Kathryn Allan, an independent scholar whose work focuses on the connections between technology and the body, has put together a rare beast. Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure is an unusual collection of academic articles: it combines interesting scholarship with an remarkable degree of accessibility to the general reader.
If you have no real idea about disability studies and science fiction studies as areas of academic concern, much less their intersection, fear not! For the most part, the articles contained herein are quite plain about their bases and goals, and provide much food for thought about the way we read science fictional technologies, bodies, and (post)human futures.
That said, naturally an academic collection will be of most interest to academics, and I’m not qualified to assess its success on specifically academic grounds: my knowledge doesn’t extend to disability studies or, really, to much that comes under the rubric of science fiction studies. Ergo, caveat lector.
Not counting Allan’s introduction, there are twelve papers in this collection, divided equally into three sections: Theorising Disability in Science Fiction, Human Boundaries and Prosthetic Bodies, and Cure Narratives for the (Post)human Future. (See below for the TOC.) The introduction should be required reading: it places the idea of disability (“the social process that turns an impairment into a negative by creating barriers to access” [Davis, 2002, 12]) and disability studies in the context of science fiction, and sets out the goals of the collection. Allan concludes: “Too often, disability is cast in a negative light in SF narratives; the use of a prosthesis signals a loss of humanity, or a perceived cognitive impairment necessitates technological ’enhancement.’ When we imagine a future world without disability, we end up erasing a significant group of people from our ideal vision of a collective human identity and history. It is important that we interrogate these outdated cultural frames of disability and seek new ways of reading and writing the disabled body so that we, as a human community, might move forward into the future together.”
Rather than assess each article individually—which would take some time, and run to several thousands of words—let me just talk more generally about the collection as a whole.
There are some really good papers in the first section. “Tools to Help You Think: Intersections between Disability Studies and the Writings of Samuel R. Delany,” by Joanne Woiak and Hioni Karamanos, which discusses in particular Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and some of his critical genre commentary. I often feel that the bread-and-butter of the literary corner of academia is pointing out obvious things in new combinations with more theoretical language. This appeals to me more when I haven’t read the work in question, as is the case here. But the ways in which the authors point out the role of ability and disability in The Einstein Intersection seems to me both precise and pointed. “The ‘extraordinary bodies’ in The Einstein Intersection,” they say [p32], “confront and destabilise traditional binaries, encouraging readers to contemplate the intersecting, contingent, and fluctuating categories by which people are defined—and by which they define themselves.” Sklar’s paper from the first section, on Flowers for Algernon, and Cheyne’s on a short work by John Varley, also stood out as strong and interesting.
The middle section of Disability in Science Fiction is its weakest. The articles aren’t bad, precisely, but they seem to me shallower than the others: McReynolds’s seemed less accessible, and struck me as unpersuasive; Covino’s failed to entirely (to my mind) support its argument, particularly with reference to the Greek categories of phusis and nomos as applied to the Star Wars universe. Compared to the opening section, and especially compared to the final section, it isn’t a stand-out reading experience.
The final section? Allan has collected the most interesting—the most thought-provoking—articles of the entire volume into Cure Narratives For The (Post)Human Future. If I had to single any one of them out, it would be Canavan’s, which discusses fatal genetic disorders in light of some of Octavia Butler’s stories. He concludes his article, and thus the collection as a whole, with the following statement:
“In a subsubgenre of genomic science fiction filled almost exclusively with hopelessness and dread, ‘the kingdom of the sick’ in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” stands as a striking alternative to a dominant narrative of resigned and bleak despair, insisting instead that we maintain the wide gap between individual and illness, between sufferer and suffering—reminding us that disability is not the same as death.”
It is a very thought-provoking collection, and one I’m glad to have read.
Table of Contents:
Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction; Kathryn Allan
PART I: 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. The Metamorphic Body in Science Fiction: From Prosthetic Correction to Utopian Enhancement; António Fernando Cascais
3. Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies: Disability as Generic Marker in John Varley’s “Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo;” Ria Cheyne
4. The Many Voices of Charlie Gordon: On the Representation of Intellectual Disability in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon; Howard Sklar
PART II: 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 Matar
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
PART III: 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