Productive Bodyminds in Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Productive Bodyminds in Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17

Leigha McReynolds

Author’s Note: This is a cleaned-up transcript of a presentation that represents my initial foray into this project.

Introduction: Delany and Disability

The goal of this paper is to discuss how Samuel R. Delany’s 1966 science fiction novel Babel-17 disrupts traditional categories of mind and body to offer us a vision of how human variation and bodily interdependence can promote cooperation and excellence. If you were to do a straightforward, as much as that’s possible, summary of Babel-17, you would probably focus on the protagonist Rydra Wong and her search to discover the secret of Babel-17: the eponymous language of the novel. However, much of the novel, alongside that quest, focuses on her search for a spaceship crew and the technical and social interactions between the crew members. One of the key things that Delany does here, along with giving us a variety of bodies and minds functioning together as part of a connected unit, is encourages us to think about how we might redefine productivity and labor if we allow different kinds of bodyminds [1] to access productive spaces and labor in new ways that might not be available to “normal” humans. Today, I’ll be presenting you with my initial thoughts on the text, shaped by my readings in disability studies.

The conversation around Delany, at least in terms of his presence in science fiction scholarship, is perhaps not as robust as we might expect given his stature in the field. What we do see is a lot of consideration of Delany in the context of queerness and race, which should not be surprising given those are major identity categories that he represents in science fiction that are generally underrepresented, and there are some discussions of his work in terms of utopia. There is also significant scholarship on Delany in the intersecting disciplines of queer and disability studies, but those scholars often do not address his science fiction. Babel-17 is a text where we can bring those conversations together.

Most scholarly discussions of Babel-17 focus on language, not surprisingly: it is named after the secret language that moves the plot of the book forward. But there are other things going on that we can tune into. I want to acknowledge the work of Joanne Woiak and Hioni Karamanos in their chapter “Tools to Help You Think” in the collection Disability and Science Fiction for their help in grounding my analysis. They’ve done what I think is the only disability reading formally published of Delany’s science fiction work where they looked at The Einstein Intersection. [2] Essentially, they offer a disability studies reading of The Einstein Intersection. If you’ve read The Einstein Intersection and Babel-17 you’ll note that the role of bodily difference is much more pronounced in the former, which was published in 1967. However, in 1966, when Delany published Babel-17, I think we can still see a lot of the things that he will develop more explicitly in The Einstein Intersection, butinstead of being the explicit focus of the text, they’re implicit and underline the larger action.

One of the concepts that I took from the Woiak and Karamanos chapter is their identification of The Einstein Intersection as “thematically inclusive of disability” (19), which is helpful because there are not traditionally disabled characters in either The Einstein Intersection or Babel-17. Woiak and Karamanos explain, “The story examines notions of bodies that are ‘different,’ but it does not signal that difference according to any single, familiar category” (20). And by filling the text with these different bodies, The Einstein Intersection “examines, models, and invites the reader to participate in the process of generating new cultural scripts about the lived experience of difference” (20). So, when I talk about the variety of bodyminds in Babel-17, it’s not that I’m identifying a character and saying they have this disability or that they manifest neurodivergence in this way, but rather that the way the characters’ bodies and minds in Babel-17 disrupt key categories and key assumptions that we make about complete or autonomous bodies is “thematic of disability” and allows us to productively look at the text in that way. While The Einstein Intersection engages with this thematic of disability in an explicit way, working through scripts of bodily difference is central to that narrative; in Babel-17, on the other hand, this thematic is omnipresent in the background, and can be teased out through a consideration of the spaceship crew.

Moving into the novel itself, one reason to focus on disability in terms of productivity and labor is that the world-building that Delany offers us underneath the surface of the larger story is a labor-based world. We’re in a far future scenario where there’s been a war going on for a long time, and it appears that the key way people identify themselves is by their jobs, whether they are what’s called “Customs” or “Transport” or military. This is not something that’s explicated in the novel, but it shows up in key moments. For example, we meet a character at the beginning, “Danil D. Appleby, who seldom thought of himself by his name—he was a Customs Officer” (27) — note that he thinks in the capital letters — who comments when he has to go out with Rydra, “‘I don’t walk around Transport Town at night’” (27). So, we have these mental and physical separations between Customs people and Transport people that draw our attention to the role of labor and the way people interact in this text and the way that they define themselves.

The Spaceship Crew: Productive Bodyminds

Continuing with these ideas of labor and productivity, one effective way to think through the thematic disability in this text is to look at the characters and the crew that Rydra builds to work on her spaceship. First, I’ll look at the role of the spaceship pilot. It is necessary to note that one of the things that we learn early on in the novel is that there is a wide prevalence of what is called cosmetisurgery, particularly among the Transport. And this is a theme that we see throughout Delany’s work: for example, there is a lot of this in Triton and some in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Delany consistently imagines a future with significant, universal, practical, and aesthetic body modification. In Babel-17 one of the ways this manifests is that spaceship pilots are heavily modified to the point that, for example, the Pilot of Rydra’s ship, Brass, looks like a tiger: “ivory saber teeth glistening with spittle, muscles humped on shoulders and arms; brass claws unsheathed six inches from yellow plush paws. Bunched bands on his belly bent above them. The barbed tail beat on the globe’s wall. His mane, sheared to prevent handholds, ran like water” (35). So he’s been modified to the point where he’s now more tiger than he is human; although it’s very clear from context that he started out as a human. On the one hand there is an aesthetic component to this—people are modifying their bodies in order to own them and control the way that their bodies look—but there’s also a sense in which this is absolutely required because a spaceship pilot has to be heavily modified in order to pilot the spaceship. We see this in a scene where Rydra watches Brass wrestle before hiring him:

You can really judge a pilot by watching him wrestle?” the officer inquired of Rydra.

She nodded. “In the ship, the pilot’s nervous system is connected directly with the controls. The whole hyperstasis transit consists of him literally wrestling the stasis shifts. You judge by his reflexes, his ability to control his artificial body. An experienced transporter can tell exactly how he’ll work with hyperstasis currents.” (40)

We have this dynamic where someone is required to become different from a “normal” human in order to do this job. Our character in the novel happens to be a tiger. There’s one who is a dragon, so there’s a lot of different options, but characters have to take on an extreme animalistic embodiment in order to be a pilot. And so if you want a captain for your spaceship you have to go find someone who has been appropriately modified.

One of the other roles in the spaceship is Navigator, and of course all of us who are familiar with science fiction tropes are used to seeing a Navigator on the board of the spaceship. But in Babel-17, Navigator is a role that is taken up by three people, and these people are not just linked professionally, they’re linked personally and sexually through the relationship they call the “triple.” In this, we see that conventional notions of bodily boundaries are complicated by the fact that first there is a job that three people have to do together—they have to enmesh in such a way that they can complete this labor—and second, this requires a queer, polyamorous relationship. Triples don’t only exist as part of the Navigator relationship; it turns out that the protagonist Rydra Wong was also in a triple at one point, but it’s a necessary component of the Navigator role. The relationship is defined in the novel as “a triple, a close, precarious, emotional, and sexual relationship with two other people” (43), and then it’s justified by one of the three Navigators explaining, “There’re some jobs . . . you just can’t give to two people alone. The jobs are too complicated” (43). And that’s not really explicated for us anywhere, as that’s not the focus of the novel—Delany doesn’t walk us through how the Navigators work—but we get this sense that there’s a way in which autonomous bodies are not helpful, and there needs to be some level of interdependence and connection in order to achieve this key spaceship function.

It is important to note that Delany is not proposing an unproblematic queer utopia in this novel. With the introduction of the triple, we see the division between Transport and Customs surfacing again, when one of the Navigators reacts to the Custom Officer’s judgment: “‘Perverts,” [Ron] said. ‘That’s what you Customs all really think . . . can’t understand why you would want more than one lover’” (93).

We get another tripartite relationship with the Eye, Ear, and Nose. I will try to explain this clearly to the best of my ability, but one of the key ways in which Delany in Babel-17 disrupts our fundamental categories is that we have both discorporate persons and bodily persons. Bodily persons are all of us people walking around just like we might expect every day, and discorporate people are people who have chosen to leave their bodies. They’ve chosen not to go through with a “normal” death. They’ve chosen to discorporate from their body, and they live in their own sector. [3] When you need to fly a spaceship, you need three discorporate people to be your Eye, your Ear, and your Nose, respectively. This results in some interesting synesthetic writing, which is not the point of this paper, but I do recommend it for the language. The key concept is that these discorporate people can do jobs that “normal” people can’t. And the explanation echoes what we hear about the triple: “There’re some jobs . . . you just can’t give to a live human being . . . Like the Eye, Ear, and Nose. A live human scanning all that goes on in those hyperstasis frequencies would— well, die first and go crazy second” (42). So not only do we need different types of physical bodies, but we need different types of people in ways that don’t even fit our fundamental categories of alive and dead.

As I wrap up this paper, I want to be sure to mention the protagonist of the novel, Rydra Wong. She is the glue that brings all of these people together, and she’s also a linguist: hence her role in this story about revealing a secret language. In addition to the above-discussed representation of bodies and relationships, the novel’s preoccupation with language, and the way that changed speech results in minds that function in different ways, [4] suggests that varied ways of thinking are just as ubiquitous and necessary as varied ways of being. But one of the key roles that Rydra plays in this novel is not just that she’s the star linguist that’s going to decipher this language, but that she is a spaceship captain, and not everyone can be a spaceship captain. As someone talking to Rydra describes it: “You’re not the most stable person in the world. Managing a spaceship crew takes a special sort of psychology which—you have” (24). So there’s this sense in which the way her mind works is not “normal,” she’s psychologically different in some way, but that is actually the required thing in order for success to happen at this job. She’s also got some markers of traditional neurodivergence and disability: she has some savant-like qualities, such as total verbal recall and perfect pitch, and at one point in the novel she’s actually called “near-autistic” (9), which is the closest Delany ever gets to a traditional recognition of disability or neurodivergence in this story. But there’s definitely a sense in which the way her mind works is what makes her special.


