Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Travelling Fantasy Blog Tour: Disabilities and Fantasy

This month our travelling fantasy blog tour deals with disabilities in fantasy.

Disabilities in Fantasy

As we know, disabilities come in all kinds. Mental, physical, emotional.

One of the problem with creating/defining a disabled character is deciding how restricted one's character will be. A character who is utterly unable to move will not be available for derring-do unless his mental/dream world is being explored or unless he lives in a world that allows for his mind and heart are able to affect people and situations. This kind of utterly disabled character could be asleep, in a coma, in cryo-sleep or even dead. However, for the most part, a disabled character generally is able to move around.

There are also disabled characters who are not really disabled. This often happens in sci-fi where technology is so advanced that a disability hardly matters anymore. There are also stories where disabilities are considered romantic -- the odd eye-patch, a blind character such as Star Trek's Geordie who seems more hip than challenged (It's the future, after all!) or a character with an attractive limp. Consider the movie, Avatar, where for all intents and purposes, the hero's disability doesn't matter to the extent that it should, and his being helped by a female of a lower/different class feels a bit like Mr Rochester being helped by Jane Eyre. Whatever the effect, the film's creators can preserve their cake and eat it simultaneously.  In some fantasies, as in the Drakengard video games, often some exchange is made between the disabled and some other entity which renders the disability useful in some ways. For instance, Caim gives up his voice to bond with his Dragon. It's a loss but it's also a gain.

There is also the situation where a disability is not seen -- by the disabled character, by fellow characters, by the audience, or by the reader as a disability. This can be good, bad, idealized, or romanticized. In the original Star Trek, the Vulcan Spock (and many of the so-called advanced cultures) are idealized because of their inability to feel emotions.  There is also a disability which is a kind of living death, a character who has some kind of debilitating ever-worsening illness which makes them continually at war with their bodies, for instance, "The Incredible Shrinking Man."

Whether mentally, intellectually, or physically disabled, a character with a disability is also affected spiritually. They are "marked" in some way that makes them view the world a little differently than others in their world.

Because of my health issues and my son's, I have become very interested in abilities, afflictions, infirmities, and disabilities. I try to see how being disabled can be strengthening to the human soul and how it opens the eyes to situations the able-bodied do not see. I don't think one has had to suffer in order to have one's eyes open to the world but I think it helps. For me, a disabled hero (with a true disability) is an excellent character. I will admit that I often write about disabled characters as a kind of catharsis, or to show the able-bodied how difficult life is for the sickly. But I also write about disabled characters because they populate the world I live in -- especially with the rise of autism in the US population) and they rarely show up as heroes in fantasies. . I feel we ought to show the lives of all kinds of people that disabled people and the "unseen" can see themselves in literature, and that others can see them as well.

In my short story, Lingua Franca, the inhabitants of a far-off planet do not consider themselves disabled. In my novel, Wind Follower, the main character is so ashamed of his disability (epilepsy) that all around him pretend not to see it in order to spare him from shame. There is also an autistic learning disabled character who -- although she is almost an old woman-- is a playmate of the main character. In my novel, Constant Tower, disabled boys born in the Wheel Clan are either killed or made into "living ghosts" called studiers, who are made to feel grateful because they have been spared death. -- Carole McDonnell

