Our Unbiased Opinion: Disability and Ability in Science Fiction

21 May

In my classroom this past semester, we’d been talking about Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, and I was really nervous about being observed for the first time – as a student I never had to deal with evaluations & I’ve literally never been in a teaching situation before now. My students were probably the best they’ve ever been this week though with thoughtful discussion and full engagement with the text. I am so glad they picked this week to make me look good (but really it’s all their doing).


I was really happy though that my students decided to pick my observation day to have a throw down. They almost never openly argue with each other, and sometimes it’s hard to even get them to talk to each other instead of to me. One of them said that the way Ear, Eye and Arm’s disabilities are portrayed can have positive or negative effects.” It’s a pretty neutral comment. Responses? “I didn’t see that they had disabilities.” “It’s science fiction.” & so we launched into a discussion on genre as a whole and its tropes and structures.


Milo Ventimiglia (Peter Petrelli)

In science fiction and fantasy both, any time characters have an ability, they have a check – something to keep them from too quickly reaching godlike status that would A) cease all physical or mental conflict or B) alienate them from other characters and thus the story or even C) you name some other problem that would inevitably come up if a character were unbeatable aside from that it would be boring (e.g. Heroes‘  Peter Petrelli, who wasn’t boring yet but was preemptively robbed of his powers because he was basically Rogue w/o the check – her inability to touch people – and would eventually have probably had to become the villain or have beaten everyone & ended the conflict). That’s just storytelling. It also just makes sense on some level: You give what you get, magic is a give & take, matter can be neither created nor destroyed… It’s alchemy. Everything comes at a price.

There is a bit of a problem though when babies are born different because their mothers were exposed to nuclear waste while pregnant. That is a mutation, and while some positive things may come from it, it didn’t happen naturally because of evolution. That is a disability. It inhibits, & we need to acknowledge that it does. So what comes first: the disability or the ability? Does it matter, and as a trope of the science fiction genre, how is that recognition helpful or not helpful? I think it would be really irresponsible to say that an entire genre is ableist, however.

I bring to the table Misfits, which I have just begun to follow this year. Alisha has the ability to touch someone (she only uses it on men, which is another problem altogether), and that person will immediately want to have all the sex with her, pulling out his penis and basically trying to rape her. It’s never allowed to go further than the initial attack, at least on screen, thank someone. When she stops touching the person though, he never knows exactly what he’s done – he’s confused, sorry, he never would have done that otherwise. Basically her ability is to rape and be raped, and they are always simultaneous. As someone who admittedly has issues with touching, I can allow that a lot of my discomfort with Alisha’s ability comes from my physical reaction to her physical distress, but on another level I think the show handles her disability really well as a disability. She almost never uses her power to save the day (although she’s helpful in other ways), as opposed to Curtis who turns back time or Kelly who reads minds. When given the chance to get rid of her ability (there’s a swap later in the series) she jumps at it and isn’t sorry when all the others start to regret it. That’s not to say that that’s healthy or realistic, nor is it necessarily fair to conversations about disabilities. It is to say though that in this science fiction world, there are powers that do not enable – they only disable and really compromise.


Antonia Thomas (Alisha)

So I put this question to the team & to the world at large: At what point does the metaphor fall apart for you? What are some other works that bring up questions of audience, of sensitivity and of general ableism in science fiction? It’s something I personally have only been thinking about in the last year so I would welcome any more examples or chances to discuss & flesh this out.

– Susan G.


3 Responses to “Our Unbiased Opinion: Disability and Ability in Science Fiction”

  1. pulpimages May 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    Reblogged this on Pulp and commented:
    This is extremely interesting-Disablity and Science Fiction’s possibilities. Hey Jules Verne’s fiction has swiftly turned into a reality. Why not other things?

    • Under the Elder May 21, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

      Hey, thanks for the reblog. If you have any suggestions or conundrums, I’d welcome them. I think I’ll be considering this issue for the next while, & any knowledgeable suggestions would be helpful.


  1. Science Fiction & Disability | The Elder Tree - May 21, 2013

    […] Another post went up at Lara and the Reel Boy today! It harkens back to my semester teaching and some discussions that my students were having […]

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