As a preliminary conclusion, I offer that, ultimately, Delany imagines the spaceship as a kind of communal, workplace “criptopia” [5] where specialized bodies and minds working together can accomplish feats beyond normal humans. As I continue working on this project, I hope to flesh out my argument and really bring forward this interesting representation of different bodyminds that occurs before the disability rights movement. It may not be something that we always consider bringing into the conversation, but Delany’s use of thematic disability throughout his work offers a valuable and innovative way for us to think about how bodyminds might function differently. 


[1] I came to the term “bodyminds” through Sami Schalk’s book Bodyminds Reimagined. Schalk takes the term from Margaret Price (5). Although I do not use the term often in this version of the piece, the broader concept encourages us to resist a body/mind duality in thinking about disability and difference.

[2] It’s a fabulous chapter; I really recommend that you check it out if you can, especially if you’d like an introduction to the work that disability studies can do for science fiction scholars.

[3] There’s an interesting thing going on with geographic divisions of people alongside labor in this book.

[4] In writing Babel-17, Delany was inspired by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language determines the ideas we can have.(

[5] A space where accessibility is the norm, enabling full participation of different bodyminds in society. (


Allan, Kathryn, editor. Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Byzek, Josie. “Criptopia.” New Mobility, 1 Aug 2013, Accessed 10 June 2022.

Delany, Samuel R. Babel-17. 1966. Vintage Books, 2001.

Schalk, Sami. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Duke University Press, 2018.

“Whorfianism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Accessed 10 June 2022.

Woiak, Joanne, and Hioni Karamanos. “Tools to Help You Think: Intersections between Disability Studies and the Writings of Samuel R. Delany.” Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, edited by Kathryn Allan, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 19-34.

Leigha McReynolds is currently an Assistant Clinical Professor in the University Honors Program at the University of Maryland, College Park where she teaches classes on genetics, disability, and science fiction. She received a Ph.D. in English literature from The George Washington University. She has published chapters on disability and science fiction in the edited collection Disability in Science Fiction and the forthcoming Discovering Dune. She serves as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Area Chair for the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association, and is the Managing Editor for the Association’s online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal Response: The Journal of Popular and American Culture, located at You can find her on Twitter @LeighaMcR, or hire her writing consultation and coaching services through

“City of Unseen Steps”: Blindness and Palimpsestual Sensory Impressions in Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

“City of Unseen Steps”: Blindness and Palimpsestual Sensory Impressions in Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts

Sarah Neef

Urban fantasy literature provides invaluable political and social criticism. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that critical reflections on everyday cultural discourses, especially surrounding contemporary urban spatial practices and identity, are the very fabric that these texts are made of. Although urban fantasy literature frequently depicts marginalised and disadvantaged individuals (cf. Ekman 453) such as the homeless or ethnic minorities, A. K. Benedict’s Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts serves as a rare example of urban fantasy literature depicting disability.

As I will demonstrate, the novel employs blindness as a narrative strategy to create an urban palimpsest consisting of a cacophony of different sensory impressions and to juxtapose the characters’ diverging perceptions of the city. The depiction of blindness is also part of an attempt to provide a diverse set of characters and to challenge homogeneous concepts of urban identities and space. However, as a closer analysis reveals underlying power imbalances that suggest an inherent perpetuation of both gender stereotypes and ableism, the text can also serve as a cautionary tale highlighting the power that such popular literary genres possess to strengthen the very shackles they seek to break.

The novel follows DI Jonathan Dark as he seeks to solve a case surrounding a stalker threatening Maria, a young blind woman. To be more precise, Maria used to be blind. However, capitulating to the incessant outside pressure from others—especially from her former partner—she undergoes surgery to restore her vision. Since Maria grew up blind and is used to experiencing her surroundings by means of touch, smell, sound, and taste, she does not want her impression of the capital to be tainted by vision, which she considers a more superficial and undesirable sense. For this reason, she wears a blindfold at all times, rendering her de-facto blind.

The narrative is told from the point of view of various focaliser-characters (including Maria, Ed the stalker, and the police officer Jonathan) to create a juxtaposition of divergent perspectives on the urban setting. Applying Bakhtin’s terminology, we can refer to this juxtaposition of a range of unmerged narrative perspectives as polyphony (cf. Bakhtin 6). For Bakhtin, this points towards a dialogic concept of truth, meaning that the truth is not a fixed, disembodied reality, but something that requires a multitude of different perspectives or forms of consciousness (cf. Robinson n.p.). This narrative strategy allows Benedict to uncover the way in which Western societies give precedence to vision and consider it to present a fixed truth, thus disregarding the fact that all impressions of urban space—be they of a visual or any other sensory nature—are in fact highly subjective. Consequently, our understanding of urban space is not merely subject to, but also contributes to, contemporary socio-cultural and political discourses. This explains the popularity of dialogic narrative forms in urban fantasy literature, as these texts put great emphasis on the diversity of urban space, culture, and society. Choosing a narrative situation that dismisses homogeneous concepts clearly contributes to this endeavour. In this particular case, the narrative style lends a voice to underrepresented and marginalised individuals such as Jonathan, a police officer who likes to cross-dress, and Maria, a blind woman. The text portrays Maria’s way of sensing the urban space as one of many other ways of doing so—all of which need to be considered valid and equal. This exemplifies urban fantasy’s tendency to employ multiperspectivity in order to represent the diverse and multi-faceted nature of the postmodern city.

On the intratextual level, Maria’s layered approach to decoding the urban environment contributes to this challenge of homogeneous representations of urban space. Her blindness is a core narrative strategy for conveying the palimpsestual nature of urban space and society. Jonathan referring to Maria’s blindness as “a gift, not a disability” (Benedict 135) summarises the novel’s stance on disability. It is continually portrayed as an advantage over other able-bodied characters, as Maria’s ability to read and navigate the city far exceeds any other character’s knowledge and skills (cf., e.g., Benedict 134). The novel also attempts to do away with common misconceptions surrounding blindness, as the following quote written from Maria’s perspective reveals: “Neither of the men replies. Maybe they’d thought she couldn’t hear: some people believe that since her sight is out of action, her other senses are as well; others that alternative senses compensate. Disability is a city of myths” (Benedict 22). This quotation, which also establishes a clear connection between the city and Maria’s body and identity, alludes to the misconception that one sense is merely replaced by a number of other senses. On the contrary, for Maria, all of the senses mix: “Her world is complete, she doesn’t need to see: her city gleams like the notes on a glockenspiel; her Thames is the colour of the way plums taste and she wants it to stay that way” (Benedict 6). This synesthetic experience presents the urban setting as a hyper-complex web of different overlapping and interconnected sensory layers. To reflect this spatial complexity, I propose to introduce the term ‘meta-palimpsest,’ suggesting an extension of the term ‘palimpsest’: in addition to the palimpsestual layers created by the combination of numerous senses, each of these senses in turn consists of various impressions or layers, as Maria for example smells or hears a multitude of things simultaneously.

In this way, Maria is in a superior position to Jonathan, who gives clear precedence to visual impressions. When she convinces him to wear a blindfold to perceive London in the same way she does, he remarks:

‘[there] were lots of images . . . [but] they were ones that I’d seen with my eyes. Even taking away my sight for an hour intensifies everything but I can’t get near your experience. You have no visual pictures to reference. I can’t imagine how fascinating your world must be.’ (Benedict 134)

In other words, he can only replace visual impressions with memories of the same kind, thus his perception is pre-fabricated and inflexible. Similarly, the general public is accustomed to vision as their primary sense of orientation, as the following quote reveals:

‘Three lamp-posts in from the beginning of the street. Here we are,’ Maria says as she dives into a doorway. Maria’s map is such a different version of the same city. ‘Every time a council decides to cut its spending and take away a street light I have to rethink the city again.’ ‘And the police receive more reports of crime. Which costs the council more in the long term. It is short-sighted.’ (Benedict 135)

This demonstrates the novel’s awareness for the politics of space, as even inanimate objects—here the lamp-posts—possess the agency to discriminate against people like Maria who perceive the urban space in a manner that does not conform to the norm. Once again, the text portrays the urban space not as a fixed, non-negotiable truth, but instead reveals its heterotopic nature: the same part of the city embodies entirely different meanings for different individuals. While the DI’s reply in this quotation reveals a focus on the visual city, for Maria, the lamp-posts’ ability to reveal potential dangers is of minor importance, as she employs them as haptic clues and thus as a source of orientation. Hence, the text criticises authorities’ lack of awareness for the diversity of urban citizens and their individual needs.

The dominant vision-based perception of the urban setting (here exemplified by Jonathan) is of a one-dimensional, nature and thus only offers restricted insights into a much more complex reality. By contrast, the impression of the city that originates from Maria’s blindness may at times be chaotic and disorienting, but it is ultimately represented as preferable and more truthful, due to its multidimensional and complex nature. This reveals that alongside the narrative perspective, Maria’s de-facto blindness is one of the key means by which the novel accomplishes a dialogic, palimpsestual depiction of the setting that gives room to all layers and subjective truths of the contemporary metropolis. This representation of urban space is employed to reveal subconscious mundane spatial practices and biases and to challenge homogenous concepts of urban space and identity.

