Crips Claim Space: Disabled Writers Resist Eugenicist Ideology Through Science Fiction


SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

LSFRC 2021 Papers


Crips Claim Space: Disabled Writers Resist Eugenicist Ideology Through Science Fiction

Laura Alison Nash

Humans shape the future in many ways, from developing technology to advocating for policy change to manipulating genetic material and beyond. In her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, adrienne maree brown even suggests writing science fiction is one way to shape the future:

Art is not neutral. It either upholds or disrupts the status quo, advancing or regressing justice. We are living now inside the imagination of people who thought economic disparity and environmental destruction were acceptable costs for their power. It is our right and responsibility to write ourselves into the future. (197)

Science fiction presents a ready medium for imagining possible futures, but as brown asserts, it isn’t neutral. Science fiction can reinforce harmful societal structures, as well as disrupt them.

American science fiction tends to reinforce eugenicist ideology, particularly regarding disability. [1] Consider the 1997 science fiction film Gattaca. In the world of Gattaca, most parents rely on genetic selection to reproduce. “In-valids”—those conceived and born without genetic intervention—face tremendous barriers. In-valid protagonist Vincent Freeman dreams of going to space. He knows he’ll never be chosen, no matter how hard he trains and studies, so he turns to the black market. “Valid” Jerome Morrow agrees to sell Vincent genetic material. Armed with Jerome’s blood, sweat, and urine, Vincent successfully tricks his way to becoming an astronaut.

Gattaca reveals societal anxiety about disability. When Vincent’s employers finally schedule him for a mission, Jerome remarks, “They’re sending you up there, for Christ’s sake. You! Of all people!” He comes across as both impressed and disgusted, revealing ingrained genoism. Raised in a genoist society, Jerome feels so inadequate after winning a silver medal, he steps in front of a bus to attempt suicide, becoming paralyzed in the process. Then, when Vincent is finally on his way to Saturn, Jerome successfully commits suicide, incinerating himself. Thus, Gattaca falls prey to the kill-or-cure trope. As described by Jay Timothy Dolmage in Disability Rhetoric, “Just as a loaded gun shown in the opening scenes of a movie will eventually be fired, a disabled character will either have to be ‘killed or cured’ by the end of any movie or novel in which they appear” (34-35). The kill-or-cure trope perpetuates the belief that disabled lives aren’t worth living.

America demands ever more able and productive citizens. In “Cripping Neoliberal Futurity,” Kelly Fritsch observes, “the child of reproductive futurism is not only able-bodied, but must also be better than able-bodied or able-minded” (14). Gattaca illuminates this reality—neoliberal society’s reliance on hyper-ability to fuel an obsession with continuous improvement and productivity. It even offers some critique of it. But the film fails to give a glimpse of a brighter, more just alternative. One in-validcheats his way to success through persistence and identity fraud, but he doesn’t lift anyone else up in the process. Another man kills himself rather than continue to live with a disability. Were led to view Vincent as an exception to the rule:one man with sufficient drive to achieve his dreams within a broken system, but no hope of changing the system, and absolutely no hope for disabled people.

Disabled people deserve a different kind of science fiction story. Not only do we deserve disabled characters who survive into the future; we deserve disabled characters who thrive. Though they haven’t yet reached mainstream audiences, these stories do exist. Disabled writers like Nisi Shawl, Mia Mingus, Erika Hammerschmidt, and John C. Ricker have gifted us with science fiction stories that confront eugenicist ideology and envision brighter futures for disabled people.

Confronting Eugenicist Realities

In her short story “Hollow,” Mia Mingus describes a community of disabled people—or “UnPerfects”—living on a planet called Hollow. Years ago, on Earth, UnPerfects staged a revolution, briefly taking over the government. After only a week, the New Regime seized power and sent all UnPerfects to camps, torturing and murdering many of them. Then a leader of the New Regime had a baby—an UnPerfect baby—and, suddenly, they called off the slaughter. The New Regime put the remaining UnPerfects on a space shuttle and launched them to Hollow, where biodomes had already been established. It’s clear that the leaders of the New Regime assumed the UnPerfects would die; it was simply more palatable to send them to space than continue to commit genocide, particularly when they realized they would have to slaughter their own children. Instead, the UnPerfects thrived and built a beautiful, accessible city.

Mingus spends a few paragraphs with a character named Seva, who sits on a couch remembering and grieving. At three years old, her family left her in an institution and never returned, not even to visit. Seva’s experience mirrors the experience of thousands of disabled people. Throughout the 1900s, U.S. doctors and social workers persuaded mostly poor and immigrant families to send their children to state-run institutions, convincing them that institutions could provide better care and relieve the family’s financial burden. In some ways, sending the UnPerfects to Hollow functions similarly to sending disabled people to institutions, removing them from family and community, banishing them from sight. “They couldn’t bear to look at us,” says a character named Rex, “but they couldn’t bring themselves to continue killing us” (“Hollow” 113).

