Tag Archives: h g wells

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.

Things I read on the internet 10/2/2014


Publishers Taylor and Francis have made a bundle of articles entitled Gothic Origins free to view online until the end of March. Also, and almost more interesting, they are downloadable too.

People Writing About Science Fiction and Fantasy and the Weird

Paul Kincaid writes about Boon, a little-read but much-cited novel by H.G. Wells.

Tom Pollock talks about Keeping It Real in a passionately argued piece.

Steve Rasnic Tem on Southern Gothic and the Appalachian Weird

World SF

Islam and Science Fiction is currently running a series on Pakistani SF

Urban Studies

Geographically correct subway maps

Clips and Stills

The Importance of Winston T Zeddemore in Ghostbusters.

First aerial photograph of Lower Manhattan

Salvador Dali’s last Film: Impressions of Mongolia (the search for a giant hallucinogenic mushroom

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with narration by Orson Welles

Visual Static

R. Crumb illustrates Philip K. Dick’s religious experiences

Saint-Exupery’s original watercolours for The Little Prince

Paper Studies

I’d feel a lot better about my book-buying habit if I could use the packaging in my garden.

Dept of Wait! What?

Scientists strap fake tails to chickens to figure out how T Rex walked. I think the moral of this is, don’t keep chickens, ever.

Fifty Shades of Wrongness

Five Things To Consider About Science Fiction by Steve Davidson. I don’t even know where to start with this piece, which seems to boil down to ‘guys, you just don’t understand’. On the basis of some of this, no, I don’t think I do, and I’m not sure I want to.

Nine Amazing Books That Feature Magic Realism – only part of that heading is accurate.

Archaelogical Digs

Virginia Woolf visits Stonehenge

Last Thoughts

The Periodic Table of Storytelling – not because I necessarily agree with it but because I like periodic tables.

I would dispute whether The Dreadnought Hoax is the greatest hoax in history, but it’s an interesting one.

Ghosts of a Parisian apartment frozen in time

The Secret Lives of Action Figures in Imaginary Everyday Scenarios

Things I read on the internet – week ending 18/1/2014

Russell Hoban – The Mouse and His Child: moving metaphysics for kids

George Orwell explains in a revealing 1944 letter why he’d write 1984

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Andrea Hairston reviews Paradoxa 25, Africa SF, ed. Mark Bould

Paul Kincaid discusses Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes at Big Other.

And to go with it, Lynd Ward’s illustrations for Frankenstein, courtesy of John Coulthart at [feuilleton].

Also via John Coulthart, a link to a performance of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.

Republic of the Moon is an arts project currently ensconced at the Barge House, Oxo Tower Wharf in London. One component of this exhibition takes as its inspiration Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, in which, famously, a traveller goes to the moon in a vehicle drawn by geese. There is more information about Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s work here.

I have a rather odd interest in the inappropriate use of dangerous substances. I swear I once saw an advert for radium toothpaste, and I try not to think about what was in the paint on the toys I chewed as a child. So, radioactive toys (which is not entirely as awful as it sounds).

The latest instalment of ‘which European nation really got to Australia first’ features a rather adorable kangaroo. It’s almost too good to be true, it looks so convincing.

Long-time readers of this blog will know I have a thing about paper sculpture. Here, a model of Smaug emerging from The Hobbit.

A new biography of Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books.

Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial

Jeff Wayne and David Essex: how we made War of the Worlds (and I bet, if you’re of a certain age, the chords are all crashing through your brain)

Extraordinary black and white photos of superstorms.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s own Alice illustrations

Via kuriositas, a French sea serpent

2013 Philip K Dick Award nominees announced

And finally, John Coulthard (who seems to be taking up residence here this week) has a nice post on [feuilleton] about illustrations for The Angel of the Revolution by George Griffiths.

Things I read on the internet – week ending 10/1/2014

The usual bizarre mix of books, archaeology and the London underground.

Previously unknown letters by Mary Shelley discovered in Essex archive – the mention of Edward Trelawny should also interest people

Interesting piece by John Sutherland on how M.R.James took over Christmas

Fictional London Underground stations

Orson Welles interviews H.G. Wells – I may have posted this before but its wondrousness does not fade.

Adam Roberts discusses the Award Season 2014, and articulates some of my current reservations.

Adam is also currently reading his way through the entire Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. It is hilarious, not necessarily in a good way. I had a complete hardback set of these when I was a child. You may well ask what my parents were thinking.

And while we’re about it, Patrick Barkham extols the virtues of Brendon Chase by B.B. I remember reading this as a child and loathing it. Looking at it as an adult, I can see precisely why I did. While it was quite possible to ‘read’ myself into some ‘boys’ books, and I very often did, this simply resisted all efforts. (Also, I suspect I generally didn’t get along with B.B as I remember reading and disliking The Little Grey Men stories.)

Radio 4 Extra has been running a lovely series of programmes by or about Charles Chilton, who died a year ago at the age of 95. Best known to sf fans for Journey into Space, this particular programme is a delightful half-hour reminiscence by members of the original cast and Chilton himself. (I’d also recommend Chilton’s two autobiographical programmes and The Long, Long Trail.)

Illuminating piece by Martin Lewis about reviewing a book he didn’t like, by an author he does like, with genuinely classy comment by said author.

Aficionadoes of Children of the Stones will find these early maps of Stonehenge to be of interest. They were made by William Stukeley, an eighteenth-century vicar who believed stone circles were made by druids. Stukeley was of course entirely wrong but he nonetheless can arguably be called the father of British archaeology.