Exploring Disability and Technological ‘Cures’ in Science Fiction

by | January 23, 2015
filed under Books, Pop Culture

Cover of Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure Science fiction as a genre has the unique ability, though not always exercised, to break free of current social norms and explore entirely new possibilities for humanity. Since the 1960s, feminist science fiction has critiqued traditional gender roles and challenged audiences to imagine alternatives.

But despite being a big SF fan, I realized I had never really thought about science fiction portrayals of disability, until I came across Kathryn Allan’s edited collection of scholarly essays, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure.

It makes sense that SF often deals with conditions we might today consider disabilities, often by exploring topics like medical technology and genetic engineering. As Allan has said in an interview:

Because of that technological (and medical) focus, SF opens up spaces to question/challenge/explore what it means to human, and, perhaps more importantly for this conversation, who gets to be counted as human. Since SF is a genre where writers set out their visions of what may come, it’s essential that care is taken in how they create their idealized (or dystopic) futures: if disability is “cured” in the future, a very common notion in SF, then what does that tell people with disabilities of how they are valued today?

Disability in Science Fiction focuses on depictions of technology as a way to “cure” or “contain” disabilities, problematic because this reinforces the idea that there is such thing as a perfect or normal body, fails to recognize that people lie along a spectrum of ability and assumes that people with disabilities need or want to be cured, that they are other or less than.

But it’s not wholly critical. Allan and many of the book’s authors also aim to explore and acknowledge SF’s ability to “[remind] us that all bodies are transforming bodies…The human body is always changing, sometimes in surprising and unfamiliar ways, and this causes anxiety for those who wish to enforce a normative definition of embodiment.” (9).

I really appreciated several of the essays that directly applied disability theories to specific SF works. Highlights were an exploration of the social construction of disability in the work of Samuel R. Delany (by Joanne Woiak and Hioni Karamanos); Howard Sklar’s look at intellectual disability and “cure” in Flowers for Algernon; and Ralph Covino’s article on prosthetics, humanity and notions of good and evil in Star Wars.

In Covino’s piece, for example, he argues the original Star Wars trilogy is a depiction of the classical debate between nature and technology, with the “Force” tied to “life, nature and spirituality” and opposed to “the mechanical, the artificial, and the prosthetic,” represented by the “Dark Side.” In Star Wars, technology and prosthesis is dehumanizing, as represented by Darth Vader and Luke’s anxiety over losing his hand and having it placed with a robotic prosthetic.

However, Covino notes that in the end, “both Luke and Vader manage to resist the Dark Side, despite their bodies’ fusion with technology,” perhaps indicating that the human spirit is ultimately more important than the body.

A few of the essays disappointed me by their lack of intersectional analysis. I was really excited to read Donna Binns’ The Bionic Woman: Machine or Human?, for example, but felt it missed good opportunities to integrate gender analysis. Even more glaring was the total failure to mention racism and colonial narratives in Leigha McReynold’s analysis of Avatar.

But to be totally fair, this made me reflect on all the times I’ve read books focusing on gender analysis that have failed to integrate any kind of disability analysis. The responsibility cuts both ways.

Allan states in her introduction that she hopes the collection will prompt more scholars and SF fans to “critically discuss the representations of disability and peoples with disabilities in our favorite films, television shows, and books.” (15). I’m not sure how accessible it is for average SF fans. Even with my social sciences background, I found some of the essays, particularly “The Metamorphic Body in Science Fiction: From Prosthetic Correction to Utopian Enhancement” by António Fernando Cascais, quite a slog.

For social sciences or literature students or scholars who are interested in science fiction, this collection will definitely provide food for thought and discussion. For average SF fans, certainly there is a need for us to consume our favourite media with a more critical eye to disability, so I’d still recommend trying this book, but maybe just focusing on the essays that apply the theory to works you’re already most familiar with.



Spaceship art used on future image by Cronus Caelestis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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