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Disabilities in SFF (Redux): More or Less than ‘Fine’?

Quite some time ago, I wrote a pretty vague and largely naive (in that I missed a lot) article about disability in SFF. It was exclusively about physical disabilities and was, generally, written by someone who only vaguely knew what he was talking about. I referenced The Wild Hunt author, Elspeth Cooper as she talked a little about the ways in which our heroes are always able-bodied and “perfect”. Of course, with speculative fiction’s shift away from the classic “golden age”, with our stories often both more character-driven and tending towards realism, we have seen more “imperfect” characters appear in SFF. (We’ll touch more on this later.)

When I wrote the article, I was suffering from undiagnosed chronic pain and other related fun things. Now, five years later, I’m diagnosed, worse, and use a wheelchair. Where I already had some personal insight as to the good and accurate handling of disability on the page at the time, now that level of qualification has tripled.

Our WordsThe article was “fine” in the same way that Fantasy Character A having a limp or missing one eye is a “fine” representation of disability: yes, it’s perfectly valid and important to note, but is nowhere near a) good representation for disability or b) representative of the whole spectrum of disabilities that could and should be represented in our speculative fiction. In fact, those disabilities are (especially if the limp causes no lasting or chronic pain) easy to convey and, for the most part, will likely cause very little inconvenience to our characters and their story. And that’s the problem: disability can be very inconvenient. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t feature in our fiction.

The reason we don’t write more disabled characters is because disability frightens us: it can spring out of the woodwork, surprise us around a corner or suddenly strike and flip our lives upside down. But then, so can rising dark lords and prophecies about such and such specific place and the precise alignment of the planets according to a centuries-dead monk. We don’t write about or expect to read about disabled characters because we are marginalised and forgotten: many intersections of social justice will often forget about disabled people, whether the discussion is about sexism, gender, race, sexuality or anything else. Even disabled people are only just beginning to really write about ourselves, with the emerging importance of #OwnVoices fiction and more awareness geared towards a more inclusive narrative.

OvercomeThere’s the false assumption that disability severely lowers quality of life. Of course, this is sometimes true, but certainly not always. Even so, where SFF is concerned, the are so many ways to invite even the most severe of disabilities into the limelight. It’s a matter of wanting to, and, moreover, realising that we can and should. That space needs to be made. The same way that the space needs to be made to make our fiction less cis heteronormative, neuroatypical, sexist and white.

As with all of the above, there have been improvements made to how we view disability and how that is conveyed in SFF. In the original article I (quite embarrassingly) provided examples of such characters, although each of these characters was either a side character (who subsequently was dispensed with–doubly problematic as she was a woman of colour and a female love interest who was, arguably, a little fridged), quite literally a Frankensteined creation of a spider woman, or …  a dude who’d hurt his hand. None of these are exactly the best examples of good disability rep, although the first example only falls short by virtue of having been ousted from the plot at (what appears to be) the first opportunity. She walked with canes, something that, even with characters who are injured and proceed to then limp visibly or at least suffer from pain in said limb, isn’t always a given.

Kaz BrekkerA more notable example of this would be Leigh Bardugo’s Kaz Brekker (the Six of Crows duology), who walks with a cane and a very visible limp, as well as suffering from pain. He is also the mastermind of the Dregs and absolutely a main character. And, although Lord Aaron Frith in Jen Williams’ The Copper Cat trilogy is cured by way of magic, his disabling injuries magicked away in an instant, we’re given this scenario quite literally at the beginning of the book: it is Frith’s goal from the offset to find this cure along with power, both of which he finds in excess. In spite of the miracle cure trope (which I would always advise against), there are so many consequences of Frith’s actions–and his subsequent cure–that it doesn’t feel or present as a magical cure-all to vanish away a character’s disability. In addition, it’s impossible to mention disability without at least skimming (but that’s all we’ll do) over A Song of Ice and Fire, with Bran and Jamie Lannister, post-fall from the tower and post-hand chopping respectively. In many ways, Jamie’s depiction of having that first depressed period followed by the determination to overcome the disability and use his other hand for swordplay is positive and realistic–but only because the single obstacle he has been presented with is the lack of his hand. Additionally, he has the time and space to train his other hand, being a member of the nobility (also known as: privilege), however sticky and strange the situation in Westeros at any given time.

