Accessing the Future – How Not to Do Disability SF

I’ve already written about Accessing the Future, an exciting new anthology that seeks to “publish speculative fiction stories that interrogate issues of dis/ability—along with the intersecting nodes of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future”.

Its editors are Kathryn Allan, who has edited Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013, Palgrave Macmillan), and Djibril al-Ayad, co-editor, along with Fabio Fernandes, of We See A Different Frontier as well as being editor of The Future Fire.

With fifteen days to go before the fund-raising campaign finishes, I invited Kathryn and Djibril over to Paper Knife, to talk about a few of the stories that they feel get portrayals of disability spectacularly wrong.


Thank you, Maureen, for welcoming us to Paper Knife and letting us complain (and snark) a bit about some of the terrible examples of disability in science fiction out there. There are LOTS but since we don’t want this to be an encyclopedia of “what not to do when you include a person with disability in your story,” we’ll just highlight a handful of the examples that put the bee in our respective bonnets.

First off, let’s give an example of the type of story that is quite common: where a “negative” representation of disability appears thoroughly “positive” on the first read. One such story is Edith Nesbit’s “Uncle Abraham’s Romance,” a truly lovely ghost story about the narrator’s old and disabled Uncle Abraham, and the story of the love he almost found when a young man. This piece is deeply sensitive; the characterization of the gentle, resigned, peaceable old man is perfect, carried in every ounce of the story down to the subdued, monotonous tone of the prose itself. There is heartbreaking pathos in the repeated refrain, “Although I was lame, and the girls laughed at me.” In many ways this is a very positive story; Abraham’s disability is believable and not mocked, he is in no way less than human, and the reader has nothing but sympathy for him.

But that right there’s the problem—he’s a figure of sympathy, of pity. His disability causes him to fail at the one thing that might have brought him happiness, and he spends his whole life alone and, if not unhappy, certainly lonely and regretful. Although Nesbit is to be praised for humanizing the character, this story never questions the prevailing stereotype that a person with disability is defined, constrained and ultimately defeated by their disability.

So yes, it’s possible that a writer can be well-intentioned, but they nevertheless end up repeating harmful stereotypes and assumptions about disability. Now, on to the undeniably “bad” examples!

H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau is particularly disturbing and awful with it’s descriptions of animal-people-monsters, heavily relying on words like “cripple,” “dwarfs,” and all types of medicalized terms for people with disabilities. If you were ever curious about the transformative possibilities of vivisection (which is surgery or experimentation on live animals), this is the book to read. Wells was a well-known proponent of eugenics, and much of his early work (like The Time Machine) explores the potential “horrors” that could be prevented through eugenic programs. Ugh. Pass.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is often talked about as a novel that explores the dangers of eugenics (a.k.a., genetic engineering) but it is really about the dangers of state-controlled eugenics programs. Huxley was against big government but fine with using eugenics to remove “degenerates.” Don’t believe it? Here’s a line from his follow-up work, Brave New World Revisited:

And what about the congenitally insufficient organisms, whom our medicine and our social services now preserve so that they may propagate their kind? To help the unfortunate is obviously good. But the wholesale transmission to our descendants of the results of unfavourable mutations, and the progressive contamination of the genetic pool from which the members of our species will have to draw, are no less obviously bad.

Pro tip: don’t refer to anyone, ever, as a “congenitally insufficient organism.”

A. E. van Vogt’s Slan is just crap. Honestly, how did this book ever become one of the touch points of early fandom (spawning the “fans are slans” slogan)? Don’t answer! Not only is Slan poorly written, but it’s chock full of sexism and advocates for the world where some people are better than others (e.g., they are more intelligent) and so deserve to be in control (and those that are too different/less intelligent are ignorant monsters who deserve to die). This is one “classic” that needs to go away.

