Disability in science fiction

Graham Clements
Summary 
Characters with disabilities might seem rare in science fiction. But some science fiction has worlds full of people with disabilities. Vision impaired characters in science fiction are particularly popular. Characters using wheelchairs are also common. Some characters also have limbs replaced by new technology. Many science fiction stories have technology fixing disabilities. Others have technology creating an environment that is more accessible. I hope we will see even more characters with disabilities in future. You can share your favourite characters in the comments section.
Posted by: 
Graham Clements on 04/08/2011
A close up of the Star Trek character Geordi La Forge wearing an usual metal visor over his eyes.
GeordiLaForge

Geordi La Forge from Star Trek

Most people would probably struggle to name a science fiction character with a disability. Eventually they might remember that guy in a wheelchair from Avatar. Those with longer memories might come up with the Six Million Dollar Man. But science fiction has actually had many characters with disabilities.

Some science fiction is set in worlds full of people with disabilities. For example, The Day of the Triffids starts with the majority of the world's population blinded by a meteor shower. Another example is the current television series of Torchwood: Miracle Day. It is set in a world where people no longer die. But people still age, get sick and have accidents. The Torchwood world quickly fills with people with disabilities.

Vision impaired characters

Characters with vision impairment frequently appear in science fiction. One example is engineer Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He uses a special visor to see. The visor also enhances Geordi's vision so he can see in other wavelengths like infra-red. In later Star Trek movies his visor was replaced by implants.

Nearly all the characters are deaf and blind in John Varley's novella The Persistence of Vision. The novella is set on a commune built by deaf and blind people. A man who can hear and see arrives at the commune. But his sight and hearing are a disability to him fitting in.

Characters using wheelchairs

Wheelchair users regularly appear in science fiction movies. Jake Sully in Avatar is one of the most recent. But there is also Professor Charles Xavier, the leader of the X-Men. Another famous example is Dr Everett Scott, a science teacher in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Alien Resurrection also has a mechanic who comfortably pilots his electric wheelchair around a space station. He has to abandon his wheelchair when aliens escape from their cages.

In The Genesis of Shannara novel trilogy by Terry Brooks, wise old Owl leads a group of children. She has to navigate her wheelchair through a world ravaged by pollution and genetic engineering.

Characters with artificial limbs

One of the arch-villains of science fiction has artificial limbs. It is Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars. Anakin is badly injured in a fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi. His arms and legs are replaced with cybernetic limbs. His voice is raspy from burnt lungs. But technology helps transform Anakin into Darth Vader. In a later battle Vader lops off the hand of his son Luke. Luke's hand is replaced by a cybernetic one.

The French novel The Hands of Orlac by Maurice Renard also involves transplant surgery. When a pianist's hands are ruined in a railway accident he has new hands transplanted. But the hands belonged to a murderer. When the pianist's father is murdered, the pianist is suspected. This novel spawned many stories about evil transplanted body parts taking control of their host.

Technology as fix

Technology in science fiction is often used to try and "fix" disabilities. But these fixes frequently have unforseen consequences.

Author Jane Stemp prefers stories that take a different approach to technology. Rather than changing the human body, technology could create a more accessible environment. Arthur C. Clarke's Island in the Sky is a good example. In the story, a space station commander has no legs. But this is of no consequence in the zero gravity of space.

The future

Technology is enabling more authors with disabilities to get published. I hope this might increase the number of characters with disabilities in fiction. It would be particularly good to see more characters with intellectual disabilities or mental illness. But obviously it depends on the world the author imagines.

Some science fiction authors set their stories in worlds full of technological wonders. For example, a world full of successful genetic engineering is unlikely to have many characters with disabilities. But an author might imagine a world ravaged by nuclear war or global warming. Such an apocalyptic world is likely to have many people with disabilities.

Lyn Venable's short story Time Enough at Last is set in an apocalyptic world. The story's main character wishes he had more time to read. One day his city is struck by a nuclear bomb. He survives and wanders the city in despair until he stumbles into a library. He has thousands of books and plenty of time to read them. But then he drops his glasses, shattering their thick lenses. This story was turned into an episode of the original Twilight Zone.

 

What are your favourite fictional characters with disabilities? Let us know in the comments section below.

Readers comments (4)

Good article. I'll add two of my favorite series.

Miles Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold's works

The Brainships in Anne McCaffrey (and other authors) The Ship Who Sang series

Great article, especially like the idea that the environment should change to assist the person with the disability.

Have people seen this? Based on a 2010 presentation at SwanCon. "Disability in Speculative Fiction: Monsters, mutants and muggles": http://sqbr.dreamwidth.org/275347.html

To the list of books, I'll add 2003 Nebula Award winner "The Speed of Dark", which takes on the neurodiversity vs autism cure debate. (I actually have a lot more examples, if people want them)

Like Kathryn, I love the Vorkosigan series - in terms of genetic engineering and social construction of disability, tho, think beyond Miles to the quaddies in Falling Free.

I thought you might be interested to hear that I've written a novel, Synthesis:Weave, in which a disabled character features prominently as one of the main protagonists. He overcomes his double through-knee amputation by developing a prosthetic device after an accident - and subsequent illness - rendered him unable to use traditional prosthetics.

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