With its emphasis on futurity, its close association with scientific plausibility, and its dedicated interrogation of contemporary ideologies, science fiction stands as a genre ripe with possibilities for disability studies. Many scholars have used the genre and its texts as platforms from which to either condemn or laud representations of disability within a field explicitly concerned with a society's future. My essay contributes to this discussion by foregrounding a science fiction text to theorize what a disabled future looks like. I take as my primary text a selection of short fiction from Uncanny Magazine, an online magazine that published a disability-themed issue Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction in 2018. The stories contained are penned exclusively by authors that identify as disabled; their visions of a disabled future, then, emerge from the contemporary experience of the disabled community. In addition to centering themselves in the discourse, these writers envision a disabled future as one that emphasizes community and frequently critiques and interrogates the costs, emotional and physical, inherent in the medical model of disability, announcing that a truly disabled future is one that features rather than erases the disabled mind and body. Running with the banner of destroying SF, these writers challenge the conventional, harmful tropes that SF has perpetuated and erects in its place an inclusive, intersectional, and disabled future.
The passageway leads to a spiraling staircase. Back on Earth I wouldn't be able to climb anything so steep. But ability is contextual. Whatever we're able to do – and whatever meaning we make of that – changes from one environment to another. We make all of our own environments now. To design a place that others can't possibly move through or inhabit is the same as raising up a drawbridge, dropping down a toothy portcullis, or punching a row of murder holes through a ceiling. It writes down a clear, solid message in the language of architecture: You are not welcome here. You don't even have the right to exist here. Please cease to exist as soon as possible.
That's what the stairs would have said to me, back on Earth. But we aren't on Earth. I bound up that staircase, which cannot object.
The passage above comes in the middle of a story about a boy in eighth grade on a field trip to the moon to visit a castle constructed there by an eccentric wealthy man. We don't know how far in the future, but references to "the drifting island of Miami" indicate a significant geological change and a correspondingly significant advance in time (14). Through the story we also learn the boy is a survivor of the Eugenic War, an event that is only hinted at in passing and "never really ended" (29). In one of those hints we learn that, when he was younger, our protagonist was rounded up and corralled into an airlock, along with several other disabled children, the horrific goal of the adults doing the child-wrangling clear: jettison the disabled bodies into space. He is saved by his grandmother, and he now lives a contented life, going on adventures with his classmates. The boy walks with a cane, but we are not told the specific disability that requires it, and William Alexander mentions the cane so infrequently that a reader might forget it's there. Until, that is, a deadly automaton disguised as a suit of armor attacks our hero. Suddenly his cane becomes a weapon, and he "spin[s] it around, just once more, building up a substantial kinetic charge," before striking the robot-knight, which "falls down hard" (30). The boy thinks to himself "I am a dragon now, not a captured unicorn. I am here to fry knights who guard golden treasures and dare to challenge me" (30). It is a moment of victory, but Alexander resists a narrative of triumphalism with his subtle reminder that the boy has always had his cane; he did not somehow "overcome" his disability but acted within it. In other words, this is not a story of a young boy experiencing a moment of success despite his disability, but simply a narrative of bravery in which our principle hero is also disabled. In this way, Alexander presents an image of progress that does not ignore or erase or cure but centers a disabled body.
In his book Disability Theory, Tobin Siebers postulates a world which reconfigures its entire ideological paradigm along the axes of accessibility and inaccessibility. "In short," he imagines, "all worlds should be accessible to everyone, but it is up to individuals to decide whether they will enter those worlds" (94). I want to draw attention to Sieber's language of ""enter[ing] those worlds" of access to invite us to consider that genre which specializes in multiple worlds: science fiction (SF). What does access look like in the SF genre? How can SF help us theorize disability? What are the advantages and disadvantages to conceptualizing disabled subjects within nonrealist settings? More specifically and in the context of this essay, when authors who identify as disabled generate stories and ideas within the realm of SF, how do they position themselves and the world around them? What does their future look like, in their own words?