Difference and Ability in F&SF
Chris Howard

I spent some time thinking about this month's roundtable topic, disability in fantasy (and SF), building a list of characters I can remember from the literature as well characters in my own books that come to the story with physical or mental differences--differences that force the character down less certain paths or put boundaries on action, sometimes painful boundaries. 
            I started out with the idea this was going to be difficult, that disabilities in fantasy and science fiction were poorly represented, but hoping that was just my own limited scope of reading, and the lack of differently-abled characters was not pervasive.  I think, it turns out, I was partially correct, that there aren’t many examples, but there are significant ones—just from the books I have read.  Many more from books I have yet to read.
            Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, born with significant physical impairments, came immediately to mind.  (Bujold has characters with disabilities in several books).  Michael Moorcock’s Elric was another, although it’s been decades since I’ve read the stories.   William Gibson has several stories containing characters with prostheses, or characters who are wheelchair-bound.  There are also a few Tim Powers books, but the one that comes to mind is The Stress of Her Regard, in which the main character, a physician, lives with physical and mental disabilities, as well as other characters with prosthetic eyes and missing limbs.  (I did google around after writing this post, and found the "Decloaking Disability Bibliography", a fairly long list of authors with books that attempt "to explore the intersection of disability and technology within texts from the genres of science fiction and the literature of the fantastic." It’s an impressive list, and just shows that I need to find more time to read.  Link below).
            As my kids have moved through the teenage years I’ve read more and more YA lit, and my impression is there’s some real focus on disabilities there, characters with paralysis, speech limitations, bulimia, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome.  Most of these aren’t in fantasy or SF books, but in stories that focus on characters struggling to cope with differences in a social context, characters breaking free of walls they have put up themselves, or that society has constructed to hold them back.
            This month’s topic also made me look critically at my own work.  I do have a few characters with limited or missing senses and limbs (Emandes in Sea Throne, Corina in Seaborn who has lost the complete control of her body), but not that many.  I have written several books with main characters who struggle continuously against mental limitations or differences—Kassandra in Saltwater Witch­, Thea in Dryad.  Internal struggles form the basis for my favorite kinds of characters.  This month’s topic put the focus on an important missing element in my reading as well as my writing.
            Finally, there’s an interesting recent example—a recent read for me anyway—in Joe Abercrombie’s character  Monzcarro “Monza” Murcatto, who begins the first page of Best Served Cold as the ruthlessly competent fighter and captain of Styria’s most feared mercenaries, but by the end of chapter one she’s mercilessly killed and thrown off the battlements into a ravine.  Duke Orzo, who commands and orchestrates the whole thing, can wipe his hands and go about his continued political maneuvering with his greatest military threat broken and lying in her own blood below his castle, dead.
            Monza, it turns out, is only mostly dead.  She’s picked up—almost in pieces—by a mysterious stranger and nursed back to a damaged but still breathing version of her old self.  As you can guess by the book’s title, she sets out to destroy everyone involved in her “death”.   I won’t be giving anything away in saying I think she does okay.

Decloaking Disability Bibliography

Chris Howard is a creative guy with a pen and a paint brush, author of Seaborn (Juno Books), Salvage (Masque/Prime, 2013), and a shelf-full of other books. His short stories have appeared in a bunch of zines, latest is “Lost Dogs and Fireplace Archeology” in Fantasy Magazine.  His story “Hammers and Snails” was a Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Fiction Contest winner. He writes and illustrates the comic, Saltwater Witch. His ink work and digital illos have appeared in Shimmer, BuzzyMag, various RPGs, and on the pages and covers of books, blogs, and other interesting places. Last year he painted a 9 x 12 foot Steampunk Map of New York for a cafe in Brooklyn. Find out everything at http://www.SaltwaterWitch.com

The  Abilities of Disability – at Least in Fantasy

In real life, disability is exactly what it says. A lack. A limitation. A loss of possibilities open to others, whether to see, to hear, to walk, to run, or just to go a week without the black dog of depression dropping on your back to take the taste out of everything. 

Atop the inner physical limitations, come external ones: doors too narrow for a wheelchair, handles too high to reach, prompts or safety signals only visible, or only audible. A flight of “simple” stairs. Even an escalator can be another infuriating check to someone with a “disability.”

Add on the invisible limits: as with race, class, and colour, even heterosexuality, disability can leave a  person either Othered or literally invisible. Even when visible, the unlucky Other has to run the gauntlet, if not of naming for the problem – right up or down to names like Hopaling Cassidy – then of the other egregious reactions, from pity to repulsion: less happily than Hopalong, the person vanishes behind the stereotype.

In fantasy, as with race, class and colour etc.,  things could, even ought to be different. Alas, a quick mental survey of Fantasy I Have Read matches too well with the real-world social map: blind seers or crippled beggars appear quite often among minor or even lesser characters.  I can recall only one high-to-mid-level blind character, the bard in Tanya Huff’s Four Quarters series, who is definitely and encouragingly NOT disabled by  his blindness and indeed, in the first book, plays a crucial climactic role.  

Again, in The  Privilege of the Sword, Ellen Kushner offers a powerful cameo of her previous lead character, the great swordsman Richard St. Vier, now suffering from loss of all but peripheral vision, yet devising his own remedies, to remain a  swordmaster unparalleled.