Kea’s Flight, a novel written and self-published by wife and husband Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker, has a similar premise to “Hollow.” A couple hundred years in Earth’s future, protagonist Karen tested positive in-utero for a high likelihood of developing Asperger’s syndrome. Her embryo was removed, cryogenically frozen, and placed on a spaceship with thousands of other embryos that had also tested positive for developmental disabilities. Once in space, en route to a planet named New Charity III, the embryos resumed gestation. Karen and her fellow rems (short for removals) grew up in transit to New Charity III, expecting to arrive when they turned twenty-one years old. They’re also accompanied by non-disabled “benevolent guardians” (BGs) tasked with caring for the rems and the ship. As they age, Karen and her friends feel more and more stifled by the structures imposed by the BGs and slowly become aware of how likely the mission is to fail. It becomes clear that Earth didn’t equip them to survive, but rather constructed a spaceship with cheap technology to get disabled embryos off an overpopulated Earth as quickly as possible.

The spaceship, which the rems call the Flying Dustbin because of how Earth threw them away like trash, parallels an institution in several ways. As an illustration, I employ Oregon’s state institution, Fairview Training Center, which was in operation from 1908 to 2000. The Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary In the Shadow of Fairview paints a vivid picture of Oregon’s state institution for “the feeble-minded, idiotic, and epileptic,” which was representative of similar institutions across the United States. Former patients describe it as a prison, overcrowded and underfunded, rampant with abuse and neglect, in which residents were forced to take psychotropic medication and perform unpaid labor. The people committed to Fairview had little control over their own lives, subject to strict schedules and cruel punishments. Many underwent forced sterilization before they were permitted to leave the institution. In Kea’s Flight, Hammerschmidt and Ricker describe a fictional world clearly influenced by a very real experience like the one at Fairview. The rems are kept to strict schedules and constantly surveilled. If they make a simple misstep, robots appear and drag them to re-education rooms where they’re forced to watch propaganda for hours. At meals, each rem receives an energy bar and nutrient fluid calculated for their body size, infused with psychotropic medication and contraceptives. If they refuse to eat, a robot force feeds them. The BGs consistently cover up fatal accidents, including an explosion and technical malfunctions. Similarly, Fairview attempted to cover up accidents and injuries, rape, and murder. An investigation eventually led to the closure of Fairview in 2000, and many similar institutions across the United States have also closed, but de facto institutions still exist in other forms, like psychiatric hospitals, group homes, and prisons. Kea’s Flight imagines how these institutions might continue into the future.

Like the characters in “Hollow” and Kea’s Flight, the characters in Nisi Shawl’s short story “Deep End” have also been sent to colonize another planet. However, they weren’t expelled from Earth due to disability. Instead, they’re expelled from Earth because they’ve been convicted as criminals. Psyche Moth is a prison ship. Each passenger’s mind has been downloaded into “freespace,” destroying their original body, and uploaded into a clone of a wealthy individual from Earth. Due to the systemic racism of the criminal justice system and wealth inequality, most prisoners are Black or Brown, while the bodies their minds are uploaded into are White. (While privileged people remain safe on Earth, they are intent on spreading their genes throughout the universe.) This results in dysphoria, as prisoners feel unsettled in their new, unfamiliar bodies. In addition, several of the prisoners experience health concerns. For example, the main character, Wayna, develops unexplained shooting pains.

“Deep End” reflects difficult truths about the U.S. incarceration system. In “Disabling Incarceration,” Liat Ben-Moshe speaks to criminalization, institutionalization, and psychiatrization as a continuum, facets of a unified carceral system. They work together to remove “undesirable” people from communities. It’s not uncommon for people to move from one carceral location to another (e.g., from prison to a psychiatric hospital). One reason for this: “the prison environment itself is disabling” (13); prisons cause mental and physical harm. “Deep End” points to this reality. Several of Psyche Moth’s prisoners become disabled after they’re downloaded to cloned bodies, and the ship AI refuses to take their pain and health concerns seriously, simply prescribing rest. People currently and formerly incarcerated have reported similar treatment by prison staff, who refuse them medical attention and medication. By writing from Wayna’s point of view, Shawl emphasizes the absurdity of this treatment. Wayna’s health, along with her fellow prisoners’, is in the metaphorical hands of a cold, rule-abiding AI.