Furthermore, we must account for mental disabilities (although in many cases I hesitate to use the term “disability” or “disorder”, when these things are more adequately explained as different wiring in the brain), such as characters who are neuroatypical (a much better term) or otherwise present with something that affords a “disadvantage” (I Voicesuse the term loosely, since many people with mental/learning disabilities identify these things with their own terminology) in an able society. To clarify: these differences are only disadvantages because of our inherently able and neurotypical society. Mental disabilities can range all the way from placement on the autistic spectrum to dyslexia: all of which provide some manner of marginalisation from society. One of the issues with representation of these things is that they’re (evidently, from their lack) viewed as even more inconvenient than physical disabilities, because even more than having a set notion of what we are meant to be like physically in society, there’s a more insidious idea of how we should me inside our heads and what makes us “sane”. We say “sane”, but what we really mean is “acceptable” and that really translates to “like everyone else”. So whilst the inclusion of characters such as Hodor is important (so long as they are not used for comic relief, and my knowledge of ASoIaF is limited at best, so I can’t comment further on Hodor’s treatment on the page), it is by absolutely no means all we should be doing.

What we do need are characters on the autistic spectrum (preferably #ownvoices or handled through sensitivity readers and/or extensive research), such as Denise in Corrine Duyvis’ On The Edge of Gone and Tyberious Blackthorn in Cassandra Clare’s newest modern instalment of the Shadowhunter Chronicles, The Dark Artifices. (FYI the former is #ownvoices, the latter is not.)

We need characters with ADHD and bipolar (every type) and characters with schizophrenia handled well. We need these things every bit as much as we need to stop SFF being so white that the whole genre practically glows and sparkles from space, or how we need to stop excluding trans and non-binary identities from the speculative fiction we create.

I’m sure that if we comb through our literature we might point to several characters who could be anything from autistic to bipolar, but unless it is specifically stated, explicitly on the page (not ret-con and not in the author’s own notes: on the page or sorry, mate, no dice, off you trot) it simply isn’t good enough. We’re well beyond accepting subtle, implied rep–whether we’re talking race, sexuality, gender or whatever else society prefers to push into the margins. So whilst I could list a few characters who might present with mental disabilities or be neuroatypical, I’m not going to. On the page, clear and explicit, in the same way absolutely everything else about our characters is written: that should be the baseline. We don’t need to know that Harry Dresden wears a hat, and yet. If we’re talking hats versus bipolar or autism, I think the point makes itself.

Mental Illness by Possim

And absolutely, a disability may have no impact on the story—but that does not mean that character A’s dyslexia or character B’s autism (which they have learned from a very young age how to manage and emulate all the things society expects them to) doesn’t need mentioning. Disabilities don’t entirely define us, but, they are a part of us. Any suggestions that, by insisting we are afforded the space we deserve, we are wholly defining ourselves by our disabilities are as nonsensical and incorrect as those who also suggest that demanding queer or racial rep is the same as said minorities also defining themselves wholly by their marginalisation. Additionally–in our cis heteronormative white neurotypical/able society, sometimes the only to to be seen and heard is to shout that difference from the rooftops and wave it like a banner. It is not seen if we don’t and nothing changes, because otherwise it’s all happily ignored. We could argue how irrelevant it is for a character to have blue eyes or brown hair, and yet these things are mentioned several times in a story. Additionally, if an author cannot think how to present these neuroatypical differences without writing “Sir Knight of Knightlydom is autistic” and splash it in neon lights, then they ought not bother in the first place. In fact, they’re failing to grasp what makes these characters neuroatypical in the first place–which is precisely where #ownvoices are so important.

Autism FlagBut the truth is that this space will not be made for as many #ownvoices authors as needs, until the literature we publish normalises disability and being neuroatypical on the page. This is precisely the same with race, gender and sexuality. Many marginalised authors are told variations on the theme of “we already have one author/book with X” and sent merrily on their way, and whilst this might not be the case with disabilities, it’s important to note that (especially regarding certain aspects of being neuroatypical) inclusion of these characters is afforded because they’re “quirky” and interesting and viewed by some in the publishing industry as “trendy”. Granted, this kind of mentality is arguably more evident in contemporary fiction than in the detached and often secondary world narratives of SFF, but the point still stands.

Let’s come back to that first thing: imperfect.

Frankly, it’s little short of a nonsense word in this context: what even is a perfect character, in order to therefore need, an imperfect character to balance them out? Many will insist that Sir Knight of Knightlydom is our Perfect Character, but my general response to Sir Knight and his manly sword of manliness and chiselled Captain America jawline, is: yawn. Boring. Done. Old. Dated. The same goes for a great many of fantasy’s previous mainstays: the wizened wizard of wisdom; the gentle maiden of healing with her doe-eyes and bedroom lips; the roguish thief, available to steal hearts and also priceless gems (will consider dragons’ hoards for a higher fee). These are all done to death and boring as taupe paint left to dry ever so slowly as a second coat of paint on an equally taupe wall. Of course, these clichés speak more to character than appearance—but do they really?

Let’s be fair: attached to each of these stereotypes is a set image. You’ll find them in old Dungeons and Dragons gamebooks and in everything from cheesy 70s fantasy films to old fantasy PC games. They’re there. They are our blue-eyed, silken haired, able-bodied and “perfect” characters.

