had, so yes, I sort of get what the writers mean, but by and large those days are behind us, and for example prosthetics such as legs are now made with functionality in mind more than "they must look like real legs". While disabled people face similar discrimination as women and gays and minorities, it is not in any way a perfect symmetry. Try to imagine you were a black, gay woman who has lost her arms, would you expect any doctors to say "Oh we can now clone you new arms and attach them so they work the same as original, would you like that at the same time we bleach your skin, give you a dick and so make you a straight man, yippee,"? That would be bizarre. Then, would you really say no to the whole package, or would you tell them to eff off and go to some less insane hospital to have the arms cloned - so you can then go back and flip a birdie to the first lot of doctors?
Paul Lewandowski
8. Snowkestrel
I look forward to reading this book, as this small excerpt has left me confused.

Millions of people all over the world turn to technology every day to counter a diability that is very common- poor eyesight. Many of those people are minors who do not choose to wear glasses themselves, but have that choice made for them.

Beyond that, some of these vision-deficient people turn to technology for an actual cure, in the form of surgeries to correct vision without further need for glasses.

While some may feel as though vision problems are an imperfection, it seems more likely that the vast majority of people who choose to correct poor eyesight are doing it for the simple reason of maintaining as much functionality as can be achieved.

Now, anachronistic taunts of "four-eyes" aside, I am not aware of any social stigma regarding the correction of less than perfect vision. Indeed, there seems to be more of a stigma associated with NOT correcting failing vision when the technology exists to do so.

Why then, should there be any stigma regarding the improvement (or desire for improvement) of any function of the body or mind that is deficient in comparison to the norm, and within the realm of science or medicine to affect?

Surely there is the possibility to split hairs here: What is normal? How much is too much? What about improvement beyond normal abilities? Acknowleged and accepted. But still, the desire to be able to see/hear/walk/breathe/etc. like the vast majority of other examples of humanity seems practically universal. The introduction reprinted above seems to treat these desires as abberation, or as somehow an attack on those disabled persons who do not have the option to improve their condition. I rather think that it is as natural a desire as survival, comfort, prosperity, love or family. Few consider those desires abberant, or characterize them as 'tropes'.

Thus, I am confused.

tl/dr: How is it a 'trope' to show characters that have the seemingly universal desire to have their bodies and/or minds work normally? "Trope" suggests that it's not realistic or normal.
William C. Altreuter
9. Tamina
If nobody minds me tossing this in - I can think of one excellent example of fantasy exploring this whole idea in Sarah Rees Brennan's "Demon's Lexicon" trilogy (SPOILERS), where a main character who has a severe limp is offered a magical cure and ends up rejecting it because of, oh, various factors. But the point is that the old injury definitely made his life much worse and he rejected a cure because he decided he didn't need to use a wish to fix it.

This doesn't exactly fit in with the sci-fi idea of augmentation or replacement, but it does explore what "cured" means in an interesting way. Many disabled characters have their disability as their primary identifyer/motivator/means of intereaction, whereas a whole spectrum of disability and means of coping exist. (Additionally the trilogy is a very good read.)

Sorry if it's derailing to bring up fantasy but I thought a "cure" that didn't AUGMENT was interesting - honestly, if someone told me I could improve any of my (perfectly healthy) apendages/organs with no risk, I'd think about it.

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