By reflecting on eugenicist realities from disabled characters’ points of view, the authors of these three stories draw attention to the inhumanity of institutions, incarceration, and other practices that sought, and continue to seek, to erase disabled people. The pain and grief, love and hope expressed by the characters humanizes them. This is a subversive act. As Eli Clare writes in Brilliant Imperfection, “Many of us have been seduced into believing the need to eliminate disability and ‘defectiveness’ is intuitively obvious” (27). Too often, stories are a part of this seduction, dehumanizing disabled people by relegating them to stereotypes. But the disabled characters in “Hollow,” Kea’s Flight, and “Deep End” aren’t the disabled characters we’ve grown to expect. Instead, Mingus, Hammerschmidt and Ricker, and Shawl write disabled characters who experience a wide range of emotions, have complex relationships, and fight tooth and nail for survival and liberation—humans worthy of life.

Envisioning Crip Futures

NASA requires astronauts to meet rigorous qualifications. Minimum standards for applicants include academic achievement and professional experience in engineering, science, or mathematics; vision correctable to 20/20; blood pressure and height requirements. Final-round applicants undergo a week of personal interviews and medical screenings. Successful astronaut candidates spend two years in strenuous training and evaluation, at the end of which NASA still may not select them for a mission (“Astronaut Selection and Training”). In short, one must be both hyper able-bodied and able-minded to become an astronaut. But what if hyper-ability isn’t a necessity for astronauts? As Rose Eveleth writes in “It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel,” “If you want to find people who are the very best at adapting to worlds not suited for them, you’ll have the best luck looking at people with disabilities, who navigate such a world every single day.” She uses the example of the Gallaudet Eleven, a group of deaf men engaged in a series of tests during the early 1960s to learn how humans might function in space, specifically chosen for their imperviousness to motion sickness. Eveleth also points to people who use ostomy bags, a medical device that could solve the problem of human waste management in space, as well as people who use wheelchairs, who are already familiar with modes of propulsion employed by astronauts in zero gravity. It seems many disabled people would make excellent astronauts.

We see this reversal of expectations in “Hollow.” The characters know the New Regime didn’t expect them to survive their journey to Hollow. In a turn of events, the UnPerfects do more than survive. They thrive by transforming the planet’s previously constructed living spaces to meet their needs: “They built new adaptations for their chairs, lifts, canes, crutches, braces, and their UnPerfect bodies, without thought to what was allowed or having to rely on the Perfects to do so” (Mingus, “Hollow” 118). Having escaped the ableist barriers imposed by the Perfects back on Earth, the UnPerfects build a city more accessible and welcoming than they’ve ever experienced before. This is a glimpse of what could be possible not only in the future on a distant planet, but here and now on Earth, if we recognized disabled people as leaders and offered supports rather than impediments.

Similarly, in Kea’s Flight, the non-disabled BGs so underestimate the rems that they don’t notice a group of friends organizing a coup right beneath their noses. Karen’s special interests in linguistics and chess lead her to create a secret language using a game board so she and her friends can communicate about illicit topics in plain view. Her boyfriend, Draz, uses his coding prowess to hack into the ship’s systems, allowing the rems to slowly gain more control over the ship’s operations. He uses his skills multiple times to fix lethal malfunctions, saving everyone. And when they discover their destination, the planet New Charity III, is uninhabitable, their friend Lefty’s knowledge of astronomy and mathematics allows them to chart a new course. The characters’ neurodivergent traits—special interests, hyper focus, pattern recognition, etc.—facilitate the rems’ survival and eventual takeover of the Flying Dustbin.

The idea that disabled people would make excellent astronauts and space colonists is a more literal interpretation of these stories. Another read considers the elements of space travel, colonization of extraterrestrial planets, and the genre of science fiction itself as symbols representing futurity. Space travel, both real and fictional, is inextricably tied up in visions of humanity spreading throughout the solar system and galaxy. One argument for space colonization: the survival of our species. If an extinction event occurred on one planet, at least humans would live on somewhere else in the universe. This raises many questions, of course. One question I’m concerned with here: Who would be chosen to colonize space and carry our species into the future? Extrapolating from NASA’s astronaut selection criteria, only the hyper-able-bodied and able-minded would find their way onto other planets, resulting in a eugenicist project. For now, space colonization is a distant possibility, opening space for dreaming, a screen onto which we can project our imagination, our hopes and desires. So much could change in the next hundred or thousand years, which is why science fiction stories about space travel and colonization provide fertile ground for envisioning different ways of living. Hammerschmidt and Ricker, Mingus, and Shawl take advantage of this fecundity to plant visions of communities where disabled people thrive.