The novel adds another type of spatial layer to the aforementioned sensory meta-palimpsest, namely body politics. In her essay “Bodies—Cities,” Elizabeth Grosz argues that the city is “the most immediate and concrete locus for the production and circulation of power” (48-49). In Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts, such space-related power imbalances centre around gender and disability. The text pits Maria’s blindness against the other characters’ prejudiced perception of her disability. Despite her extraordinary ability to read the city, the choices Maria makes regarding her own body never cease to be contested—especially by the male characters. As they are unable to adapt their pre-existing perception of blindness to her lived reality, they attempt to impose their ideology onto her. Her own former partner, when trying to urge her to undergo regenerative surgery, even goes as far as to insinuate that her rejection of vision turns her into a monster (cf. Benedict 107), thus demonstrating how the disabled body is Othered. In addition, her inability to see others is juxtaposed with their incessant gaze. The unchecked male gaze, most prominently represented by the stalker, makes her feel threatened and ultimately leads to her no longer being permitted to leave her home. While this is in order to protect her, it renders her blindness—formerly described as a gift—a disability. She is subjugated by a socio-cultural system that marks her as inferior to the male, able-bodied criminal. In other words, the novel presents vision as a more powerful sense which endows the owner with more agency than all of the other senses combined.

It is via the stalker Ed that the male gaze is taken to an extreme, as he eroticises Maria’s disability. In addition, the free indirect discourse presenting Ed’s interior monologue introduces another aspect that is interconnected with this theme of body politics and agency, namely the gendering of senses:

What would making love be like for Maria? She certainly is interested in sex. Maybe it doesn’t matter that she’s blind. Women aren’t supposed to be as visual as men. He’s also heard that they have better imaginations but that is not good. When they close their eyes you don’t know who they are thinking of. (Benedict 186)

Here, the stalker clearly describes vision as an inherently masculine sense. In accordance with this view, the characters’ gender does indeed determine their way of sensing the city: as mentioned above, Maria perceives the city with all of her senses alongside mental images or maps. Meanwhile, both the stalker’s gaze and Jonathan’s initial spatial practice represent male vision and the masculine urban experience. Jonathan’s initial way of perceiving the city hints at the aforementioned gender-based power dynamics:

Walking through London at night used to make him feel better . . . . He’s been strolling through the dark city since he was a teenager, walking from Wandsworth to the Wapping streets he grew up on, taking an alleyway rather than a brightly lit street, searching out a road he’s never gone down before and drifting along it. It used to feel that he was having an affair with the Night City, the one that lets slip a shoulder of moon through the clouds to see him through, that held his hand from the South Bank to Camberwell to Nunhead and back, that made him want to learn its every line and dimple and for it to know him. (Benedict 55)

Jonathan’s masculinity and vision empower him to walk potentially dangerous streets in a flâneur-like, idle manner and to perceive the urban space as a female entity, an object of male desire that is to be explored and conquered. In other words, the city is a passive agent in a network that is dominated and controlled by male individuals. Yet, as the novel progresses, this traditional masculinity and dominance over the urban space gradually diminishes. As Maria teaches him to perceive the additional sensory layers of space, Jonathan becomes increasingly disoriented, until eventually, “the world is not as he thought a day, a week, a year ago. . . . Everything he thought he could rely on has changed” (Benedict 196). His increasing spatial disorientation demonstrates how the characters’ development is closely tied to their perception of the urban space. While his original sense of space is put into question, he simultaneously raises questions relating to his (sexual) identity. London is used as a metaphor to give expression to his non-binary identity: “It’s a misleading description—transvestite, cross-dresser—as if gender were two opposing riverbanks: if that is to be the way, for now, he would rather swim between them” (Benedict 210). The fact that it takes a woman to introduce him to the additional sensory layers of London needed to solve his case further adds to his emasculation. Jonathan’s departure from traditional masculinity thus coincides with a decreased focus on vision and a decline in agency, thus confirming the stalker’s concept of vision as a predominantly male sense. Consequently, Jonathan’s new identity and Maria represent the novel’s attempt to include non-hegemonic urban spatial practices and identities, whereas the stalker alongside Jonathan’s previous identity represents traditional gender roles, homogeneous spatial practices, and ableist ideologies. The novel thus oscillates between traditional perspectives on urban identities and space on the one hand, and a demand to better integrate and understand disabled citizens and their individual needs on the other. While urban fantasy commonly features social criticism surrounding issues such as racism and classism, Benedict’s novel extends the genre’s political reach to include additional facets of body politics and politics of space.

However, the novel’s ending puts this progressive venture into question. Not only does it take a male, able-bodied character to save the disabled damsel in distress—despite her independence and extraordinary skills—the text also concludes with a conventional ending, namely the romantic relationship between the protagonists. This happy ending is, however, only possible once Jonathan’s gender identity and spatial disorientation allow him to understand Maria’s sense of the world. This is reminiscent of a canonical literary depiction of blindness. Much like Rochester’s loss of vision in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, it establishes an equilibrium between the protagonists and is thus a prerequisite for their liaison.

The novel’s ending, which further underscores its underlying ableist and misogynist tendencies, is not redeemed by Benedict’s choice to include female solidarity and revenge, either. Tanya, who plays a major role in the stalker’s death, appears as a ghost and states, “I watch him. I’ve been in his apartment” (Benedict 212). The roles of victim and perpetrator have been inverted, as Tanya—a woman and former victim of his—tails the male, former stalker in the final scenes of the novel, while he suffers from his inability to escape:

Ed runs towards Maria and Jonathan. Tanya is behind him. She is always behind him. She walks slowly yet never more than a few metres away. . . . Ed wishes the Thames would take him far away from Tanya; from what he has done; from this city of unseen steps. It won’t. He can’t get away. Death has no sequel. (Benedict 262)

While on the surface this can be read as a cathartic outcome that re-establishes justice, the underlying message cannot be ignored: not only does Tanya have to die and swap her former human shape for an existence as a ghost, i.e., a supernatural being with elevated powers compared to the human counterparts, in order to be able to prevail over Ed, but she also has to commit the exact same crimes by killing him (cf. Benedict 243-244) and then stalking his supernatural remains.We can thus conclude that true gender equality, in this novel, is only feasible between ghosts, not humans. Nonetheless, the two characters’ actions are judged in entirely different ways. While Ed’s motive is left largely unexplored, Tanya’s act of revenge is presented as a justified act of female empowerment and solidarity. Furthermore, it is implied that the Thames helps complete Tanya’s murder of Ed by “[rushing] in and [reaching] for his legs” before it “closes in around him, fills his throat, taking him for its own, taking him on his own journey” (Benedict 243-244). This deus ex machina solution allows the author to alleviate Tanya of any potential guilt or judgement, as the final steps of the murder are carried out not by her but by the force of nature.

In conclusion, Benedict’s novel employs both blindness and polyphonic narration as strategies to achieve two goals. First, it creates a palimpsestual sensory representation of the contemporary metropolis that does justice to the contemporary city’s hypercomplex and heterotopic nature and challenges homogenous concepts of urban space. Second, it employs the dialogic sense of truth that it achieves in this way to represent the diversity of the city’s inhabitants and to do justice to the neurodiversity and divergent spatial practices that this broad range of identities encompasses. Nonetheless, in doing so it succumbs to literary tropes that perpetuate the same gender stereotypes, power imbalances, and ableist tendencies that it tries to eradicate as part of its ambitious political intention.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. 1984. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Benedict, A. K. Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts. 2015. Orion Books, 2016.

Ekman, Stefan. “Urban Fantasy: A Literature of the Unseen.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts: JFA, vol. 27, no. 3, 2016, pp. 452-469.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “Bodies—Cities.” Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, edited by Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick, Routledge, 2010, pp. 381-387.

Robinson, Andrew. “In Theory. Bakhtin: Dialogism, Polyphony and Heteroglossia.” Ceasefire Magazine, 29 July 2011, Accessed 10 February 2022.

Sarah Neef is a Ph.D. candidate at TU Dortmund University, Germany, carrying out research on “The Palimpsestual City: Representations of Urban Space in British Urban Fantasy.” She holds a master’s degree in British and American literary and cultural studies. Her research interests include literary geography, the cultural geography of the city, urban fantasy and the new weird. Since 2017 she has worked as a research assistant in British literary and cultural studies at TU Dortmund University, where she teaches classes on topics such as “British Urban Fantasy,” “Dual Urban Settings in Postmodern Fantastic Literature,” and “The Polyphonic City.” She is currently co-organising the 13th annual conference of the association for the research in the fantastic (Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung) on the topic of “Fantastic Geographies.”

Out of Time: Crip Time and Fantastic Resistance

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Out of Time: Crip Time and Fantastic Resistance

Josefine Wälivaara

Part of my ongoing research investigates the subversion of normative time and disability in science fiction narratives through the depiction of characters experiencing time in non-normative ways, focusing on what I call characters out of time. [1] This analysis takes inspiration from Ellen Samuels, reading these characters as “bodies of crip time,” but it also connects to other disability and/or crip scholars such as Alison Kafer and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. I suggest a way of engaging with disability and ability in non-realist texts not only by focusing the analysis on explicit representations of characters with realistic, culturally recognizable traits of disability, but also through fantastic elements and storytelling conventions of the genre. This could potentially make visible the ways in which discourses of disability and ability are utilized within the narratives.

