Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Disability In SF - Taking A Different Approach

Perhaps I'm not the best qualified person to tackle this subject, but it's one that I've thought about a lot this year. I see the constant calls for diversity in fiction, and especially in science fiction. Not enough PoC characters, disability not being considered, not enough gender equality, variety etc. But here's why I struggle with disabilities in my own stories.

In October this year, a man left paralyzed from the chest down was able to walk again (albeit on crutches) using cells taken from his own nose to regrow nerves in his spine. 3D printing has enabled the creation of an artificial spine. I watched a medical show involving a man who had his windpipe damaged in a car crash that left him unable to speak and forced to breathe through a hole in his chest for seven years. After radical, experimental surgery and using an artificial windpipe scaffold with some of his own body cells grown on it, he woke up immediately able to speak and breathe through his mouth. A woman has given birth after having a womb transplant from a donor.

Since I write far future SFR, the fact that we are already able to perform such medical miracles right now makes it hard for me to imagine ANY disabilities existing in my worlds, though they still could. Of course, not all the civilizations are as advanced in my universe, so there are opportunities. But those don't tend to be the focus of my stories so far. So perhaps I need to consider that the whole concept or definition of disability itself will have to change in my stories.


An example is the Earth Girl trilogy of YA SF written by Janet Edwards and published by Pyr in the US (my eldest is a huge fan). In these books, the heroine is considered disabled because a problem in her immune system means she can't travel from planet to planet and has to remain on Earth. This makes her a freak in the current society.

I also have a WIP with a heroine who has a similar issue. After breaking her neck which in present day would have left her paraplegic, my heroine's own body rejects attempts to regrow her spine or repair it using stem cells, and she's forced to have a cybernetic replacement. While this actually enhances her abilities in some ways, it makes her a medical liability due to the additional costs and difficulties of providing her with full medical care and repairs (something that must be paid for and supplied by her employer). So the ability to fix and/or prevent leaving her with one disability creates a whole new one.

Of course, current advances in medical science don't necessarily mean we'll be able to fix every form of disability, or that curing it might not have side effects or create other issues such as ethical or religious conflicts, for example. Any ST:NG fan will be familiar with Geordi's blindness and how the writers tackled that throughout the series, including how losing his visor caused major problems, and how an offer to cure his blindness by the Q was used to tempt him. In Neal Asher's The Technician (heavy, far future SF) one character is autistic (autism also runs in my family, so it's something I'm familiar with but don't write for personal reasons. I'm just as guilty of not writing disability into my stories). In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Xavier is taking a drug that enables him to walk but costs him his telepathy (though at the start of the story, he's actually glad to lose his powers). And if you're looking for a story where physical disability is dealt with very well, I suggest you read Tin Cat by Misa Buckley (and here, the hero is curious about the heroine's disability as he's come from a future time where it's curable/repairable). There are many reasons why someone might chose not to accept medical help. I vaguely remember an episode of Babylon 5 where parents refused to let their son undergo life-changing surgery because it went against their religious beliefs to pierce the body, despite the fact their son would otherwise die. The doctor disagreed, went ahead, and was devastated to discover the parents had euthanised their child because of his actions.

Yes, there should be more stories featuring disabilities, and even disabled heroes/heroines. But if you are uncomfortable to write them, or concerned that even with research that you could get it wrong, perhaps it's a good idea to think about what a disability in the far future might be when we are already on the brink of being medically able to do so much more.

With thanks to my daughter for the information on Earth Girl.


After spending twelve years working as an Analytical Chemist in a Metals and Minerals laboratory, Pippa Jay is now a stay-at-home mum who writes scifi and the supernatural. Somewhere along the way a touch of romance crept into her work and refused to leave. In between torturing her plethora of characters, she spends the odd free moment playing guitar very badly, punishing herself with freestyle street dance, and studying the Dark Side of the Force. Although happily settled in the historical town of Colchester in the UK with her husband of 21 years and three little monsters, she continues to roam the rest of the Universe in her head.

Pippa Jay is a dedicated member of the Science Fiction Romance Brigade, blogging at Spacefreighters Lounge, Adventures in Scifi, and Romancing the Genres. Her works include YA and adult scifi, scifi romance, and paranormal titles, and she’s one of eight authors included in the science fiction romance anthology—Tales from the SFR Brigade. She’s also a double SFR Galaxy Award winner, been a finalist in the Heart of Denver RWA Aspen Gold Contest (3rd place), and the GCC RWA Silken Sands Star Awards (2nd place).

You can stalk her at her website, or at her blog, but without doubt her favorite place to hang around and chat is on Twitter as @pippajaygreenYou can also find her on Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, Goodreads, and Wattpad.

Her latest work is an alternative 1920s superhero romance--When Dark Falls--released 21st November by Breathless Press.
Available at... Breathless Press

All Romance eBooks | Bookstrand
Smashwords | Barnes&Noble
Amazon US | Amazon UK
In a city where Dark Technologies Inc. now runs the show, Kadie Williams has more immediate concerns than the fall of Blaze, their guardian superhero. Almost every morning for the last few months she’s woken up with cuts and bruises on her body, and no idea how she got them. There are no nightmares. No evidence that she sleepwalks, or any sign of a break in. And nothing to tell her who’s been cleaning up after her. As just one of thousands of civilians conscripted to slave away in the labs of Professor Dark, she knew there'd be trouble ahead. But she never expected it to be so bad, or so personal.