To help answer these questions, I turn to a recent issue of Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, a leading online genre publication dedicated to "intricate, experimental stories and poems with verve and imagination that elicit strong emotions and challenge beliefs, from writers of every conceivable background" ("About"). For their September/October 2018 issue, co-editors Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damien Thomas put out a call for stories, nonfiction pieces, poetry, and personal essays from authors who identified as disabled. The result, including the Alexander piece referenced above, is titled Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, (DPDSF) and features a broad range of material dedicated to interrogating the relationship between SF and disability from the community best positioned to pose the questions and recontextualize the two discourses' evolving relationship. In addition to centering themselves in the discourse, these writers envision a future that emphasizes alternative, open-ended forms of community, announcing that a truly accessible future is one that features rather than erases the disabled mind and body. Running with the banner of destroying SF, these writers challenge the conventional, harmful tropes that SF has perpetuated and erects in their place an inclusive, intersectional, and accessible future. I draw attention to DPDSF not only in the hope that scholars might return to the text but also to argue that it represents a site of active resistance and important intervention into the SF genre. With its productive engagement with destruction, DPDSF becomes an act of generative discreation that powerfully renegotiates the discourse of SF along Siebers's in/accessibility axes. In other words, as these writers actively work to tear down the SF genre's historically exclusionary communities, new spaces, new persons, and new communities are carved out and erected from the wreckage. I read the text as not only a step toward inclusive representation but also a dismantling creative force. Following John Rieder's argument that genre is navigated and articulated through "multiple communities of practice," I argue DPDSF, in its destructive recontextualization of a conventionally ableist future, gives voice to a disabled "communit[y] of practice" and hijacks the genre itself to construct something new, to literally map out new and alternate terrains from which ongoing visions of the future can develop (11). Community, then, stands as not only a thematic resonance in some of the stories I read below but also the productive and distributive force behind the SF genre itself; by manifesting new, intersectional communities through the historically marginalized (and erased) disabled community, the authors and editors of DPDSF re-make the genre.
I position and understand DPDSF as a text that is entangled and embedded in SF and disability studies, and its relationship to both spheres offers several productive lines of inquiry and highlights the unique perspective that a genre approach can yield to disability studies. Marking an explicit intersection between both the disabled and genre communities, there are several ways in which DPDSF allows us access to the mutually constitutive dynamic between these two overlapping audiences. First, following Theodore Martin's claim that genre can serve as an "alternative model for practicing historicism," I believe that centering genre in discussions of disability can help us better understand the contemporary debates surrounding disability (7). "Because genres remain identifiable even as they change," Martin writes, "they are ideally suited to tracking the tensions between novelty and continuity, presentness and persistence, that shape our notion of the contemporary" (7). In other words, genre as a mode of inquiry offers stable ground from which to build a critique, not because it is stagnant but because the nature of genre itself is scaffolded; any contribution to genre fiction is invariably both a conversation with its own past and a gesture toward a different future, all contained within a set of pre-loaded expectations, conventions, and motifs. When SF engages with disability, then, it is at the same time referencing its own history with the subject, forcing us to consider the ways in which attitudes shift within a given literary community. We see a similar approach from Ellen Samuels, who considers how "cultural texts from the US during [the 19th C] reveal a landscape of intensifying anxieties regarding embodied social identities, particularly those that differed from the recognizable subject of democracy" (1). For Samuels, the entanglement of "the social and the textual, the material body and the discourses that constrain and enable that body's intelligibility" is a fruitful ground for inquiry into our own contemporary "fantasies of identification," notions of disability that are motivated not by reality but ideology (2-3). While Samuels is not explicitly concerned with genre fiction, the attempt to determine the origins of the contemporary through an analysis of 19th C texts shares a methodology with Martin's insistence that studies of genre offer a kind of short-hand for historicism. My own reliance on genre as a viable window to examine disability, then, is informed by both contemporary and disability studies.