Normative and Crip Time

Time is often considered a linear process, from the past to the present and towards the future. This notion is fraught by discourses of progression and development and can often be found in science fiction, where disability often is considered in terms of medical or technological developments, progress, and cures (Wälivaara). Not least in adherence to what Alison Kafer calls “disability-free” futures leading to the notion that a better and more desirable future is a future without disability (3). This linear and progressive notion of time also applies to our thinking about the structure of lifetimes, that a person, during their lifetime, should develop from birth to death via certain phases such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. During this time, one is supposed to experience certain life events in an expected order—at the right time—such as entering the labor market, finding a partner, getting married, having children, retiring, and so on.

 However, not everyone follows this normative organization of time and life course, and those who do not are often considered deviant. As shown by research about temporality in, for example, feminist, queer, and disability studies, the way we organize time is normative, and based on white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied and able-minded people (Freeman; Halberstam; Kafer). Kafer, for example, charts how disability is conceptualized in terms of temporality and “how might disability affect one’s orientation to time” (26). Crip time, according to Kafer, requires us to reimagine normative time and recognize that it is based on “very particular minds and bodies” (27). The impulse is not to assimilate disabled bodies into normative time, but instead reconsider how normative time can be challenged by crip time. She states: “Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds” (Kafer 27).

While crip time can be used to indicate subversive ways of living in time, Ellen Samuels offers a reflection on the “less appealing aspects of crip time” in a creative non-fiction essay published in the academic journal Disability Studies Quarterly. Samuels highlights the ways in which not being in-sync, aligned, and part of a world structured according to normative time can leave marks. I read it as a type of testament to the force of normative time and the strain it can put upon those of us living in crip time.

Crip Time and the Fantastic

Notably, two of Samuels’s six perspectives on crip time are illustrated through connecting them to concepts drawn from fantastic fiction: “Crip time is time travel” and “crip time is vampire time.” Not only do these make up a sizable part of the essay, two out of six, but they also serve as a framing for the entire essay, its beginning and ending. As a scholar of science fiction and disability, I find myself intrigued by the connection Samuels establishes between her own more negative experience of living in crip time and how it is described through the language of fantastic fiction. I am, however, not surprised by this analogy. Perhaps the fantastic, and the stories in which the laws and taken-for-granted truths of current reality can be set aside in favor of an exploration of other realities, provides a language and an analogy of recognizable narratives seldom found elsewhere. While much mainstream fiction does not depict the experiences of people with disabilities, much less the experience of living in crip time, much fantastic fiction deals explicitly with explorations into the nature of time itself. Fantastic genres recurringly tell stories about characters with alternative or non-normative relationships to time: characters controlling time or losing control of time, becoming stuck in time, or being pulled/scattered across time; characters having unlimited time or being out of time. Such fantastic narratives can indeed provide us with numerous examples that can challenge normative ideas of time as linear and progressive, as the Doctor kindly reminds us: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff” (“Blink”).

Looking at this preoccupation of time in science fiction and those characters experiencing time in non-normative ways from the perspective of disability might shed light on the ways in which such narratives can provide theorization about the relationship between normative time and crip time. For example, characters with unlimited lifetimes can put into question and defamiliarize to us the very ways in which we think about life, its phases, and transitions. By living multiple lifetimes, at different pacing, outside of the linear and progressive time of normative society they exist very much outside of normative time, or in vampire time, to borrow Samuels’s phrasing.

Those characters out of time, which will be my focus here, can also pose a similar challenge to normative notions of time. I have very tentatively begun to define such characters in science fiction as characters that are manufactured only to have limited lifespans or expiry dates. Their limitations in lifespan are not motivated by illness or disabilities itself, but applied to fantastic, unrealist, and seemingly able-bodied characters. Moreover, these characters are, or become, aware of this out of timeness during the course of the narrative. This potentially covers an assortment of texts and characters including for example the films The Island (2005), Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Moon (2009) all focusing on clones.

I thus suggest a reading of these as “bodies of crip time”: a reading that takes as its starting point Samuels’s notion of crip time as time travel. She writes:

Crip time is time travel. Disability and illness have the power to extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings. […] we who occupy the bodies of crip time know that we are never linear, and we rage silently—or not so silently—at the calm straightforwardness of those who live in the sheltered space of normative time. (n.p.)

While these characters are undoubtedly able-bodied or even extraordinarily able-bodied, this crip reading of such characters can reveal ways in which discourses of disability and ability are utilized in science fiction. Indeed, elements such as characters with non-normative relationships to time can play a role in subverting the way we think about disability and ability as a system of power and privilege. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson suggested that in Never Let Me Go,the roles of normate and disabled are reversed through the strange logic of the story and that this reversal challenges assumptions about disability and ability. I argue that similar challenges can be made in other examples precisely through the storytelling conventions of fantastic fiction, in this case through the depiction of characters out of time that can serve to defamiliarize the familiar and taken-for-granted truths and norms of our current society that are closely intertwined with normative time. This is not to suggest that these stories are to be seen as subversive texts or characters, far from it, but that such a reading can provide new ways of understanding these narratives from a disability perspective.

Out of Time and Resistance   

As an example, I am going to briefly discuss the two films The Island and Parts: The Clonus Horror. Two quite similar films, which is not surprising as shown by the lawsuit filed by the creators of Clonus against The Island (Booker 184). Both films follow a similar narrative arc beginning with the protagonists unaware of their status as both clones and captives manufactured to provide spare parts for a wealthy elite. They are held in confinement without any knowledge of the everyday-life or even existence of the outside world, with the exception of respective film’s utopia: the Island or America, where the lucky few eventually are chosen to go. However, these utopias do not exist, and those chosen to go there are instead harvested for organs. The protagonists begin to question the word of authorities, the taken-for-granted life of their society, and the awful truth is eventually revealed to both audience and protagonists. The protagonists then flee, seek help, and try to expose the injustice.

Both films begin with clearly establishing the clones’ physical prowess, in Clonus through depiction of athletic competition, pushups, and cycling; in The Island through health controls, exercise, restricted and controlled diets, and the announcement that “A healthy person is a happy person.” The films thus set up a premise in which these characters are to be understood as able-bodied, or even extraordinarily able-bodied. These characters, like those in Never Let Me Go as described by Garland-Thomson, have the status of disability, but the embodiment of the normate. This reversal potentially puts into question normative notions of disability and ability through defamiliarizing it by using storytelling conventions offered by the fantastic.

 These clones are indeed characters out of time in at least two ways. First, they are outside of normative time—extracted from linear, progressive time and its normative life stages. They are held apart from the rest of society, living according to their own temporality, and governed by a medical and scientific authority. For example, in The Island,the clones’ lives are limited to work, sleep, exercise, and controlled entertainment while waiting to go to the Island, for the protagonist a tedious existence. Sexual impulses are removed, thus hindering the possibility of reproduction. In Clonus,a similar structure is in place, with the addition that most clones, except for the protagonist, have had their intelligence reduced during the cloning process, and if they are disobedient, they are lobotomized.

Second, they are running out of time—at any moment, they or those they love are subjected to organ harvest and death, which serves as a temporal driving force through the narrative when the protagonists uncover the truth. The films are constructed as narratives of resistance, of protagonists fighting against the odds against an overwhelmingly powerful force of immoral antagonists set to uphold oppressive structures. As the protagonists learn the truth of their existence, the ways in which their time is limited, and the ways in which others live their lives through love, reproduction, and freedom, they rage against the privileged positions of those “in the sheltered space of normative time.” They rage, not silently but violently, against the unjust and oppressive system that reduces them to something less than human, unworthy of life, and kept only to maintain the able-bodied population. The clones are reduced to something less than human, products, or things in order to justify the exploitation of their bodies.


Reading these characters as bodies of crip time can showcase the ways in which the characters experience being out of time (or indeed experience crip time) and the ways in which the narrative arc of resistance can be understood in terms of a challenge towards the privileges of those within normative time. However, as the resistance is over, the clones of The Island becomes integrated into the sheltered space of normative time and, while the main characters of Clonus are either killed or lobotomized, the final scene suggest that the resistance was successful as the existence of the clone facility reaches the press. The films emphasize the primarily negative experience of being bodies in crip time rather than the subversive aspects of crip time but, by doing so, they showcase the unjust and oppressive gatekeepers and the privilege of living within normative time. The depiction of non-realist characters experiencing time in non-normative ways can assist in reimagining, and defamiliarizing or making strange, the familiarity of the organization of time masquerading as a universal truth and highlight the privileges of those within normative time.


[1] This study is part of a project headed by Lotta Vikström that has received funding from the Wallenberg Foundation (Stiftelsen Marcus och Amalia Wallenbergs Minnesfond, MAW 2019.0003), “Ageing with disabilities in past, present and future societies: Risks and loads from disabilities and later life outcomes.”


“Blink” Doctor Who, season 3, episode 10, written by Steven Moffat, BBC, 2007.

Booker, M. Keith. Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020.

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke University Press, 2010.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Eugenic World Building and Disability: The Strange World of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.” Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 38, no. 2, 2017, pp. 133-45.

Halberstam, J. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York University Press, 2005.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana University Press, 2013.

Moon. Directed by Duncan Jones, Sony Pictures Classics, 2009.

Never Let Me Go. Directed by Mark Romanek, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010.

Parts: The Clonus Horror. Directed by Robert S. Fiveson, 1979.

Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 3, 2017.

The Island. Directed by Michael Bay, Warner Bros. Pictures and Dreamworks Pictures, 2005.

Wälivaara, Josefine. “Marginalized Bodies of Imagined Futurescapes: Ableism and Heteronormativity in Science Fiction.” Culture Unbound. Journal of Current Cultural Research, vol. 10, no. 2, 2018, pp. 226-45.

