Lois McMaster Bujold’s ever-expanding Vorkosigan Saga contains something somewhat unusual for a science fiction series: A disabled protagonist. Miles Vorkosigan has a variety of symptoms associated with a poison used to attack his mother while she was pregnant with him. In a society with cures for almost everything, Miles stands out, with his fragile bones that are ultimately replaced with prosthetics to prevent endless breaks. He is, in many ways, a supercrip stereotype, who spends much of the series engaging in heroics to ‘defy his disability’ and prove to the people around him that he’s of equal value and worth in a society that stigmatises him as a mutant.
Miles is not necessarily a character I would point to as a great example of a depiction of disability, but in the world of science fiction, he stands out dramatically. Because science fiction is a world where very few characters are allowed to be disabled, and if they are, it’s usually a temporary infirmity until modern science can get them fixed up. Or it’s done with deliberate effect; a character may be punished by being denied a cure, for example, or is evil because of a disability that couldn’t be or wasn’t cured, and the resentment that created. We can thank Bujold for avoiding that particular stereotype, because Miles is a lot of things, but evil is not one of them.
The world of the future as envisioned by many creators of science fiction is one where disability doesn’t exist. Why should it? Disability is a wrongness that should be curable, under their view, and is something that any right-thinking society would eliminate because it serves no particular purpose. These futuristic societies use advanced genetic screening to determine which children should be born, perhaps even to tailor fetuses to individual needs, thus assuring that genetic disease doesn’t exist, and halting any chromosomal variations before they have a chance to flourish.
And people can’t be disabled through injury or disease when they live in a society with highly advanced medicine that can provide cures, even for complex things. Lose an arm? They’ll grow a new one for you and attach it, or perhaps you’ll take a medication that will make your arm grow back, some sort of gene therapy that stimulates bone, muscle, nerves to grow back. Cognitive decline never occurs when you can regrow neurons. Some authors go into remarkable detail on all the ways they eliminate injury and disease, creating far-thinking scientific explanations for what is, effectively, the elimination of human diversity.
Disability is approached in most science fiction narratives as something that is inherently bad. It’s something no one would want, and thus something that wouldn’t happen in a society where people exert tremendous control over the body; people cannot be born with disabilities, they cannot acquire disabilities, thus, there is no room for disability. Disability is simply erased from view. It is no longer a social or political issue in a world where there are no people with disabilities, where the heroes of war have no physical injuries to mark their experiences, and often curiously appear to be entirely lacking in mental health legacies from their time in combat.
Mental illness is perhaps one of the few disabilities that is sometimes allowed to slip through in science fiction narratives, again usually as a plot device. Characters may struggle with depression or anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder, may even see a counselor, and they are often shunned and viewed dubiously because they lack sufficient control over their minds. Mental health is depicted as something influenced and created by external factors in these settings—there is at least an acknowledgement by some creators that stressful situations can contribute to mental health problems. But we don’t see very much evidence of conditions with genetic connections, and mental illness is regarded as something correctable and curable.
Characters like Saul Tigh, missing one eye and living with alcoholism, are highly unusual and they stand out. It’s notable, too, that Tigh is living in a world post-breakdown, where he lacks access to the more sophisticated medicine and science depicted in science fiction. Disability, in this framework, is viewed as a sign of social collapse. Society has fallen so far that it can’t heal people, cannot erase disability, must instead confront it and deal with it. One of the goals of fallen societies, in this world, is often to improve medicine, not just to improve access to care and treatment, but to return to a world where disability doesn’t exist, or to create such a world. Because disability is bad.
In this setting, disabled consumers of science fiction cannot find representations of themselves in the text. They may find characters with similar values, ethics, and goals. Similar interests in science or history or other things. But they do not find characters who look like them, or who think like them, or who act like them. Young fans of science fiction who may be adapting to disability, learning to navigate a world where they are disabled now and there are no cures, receive constant messaging that disability is wrong and bad, and an ideal world is one where they don’t exist, or are cured, so they don’t ‘suffer.’ This is powerful messaging to be sending to people.
Exposure to disability rights narratives tends to happen later in life, as people move into adulthood, start interacting with other people with disabilities on their own terms. Meanwhile, years of messaging about how disability is a tragedy, a wrongness, a thing that should go away, has had time to insidiously build up. The idea that disability has a place in the world, that some people aren’t troubled by disability, that some people even embrace their disabilities, may be alien. Disability rights can involve overcoming not just social barriers that contribute to continued marginalisation, but internalised messaging from the pop culture that surrounds people from early childhood. You escape into science fiction to imagine a world different from your own, and that world, for some of us, is so very different that we don’t exist.