Second, I turn to Uncanny's disability-themed issue because it actively intervenes in a dialogue with SF in an affirming way, not as a dismissive gesture toward a genre that has historically excluded disabled bodies from its visions of future society, but as an honest appraisal of the damage caused by such an exclusion and the possibilities of a futurity that embraces disability. DPDSF, though conceived as a dismantling, presents a challenge to the SF community to re-examine their ableist biases that so often erase disabled bodies, and it forces us to consider the implications of its titular question: what does it mean for disabled people to destroy SF? How can the potential energy embedded in destructive acts become redistributed towards inclusion and accessibility? In their opening manifesto to the issue, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry and Dominik Parisien suggest that we take these stories, these destructive renegotiations, out into the world, asking "are these stories being told elsewhere? If not, why?" (9). Sjunneson-Henry and Parisien invite us to interrogate SF, to consider the advantage in destroying its ableist assumptions, and to then contribute to its re-making; if we cannot identify accessibility within SF, "maybe it's time to change the genre, the magazine, the world you work in. Because we cannot destroy forever – we need to build" (9). Acutely aware of the social and cultural constructions that often accompany "utopian" visions of human evolution, the authors who contribute to this issue take as their rallying cry a productive mode of destruction, often working to dismantle an inaccessible SF genre. And in the wake of utopia, these writers begin a process of genre reassembly, and our task here is to attend to the latent possibilities in the entangled relationship between destruction and creation, between SF and disability studies. In this context, the entire issue becomes a manifesto that deserves the critical attention of those within the literary field of disability studies, as well as those who study genre.
Third, I turn to DPDSF because of the editors' insistence on soliciting material from creators who identify as disabled. As Siebers points out, "it is … vital to understand that claiming disability, while a significant political act, is not only political but also a practice that improves quality of life for disabled people" (11). In its commitment to activism as well as critical inquiry, disability studies often foregrounds the personal, bodily experience of those individuals who live with disability, and Uncanny's insistence on representation parallels the field's own desire for legitimate, actionable change in quality of life. Thinking about DPDSF through Siebers, by framing disability in positive, affirming terms, the contributing creators who view their identity as capable of constructive output contribute to dismantling the ableist hierarchy of use-value. And taking cues from the intersectional commitment highlighted in the work of crip studies scholars like Alison Kafer, the authors and editors claim fully realized and complex identities. Sjunneson-Henry and Parisien remind their audience, "It is not enough to just say we are here, that we will be there later. We need to remember that we are people, too. The disabled artists in this issue are not just disabled people, as so many would boil disability down to a single trait. These are fully actualized individuals, living at the intersections and axes of identities. Queer, nonbinary, Jewish, black, PoC, Christian, straight. We are all of these things and we are disabled" (8-9). By foregrounding such an explicitly intersectional approach, the magazine forces its able-bodied readers to confront their own potential implicit biases regarding disabled bodies and demands that they consider these stories and these characters as integral components in the greater human experience. In the wake of the literary world's #OwnVoices movement, DPDSF stands as a model of representation going forward that, to reiterate, demands our attention as literary scholars of disability. As Sami Schalk, author of the first monograph that analyzes black women speculative writers and their relationship to disability representation, writes, "representation matters in material, concrete, and life-affirming – life changing – ways. Representation matters" (2).
Finally, I approach genre fiction in a way that often equates it with popular fiction by being conscious of market audiences. This is particularly felt in DPDSF, a themed issue whose publication was crowdfunded through Kickstarter, where 2,033 supporters donated $57,419 to realize the goal ("Disabled People"). Following Jeremy Rosen, I understand genre fiction as explicitly tied to "an arena composed of particular institutions of publishing, distribution, and reception, in which genre functions as a fundamental organizing principle, and which is often distinguished from the subfield of 'serious' or 'literary fiction'" (para. 2). It is the market and its audience, then, that often organizes which type of literature is taken seriously and which type is ignored, and so, taking inspiration from the disability studies impulse to upend long-standing cultural hierarchies and socially-constructed notions of value, I consider a work that is marketed explicitly as genre, read popular, fiction, which is accessibly designed, advertised, executed for and generated through a mass audience.