William Gibson’s “Winter Market” is an interesting story about the philosophy and metaphysics of mind-upload, in which a young woman with a “wasting disease” who uses a mechanical exoskeleton chooses to “upgrade” to living entirely in cyberspace to escape her disabled body. This story is sometimes discussed as one of the foundational texts of the debate around whether the human brain can ever be replicated in a computer, whether personality can be captured by electrons and bits, and whether the person could live on in the machine if you switched off and discarded your body at that point.

It’s a powerful story, but it starts with (and never questions) the assumption that a person living with a disability, with a body that needs prosthetics in order to move around, in constant pain, doesn’t have much to live for. We love the tech and the grittiness, but Gibson never stopped to consider that actual people with disabilities might not want to transcend the physical world in favour of digital avatars. Sigh.

And we certainly can’t forget Robert A. Heinlein’s “Waldo,” in which a disabled man develops superpowers through sheer force of willpower. Not only does this story succumb to the the worst of Heinlein’s glorificatory corporatist and libertarian instincts, but Waldo is a distilled example of the “inspirational” or “motivational” disabled person. He is a genius inventor, a fabulously rich industrialist, and incredibly hard worker (because everyone wealthy and powerful is so by merit), and he ultimately discovers how to tap into the power of parallel universes and to control almost every aspect of physical matter, including his own (because people who don’t manage to overcome their disabilities apparently just aren’t trying hard enough).

Amusingly, this story is now only available as a double-bill in a volume including a novella in which trade unionists are literally the servants of Satan. Note the description of Waldo (in bolded, 40 point font, no less) on the back of the book Waldo and Magic, Inc. (1970): “Fat, Ugly, And Hopelessly Crippled On Earth.” So. Much. Cringe.

Let’s end on a high note: because we don’t like being unremittingly negative, we encourage you to go and read some examples of good representation of disability in SFF for yourself, in stories by Anna Caro, Jack Hollis Marr, Nick Wood and Aliette de Bodard, or check out some recommendations of longer fiction from Kathryn at Pornokitsch. And, of course, please help us bring even more realistic representations of disability in SF into the world by supporting our co-edited anthology, Accessing the Future at Indiegogo.


You can also follow Kathryn and Djibril on Twitter, as @bleedingchrome and @thefuturefire respectively, and check out #disabilitysf for more blog posts about the project.

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3 thoughts on “Accessing the Future – How Not to Do Disability SF

  1. David Gillon

    “The Winter Market … it starts with (and never questions) the assumption that a person living with a disability, with a body that needs prosthetics in order to move around, in constant pain, doesn’t have much to live for”

    I’m not so sure on that, as Lise herself says, ‘Sometimes I like to watch’ and we’re left with the clear situation of Lise continuing to exist, and wanting to interact with people, and the viewpoint character’s inability to deal with that, which may be the most powerful evocation of real-world normie-crip relations in the entire piece. Lise is arguably a deliberately extreme case in order to justify her decision, but I think there’s clearly room to argue that uploading herself into cyberspace – a brain prosthesis if you like – is a perfectly reasonable ‘reasonable adjustment’ to her situation.

  2. sfhub

    Not that I disagree wholeheartly with what’s said about The Island of Doctor Moreau in this context but Wells is only a “well known proponent of eugenics” in the sense that just about *everyone* up until the nazis got to really put the idea into practice. believed in the possibility of breeding for “positive” traits and.the “weeding out” of so-called negative ones — from physical and mental issues to “moral” ones such as sexual behaviour or addiction to drink or drugs. Wells himself argued strongly that legistlating on this led to totalitarianiam (see A MODERN UTOPIA). His conclusiions are still pretty chilling, but what is really scary is that on this issue, compared toany if not most .of his fellpw-intellectuals, Wells qas one of the good guys.

  3. Jesse the K

    It’s sadly true that Eugenics was a widespread ideology in the West, particularly the USA, from the turn of the 20th century until the terrifying details of the German Nationalist Socialist program were widely known in the later 1940s. One useful resource on US eugenics is the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Eugenics was not just the concern of scientists and policy makers: state fairs all over the Midwest held “Fitter Family” and “Better Baby” contests to promulgate ideal types to the US heartland.

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