Despite their limiting environment, the characters in Kea’s Flight create a community of friends. They gather almost every day to converse via Karen’s game board language. When dangers emerge, they look out for one another; they support each other to find courage and joy in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges and loss. The rems’ complementary strengths and weaknesses, and their love and respect for one another, enable them to pull off a successful coup. While only Draz possesses the necessary hacking skills to manipulate the ship’s surveillance and navigation systems, each friend brings value to the group. Even Chris, who is frequently critical and picks fights, is still valued among the friends. They may grow frustrated and angry with him, but they don’t discard him. Their loyalty pays off near the end of Kea’s Flight when Chris attacks a robot, sacrificing himself to draw attention away from his friends. If not for him, they wouldn’t have made it to the ship’s engine control room.

Mainstream American society places a premium on capitalist productivity, esteeming bankable traits and skills over other, less lucrative skills. Neoliberal rhetoric dubs people with profitable traits and skills “productive members of society” and without placing “burdens on society.” Far too often, disabled people are labeled “burdens.” In contrast, disability justice affirms “that all bodies are unique and essential, that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met … we are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them” (Berne). This is a direct challenge to eugenicist ideology, recognizing that every person is valuable and brilliant, including people who don’t have “marketable” skills or who have cantankerous personalities, like Chris. According to author of Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, true access is a “radical act of love” (76). It means we give each other access even when we don’t like each other; no one gets tossed aside, and that benefits everyone.

Shawl also emphasizes the beauty and complexity of relationships in “Deep End.” At the beginning of her story, Wayna enjoys a close romantic relationship with two lovers: Doe and Thad. Doe’s mind, like Wayna’s, has been downloaded into a clone body, but Thad’s mind still only exists in freespace. Doe and Wayna visit him there, where they can interact with each other, appearing as their old selves. However, a crack forms in their relationship when Wayna starts experiencing pain. Doe hesitates to have sex with Wayna in her new physical form, worried she’ll hurt Wayna, and Thad suggests she remain in freespace with him. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to [download my mind] anyway,” he says. He adds sarcastically: “Now it sounds so much more inviting? ‘Defective body?’ ‘Don’t mind if I do’” (129). In the end, Thad and Doe decide to remain in freespace, while Wayna chooses to descend to Jubilee in her clone body. Wayna establishes a new community with new friends and lovers. She builds rapport with other people experiencing the same sudden onset disability, and they swap tips and tricks for managing the pain. Shawl doesn’t suggest that Wayna feels any rancor toward Doe and Thad as she grows apart from them; she simply forms new relationships with people who share her experience and meet her needs.

Karen Hammer speaks to this phenomenon of bonding over shared experiences in “A Scar is More than a Wound: Rethinking Community and Intimacy Through Queer and Disability Theory.” Hammer examines how the character Jess in the novel Stone Butch Blues and the author Riva Lehrer of personal essay “Golem Girl Gets Lucky” “use the surface of the scar to build community and intimacy” (167). In both pieces, the characters endure exclusion and abuse: Jess because she doesn’t conform to gender expectations, and Lehrer due to her physical disability. Yet, for Jess and Lehrer, “common vulnerability creates an opportunity to embrace a sense of interdependence through mutual precarity” (Hammer 159). They build strong, caring relationships with others based on common traumas. Hammer refers to this bond as “queer/crip kinship.” While Shawl only mentions Wayna’s newfound kinship in passing—“She met prisoners who had similar symptoms, and they traded tips and theories about what was wrong with them” (132)—it reads as critical to Wayna’s decision to continue in physical space. Crip kinship leads to community and resilience.

Mingus’s story also emphasizes kinship. In the second scene of “Hollow,” Mingus zooms in on a poignant exchange between three characters. Ona, Prolt, and Al Dwihn return from working in the garden, harvesting food to feed their community, and they check in with one another. Ona wipes the dirt and drool from Prolt’s hands and arms and adjusts his leg to relieve pain. They all discuss how a new tool may help to ease Ona’s soreness. The interaction comes across as casual camaraderie, a moment that’s been repeated hundreds of times before and will happen many more times in the future. I associate this scene with a term Mingus herself coined: “access intimacy”: “Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs” (“Access Intimacy”). These characters are relaxed around one another; caring for one another is normalized, nothing special or remarkable about it. Except, in the context of our present-day lived reality, it is remarkable.