In summary, with its foregrounded relationship to genre writ large, SF specifically, and disability representation, Uncanny's DPDSF is a fertile text for contemporary inquiry into disability studies and SF studies. From here, I outline in brief SF's contemporary relationship with disability before moving into readings of the disability-themed issue itself. I should note that my essay does not take up the entirety of the stories, poetry, or essays contained within DPDSF; rather, to speak to my own interests, I explore the short stories almost exclusively. It is my hope that scholars can pick up and extend, contend with, or expand upon my own readings.
SF and Disability in Brief
If we take as its origins Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (a decision not without controversy), we can see that SF has been interested from the start in the intersection of bodies and technologies. How can technology change the way we think about embodiment? What challenges are posed when scientific processes intervene in human experiences in fundamental ways? And often, SF as a genre is concerned with intersectional issues, asking how future-tech or alien societies can help the contemporary moment conceptualize itself in relation to race, gender, class, the environment, and disability. Schalk notes that "by reimagining the meanings and possibilities of bodyminds, speculative fiction can alter the meanings of these categories, requiring readers and critics alike to adapt our modes of reading, interpretation, and analysis or develop new ones" (9). In many ways, then, SF can be conceived as a genre connected with real-world activism, a desire to critique current modes of thought and practices in the interest of motivating change. George Orwell's 1984, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Samuel Delany's "Aye, and Gamorrah," Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice: these texts and many more stand as examples of SF authors actively engaged with contemporary issues such as state oppression, free speech, and gender fluidity, and they deploy speculative elements to extrapolate both dangerous and positive outcomes for a contemporary reality. Indeed, it is the fantastical elements embedded in SF that allows for the horror of the thought police, an alien species whose sexuality only manifests for a certain time of the year, and a society that dispenses with gendered pronouns in favor of collective (if militaristic) unity. Without the constraints of realism, SF can "subvert our expectations of reality" to offer "a world not restricted by our contemporary racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, and classist realities" (Schalk 22). In place of realism's mirror to society, SF presents a fun-house distortion effect that affords an opportunity to examine a social issue from a multiplicity of angles, refracted, folded, and shifted back onto itself in a kind of ongoing recursive criticism. It allows us to imagine difference.
But for all of its efforts to stave off dystopian realities, SF has frequently trotted out harmful tropes and stereotypes about minority populations, including the disability community. Due to its mass popularity, the harm of misrepresentation in the genre becomes magnified. One of the more damning influences within the genre is its frequent alliance with the medical model of disability. Often, in SF's pursuit of a more "advanced" humanity, the bodily, material experience of disabled peoples is "cured," left out, or erased. Kathryn Allan connects this impulse with implicit suggestions embedded in the discourse of posthumanism, arguing that "unfettered posthumanism is in danger of eradicating those bodies of visible difference" (11). Such a move is particularly damaging as, in our own present moment, "disability is seen as the sign of no future, or at least no good future" (Kafer 3). If the genre we use to explicitly imagine visions of the future excludes the disabled body, we harmfully perpetuate contemporary myths of disability and implicitly support the notion that, given enough time and technological improvements, the disabled body is simply "cured" or "fixed." Examples in contemporary popular culture abound, including Jake Sully in Avatar or novelist John Scalzi's fictional Haden's Syndrome featured in Lock-In, an illness that fully paralyzes an individual's body, and to compensate they upload their consciousness into a robot/human analog, similar to Sully's mind downloaded into a new, alien body in Avatar. Texts like these, though presenting their own intriguing looks at the potential extensive benefits of prosthesis, ultimately sideline the disabled body itself, literally stripping it of all function in a way that becomes positioned as positive; it is the personification of the Cartesian split between mind and body, the body simply discarded as a shell in favor of the superior mind. As Allan points out, "uncritical posthumanism … promotes a transcendence that disregards the lived inequalities and suffering of human beings in the present" (11). It is the job of disability scholars who study SF, then, in "grounding the fantasies of able-bodied transcendence," to resist and complicate narratives that doggedly pursue technological transcendence that collapses the experience of the body (Allan 11).