Josefine Wälivaara is a researcher at Umeå University, Sweden. Her research is focused on normativity, disability, and sexuality in popular culture, mainly in science fiction. She received her Ph.D in 2016 with the thesis Dreams of a Subversive Future: Sexuality,(Hetero)normativity, and Queer Potential in Science Fiction Film and Television,andhas since published articles on, for example, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, Torchwood, and The Handmaids Tale as well as on disability representations in Swedish fiction film. Research interests include normativity, disability, sexuality, gender, temporality, and storytelling.    

Hauntology and Lost Futures: Trauma Narratives in the Contemporary Gothic

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Hauntology and Lost Futures: Trauma Narratives in the Contemporary Gothic

Emma Dee

Masuyama, Hiroyuki.The Lost Works of Caspar David Friedrich. 2009, Accessed 4 Jul. 2022.


We begin, not with a text, but with an image.

This is a depiction of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, a well-known German Romantic painter and explorer of the sublime. Not only is this a representation of what many of us might think of when we hear the term ‘Gothic,’ but the story of this particular image might help elucidate a concept of hauntology that this article is exploring. This picture is not the original.

In 2009, the artist Hiroyuki Masuyama created a series of five light boxes entitled ‘The Lost Works of Caspar David Friedrich,’ so named because none of the originals exist. Masuyama, working from photographs of the vanished and destroyed paintings, created a composite image of the original. The image is essentially haunted by the lost works, created by a series of digital memories and yet not of them. This summates a concept I have been exploring through my novel-in-progress as part of my Creative Writing PhD, namely, that of hauntology and how it relates to the embodied experience of trauma. The Gothic relates to extremes of experience; in this I’ll be looking specifically at gender-based sexual violence, the threat of which manifestly preoccupies the Gothic canon, and in the contemporary Gothic novel, how the text can be used to mirror the experience of sexual assault.

This article will examine depictions of ‘madness’ in the Gothic, particularly bipolar disorder, and how a more compassionate, understanding, and informed view of the same is needed. The Gothic has long been a space for exploring extremes of experience, to the point of ‘madness,’ a journey that could be described as a trauma narrative. This is where I feel the contemporary Gothic is able to forge a space beyond the ‘frightening’ sensationalism of the traditional Gothic canon into a radical revisioning.

Just as Masuyama worked with many digital ghosts, just as a painter works with numerous sketches, I will work with the seemingly disparate strands of hauntology, trauma narrative, illness narrative, and the Gothic canon in attempt to reconcile these into a revisioning of one of the Gothic’s most enduring, and problematic features, namely: “The Mad Woman in the Attic” (Gubar and Gilbert).

Hauntology and Lost Futures

In Merlin Coverley’s comprehensive and expansive text Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past, the term ‘hauntology’ is traced from Derrida and his work on Marx’s famous socialist spectre, to Mark Fisher and his work in the 1990s and early 2000s musical culture in ‘k-punk’ magazine. Coverley defines this as “the ghostly coming to invade every aspect of our lives, from the political and the technological to the cultural and the literary: to be is to be haunted” (Coverley 8). These ghostly invasions, not only of the past in the literal figure of the revenant, also represent an impossible future. Or, in the words of Fisher’s blog, “what he described as a ‘failure of the future’” (9). Coverley and Fisher are examining these on the scale of the public body, but what of the body personal?

Coverley notes that “[t]he past, as [Derrida] had suggested, refused to remain quarantined from the present and instead returned in unsettling and disruptive ways” (19). This not only is literally depicted in the Gothic, but it reminds me of the concept of trauma, and the embodied experience of it. If we accept Derrida’s assertion that to be is to be haunted, that every story is a ghost story, and every individual a sum of their past, this begins to link the concept of hauntology with the lived experience of trauma. Certainly, the phrases used when referring to a negative or unpleasant experience is that we are ‘haunted’ by it, that the experience will ‘come back to haunt us,’ turn us into ghosts, as a pale shadow of experience, mirrored in the very language we use.

Hauntology and the Classic Gothic Canon

If we consider hauntological thought in the classic Gothic canon, it is easy to see points of connection. Evil deeds return in echoing heartbeats under floorboards (Poe). Characters are trapped in haunted houses: “if those walls could speak, they could tell strange things, for they have looked upon sad doings” (Varma 19), wherein they are condemned to enact familial curses distilled from unspeakable desires, from The Castle of Otranto (Walpole)to The Monk (Lewis). Like the image at the beginning of this article, the Gothic contains echoes not only of the action within the novels themselves, but also from society, returning a distorted but engaged image. The Gothic becomes a hauntological metaphor for collective anxieties—repressed and dangerous sexualities from lesbianism in Carmilla (LeFanu) to incest in Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë), grief, and the taboo.

It is for this very reason that members of the LGBTQ+ community (Hughes and Smith), people of colour (Taylor), women (Anderson), and other marginalised folk are drawn to the Gothic, for its depictions of alternative realities and ways of being. In depicting existence that goes against the norm, there is clear space for a neurodivergent experience within the Gothic. However, as seen in the above examples of the classic Gothic canon, these depictions often end in destruction. The Classic Gothic canon is haunted by these depictions, not only in the trauma of annihilation, but the potential future; an engagement with these experiences resulting in depictions that can elucidate, illuminate, and interpret lived experience.

Because it is not only the event—the trauma—as depicted in the Gothic returned literally by the figure of the revenant, but the potential future that has been lost, the ‘ghost of futures past’ as Coverley subtitles it. It is, of course, important to note that the experiences of marginalised people are not inherently traumatic; however, we can agree that society enacts trauma on those who do not ‘fit’ into the post-Enlightenment ideal of the straight, white, able-bodied, neurotypical man. As Hepzibah Anderson notes, “[i]n stories by women, when something goes bump in the night, it’s often the sound of the author butting her head against society’s rigid definitions of her role.” (Anderson n.p.). Similarly, many experiences of marginalised people can be objectively traumatic. And when trauma occurs, how is it dealt with? If we are thinking specifically of neurodivergent experiences, particularly issues with deteriorating mental health, some experiences can be traumatic—psychosis, anxiety, depression, delusions, hallucinations, to name but a few. All of which are elements of the Gothic, and in particular, that of “the mad woman in the attic” (Gilbert & Gubar).

As such, the contemporary Gothic is haunted by its legacy, but also by its duty to depict the experiences of marginalised—in this case, neurodivergent—people with more responsibility, to not enact further trauma on the stories of those who are neurodivergent, stories that the Gothic has been feeding vampire-like off for years. The narrative of ‘the mad woman’ and the narrative of ‘madness’ have often been observed adjacently, by the (often young, virginal, female) characters in the story, such as in Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece Jane Eyre. It is worth noting that in Jean Rhys’ intertextual response, Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette ‘Bertha’ Rochester is given a voice, but only up until what we would perhaps now call her episode of psychosis. The ‘mad’ woman remains voiceless. As Susan Sontag notes in Illness as Metaphor:

Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. (Sontag 3)

This surely relates not only to physical illness (Sontag is referring specifically to cancer and AIDS), but also mental health and all that this entails. The statistics are stark; states that one in four will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England. As Sontag goes on to elucidate, we have a duty towards a depiction that is not metaphorical and thus voiceless, based on pure ‘sensationalism.’ How then to reconcile this reality with the hauntological—indeed, metaphorical—language of the Gothic?

The Lived Experience of Trauma and Trauma Narratives

In her germinal work, The Body Keeps the Score, Besser Van Der Kolk explores the effects that trauma has on the brain and the body, noting that “[t]rauma [which] by definition is unbearable and intolerable.” (Kolk 1), and “while we all want to move beyond trauma […] it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones” (2). Similarly, in the first section of the text (called “The Rediscovery of Trauma” in an interestingly hauntological turn of phrase), Kolk uses literary hauntological language in a quote from Jessica Stern, “That’s what trauma does. It interrupts the plot… it just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepares you for it” (7).

In my own novel, I explore this idea of trauma appearing and disappearing, like a bright star that blazes through the orbit of our personal worlds and out again, sometimes leaving no physical damage, but the memory.

And how is it, how is it, that some things happen. The most terrible of things, and yet you survive them. You come through them unscathed. They don’t leave a mark. You’d think, when you read in the papers, or hear on the news, of these terrible things, you’d think; I would be changed by that. I would never live through it. My self would warp and twist like a tree struck by lightning, as random and terrible. And it happens. And you live. And it barely leaves a mark. You don’t think about it every day. It is just another thing. That happened. (Extract from my unpublished novel-in-progress A House Called Winter)

In this section, I deliberately use the second person. There is a sense of remove, of observation, which is mirrored in the nature of reading a novel itself wherein we see the world through someone else’s eyes. In this way, then, perhaps the text is holding up a hauntological mirror to the reader in direct address.

Gothic characters and survivors of trauma in these moments, are haunted by what happened, but also the potential of it not having happened. This is the moment where the lost future of the self occurs, in a schism, and past and future is forever delineated, as well as a third, potential future lost forever; the future where trauma did not occur. As Kolk notes, “[i]t’s hard enough to face the suffering that has been inflicted by others, but deep down many traumatized people are even more haunted by the shame they feel about what they themselves did or did not do” [emphasis mine] (13). The paradox is as it stands: how can there have been a future after this experience that was so awful? How can there be a future wherein the individual did not behave as they might believe they ought?

The Gothic often plays with an unreliable narrator and a sense of doubt. Trauma survivors can lack the ability or inclination to express what has happened. In my novel-in-progress, my main character, Jenny, is experiencing a manic episode brought on by the experience of trauma. How then to write this experience, to use linguistic tools, in a way that is responsible? In the same way that the body physically keeps the score, what about the body of the text, and the subversion of traditional technological markers? The hauntological Gothic, and trauma experiences and recurrences concertina time; hours seem like minutes, the past is present, the future frozen and unattainable. How to reflect this in the body of the text?

