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I was on a panel at Innominate (Eastercon 2017) entitled Disability in SFF: Beyond 101. The item blurb read:

"Sue Smith presents a short introduction to accessibility and disability in science fiction. Three panelists with varied experiences respond to it and push the discussion beyond the standard 101 debate often seen at conventions."

I decided to look (briefly) at three science fiction books that treated disability in three different ways.

Bob Shaw's Night Walk is copyright 1967. Sam Tallon is a spy with a secret, is captured and blinded, contrives a device that enables him to see through the eyes of other creatures, uses it to escape and return with his secret to his masters, who are no longer his masters because his invention has allowed him to solve the problem of sub-space navigation and become master of the universe. Whoo. That was a fast ride. Tallon's blindness is inflicted on him, but he is is not disabled, and Shaw has fun with his device. I enjoyed the SFF notion that does not just repair the damage to Tallon's sight but opens up new and rich additional possibilities with the use of technology.

Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang (1971) is a fix up of several stories about Helva, the ship who sang. The first story opens with the phrase: "She was born a thing..." But because she is intelligent she is treated and indoctrinated to become a cyborg ship, capable of interstellar flight. I read the first two stories, and McCaffrey's focus is on Helva's emotions and how she deals with being a human being encapsulated in a starship. Helva's birth defects have justified treatment that removes her entirely from the company of normal human beings, but she gains many other opportunities and benefits as a result, including human love and companionship that might not have been available to her had she matured in her original imperfect body.

Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain (1993) deals with the sleepless, human beings whose genes have been modified in the womb so that they don't need to sleep.
I read the first 40 pages in time for the panel. Without the handicap of needing hours of sleep each day, the sleepless are in a position to supplant normal human beings and take over the world. But they are born to normal human parents, and are normal human beings in most respects...how can people deal with the knowledge that their close kin have attributes they lack?

On the panel Sue Smith talked about the necessity for SFF "to imagine futures where we all belong", and about a modern anthology of stories about disability that does that. Diane Carr talked about metaphors of disability in the language. My own ideas about science fiction have quite a lot to do with imagining futures where we all belong, as well as examining different views of what constitutes ability or disability. I'm not sure whether what I said about these books fully engaged with Sue Smith's opening statement, or constituted a discussion "beyond the standard 101 debate". Nevertheless, I enjoyed rereading and discussing them. Someone came up to me afterwards to thank us for the panel, so we must have said some things worth listening to.


Caroline M

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October 2017