In addition to simply erasing the disabled body, SF has also perpetuated negative stereotypes of disability through some of its most iconic symbols and characters. Perhaps the most easily recognizable example is Darth Vader from the Star Wars universe. Here we have a character whose severe disfigurement and loss of limbs signal an internal corruption. To borrow from Jay Dolmage's table of disability myths, George Lucas perpetuates the stereotype that a body's "foreignness, abnormality, or exoticness allow[s] for insinuations of internal deviance or lack" (Dolmage). Indeed, when we watch Anakin Skywalker's corruption into the evil Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, his tragedy is only completed after his body becomes significantly burned and he loses all of his limbs; in a kind of inverse of the disability myth his body deformity and extreme pain become consequences of his already-compromised morality, and the body and the mind appear to mutually constitute the other. In other words, Anakin becomes the disabled Darth Vader because he deserved it, and now that he's disabled the audience can clearly mark the character as unwanted, tainted, and evil.
However, the SF genre also features texts which envision a future that affirms disabled people and gives consideration to material bodies and the "mundane, visceral, and difficult" integrations of technology and humanity (Allan 11). In her book Bodyminds Reimagined, Schalk examines how black women writers of speculative fiction have frequently bucked against the grain of the genre's denigrative history. Taking Octavia Butler's Parable series as an example, Schalk demonstrates how Butler "resists this trend in speculative media that assumes the positive nature of a technologically created, disability-free future by representing disabled people existing in the future, particularly in the case of Lauren as a black, disabled, woman protagonist and future leader" (103). Schalk approaches Butler's work with a disability-centric approach, a reading that allows the texts' complex and intersectional relationship with disability to speak. Butler's Parable series features a protagonist – Lauren – with hyperempathy, an ability that grants her an acute, physiological, emotional, and sympathetic reaction to the feelings of those around her. This is at times a blessing and a curse, with Lauren able to enjoy the pleasures of her partners during sex but also forcing her to relish in the pleasure of her own abusers. Ultimately, though, the series is not about hyperempathy, thus resisting the vision of a "negative future based on the proliferation of disability; rather, it presents a dystopian future that includes the proliferation of disability, without representing disability as inherently negative" (103). Butler's subtle but intentional focus on a perceived impairment as crucial to Lauren's ultimate success points toward a future that is capable of integration and accommodation toward disabled bodies, and her honest contention with the practical side-effects of hyperempathy prevents the narrative from putting forward yet another story of SF triumphalism.
In addition to highlighting and reading SF texts which offer a counter-narrative to the technological erasure of disabled bodies, scholars have worked to recontextualize certain SF texts that have been read as ableist. To return to the earlier criticism of Avatar as a SF text which eliminates the disabled body, a critique that Schalk shares, Leigha McReynolds challenges the conventional reading by broadening our definitions of prosthetics. Rather than reading Jake Sully's upload into an alien body as shucking a disabled body for an abled body, McReynolds draws our attention to the integrative ways in which the alien peoples connect with the world around them, a method that requires them to literally sync their own consciousnesses with that of the natural world; it is a prosthetic relationship that "allow[s] us to think beyond a traditional conception of prosthesis, combat anxieties over prosthetic technologies, and consider new possibilities for bodies" (126). Such a reading speaks to the transformative futures which SF challenges us to consider. Indeed, as a balm to his earlier disability myths, Dolmage presents the disability rhetoric of "disability deliberation", a form of rhetorical intervention which he imagines playing out, potentially, in the realm of speculative fiction, himself specifically suggesting the work of Philip K. Dick (Dolmage).