In the process of my research, I encountered many insightful and informative texts about illness narrative, particularly Tristimania by Jay Griffiths. Within it, I was struck by how this particular narrative of a bipolar episode had many contact points with the narrative arc of Gothic fiction, from an inciting incident or catalyst, through ‘the dark night of the soul’ and back again. Or, as Aristotle would plot; equilibrium, disequilibrium, equilibrium. Indeed, the cyclical nature of some types of neurodivergence mirror narrative arcs. This itself contains troubling potential issues; in imposing a structural arc upon a lived experience, does this create an expectation of a certain ‘kind’ of ending, and a certain ‘right’ way to have lived an experience?

Similarly, if a lived experience is to be depicted responsibly, how can the texture of the narrative reflect that? In terms of Derridean thought, words are ‘haunted’ by their adjacent meanings. They are defined in terms of negation. The experience of bipolar sometimes gives rise to ‘clang’ associations, where words disrupt meaning, associated by sound or texture rather than meaning. Similarly, compelling fiction follows the same rules as the reality of trauma—trauma is not remembered, it is relived, “reactivated” (Kolk 2)—and compelling fiction is embodied. Mary Kerr notes that “strangely, readers ‘believe’ what’s rendered with physical clarity.” (n.p), something that she refers to in her work as “sacred carnality,” and there is something sacred about the exploration of these extremes of experiences. The prose returns to embodied feeling. In the section where Jenny recounts her trauma, I have tried to hold these occasionally at-odds ideas in balance. The narrative is for those experiencing trauma, but also those who are not, but can access it through this idea of carnality, not only for curiosity or ‘sensationalism’ but understanding.

I have tried to be mindful of the way that language itself can also enact and maintain trauma; the history of any medicalised or pathologized experience—from womanhood, to neurodivergence, to gendered violence—is fraught with phraseology used to enact, justify, and perpetuate trauma. Through the lack of punctuation and the deliberate run-on sentences I am trying to depict the unrelenting (re)enactment of trauma, and through repetition the strange details that stick in one’s mind. The hauntological and Gothic image of the underground transport system, where Jenny’s trauma is first enacted, is one that I feel is deeply Gothic in a modern sense; reducing distance and time, as well as creating a simultaneous sense of movement and stasis as we move through the (re)memory, through past in present, into the relative calm of post-memory.

I am angry that I turned when a hand was on my arm and I am angry that he went to touch my face with violence and I am angry that I got my face away but I couldn’t save my hair and I am angry that he touched me with violence and his body on mine and the insides of his body that he had touched whilst looking at me touching me with his eyes and his ugly ugly mind like a worm and he in his hand he his hand he had in his hand and he got my hair and the doors shut with him inside and me outside on the floor

It is a thing.’ She feels her mouth say. ‘It is a thing, a ring, a sing, a wing that happens. Just a thing.’ (extract from A House Called Winter)

Futures Found

It is here that I feel the contemporary Gothic has a duty and a responsibility to the voiceless of its past, the mute Gothic ghosts. It has often been a trope that draws marginalised people to it with its depictions of alternative, subversive existence. Yet it often fails at the final hurdle. The Gothic has always been exploring these hauntological and trauma narrative tropes, indeed it is haunted by them, but unfortunately with the language and tools available at the time, sometimes purely for ‘sensation’. Georges Bataille states that literature is evil; against the good. I take this to mean, it goes into spaces of taboo and extremes of human experience to provide answers and clarity of experience. The contemporary Gothic, therefore, will become as the image at the beginning of this article; of its past, and yet embodying its impossible future, a future that is no longer lost. Within the novel, the reader enters into that sacred space, where the lost futures of the Gothic can be reconciled and exorcised with narrative experience. In fact, writing that doesn’t dare to do this is dull indeed.


Anderson, Hepzibah. “The Secret Meaning of Ghost Stories.”BBC Culture,

Bataille, George. Literature and Evil. Translated by Alastair Hamilton, Penguin Classics, 2012.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Thomas Cautley Newby,1847.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Smith, Elder and Co.,1847.

Coverley, Merlin. Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past. Oldcastle Books, 2022.

Gilbert, Sandra M. & Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer And The Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 2000.

Griffiths, Jay. Tristimania; A Diary of Manic Depression. Counterpoint Press, 2016.

Hughes, William, and Andrew Smith. Queering the Gothic. Manchester University Press, 2017. Accessed 4 Jul. 2022.

Kerr, Mary. ‘Sacred Carnality.’ The Art of Memoir, October 11, 2015. The New Yorker, Accessed 4 Jul. 2022.

Kolk, Bessek Van Der. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and the Transformation of Trauma. Penguin, 2015.

Lewis, Matthew Gregory. The Monk: A Romance. 1796. July, 1996, Project Gutenberg, Accessed 4 Jul. 2022

Poe, Edgar Allen. The Tell-Tale Heart. Accessed 4 Jul. 2022.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Penguin Classics, 2000.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor.  McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1978.

Taylor, Leila. Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul. Repeater Books, 2019.

Varma, Devendra P. The Gothic Flame: Being a History of the Gothic Novel in England. 1957. Russell & Russell, 1964.            

Walpole, Horace, The Castle of Otranto. 1764. Penguin Classics, 2001.

Emma Dee is a final year PhD candidate for the University of Kent, Writing the Novel; Practise as Research. She is interested in literary depictions of time and space, with particular focus on the Gothic. Her creative work has been published in Spiderweb Chronicles, Gothic Nature Journal, and the Paris magazine Le Menteur. She has taught on creative and critical modules at the University of Kent, most recently ‘Other Worlds; Dystopias and Futures,’ a module on speculative fiction.

Autism, Film & Estrangement

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Autism, Film & Estrangement

David Hartley

What do we think of when we consider autism and cinema? It may be that we still begin with Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988), that autism-and-cinema urtext that seemed to become instantly synonymous with the condition. The success of that film created a stereotype: the difficult but loveable (and usually male) ‘idiot savant’, good only for feats of mathematical wizardry. We might also be familiar with subsequent dramas like Snow Cake (2006), Adam (2009), and Mozart and the Whale (2005), or, more recently, the thriller The Accountant (2016) as well as the documentaries Life, Animated (2016) and The Reason I Jump (2020). Readers might also be aware of Music (2021) by the musician Sia, which received an angry backlash from autistic commentators for its caricatured representation and its misguided scenes involving violent restraint (Thornton 2021). Beyond the films themselves, we might think of the various endeavours by cinemas to create ‘relaxed screenings’ designed for the neurodivergent who find the more common cinema-going experience to be too sensorily overwhelming. While these screenings are a largely positive attempt to accommodate disability, autistic journalist Laura Kate Dale has noted that they tend to be arranged exclusively for family-friendly films aimed at children rather than as standard across all types of film (113).

When we narrow the criteria even further and ask where we find autism in science-fiction films, the challenge increases. It is hard to identify a mainstream sci-fi feature that openly takes autism as its subject matter. The closest is Shane Black’s reboot of The Predator (2018), which features a prominent autistic savant who the titular aliens decide is a prize worth stealing when his mathematical abilities are recognised as valuable. One of the entrapped characters in Vincenzo Natali’s horror sci-fi film Cube (1997) is autistic, again blessed with the superhuman numerical ability that enables him to escape the mathematical death trap. Rather better is Dean Isrealite’s Power Rangers (2017) reboot where the Blue Ranger is openly autistic and is a key member of the superhero gang rather than someone side-lined or rendered wholly vulnerable. Although even here the stereotype of savantism is utilised, as Blue is positioned as the brilliant technician of the gang who deciphers alien technology to help accelerate the plot.

Nevertheless, science-fiction as a genre remains a particularly pertinent realm for explorations of neurodiversity given its thematic interest in estrangement. For autistic people, feelings of estrangement can be a daily occurrence. Social interactions can prove baffling and frustrating, while issues around sensory sensitivity can make commonplace environments like schools, supermarkets, and cinemas feel alienating. It is not uncommon to hear autistic people describe themselves as feeling like aliens from another planet, with pervasive cultural stereotypes only adding to these feelings of distance. In this context, Darko Suvin’s foundational theory of sci-fi as the genre of “cognitive estrangement” (3) might be productively read as a synonym for ‘neurodivergence’, a move that serves to illuminate how the taken-for-granted real world can feel science-fictional for those who it does not appropriately accommodate.

This article aims to consider where estrangement is positioned in cinematic explorations of autism. The analysis is largely guided by the discussions that have taken place on the Autism Through Cinema Podcast, which I have co-hosted since May 2021 alongside fellow researchers and film fans. The podcast consists of conversations between the hosts and special guests, the majority of whom identify as autistic, and each episode focuses on a single film that has in some way resonated with the autistic way-of-being. This article is guided by these discussions to reflect on how estrangement operates in films where an autistic presence has been depicted or detected. It begins by acknowledging a fuzzy divide between depiction and detection, before reflecting on the term ‘estrangement’ and identifying its usage across a range of films. 

