Sci-fi fan Mik Scarlet has discovered three authors in the genre who have integrated believable and rounded disabled characters into their stories.
I have had a lifelong love of science fiction. Writers like Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick saw me through my teenage years and I have been hooked ever since.
Then I found that disability began to be a feature of modern sci-fi, with three writers making disabled characters lead their narrative. I discovered the first following a Twitter thread asking for disabled characters in tween fiction.
RJ Anderson writes science fantasy fiction that combines the real world with a hidden world of fantasy folk law.
“There are major characters with disabilities in nearly all of the novels I’ve written to date, most notably Paul McCormick, the paraplegic romantic lead of my debut novel Knife (2009). It’s the story of a fierce young faery who fights to save her dying people while concealing her forbidden friendship with a human, and one of the things that drove me to write it was that I’d read one too many books about frail young people in wheelchairs who could never know love because they were ‘too damaged’ or doomed to die before the end of the story. So I determined to write about a healthy, attractive, athletic young man who would play a significant role in Knife’s adventures without falling into any of the usual clichés about disability, not the Tragic Waif, but not the Brainy Geek, the Twisted Villain or the Saintly Inspiration either.”
But what caused RJ to go down this road?
“In many cases I was inspired by stories and articles I’d read about disabilities which were under-represented or misrepresented in fiction, and my research included interviewing people with those conditions or asking them to check the relevant parts of my manuscript for accuracy. Even though I was writing SFF and none of the books are ‘about’ disability as such, I wanted the disability elements of my stories to feel as real and accurate as possible, and it must have paid off, because so far, the response to that aspect of my writing has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Just as I finished being entranced by Anderson’s fantasy worlds, author Naomi Foyle contacted me to advise her on the second in her eco-sci-fi trilogy The Gaia Chronicles, Rook Song. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has gone green to save themselves from the ravages of a destroyed world, disabled people are everywhere due to genetic damage. Described as “alt-bodied” disabled people are excluded as outcasts, worshipped as messiahs, and integrated as valued and essential players in Foyle’s complex exploration of a dystopian utopian society.
”My initial intention with The Gaia Chronicles was to write about the contradiction of a Green society that exists in a state of permanent war with its original inhabitants. I very soon realised that I also needed to write in depth about disability because disability is an inevitable consequence of war and nuclear toxicity. Naturally, as an able-bodied person, I was very concerned not to perpetuate damaging stereotypes about people with disabilities.” Foyle carried out extensive research: “Throughout my life I have enjoyed close relationships with people with different impairments, but that doesn’t mean I am free of social prejudices that surround us in the media, social institutions and day-to-day language. I researched the history of representations of disabled people in literature, and the media, and determined to do my best to avoid depicting disabled people as childlike and passive, or, at the other extreme, heroic, overcoming and inspirational.”
Luckily Foyle pulls it off brilliantly and ensures that her disabled characters are strong and fully rounded. Astra and Rook Song suck you into a dark and complex world where impairment and disability shape the narrative in a manner that enthrals and engages. Roll on book three.
Then, like waiting for a jet hover bus for ages, suddenly three come all at once, another sci-fi book caught my attention with a disabled lead character, Synthesis:Weave. Deane Saunders-Stowe’s book features Aryx Trevarian, a disabled ex-serviceman who uses a wheelchair, despite living in a world where technological advancements has fixed many impairments.
“Being a sci-fi novel set in the future, it’s likely that prosthetics would be almost indistinguishable from regular body parts. If I used that, the character’s disability wouldn’t be a factor in the story. He would be a token gesture, quite possibly with ridiculous abilities, and it would add nothing to the story except for making the situations he got into even more extreme,” Saunders says.
“I decided that Aryx wouldn’t be able to use regular prosthetics, and that his own ingenuity would be used to overcome the challenges he faced. He’d still have to use a wheelchair, but had a device that would work in some situations and not others, preventing him from becoming an all-out superhero.”
Luckily inspiration was close to home.
“I had to run several ideas past my partner who is a wheelchair user, and the inspiration behind Aryx, just to see if some things were physically possible. There are a few extreme wheelchair moves that I had him test out.”
This action-packed sci-fi romp takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride through space and crime, as the two lead characters try to discover who was behind a disaster in deep space.
Whether science fiction is your thing or not, these three writers created worlds where disabled characters are essential, empowered and engaging. Sure, it would be nice if we had more disabled writers, but maybe that’s a challenge for the future? For now I would advise you to check out these visions of possibility, and enjoy the ride.