Barbara Hambly has two main male characters, wizards whose magic is off-set by poor vision. One is Antryg Windrose, her most notable wizard, and perhaps my favourite among wizards, Gandalf included. Antryg’s myopia is definitely not “disabling” – though his ability to practice martial arts without his glasses does stretch my credibility – it is only one in a bouquet of anti-establishment attributes. Antryg comes from a dirt-poor tundra family, he learnt his arts from the series’ main villain, and he is more gloriously dotty than even T. H. White’s Merlin, even Antryg frequently considering himself to be outright mad.

There is no deaf, blind, and certainly no paraplegic or quadriplegic main character or protagonist in any fantasy I can think of (and don’t mention Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, his universe is unequivocally SF.) Does this mean mainstream fantasy is as exclusive of the disabled as of non-WASP, middleclass, heterosexual protagonists?

There is some justification, on narrative grounds. Fantasy is, after all, an adventure genre. Protagonists have to be equally fit for flight or fight, accustomed or at least able to confront dragons and scale castles at a blink.  As Hambly’s Californian geek computer programmer ponders at one point in the  Windrose series, after three days spent on the run, or the walk, in a pre-Industrial countryside, eating bread and cheese and sleeping in haystacks:  “Thank God I don’t have allergies – that’s probably something selected against in the evolution of heroines.” (Silent Tower 179.) And so are blindness, deafness, and of course, any form of wheelchair limitation. Disabilities just make things too difficult for the writer, you see?

But should they? Try telling anyone that Long John Silver’s wooden leg limited Treasure Island in any way, adventures included. Come to that, does lameness limit Hopalong Cassidy? Sure, it would probably bring an appreciable change if Long John had needed to push a wheelchair over Hispaniola, but otherwise?
 In fact, for a writer, disability should present not a limit but a valuable asset, especially in building characters. And by this I don’t mean simply turning the “disabled” to an Other of terror and nightmare, as Long John Silver becomes. Without going completely Pollyanna, I consider disability in a main character will give a writer not just means to individualize him/her, but to strengthen that character morally, emotionally, and what matters most to a writer, charismatically. 
I can say this from experience: in the third Amberlight book, Source, I invented an imperial heir, known as a crown prince, with a “delicate stomach,” that could be upset without warning or rule by certain foods. (Art again anticipating nature, I later found one of my own friends actually has this problem.)  At the time, this was just an individuating quirk in a mid-range character. But Therkon went on to become the male lead in the fourth, (unpublished) book, Dragonfly, and there I was charmed to find his stomach upsets did not merely show Men under Pressure Behaving Well, but could actually function as part of the plot. Not merely to hamper the action at crisis but to advance the emotional plot (love-story, okay?) and, in one case, to help hero and heroine out of a tight corner as well. 

Again, though I can’t recall a fantasy hero with a mental disability, (there are a few in SF), I managed to produce one who could suffer from clinical depression. Also unpublished as yet, The Heart of the Fire was meant as my version of the super swordsman: silent, deadly, impregnable to all finer feelings. Unfortunately, by Chapter 2  his workname had become The Killer Caramel, since he had developed an incurable weakness for fostering orphan calves.

Later more lethal character flaws surfaced: at life crises he would drink himself, not into mere alcoholism, but to a hair-trigger readiness to take offense, and his case, kill someone. Or someones. Later, he would sink into life-threatening lethargy. Only after four books and buckets of wonderfully dramatic angst did his life even out to a point where these phases finally faded away.
Such “cures” are less available in reality. But as a writer, I have found disability, at least of a “minor” variety, a powerful and fertile trope. Ironically, at least to a writer, “disability” should be considered less a limitation than a valued basis on which to build a strong, dramatic, even charismatic hero/ine. And what writer would consider one of those a disability?

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies.