Desperate for answers, Kadie looks to the new defender of the night, the only person who can hinder the total domination of Professor Dark—Nocturnelle. The mysterious vigilante superhero came from nowhere with her cybernetic sidekick Shadow, set on putting an end to the brutality of Dark's regime. But as his laboratories work on a new secret super-weapon, Nocturnelle and Shadow may not be enough to save Nephopolis...or to save Kadie either.


  1. Wonderful blog, Pippa. I absolutely agree that in SFR we need to rethink disabilities. Many that inflict us now will be treatable or curable in the future, but the meaning of disability may change as technology and medicine improve. New disabilities may appear based on inabilities to use tech effectively or the reverse, new technology changing our minds and bodies, and not necessarily for the better.

    1. Thanks Laurie. Yeah, I think it's a difficult topic to write about for some - I know I've struggled with it. But I think it gives us an opportunity to try doing something different with the whole idea of disability.

  2. My thoughts tend to mirror yours, Pippa. We're writing SCIENCE FICTION. Just in my lifetime, which will be 32 years next week, the advances in medical science are unbelievable. My dad's specialty of medicine includes caring for the ones who are critically ill or recovering from major invasive surgery. In the last 20 years the recovery time for heart bypass surgery has gone from months to weeks to DAYS.

    Same for joint replacements. My mom was in the hospital after her knee replacement for four days. She was in the hospital longer than that when she had my youngest brother by C-section in 1988.

    Medical science is moving faster than most people realize. There's a hospital in Denver that's developed a surgical procedure for people with moderately severe asthma and it can reduce their rescue inhaler use from multiple times a day to a few times a month.A couple years ago they were working on adapting it for those with severe asthma. (the worst asthma is the riskier surgery is because of anesthesia)

    A couple weeks ago a paper was released detailing the discovery of new autism-related genes. For the first time researchers are coming to understand how it happens and come up with theories on how to improve lives. Theories they can actually test at the genetic level.

    In my A'yen's Legacy universe, I'm in the far far future and most of what we deal with today is no longer an issue. Disabilities as we understand them today have been eradicated. My humans are advanced enough to create a tattoo ink capable of manipulating electromagnetic fields in my aliens' bodies. Ink that can't be removed, no less.

    In real life I deal with chronic pain because I have fibromyalgia, and I can't take narcotics. Me dealing with this did make it into my universe. It's not something I focus on, but it's there and it's something every single one of my heroes deals with. The metallic ink is only used on males, and the ink causes constant pain as their bodies fight with it.

    Ultimately we have to write our stories the way they come to us. We shouldn't feel pressured to incorporate things for the sake of "diversity."

    1. I'll admit I have felt a little pressured to write more diversity, but it's more a fear of getting it wrong that has stopped me. But also, as I said, it's hard for me to imagine a lot of things not being fixed by future technology. I definitely think exploring alternatives are a good option!

  3. When the idea of giving Amber a disability struck, I was nervous as I'm able-bodied and have scant medical knowledge. But the more I thought about it, the more determined I became to write a fully representative character.

    Speaking to two disabled friends, I identified two tropes I wanted to discount - that disabled people aren't sexually active, and that science can be used as a quick fix.

    Dealing with the first took hours of research, I admit. I looked into the regions of the spine and the outcome of several different types of spinal injury, then found a website for newly-paralysed people that had some VERY frank interviews.

    The second was easier. The fix is possible. But I didn't want to wave a "magic wand". If you don't know what I did, go read the book. :P

    There are a lot of disabilities, and a lot of causes of them. While I do think we need to look to the future and write about possible cures, representing people now is also important.

    1. Thank you, Pippa, for an awesome column. I am busy checking out all of the novels discussed, starting with 'Tin Cat' (how could anyone resist that title). And Misa - so far this story is AWESOME. I have a serious weakness for sweet relationships between out-of-step folks, and write cyborg/disabled characters myself. Have already rec'd your story on Twitter, and I'm not even finished yet. :)

    2. Always happy to introduce good books to new people!

  4. If your stories include terraformed planets you can create diseases or sicknesses that cause disabilities or death. They did this in Firefly and in the anime series Cowboy Bebop.

  5. Thanks for continuing this conversation! I'd love to read more SFRs featuring characters with disabilities. Our world is diverse and I question when books (in general) don't reflect that. Lack of diversity yanks me *out* of a story, which I'm sure isn't the effect authors want.

    >While I do think we need to look to the future and write about possible cures, representing people now is also important.


    It's true advanced technology could perform wonders for characters with disabilities and it's great to explore that, but the danger in going that route repeatedly is the marginalization of people with disabilities.

    Avoiding including disabled characters is likely an indication of our discomfort with them and the issues surrounding disability. Relying on technology to provide adaptive devices or "cure" disabilities can become a cop-out if used too often.

    Variety is key. SFR can include both kinds of stories.

  6. I love all the possibilities brought on my 3D printing. The latest tech developments remind me of why I love SF to begin with. The possibilities are amazing.


We love to hear from you! Comments must pass moderation to be published. Spam will be deleted.

SFR Brigade Bases of Operation