Mainstream American society values independence. We denigrate anyone who relies on other people or systems to meet their needs, from disabled people who rely on care work to families who rely on SNAP or food pantries. Piepzna-Samarasinha offers the example of “emergency-response care webs that happen when someone able-bodied becomes temporarily or permanently disabled, and their able-bodied network of friends springs into action” (52). These types of care webs mobilize and burn out quickly when able-bodied friends expect the disabled friend to convalesce quickly and regain their independence. This approach to care hinges on a selective lens—a lens that filters out the connections and supports we all rely on. None of us thrive alone; we’re deeply interconnected and dependent on one another in different ways. All three stories discussed here magnify this truth and demonstrate that we’re better off when we embrace interdependence, whether it manifests as taking advantage of varied skill sets to meet a common goal, bonding emotionally through a shared experience, helping each other meet basic needs like nutrition and hygiene, or something else.

Readers may not expect to read science fiction and take away lessons about relationships, intimacy, and interdependence. Science fiction generally recalls feats of engineering, advancements in science and technology, relationships on the scale of galactic diplomacy, and war. In comparison, human relationships come off as mundane. But what if paying attention to and developing relationships in this way is what humans need to survive into the future? “What ableism hides, as does every other interconnected system of oppression, is that our survival as disabled people instills us with powerful wisdom that is necessary now more than ever for our human and planetary survival” (Skin, Tooth, and Bone 95). Disabled science fiction authors offer tools and skills for the continuation of our species.

Conclusion

In Disability Theory, Tobin Siebers observes that even though history has unfailingly shown us human beings are fragile and mortal, we’re convinced that we can achieve perfect health and immortality in the future (7). Western science fiction habitually reinforces this belief, portraying future societies capable of manipulating genes, eradicating disease and disability, and even super-enhancing ability. These visions of the future influence our behaviors in the present. They encourage us to selectively abort fetuses that may be born disabled, spend millions of dollars on researching cures rather than improving quality of life and making society more accessible, and engineer robotic exoskeletons so people with spinal injuries can “walk.” Disabled people don’t have to accept these futures. We can write our own.

Let’s envision vibrant crip futures until we can taste, hear, smell, feel, see, and intuit them. Let’s dream about disabled people thriving on Earth, in space, in fantasy worlds and alternate realities, and share those dreams with everyone. Disabled people deserve futurity; we won’t be eliminated.

WORKS CITED

Ben-Moshe, Liat. “Disabling Incarceration: Connecting Disability to Divergent Confinements in the U.S.” Critical Sociology, vol. 39, no. 3, 2013, pp. 385-403. journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0896920511430864.

Berne, Patty. “Disability Justice – a working draft by Patty Berne.” Sins Invalid, 9 Jun. 2015. www.sinsinvalid.org/blog/disability-justice-a-working-draft-by-patty-berne.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017.

Clare, Eli. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Duke University Press, 2017.

Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse University Press, 2014.

Eveleth, Rose. “It’s Time to Rethink Who’s Best Suited for Space Travel.” WIRED, 27 Jan. 2019. www.wired.com/story/its-time-to-rethink-whos-best-suited-for-space-travel/#:~:text=Ashton%20Graybiel%20to%20help%20test,11%20men%20through%20countless%20tests.

Fritsch, Kelly. “Cripping Neoliberal Futurity: Marking the Elsewhere and Elsewhen of Desiring Otherwise.” feral feminisms, Issue 5: Untimely Bodies, Spring 2016. pp. 11-26.

Gattaca. Dir. Andrew Niccol. Sony Pictures, 1997.

Hammer, Karen. “A Scar is More than a Wound: Rethinking Community and Intimacy Through Queer and Disability Theory.” Rocky Mountain Review, vol. 68, no. 2, Fall 2014. pp. 159-176.

Hammerschmidt, Erika and John C. Ricker. Kea’s Flight. 25 Aug 2011.

In the Shadow of Fairview: full documentary. YouTube, uploaded by OPB, 11 Dec. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrlmlAJIV7c.

Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link.” Leaving Evidence, 5 May 2011.

leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/access-intimacy-the-missing-link/.

—. “Hollow.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, AK Press, 2015, pp. 109-121.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Astronaut Selection and Training.” NASAfacts. www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/pdf/606877main_FS-2011-11-057-JSC-astro_trng.pdf.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.

Shawl, Nisi. “Deep End.” Shattering Ableist Narratives, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft, vol. 7, Aqueduct Press, 2013, pp. 120-133. The WisCon Chronicles.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Sins Invalid. Skin, Tooth, and Bone—The Basis of Movement is Our People: A Disability Justice Primer, Second Edition. 2019.

Laura Alison Nash is a neurodivergent writer, artist, and freelance communications specialist living in Portland, Oregon. She recently graduated from the Pacific Northwest College of Art with an M.A. in critical studies and an M.F.A. in applied craft + design. Visit lauralisonash.com to learn about her ongoing projects.


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