Which brings us back to Uncanny's disability-themed issue DPDSF. I turn now to reading these stories from disabled writers in terms of Dolmage's rhetoric of "disability deliberation," a way for SF authors in the disability community to actively imagine alternative approaches to futurity by creating spaces and stories which give voice and agency to their bodies and minds. In other words, to return to my original questions, what does the future look like through the eyes of those who reject the default, ableist utopias of SF? The goal, in brief, is to demonstrate how contemporary SF authors who identify as disabled theorize themselves in a genre that has repeatedly excluded them from visions of the future by erasing their bodies entirely or marking them as indicative of an interior evil. In other words, how do these authors destroy SF and redistribute that destructive force? To focus the readings, I draw attention to the following area of redistribution: an inclusive future is a future of both multiple types of communities and positive isolation, and the two are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary and equally necessary; in these worlds accessible spaces begin to cohere. Taken together, these stories imagine a future that recalls and amplifies the historical erasure of forgotten or discarded disabled bodies to demand that ableist societies recontextualize their paradigms of futurity. In "A House by the Sea" we experience the tranquility of a discarded community amidst a vapid, exclusionary "utopia," and in "The Frequency of Compassion" we're invited to consider the existence of a society that holistically integrates every member of the social body; in both cases, the conventional tropes of SF are deployed, condemned, and, ultimately, replaced by visions of accessibility. It is this act of dismantling, specifically of the SF genre, that allows such recreation. I read this thematic recontextualization of communal spaces as a parallel reformation of the material realities of the genre itself, recalling Rieder's "communities of practice," to argue that these stories work to not only re-imagine the future but also to reconceive our notion of SF alongside disability studies. If SF wishes to honestly project an environment which allows for an infinite arrangement of experiences, then new spaces, new families, and new communities must be created and attended to, and DPDSF represents an important contribution toward this re-genesis.
Reading Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction
As a counterpoint to the charge that disabled people are inherently narcissistic, Siebers points out that such an accusation ignores the fact that many disabled people rely on others in an intimate and fundamental way. "People with disabilities travel in groups," Siebers writes, arguing that "narcissism is profoundly incompatible with the reality of disability" (51-52). In other words, one simply cannot afford to be entirely self-absorbed, not if they require any kind of assistance. In this way the disabled community highlights the importance of positive communal interaction, and the writers in DPDSF are keenly aware of its necessity, projecting it onto multiple versions of reimagined futures.
In "A House by the Sea," author P.H. Lee gives us a narrator who proceeds to ask a rhetorical set of questions. The future is ill-defined, though we get a sense that there is "the City," a kind of pseudo-utopia where people are caught up in "the orgies, or the parades, or the philosophy, or the remarkably good television," and, displaced from the urban center, the narrator describes the lives of a community of people – only referred to as "they" — who clearly are not welcomed into the City: "they can't live in the City, of course. Can you imagine?" (147). We don't know the nature or the cause of what prevents the "they" from entering the city, but we know that their exclusion is based on non normative behavior. Occasionally, "they cry and spit and punch holes in the walls," and "each of them has their own routine," that is specific to them (149). The impact of the story comes from the discontinuity traced by the narrator between the seeming utopian-yet-vapid lives of those in the city and the demonstrably more tranquil, more peaceful, more humanitarian lives of the nine individuals who live, alone and isolated, in a house by the sea.