Autism Films & Autistic Films

As a collective, the co-hosts and guests on the Autism Through Cinema podcast are asked to suggest films to be discussed. Invariably, the autistic contributors have gravitated towards films that they have felt a particular connection with, rather than those that profess to depict the condition outright. The autistic film critic Georgia Bradburn, for example, admits a fascination with the work of David Lynch, suggesting that his films offer her something she “can really identify with” (ATC, episode 8). Video artist John-James Laidlow brought Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), an idiosyncratic exploration of outsiders captured by Varda’s distracted and playful camera, which he suggests is Varda “taking pleasure in digressions” (ATC, episode 5). For film journalist Lillian Crawford, there are autistic evocations in the neat tableaus of the work of Wes Anderson, particularly in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) (ATC, episode 29), while illustrator Ash Loydon waxed lyrical about the joys of autistic pleasure in the world depicted in Disney-Pixar’s Cars (2006) (ATC, episode 17).

These choices, I suggest, might be categorised as ‘autistic films.’ Using the term as an adjective suggests the films themselves are in some way autistic, or at least are suffused with an autistic sensibility or aesthetic. This latter is not easily or neatly defined (which is entirely fitting for a condition that itself evades neat categorisation), however, if we were to entertain the idea of an autistic cinematic aesthetic, we might find some shared characteristics that begin to form a theoretical approach. It may be said that autistic films foreground sensorial experience through a mise-en-scène rich with detail and imagery and may feature a cinematographic style that aligns with a neurodivergent protagonist, such as Henry in Eraserhead or Sam in Moonrise Kingdom. The gaze of the camera may favour a form of distracted looking, as seen in The Gleaners and I, while the narratives of the characters will often relate to experiences of being a misunderstood outsider. For the ‘most’ autistic of these autistic films, the experiences of these characters are evoked through the audio-visual aesthetic, rather than purely captured as an exhibit for a presumed neurotypical audience.

In comparison (but not always in contrast), an ‘autism film’ is one where the explicit subject of the film is autism itself, or where autism plays a significant role in the plot. These include Rain Man and Music, but also films like Mercury Rising (1998), Please Stand By (2017), My Name is Khan (2010), as well as Temple Grandin (2010) and Keep the Change (2017). These latter were featured on the podcast and favourably received, not least Keep the Change, a celebrated romantic drama featuring a predominantly autistic cast. Documentaries that position autism as the central subject also feature in this category.

Due to the nature of the audience’s continued fascination with autism as a phenomenon, autism films inevitably stake a claim into the cultural construction of the condition and, like Rain Man, risk becoming an authoritative text in the minds of consumers. As such, autism films have tended to be the ones that have formed and perpetuated certain stereotypes, often preferring to exaggerate elements of the condition that best fit the narrative structures of mainstream cinematic storytelling. In comparison, autistic films are those identified by autistic viewers as evoking the lived experience of the condition, whether through aesthetic choices or via narrative metaphors that explore divergence. Curiously, many autistic films are not necessarily created with autism in mind, which perhaps enables a greater authorial freedom on the part of an interpretative viewer.

Of course, this summary is neither exhaustive nor complete, and it is true to say that there is an enormous amount of cross-over between the categories, with some films occupying space in both. I would contend, however, that one shared element is the presence of estrangement. Furthermore, the use of estrangement differs depending upon the intentions the film has towards autism as a state-of-being. To elucidate further, it is firstly useful to reflect a little more on the word ‘estrangement,’ how it is defined, and where it may be encountered in narratives involving neurodivergence.


Returning to Suvin, estrangement in science-fiction is placed in an inextricable relationship with the “cognition” of the author and reader’s apprehension of an empirical reality (4). The tension between these two elements—the latter as a basis for comprehending and assimilating the novelty of the former—generates what Suvin terms a “novum,” or new thing, which becomes the core of the science-fictional attitude (63). The concern here, however, is Suvin’s relatively rigid approach to the two halves of his formula. If, for example, a cognitively apprehended scientific ‘truth’ in a work of sci-fi is later found to be incorrect, should that result in the removal of the generic label? And, most pertinently to this discussion, is the readerly experience of estrangement essentially universal? Fantasy author China Miéville has noted that texts do not exist “in an a-sociological vacuum,” asking “whose cognition” does Suvin prioritise (235)? Following this further, we could also ask: whose estrangement? As autistic commentators frequently indicate, the behaviours and social organisation of the so-called ‘neurotypical’ are so fundamentally at odds with an autistic experience as to be alienating and estranging in their own right. Star Ford’s book A Field Guide to Earthlings (2010) playfully explores this concept while also acting as a guide for other baffled neurodivergent outsiders.

So too are autistic people estranged from themselves. Activist Penny Winter relates how interventionist behavioural ‘therapies’ actively suppress the ‘weird’ behaviours of the autistic, resulting in people who “will likely grow to hate their autism, and themselves with it” (116). Culturally, the proliferation of autism represented as a white, male, middle-class, quirky, savant condition misrepresents the majority of autistic people. For activist Julia Bascom, such a narrowing of representation has “made us strangers to ourselves” (8). Autism thereby exposes the fragility of both of Suvin’s theoretical elements in his ‘cognitive estrangement’ formula and prompts a reconsideration of how we might more inclusively comprehend what it means to feel estranged.

Sara Ahmed provides a more dynamic definition of ‘estrangement’ than the one suggested by Suvin:

The word ‘estrangement’ has the same roots as the word ‘strange’. And yet, it suggests something quite different. It indicates a process of transition, a movement of one register to another. To become estranged from each other … is to move … from familiarity to strangeness. The term is suggestive precisely because it names the process of moving from one to the other, rather than referring to different states of being. (92)

The emphasis here is placed on a dynamic movement between the real and the unreal, or the familiar and the unfamiliar, allowing space for fluidity and exchange. Autistic scholar Remi Yergeau describes the lived experience of autism as a “negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds” (205), suggesting a similar transitory experience where the rigidity of patterns, schedules, and order complements experiences of chaos, sensory overwhelm, or the pleasures of self-stimulation. Importantly, Yergeau doesn’t suggest that one of these states is inherently better than the other, but instead attempts to highlight how the neurodivergent find themselves in a state of constant “betweenity” (177).

Considering estrangement in these more dynamic terms brings us closer to the lived experience of an autistic person in a world still predominantly structured around neurotypical codes. In terms of genre, the excising of the ‘cognitive’ part of Suvin’s formula may well push us beyond the strictly science-fictional into wilder fantastical realms. This is by no means a bad thing, however, as Suvin’s insistence on retaining a link with “the author’s empirical environment” remains a useful structural device (4). While the precise coordinates of autism as a diagnostic category still prove elusive and fuzzy, it remains important to continue to acknowledge that it exists, persists, and forms the fundamental core of the identities of autistic people. As such, we can now move forward with a reconfiguration of Suvin’s formula into the cinematic analyses that follow. I will briefly consider how two ‘autism films’ and two ‘autistic films’ make use of a ‘neurodivergent estrangement’ in their explorations of difference. 

Estrangement, Autism, & Film

In Ben Lewin’s comedy drama Please Stand By, autistic woman Wendy (Dakota Fanning) has written a Star Trek script that she intends to send to Paramount Pictures as part of an open competition. She has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show, often escaping to a Trek-style universe in her mind. Having missed the last postal date after a sensory meltdown, she instead decides to leave her assisted living home and travel across the state to hand the script in herself. Along the way, Wendy encounters a variety of commonplace neurotypical people: a bus driver, a check-out assistant, a ticket conductor, a police officer, and a kindly grandmother, among many others. At the point of each encounter, we see a reverse shot of the neurotypical looking at Wendy with puzzled and wearied expressions. The implications are clear; she is an alien that has disrupted their worlds, a crash-landed Captain Kirk.

Wendy’s autistic difference has already been made explicit through a montage of her morning routine showing how Please Stand By, like many autism films, assumes neurotypical viewers who “have the interest to speculate upon, but not the time to know about, what the ontological question raised by autism might be” (Murray 129). These everyday neurotypicals become, therefore, a gallery of spectator stand-ins, as if the film is asking its presumed viewers how they would react in an equivalent situation. With incredulity? Deception? Kindness? Most curiously of all, everyone in the film seems to exist in an alternate universe where the word ‘autism’ is steadfastly avoided, where a clearly vulnerable young woman is dismissed out-of-hand as an inconvenience. Estrangement here remains located firmly inside Wendy, while her method of ‘escaping’ to otherworldly imaginings of Star Trek is shown on screen but only briefly, and only when there is a reflection to be made of the real world. In many ways the film’s title is apt: Wendy is perpetually waiting for guidance that never truly arrives.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was covered in the first episode of the Autism Through Cinema podcast as it was the first film eagerly pitched by co-host Georgia Bradburn. In the film, Adam Sandler stars as Barry Egan, a highly-strung sales manager whose life spirals into chaos when his overbearing sisters set him up with a woman named Lena, played by Emily Watson. The film is essentially a romantic comedy, as Barry and Lena do hit it off, but along the way the ever-anxious Barry gets embroiled in a sex-line scam that results in him facing off with terrifying small-time crook played by Philip Seymour Hoffmann. There is much about Barry’s mannerisms and his communication style that suggests a neurodivergence, particularly autism, but the film is never concerned with diagnosing him. Instead, Anderson whips up an aesthetic audio-visual chaos around Barry, mirroring his confusions and frustrations. In one key early scene, Barry is at his workplace when his aggressive sister shows up with Lena demanding that they all go to lunch. At the same time, Barry is receiving threatening phone calls from the sex-line scam and, part way through the scene, one of the workers in the warehouse drives a fork-lift truck into a wall. The scene is frantic, the cuts are fast, the characters march around the space at speed, and the camera is constantly on the move. Low-angled shots show lights and shadows dancing on the ceiling while a percussive multi-instrumental score pervades the audio track. It is a funny scene, but stressful and exhausting, and the rest of the film barely relents. Georgia describes it as “one of the best representations of sensory overload I’ve seen in film” (Autism Through Cinema Podcast, episode 1). So, while Anderson avoids diagnosing Barry on-screen, and perhaps never even intended for him to be autistic, he does make use of an estranging cinematography to evoke the stresses and intensities of Barry’s state-of-mind. Together with a collection of strange narrative incidents, there is an autistic sensibility soaked through this film.

