Allan, Kathryn, ed.: Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure.
In Kathryn Allan's diverse edited collection of essays, Disability in Science Fiction, contributors demonstrate the value of combining a literary analysis of science fiction (sf) with concepts and concerns of Disability Studies (DS), a growing academic (and activist) field sparking interest within many corners of literary, historical, and cultural studies. While the focus of the collection is on "technology as (failed) cure" (with even the word "cure" viewed as potentially problematic), topics encompassed within the volume are intentionally broad in order to demonstrate the range of application for DS within sf as well as to appeal to a wider audience (2-3). The result is a complex, productive, and surprisingly inclusive conversation about many different types of sf and the ways of reading disability these types offer for scholars of both fields.
The collection is divided into three sections, each one composed of four essays. The essays in the first section, "Theorizing Disability in Science Fiction," touch on the different ways in which sf can stretch concepts of embodiment, from social constructions and medical identities, to shifting intellectual disabilities and disability shapeshifting. Section two, "Human Boundaries and Prosthetic Bodies," looks at the tendency of prosthetics to alter perceptions of disability, identity, relationships, normality, humanity, and hybridity. The last section, "Cure Narratives for the (Post)human Future," shifts from the negotiation of disability within a sf world to its "cure" and the subject's subsequent renegotiation of that same world, thus fully embracing the subtitle of the collection: Representations of Technology as Cure.
Each essay, as Allan points out in her introduction, considers not only the current (and past, for some) state of disability, but also ways in which it may be understood and reimagined in the future, creating an underlying positive tone (with some exceptions) for the ever-present potential for change. Thus, observations and assessments are not restricted to what is but extend into the realm of what could be, a form of intellectual experimentation familiar to readers of sf, fantasy, and horror. The collection hits on some of the classics within the sf genre in literature and film--from Samuel R. Delany to F lowers for Algernon and Star Wars to Gattaca--appealing to a wide variety of readers and fans. Allan takes a genre already prone to progressive and inclusive thinking and applies it to one of the most under-represented and complex minority groups. In her introduction, she gives overviews of both science fiction and Disability Studies, discussing definitions, problems, and trends in each individually before turning to how they interact with one another. She explains that "disabled bodies are constructed as other, deviant, and nonnormative when, in fact, human bodies exist along a spectrum of difference," and she calls into question assumptions that such bodies require rehabilitation and a cure by placing them in the sf world (4). This is a world that is already accustomed to encountering and accepting a wide variety of bodies as well as the concept of shifting forms of embodiment, both natural and technological. Rather than seeing the disabled as necessarily alien, this collection urges us to "[read] the disabled body as first and foremost human, before suggesting the ways in which it might transcend or go beyond 'normal' human embodiment" (12).
The individual essays, then, pursue a productive intermingling of sf and DS. The essays in the first section each illustrate some of the most common tenets of Disability Studies through the imaginative world of science fiction texts. "Tools to Help You Think" by Joanne Woiak and Hioni Karamanos considers several of Delany's texts, including some written before the DS movement, in order to show how sf can stretch its boundaries to achieve similar redefinitions of the human body and its possibilities. Ria Cheyne takes on the medical mode of understanding disability and its effect on social perceptions in "Freaks and Extraordinary Bodies." In contrast to Woiak and Karamnaos, she assesses the ways in which the sf genre can encompass other genres, like crime fiction and medical narratives, working with those genres while maintaining its own limitations to complicate a straightforward, single understanding of disability. These two essays provide a balance of literary and theoretical texts, but a few essays, such as Antonio Fernando Cascais's "The Metamorphic Body in Science Fiction: From Prosthetic Correction to Utopian Enhancement," while informative and thorough, lean heavily on theoretical sources in a way that left me wanting to hear more of the author's own voice and contribution to the larger discussion.
In the second section, Donna Binns assesses the iconic character of the Bionic Woman, her body, and its relationship with the technology on which it depends in "The Bionic Woman: Machine or Human?" Binns links the concept of the cyborg to posthumanism and asks two questions not often asked together: "Is the cyborg a machine?" and "Is the cyborg disabled?" I found the essay to be thought-provoking in its own right, but, in contrast to Cascais's heavily theoretical essay, I wondered if the answers to Binns's questions might require the involvement of more theoretical grounding from both sf and DS. Engaging with similar questions about hybridity in the second section, one of the most surprisingly astute and clever essays is Leigha McReynolds's "Animal and Alien Bodies as Prostheses: Reframing Disability in Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon." I say surprising because the films themselves do not appear as obvious choices for serious political or social assessments of embodiment, but McReynolds proves that assumption wrong. She considers the so-called "problem bodies" in each film and the ways in which they can create "prosthetic relationships," something that normal bodies, without the same capacity for imagination and openness, cannot. She says, "When two agents engage as prostheses, functionality necessitates a rapport--an emotional, physical, psychological, and mental connection between the bodies--that is not possible in cases where an inanimate object is affixed to one's body" (116). A nonliving prosthesis may attempt to fill a gap, in other words, but a living one adds something more.
In the last section, Brent Walter Cline takes a different approach and focuses on the mind, insinuating that the body, even in its healthiest form, can be an impairment, introducing "embodiment-as-disabled" and reminding us that "Impairment is a real, physical fact" (132-33). Reading these ideas through Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker and Greg Bear's Blood Music, Cline encourages a reconsideration of the body's relationship to the concept of personhood and how that concept is defined. Christy Tidwell calls for similar redefinitions in her essay, "'Everything is Always Changing': Autism, Normalcy, and Progress in Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark and Nancy Fuller's 'Movement,'" in which she says, "Even more significantly than asking readers to redefine normalcy, Moon and Fulda also ask readers to reevaluate normalcy" (162). This statement encompasses the underlying claim of the collection, which urges a consideration of new parameters for established concepts but also why we need such concepts and what they actively do. In the last essay, "Life without Hope? Huntington's Disease and Genetic Futurity," Gerry Canavan considers two texts that include one character who chooses to be cured of disability and one who does not, providing a basis for comparison and considering how the idea of the "cure" implies the existence of a problem, of a deficiency getting in the way of normality. This collection complicates an implication formerly taken for granted.
The essays in this collection provide insight for any reader interested in the spectrum of disability and the relationship between identity and the body. Though many of the individual essays defend the combination of these fields, they do not read as repetitive. Instead, rethinking the strengths of sf and DS in each essay sustains a persistent conversation between the authors, who agree on many facets of the pairing but all bring their own complications and nuances to the table. I found it helpful that each author privileged his or her own particular concerns in redefining or reconsidering the importance of sf and DS. The collection overall is an enjoyable read, easily accessible to scholars of both sf and DS. Because of the price, it might be best as a library purchase rather than an individual investment. Many of the essays easily stand alone and could appeal to teachers for use in the classroom. The collection provides not only new and insightful ways of looking at disability, but also a helpful language through which to talk about it.
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|Author:||Kremmel, Laura R.|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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