What emerges through the narrative is an accessible vision that emphasizes community over sexual promiscuity, endless debates, and mass entertainment. At the house by the sea, the nine denizens enjoy gardens, a library, "a television that doesn't get all the channels," and a room and bathroom of one's own (148). Whatever healthcare they might need is provided by a generous woman from the City who visits them occasionally, and when they die they bury their own "in a small plot behind the gardens," in a hole which "each of them digs, some just a shovelful, some working the whole night, sometimes together, sometimes alone" (150). They enjoy their lives gardening, writing, reading, and watching the news. In between these descriptions of communal paradise, the narrator interrupts to ask accusatory questions: "Is that enough to convince you? Is it still too impossible, that they might just live together in their own house and their own time" (150). We can read in these series of rhetorical questions the narrator's active resistance to a set of cultural assumptions that cannot only fail to conceive of but actively discourage or denigrate the kind of communal space being presented here. The story is an argument for a perceived impossibility: a happy and fulfilled existence, a content, communal life shared in isolation by disabled individuals. Near the end of the story, the narrator wonders, "Can you believe that they live their lives and die their deaths in some semblance of peace? Can you believe that their lives are more than the basement we locked them in?" (150). In this way Lee critiques the ableist assumption that those with disabled bodies or minds are incapable of living fulfilled lives while also calling out the SF genre's tendency to shuffle away the disabled body, to "lock" them in the basements of the future. The repeated use of "you" becomes accusatory, a pointing-finger that produces an uneasy yet productive agonism between the SF-reading community and the disabled community, between the genre itself and its decades of systemic erasure. That the community of "they" reads as more enjoyable, pleasurable, and affirming than "the City" points not only to the prevalence and importance of community within disability culture, but it also forces abled bodies and minds to consider the implications and opportunities embedded in a lifestyle that is truly free of socio-cultural restraints and is indebted to shared experience. As Siebers reminds his readers, "you others are our caregivers – and we can be yours, if you let us" (52). Like Siebers, Lee reminds their audience that life in the City lacks the beneficial intimacy of community, and their story ends with the narrator contemplating a paradox: "I, though, will believe that they live alone, together, in a house by the sea" (151). Community does not preclude a collapse of individualism in the same way that disability does not preclude a future; rather, the two work together, informing the other, constituting a new, more inclusive and accessible reality.
In the great tradition of SF, Lee's story literalizes an exclusionary metaphor; if the genre has historically erased the disabled mind and body through a lack of representation, then the creation of a geographically displaced community takes on an affective weight, and its placement in a genre publication works to hijack the genre itself, to re-write its decades of erasure through redistributed destructive energies. The great City that the narrator dismissively describes could be any number of SF utopias, and it is figured as inadequate, self-indulgent, and inaccessible; it's an ideologically bankrupt proposition, a damning gesture aimed at a genre which has historically positioned itself as one of progress. And in the wake of this critique, Lee erects an alternative model of community, one which signals for the SF genre a path forward, and one we hear echoed resoundingly throughout DPDSF. In A. Merc Rustad's "The Frequency of Compassion," we follow Kaityn Falk, a survey scientist, "insulated in their spacesuit," who experiences first contact with an alien species (70). Kaityn is "autistic and hyperempathic," and they have created another model of an isolated community, forming a close bond with their AI companion, Horatio, and, eventually, the newly discovered alien, all in the vastness of space, a place where "they can serve humanity without being overwhelmed by everything that makes humans imperfect and wondrous" (71). They're driven by a sense of belonging but exist in a world that has denied them access. "When I was a kid," Kaityn reflects, "I wanted to grow giant dragonfly wings in order to zip around in zero-G," an image of freedom and desire to join themselves to something larger, to resist biological determinism in favor of an adaptive model that tends toward inclusion and belonging and radical possibilities over forceful, prescribed separation from the wider world (70).
When Kaityn encounters the alien they learn that it has been separated from its larger whole, and Rustad takes the opportunity to introduce a corresponding nonnormative community model to Kaityn's isolated relationship with Horatio. Communicating telepathically, Kaityn is capable of understanding the alien due to their own hyperempathy, an extra-sensory perception that, if surrounded by humans, becomes deafening as they're subjected to a flood of emotions and thought processes, but here becomes a tool to communicate with an intriguing new life form. Through the alien thoughts we glimpse a model not dissimilar from Lee's own: community formed in isolation, adaptable and accessible, accepted and encouraged. "In the cluster," the alien psychically intones, "we are all connected by the billion threads … we are vastness, we are unity, we are individual," offering to Kaityn, and to Rustad's reader, a positive paradox that relying on others does not eliminate self-determination or devalue voluntary isolation (77). This alien conception of community holds in balance isolation and integration, individualism and collectivity, yet it requires the buy-in of the whole. In other words, this is not a case-by-case form of community, but a system of relations acknowledged and accepted at the societal level — "in the cluster … we are all connected by the billion threads." And it resists the Borg-like hive mind associations with its insistence on individual conscience and choice, not in service to but in support of the whole, the whole carrying out the reciprocal task of ensuring the safety and will of the individuals. In the alien consciousness we find articulated a model of a truly accessible community, where all bodies and minds, disabled or otherwise, might exist alongside the other.
