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

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


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