Disability in Science Fiction

Hammered by Elizabeth Bear, a great example of disability done well
Hammered by Elizabeth Bear, a great example of disability done well

Thought there are more stories these days with characters with disabilities, they are still a rarity. There can be many reasons for this but one of the ones we often hear cited is, well it’s the future, we will surely have fixed that by then. This idea that we can just solve disability with technology and medicine is what I want to talk to today. While I do not my self have any major disabilities this is a quite personal post to me.

Just because there is a cure, doesn’t mean that is kind of that it leaves you without scares

In the modern world we have gotten quite good at preventing disability and chronic illness – that is not to say that we can prevent anything – fare from it, nor is it to say that we might want to cure everything – but smarter people than me can speak to that. What I however want to talk about is this idea that in the future we will be able to cure everything, therefore there will be no disabled people and nobody with any chronic illnesses. We might be able to help everyone who has mental or physical problems but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have those problems. It doesn’t mean that all of those cures will be perfect cures rarely are. I will give you a few examples of what I mean by that.

Being nearsighted

Lets start with me, since I am writing this. I am quite nearsighted or have myopia (minus 8). This is not a call for sympathy, I do quite well – I am just trying to make a point.

In the everyday modern-day world it isn’t something I think a lot about, as I wear contact lenses – good ones and they work for me. I can wear them for a month at time, even sleep with them. That means that most days I don’t even remember that my eye sight is horrible.

However when my hay fever is flaring up (which it does – because pollen sucks), I can’t really wear my contacts. No problem one would think, I will just wear my glasses and I do. But glasses are fare from a perfect cure for nearsightedness, now are they.  They steal my periphery vision, they fog up constantly, they are heavy (leaving me with a sore nose and a headache) and they only work when I wear them. Anyone with glasses knows this. Some might now think, but I got get a laser operation to correct this. Sure but operations are never without risks and as I understand our current laser operations, they are a one time deal. So in ten years when my myopia has moved once again I would be in the same situation once again. Even if I didn’t have an allergy affecting my contacts, they always bear the risk of infection and not everyone can wear them. I just lucky that I can wear them all day everyday without any irritation or problems.

If I lived in a time before glasses or in a situation where I couldn’t have access to them for what-ever reason, I could be described as having a disability. I do not see myself as having one, but I do think about this when I go to reenactment events and seeing how many people there wear glasses (lucky me that I can wear contacts. This means that really fantasy worlds should properly be full of people with seeing propels or having either had their sight fixed though magic.

So sure we can “cure” nearsightedness with technology, but it is far from a perfect cure. It’s a cure with issues. Better technologies might lessen these issues but I don’t see them going away altogether. Lets take another example.

Cancer

Last spring my husband was diagnosed with cancer. Luckily it was one of the very treatable ones. He had hell in chemo. He went from being healthy to very very sick in a matter of weeks. It was quiet serious at some point. But the treatment worked as it should and he is now cancer free, just going to check ups once a year.

However, he got pretty much any side effect of the treatment that he could possibly have. For months he was nauseated. Because the treatment hit him so hard, he was ill enough that he was bed ridden for months, meaning that he lost a lot of muscle mass, that he still have not regained as the treatment, the cure, left him with much less energy than before. He also lost most of his sight on one eye, because they couldn’t treat an infection, during the cancer treatment. He has tinnitus on both ears and his taste buds were reset. But the cancer is gone, and we are of course very grateful for that. However much the cure worked, it didn’t leave him with no scares.

Remember cures tends to come with a price

I could keep listing examples of non-perfect cures, but really it seems to be all of them. And I have not even touched on any mental disabilities. They might tackle the problem, but there are almost always side effects or the technology might lead to other issues.

Which is why I love that we start to see characters in fantasy worlds have problems from old magical healings. We see the old veteran particularly complaining of pains in old wounds and people developing magic resistance because of too much healing done. That to me lends that world realism and makes it easier to connect to the characters.

So even if you can somehow imagine a world where we can cure-all disabilities and chronic illnesses, I find myself hard pressed to imagine a world were all of those cures are perfect. A world where that might be true, might be nice wish-fulfillment, but it doesn’t feel real and it erases people with disabilities today from fiction – and that sucks!

The portrait of disability doesn’t have to be perfect. People with disabilities being there is always better than not.

My examples of disability done well

And because that was quite grumpy, I better give you some examples of people doing a pretty good job with disability or chronic illness. This is by no means a complete list, but just a list of the stories that I can think of right now. Please comment with your favourite examples from science fiction or fantasy.

 

Hammered by Elizabeth Bear, a great example of disability done well Hammered (Jenny Casey series) by Elizabeth Bear
Space opera/first contact story 
War veteran Jenny Casey has a prosthesis arm and leg and they give her both great strength and a ton of problems. Bonus she is also a middle-aged woman, who very much feel her years and she is pretty kick ass. It is also a very readable book with great characters, which I need to review.

 The Warrior’s Apprentice (Vorkosigan Saga) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Space opera
Miles Vorkosigan is born with a birth defect that has left him very short and kind of broken. He spends all of his life coping with the effects of both the original problem and the effects of his treatments to help him walk. He is also a very intelligent and resourceful character. It’s a story about making the best of the cards life gives you, while also being a great space adventure with a military angle. Another book I need to review – though everyone and their aunt already did.

 Borderline (The Arcadia Project) by Mishell Baker
Urban fantasy
Millie has borderline personality disorder, two leg prosthesis and is quite a broken character, but she is also a very capable character. She has a lot of issues and is allowed to be very real. The book is really and is about the intersection of Hollywood and fairy. I am still amazed that it didn’t win all the awards. Read my full review here.

 Ascension (Tangled Axon) by Jacqueline Koyanagi
Space Opera
Alana Quick is suffering from a chronic illness that leaves her in pain and with fatigue. She is also a black lesbian spaceship mechanic. This book is so different from your run of the mill space opera while still staying well within the genre boundaries. Read my full review here.

 Sing by Karin Tidbeck
Science fiction short story
The protagonist has a physical disability and it’s walking with canes. It is a story about acceptance and risk and love. It is a stange story and a poetic one, as the cover image might suggest. It’s really hard to talk about without spoiling it, but read my full review here, or even better, go read it yourself.

 Careful Magic by Karen Healey
Urban fantasy short story
Helen is a mage with OCD, which is both a boon and a hindrance for her in the story. The story is a beautiful high school story, that leaves you wanting more but also having the perfect length. It is the story with friendships, love and plot. Read my full review here. You can also find a lot more good examples in kaleidoscope.

Defying Doomsday Did we break the end of the world by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Post-apocalyptic YA novellette
The story is about a death teenager who is surviving in a post apocalyptic Australian city after the end of civilisation. Jin is deaf with a cranial implant, but after the apocalypse it’s kind of hard to get batteries for it. It is a story about friendship and rebelion and how to organize it without any media.

 Angel of the Blockade by Alex Wells
Space opera, novella
Nata is blind, she is also an awesome spaceship pilot that can plug into her spaceship, which gives her an amazing control over the ship. However the story doesn’t fall into the Daredevil trap of having her disablity giving her super powers, she still have all the problems not being able to see in a sighted world gives you. The story has great understated world building, interesting characters, smuglers and has her in dire straits to save everyone.

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