As a contrast to the alien's vision of accessibility, Rustad strategically interrupts the peaceful encounter with the violent arrival of ZeroGen, a fascistic governing entity that descends in a "militarized shuttle" and "blasts the surface without care or consent of the moon" (81). Consumerist-capitalist culture, colonialism, ableist assumptions, oppressive hierarchies: ZeroGen and its faceless operatives are easily conflated with these ideologies, but in the context of the SF genre, as we consider the disruptive, destructive nature of DPDSF as a piece of resistance art, ZeroGen emerges as the dominating force of traditional SF tropes that have historically erased the kinds of communities, bodies, and minds being imagined by Rustad and Lee, as well as several other authors in the collection. These shock troops, "all in dark-tinted armor and helmets, armed with electric bolt guns, and radiating intensity tinged with hostility and nervousness" are paradigmatic of SF's inability to better incorporate a greater wealth of human experience, opting instead for narratives fueled by empiricism, militarization, and inaccessibility thinly veiled behind narratives of utopian progress (82). Kaityn stands against them, resisting what they represent and protecting the alien, and, in keeping with SF's alien-invasion conventions, they are fired upon for it, saved only by the alien's omniscient intervention. Rustad's decision to save Kaityn is significant, not only because it preserves the disabled mind and body but also because it actively silences the harmful tropes embedded in the very genre in which they exist. The ZeroGen troops are preserved as well, transported by the alien to their headquarters where "they will not be harmed, and their memories will not be tampered with. They will simply have wasted fuel and resources in this endeavor to do harm" (87). And we, the SF readership, the disability studies readership, the academic readership, are left with a character that has experienced an entirely new way of being and provides an accessible path forward, existing now in a genre whose former model of futurity has "wasted fuel and resources" but is now positioned, through Rustad's and Lee's and all of the other contributor's active dismantling, to engage with disability and reassemble itself.
Taken together, we find in these stories, interviews, and essays intersectional futurist images of collectivity, accessibility, and adaptability, each one an act of generative discreation, a literal re-shaping of the SF landscape. Within the thematic communities that are imagined in DPDSF, we can find a parallel to the communal requirement embedded in the creation of genre, its publication, and its distribution. Rieder argues that we can view SF as "a shared territory that is not a matter of giving up or arriving at a definition of the genre, but rather is precisely the product of the intersection among different communities of practice using different definitions of SF" (30). In this way DPDSF becomes an artifact of one of these "communities of practice," an expansion of the SF genre itself not by assimilation but by positive acts of creation and intervention that are fueled by redistributed destructive energies. If we understand SF as inseparable from its communities of readers and creators, that both its form and genre are continually negotiated through various "communities of practice," then we find in DPDSF an active intervention into the production of SF. In its call to destroy SF, the editors, writers, and the thousands of online backers who have supported the "Destroy" series from Uncanny Magazine have re-designed how we imagine the future. These new spaces, communities, and visions of access are now part of the genre's language.
- "About." Uncanny, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damien Thomas. Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, https://uncannymagazine.com/about/.
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- Rieder, John. Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System. Wesleyan UP, 2017.
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- Sjunneson-Henry, Elsa and Dominik Parisien, guest editors. Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. Uncanny: A Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, no. 24, September/October 2018.