Disabilities and the Fantastic

In Irish mythology, only a king without imperfections could sit on the throne. According to The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (Checkmark Books, 2004) “a king could only claim the goddess of the land as his wife—and through her, sovereignty of the country—if he were whole and without blemish. If injured he was forced to abdicate the throne” (49). So it was for Nuada, who lost his hand or arm in battle, and had it replaced with a silver one (thus becoming Nuada of the Silver Hand). This injury meant he had to give up his leadership of the Tuatha Dé Danaan.1  Only when he is given a magical prosthesis is he allowed to return to the throne. His silver hand is not enough; it has to be covered by a special skin to appear normal (362).
            Nuada lost his throne, thanks to prejudice against the disabled. That he did is indicative of attitudes which suggest that those who are not “whole” are no longer capable, and that their disability somehow hurts others, in this case, the people he ruled. Nuada was still able to fight with his silver appendage, but that wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t whole; he couldn’t be king.
            Tiny Tim, in A Christmas Carol, is another disabled character in fantastic literature. His lonely crutches in the corner, carefully preserved, are a familiar image to many readers. If he is not treated, death is his future—and it is only through the repentance of Scrooge’s evil ways that Tiny Tim can receive the medical care he needs. Unlike Nuada, who experiences prejudice, Tim is accepted and loved by his family. But it could be argued that Dickens is exhibiting prejudice against the disabled, as he isn’t a fully realized character; rather he is a symbol of repentance and redemption, an image of pity, and not a little boy who happens to have a disability.
            So, what is going on with the presentations of the disabled, of disabilities in the fantastic? Surely, there are characters who are more than just victims of prejudice and pathetic imagery? My (admittedly unscientific and indeed casual) research for this blog took me to The Passive Voice website (http://www.thepassivevoice.com/09/2012/10-inspirational-disabled-characters-from-sci-fi-and-fantasy/), and “10 Inspirational Disabled Characters from Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” Tyrion Lannister, from Game of Thrones, immediately got my attention. Yes,  as Passive Guy says, “The insults thrown at Tyrion Lannister in both the books and the TV show Game Of Thrones are, sadly, a reflection of what many dwarfs in our real world have to go through (although Tyrion, being a contrary sort, takes one of these insults – “Imp” – and makes it his own).” But he is presented as a “fantastic character first, a dwarf second  . . .Of course his size is an important part of what makes him Tyrion, but he’s so much more: clever, sardonic, scheming, sexy and vulnerable. Tyrion is not “just” a dwarf: he’s one of the best characters on TV right now.”
            Another character I found intriguing was Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon.  He has a damaged tail, which dooms him to being flightless, and thus, probably to death. Young Viking Hiccup, however, makes him a prosthetic tail (perhaps the “first dragon-limb-replacement”) and he takes wing. According to Passive Guy, Toothless is a “great example to set kids who might never have thought about what it means to need prosthesis.”
            All right, so far, so good. Better, yes? Well, not according to one commentator, Steve Godden, who felt the entire list bordered patronizing, and borderline insensitive.  Must the disabled be inspirational and good examples?  Can’t they just be a dragon who needs a tail, or a prince who happens to be a dwarf? Godden found this list to be “[offputting sic] as characters are being defined by their disabilities, and therefore not as whole people. He notes that the “One of the things the athletes at the para-Olympics requested is that the term ‘inspiring’ should not be used.” As he further notes, “Characters are only ‘inspiring’ if they stoically accept their disability.” However, another commentator, Mira, brings up the question of intent. Why are these characters in the story at all? It is important, she argues, that the disabled be seen, and not hidden away or (often literally) looked over. According to Mira, “. . . sometimes those in a targeted community sometimes get too caught up in political correctness, and forget intent. Sensitivity is important, for sure, but sometimes there are positive things happening even if they are not 100% sensitive.”
            True and Godden agrees: “Representation is important, I just wish we had reached a place where there was no need to represent because it was no longer an issue.” But we will always have the disabled, whether due to genetics or an accident or disease. The place we need to reach is one in which there is no longer discrimination against the disabled, and they are considered whole people, and not a disability, or inspiring examples.
            In the interest of full disclosure (and shameless self-promotion) two of my main characters in Harvest of Changelings and The Called, Russell and Jeff have learning disabilities, a legacy from their fairy heritage. I remember being quite aware of not making them an image but fully realized people who are, among a long list of adjectives, also learning disabled. I hope I succeeded; that was my intent.
            So, there has been progress from Nuada’s disguised hand and Tiny Tim’s presentation as an image and not a boy who is disabled. A bad-ass prince, a dragon, and two boys who help save the world. They are real, visible, and certainly not stoic and they are certainly more than their disability: they are heroes.
            Let’s keep on until we reach the place where the disabled are just there, among the rest of us—all part of the human rainbow—including disabled villains.

Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections. His short fiction has appeared in such journals and publications as Icarus, Collective Fallout, North Carolina Literary Review, and The Silver Gryphon. His story, “The Boy on McGee Street,” was recently published in Queer Fish 2.


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