I was once an evangelical holdout against smartphones. I’d missed the start of their rapid encroachment into the United States because I was living in southern Kazakhstan from 2009 to 2011, and when I came back they were suddenly everywhere, ubiquitous and attached to people’s hands like a new appendage. I’d barely been able to get functional Internet access for two years and had come to like the lack of constant connectivity, but after a few months of living in New York City and running out of space in the notebook where I had to furiously scribble down Google Maps directions before leaving the house, I broke down and gave up my hand-me-down flip phone for an iPhone. Now it’s hard to imagine life without it, even though I’m aware of the way its programs are playing on my automatic responses, encouraging me to make it an indispensable part of myself, rewiring my brain to crave its reassuring notifications and little endorphin hits of fresh emails.
John Wiswell’s new short story “The Tentacle and You,” out this month in Nature: Futures, is a brief, clever take on the way these kinds of novel adaptations creep into our lives and take over, with a science fiction twist.
Most of us fall somewhere firmly in the middle of the fervent early adopter versus Luddite spectrum: we get on board with the latest tech and social media networks for reasons of convenience or peer pressure, even when ethical gray areas or privacy issues might initially give us pause. Wiswell’s story takes this idea to the extreme when a small percentage of the population finds themselves in possession of a “gift” they just can’t wait to share, a marvelously flexible and almost magically powerful tentacle. Who wouldn’t want a bodily addition that can heal any wound or make you strong enough to wrestle a bear, right? But as any beta tester knows, there are unexpected surprises with any major innovation, especially one that seems to have a mind of its own.
Wiswell has a knack for combining the laugh-out-loud funny with the unsettling and the affecting in his flash fiction. His story “Tank!”, published last year in Diabolical Plots, is a spot-on parody of a nervous attendee trying to navigate the travails and packed halls of a major genre convention, except in this case the anxious con-goer is a literal tank who smashes through doors, gets caught in corners, and almost commits “several hundred cases of vehicular manslaughter” in their attempts to make friends and have an adequate amount of fun. It’s hilarious, but the last moments are genuinely touching, and while I’m still not entirely sure how Wiswell managed to bring me to tears over a piece of military equipment, I’m going to chalk it up to his keen ability to evoke the discomfort every sentient being feels when lugging around a body that might not always do what we want it to.
Both “The Tentacle and You” and “Tank” get at the fundamental weirdness encountering a physical world that isn’t built for your particular form. It’s a concept that arises often in fantasy and science fiction, but it’s also a very real and central concern for disabled people moving through environments that don’t take their bodies and minds into account. Wiswell is a disabled writer who speaks directly to this aspect of “The Tentacle and You” in the essay accompanying the piece. As people begin to augment almost every aspect of their lives with technology, the conversations about which adaptations are needed and the way they should be designed often leaves out the disabled community, even though we’ve been at the forefront of using devices throughout history. We’ve had to be: with most of the world constructed around an artificial and damaging image of what a normative body comprises (one that leaves out a wide spectrum of people, disabled and able-bodied alike), we’ve needed to find new ways to get around and gain access to spaces, to express ourselves and write ourselves into the future. Assistive devices have been key to that progress, and part of what’s frustrating about the new waves of mainstream tech is that their creators frequently fail to make them fully accessible to the disabled community, even though operating on the principles of universal design would ultimately benefit everyone.
As someone who grew up with a pronounced limp and a tendency to knock into things because of various mobility issues, I fully identified with Wiswell’s clumsy, lumbering tank, who feels both hyper-visible and ignored as they try to partake in shared activities with their peers. Disabled people often tend to be objectified, talked about but not to, treated as medical quandaries to be studied and solved, rather than valid and whole people in their own right. “Tank!” plays with this concept but ends with a happy scenario, where the tank finds allies who accept them as they are and defend their identity and their needs. “The Tentacle and You,” on the other hand, highlights the disturbing experience of having your body’s features and changes discussed as if you’re somehow not in the room, an all-too-common experience for any disabled person who’s ever visited a doctor’s office. But the tentacle is egalitarian: the tentacle will come to us all, which lends Wiswell’s story its delicious creepiness and makes it a murkier metaphor that extends far beyond disability (as Wiswell points out in the aforementioned essay).
We’re in an era of vast technological and biological change, with science fiction struggling to outpace the developments of the real world in its projection of what’s possible. The very concept of the body is in flux, and disabled writers in particular are producing fascinating work that explores the emotional and psychological landscape of this new terrain. Wiswell’s work treats the subject with both humor and the serious weight of a creator who has spent significant time observing how different bodies are treated in our society, and his pithy, entertaining takes capture the profound strangeness of managing shifting corporeal forms, whether it’s devices, disability, or the encroachment of an intergalactic tentacular invader complicating our picture of what it means to exist in a body.
Katharine Duckett’s fiction has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine, Interzone, PseudoPod, and various anthologies. She is also the guest fiction editor for the Disabled People Destroy Fantasy issue of Uncanny. She hails from East Tennessee, has lived in Turkey and Kazakhstan, and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she majored in minotaurs. Miranda in Milan is her first book.