They’re also more of a myth than the green dragon who may or may not have a cave in your local woods. They are a construct of a (largely) white cis heteronormative society—and they were perpetuated through the collective unconscious and expectations of our society. Society is weird; it’s one big act of brainwashing and carefully-constructed conspiracy. It’s a thing.

But what’s also a thing, is that perfect characters don’t exist. So why are we still writing about them? Though we might have edged slightly away from the exact templates laid out above, we’re still using them as a baseline and changing, perhaps, a few parts of them, tweaking and adjusting so that the original seems long-dead. However, if you squint enough, you can see that, in many cases, these so-called perfect characters still form the bulk of what fantasy fiction offers in its ranks. We’ve got a long way to go.

Steam Powered Wheelchair by Ben PhillipsPerhaps the silliest thing is that SFF lends itself to an inclusive narrative perhaps even more than any other kind of genre fiction: when it comes to the speculative, anything goes. Or at least, it could. This is something I’ll repeat, again and again, because it bears repeating. Why does fantasy lend itself so well to progressive narratives? Because it isn’t real. Because it doesn’t have centuries upon centuries of systemic -isms that have left our society a tangled hot mess of what are we doing?! It has a clean slate—to start from scratch and form a society from the ground up. One that never demonised disability or mental illness, but that (radical idea!) accepted and normalised them. The same reason holds as to why science fiction lends itself so well to progressive narratives, but with even less an excuse for stagnation: it’s in the future. Look at the fast-changing and trying-to-be progressive society we live in now. It’s ludicrous to think that in, say, a century—or two, or five—we’re still going to be hung up on autism (especially when some studies already suggest that autism is an evolution of the brain and the way we work) and prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs (hoverchairs! Magnetic floating contraptions!) and still considering neurodiversities such as bipolar or schizophrenia or multiple personalities as anything other than neuro diversities.

Science fiction especially opens a new wealth of possibilities through technology, both inspired by the real world and the quickly advancing capabilities of our tech, and by envisaging new technologies through which many physical disabilities can be challenged and overcome. We’re already there with vertical wheelchairs and exoskeletons, not to mention prosthetics controlled by brain wave. So what’s stopping these mobility aids being used to invite disability onto the page? Habit, mostly, and our systemic ableism.

Much of why our literature isn’t more diverse and inclusive (and, let’s face it, representative) is down to the systems upon which our society is built. Yet SFF has long been the genre of rebels and free-thinkers (more on this in an upcoming article about SFF’s SJWs), so it stands to reason that we’d expect ourselves, as readers and writers of an exciting and innovative genre, to break down those systemic views and habits and rewrite them all.

Disability doesn’t have to be something we’re afraid of; it isn’t a game over and those with both physical and/or mental disabilities are just as capable of saving the world from rampaging dragons or gods and launching into outer space as our abled and neurotypical comrades. Our default for characters should not be neurotypical and able, because this is erasing a great swathe of the population as well as creating the misleading impression that disabled/neuroatypical people don’t exist. We do.

I Am Me Not My Illness

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Disabilities in SFF (Redux): More or Less than 'Fine'?, 8.8 out of 10 based on 10 ratings
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5 Comments

  1. Justin Heard says:

    As a blind person, I’m not sure I want to see a blind main character in Fantasy. Mostly because I know of ways people have thought about spinning it, and have spun it, and it’s awful no matter how it turns out. Maybe one day it will be done right, but I am not looking for that. Now, in another genre, I would love to see more blind people. But it seems too hard for most people to grasp in Fantasy, where we have magic to solve problems. As if it’s a problem that needs solving.

    • Could I point you to a short story prequel to Synthesis:Weave (which itself features an amputee) called Synthesis:Pioneer – I really don’t want to say what the disability is in Pioneer, as that would spoil it for future readers, but I hope that it will strike a chord.

  2. Cathy/greytfriend says:

    You bring up so many important issues, thank you. You should check out Mishell Baker’s books featuring a main character who is neuroatypical (borderline personality disorder), attempted suicide, and is now a double amputee. And smart, hilarious, creative, determined, frightened, anxious and on and on. Her disabilities don’t define the character. I’m also in the middle of Mer Lafferty’s Six Wakes now, where one of the characters has withered legs and requires a wheelchair or prosthetics. I’m not sure what I think about how the author handled the disability yet, if it feels realistic and complex enough, but it’s representation at least.

  3. I think you meant “fridged” rather than “frigid” there, Leo. One thing Aysha is *not*, is frigid 😉

    But yes, I did rather fridge her. It was my first book and I didn’t know any better back then. I do regret it, as she remains one of my favourite characters and there was enormous potential to do more with her – and to do better by her – than I did.

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