The subject of Roger Ross William’s documentary Life, Animated is Owen Suskind, an autistic man preparing to leave his family home and move to college. The film reflects on how Owen’s deep interest in Disney films has helped him to navigate life. This is mostly told through fly-on-the-wall footage of Owen and talking heads of his family and friends; however these are punctuated by multiple scenes of animation that show the young Owen dealing with difficult moments in his childhood. Eventually these animations are weaved into a story of Owen’s own creation, ‘The Land of Lost Sidekicks,’ an adventure tale based on his favourite Disney sidekick characters. The animations are lovely additions to the film, but are brief compared to the non-animated footage, and the story of the lost sidekicks is itself side-lined in favour of a more instructional reflection of Owen’s life. Like the Star Trek fantasies of Please Stand By, we as viewers are held at a distance from being fully folded into the estrangement of these fantastical realms. In a sense, they belong wholly to Owen. We are given a glimpse, but our ‘real world,’ the film seems to imply, is with the safety of the neurotypical talking heads.

Finally, let us briefly consider Eraserhead. There is a wider argument that might claim David Lynch as an auteur of the autistic film, but taking his debut feature as a starting point, we find another neurodivergent protagonist caught up in an estranging aesthetic as his angst-ridden life begins to unravel. Henry (Jack Nance) is a factory worker who lives in near-poverty in an uncanny industrial landscape recalling Philadelphia. He discovers that a former girlfriend has given birth to a sickly, alien-like baby, so Henry marries her and takes up his role as father. The baby’s constant wailing drives the mother away, leaving Henry stuck with the infant until, overwhelmed, he ends up committing accidental infanticide. Meanwhile, he also encounters a woman with cratered cheeks who sings to him from a radiator, and he regularly falls into deeply strange dream-visions featuring decapitation and decay. Eraserhead is a hard film to describe, and just as difficult to experience, as Lynch heaps surreal image upon surreal image into a nightmarish monochrome aesthetic of alienation and anxiety. Henry remains baffled throughout, but then so are we as viewers as we submit ourselves to ninety minutes of relentless estrangement. Lynch is commenting, perhaps, on the fragility of masculinity in a post-industrial age, where pressures to be a breadwinner and a caring father are jostled by temptations of fantastical escape into irresponsible realms. But Henry can never escape; one dream suggests he is destined to become just another arbitrary and disposable fragment of a baffling society as his severed head is reconstituted by a machine into the eraser on the end of a pencil.

We covered Eraserhead on the Autism Through Cinema podcast, in which John-James Laidlow suggests that the film is attempting to “expose the absurdity of everything going on with society,” while Georgia Bradburn points to Lynch’s continual “disruption of normalcy” as an approach to art that feels in tune with her autistic way-of-being (ATC, episode 8). In contrast, John-James goes on to joke about how the film made him feel even more autistic because he frequently “had no idea what was going on” (ATC, episode 8). Ultimately, everything remains subjective, and a film that connects with one autistic person may not necessarily do the same for another. Instead, we should seek autistic sensibilities in film wherever an autistic viewer indicates they are located. ‘Neurodivergent estrangement, I suggest, can be a fruitful pathway towards those locations.


I have presented here two examples of autism films; Please Stand By and Life, Animated, and two autistic films; Punch-Drunk Love and Eraserhead, drawing the distinction that the former take autism as their subject matter while the latter evoke autism through aesthetic and narrative choices. Estrangement is present in all four films as a disruptive factor that interrupts and threatens conventions in order to negotiate with the presence of cognitive divergence. It is also a dynamic force, as suggested by Sara Ahmed’s definition, creating realms that viewers shift in and out of, in many cases mimicking the “negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds” of autism (Yergeau 205).

However, there is a key difference between the two types of film. In the autism films, it is often autism itself that is positioned as the estranging element. Autism is the unusual thing that we are meant to be fascinated and entranced by and, therefore, when other estrangements break in, such as Wendy’s imagined planet and Owen’s animated stories, we remain one step removed from the full estrangement these moments could provide. We attribute the aesthetic break to the autism we are already bearing witness to, so we do not necessarily move into further estrangement. In autistic films, something different happens. Here, where autism is not foregrounded as the subject or the focus, the estranging strain of aesthetic rupture moves along with the characters into estranging space, where unnerving and spectacular things can subsequently happen. These moments also move non-autistic viewers into the autistic space of estrangement and therefore have the potential to generate more meaningful bridges into insight.

This insight, I suggest, relies upon autistic audiences making connections and articulating them as meaningful, which is a key part of the work we continue to do on the Autism Through Cinema Podcast. This is not to say that an ‘autism film’ cannot or has not used aesthetic techniques to evoke the condition through audio-visual estrangements, more that there remains a tendency to avoid or compartmentalise estranging space in favour of a straightforward framing that captures autism like a specimen in a jar. For a richer future of autistic presence in film, a framework of ‘neurodivergent estrangement’ might help us make better autistic cinematic creations and discoveries.


The Accountant. Directed by Gavin O’Conner, Warner Bros, 2016.

Adam. Directed by Max Mayer, Olympus Pictures, 2009.

Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-coloniality. Routledge, 2000.

Autism Through Cinema Podcast.” Autism Through Cinema, co-hosts Georgia Bradburn, Lillian Crawford, Janet Harbord, David Hartley, John-James Laidlow, Ethan Lyon, Alex Widdowson, episodes 1-29, Queen Mary, University of London, 2021-present.

Bascom, Julia. “Foreword.” Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, edited by Julia Bascom, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, 2012, pp. 6-11.

Cars. Directed by John Lasseter, Pixar, 2006.

Cube. Directed by Vincenzo Natali, Cube Libre, 1997.

Dale, Laura Kate. Uncomfortable Labels: My Life as a Gay Autistic Trans Woman. Jessica Kingsley, 2019.

Ford, Star. A Field Guide to Earthlings: An Autistic/Asperger View of Neurotypical Behavior. Ian Ford Software Corporation. 2010.

The Gleaners and I. Directed by Agnès Varda, Ciné-tamaris, 2000.

Keep the Change. Directed by Rachel Israel, Tangerine Entertainment, 2017.

Life, Animated. Directed by Roger Ross Williams, A&E IndieFilms, 2016.

Mercury Rising. Directed by Harold Becker, Universal Pictures, 1998.

Miéville, China. “Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory.” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville, Pluto Press, 2009, pp. 231-48.

Moonrise Kingdom. Directed by Wes Anderson, Focus Features, 2012.

Mozart and the Whale. Directed by Peter Næss, Millennium Media, 2005.

Murray, Stuart. Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination, Liverpool UP, 2008.

Music. Directed by Sia, Vertical Entertainment, 2021.

My Name is Khan. Directed by Karan Johar, Dharma Productions, 2010.

Please Stand By. Directed by Ben Lewin, Allegiance Theater, 2017.

Power Rangers. Directed by Dean Israelite, Lionsgate, 2017.

The Predator. Directed by Shane Black, Twentieth Century Fox, 2018.

Punch-Drunk Love. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Columbia Pictures, 2002.

Rain Man. Directed by Barry Levinson, United Artists, 1988.

The Reason I Jump. Directed by Jerry Rothwell, BFI, 2020.

Snow Cake. Directed by Marc Evans, Revolution Films, 2006.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, Yale UP, 1979.

Temple Grandin. Directed by Mick Jackson, HBO, 2010.

Thornton, Cheyenne. “Sia’s Film and the Deficit Model of Disability”

Winter, Penni. “Loud Hands & Loud Voices.” Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, edited by Julia Bascom, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, 2012, pp. 115-128.

Yergeau, M Remi. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, Duke UP, 2018.

Dr David Hartley is an independent scholar and writer based in Manchester, UK. He is the co-host of the Autism Through Cinema Podcast and co-founder of the Narratives of Neurodiversity Network. His creative fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines including Ambit, Black Static, and The Shadow Booth. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester, and his latest collection of short stories is Fauna from Fly on the Wall Press. He tweets at @DHartleyWriter.

A Glimpse into the Lived Experience of Disability

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

A Glimpse into the Lived Experience of Disability

Mónika Rusvai

Medical Humanities and The Fantastic was a free one-day online symposium, held on 11 February 2022, funded by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Medical Humanities and co-hosted by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic. The event focused on neurodivergent and disabled lived experience and its representation in popular culture. Key topics included the way the fantastic represents or subverts neurodiversity and disability, the expressions of lived experiences depicted with the aid of the fantastic, the possibilities of reframing the social, political, and medical perception of neurodiversity and disability through fantastic re-contextualisation, and tracing the social impact of representing disability and neurodivergence in popular culture. The organisers Beáta Gubacsi (University of Liverpool) and Anna McFarlane (University of Leeds) greatly contributed to a smooth and enjoyable online event.

The introductory keynote was given by Ria Cheyne (Liverpool Hope University). I am calling her speech introductory, not only because it technically preceded the symposium, as participants could watch the recording online before they gathered for the Q&A session, but it was also introductory in the sense that it provided a detailed, precise, and meaningful introduction into the cultural research of neurodiversity, including future hopes and potential pitfalls of the field. Cheyne highlighted that recent years have brought a massive upsurge and interest in neurodiversity, hence it is our responsibility to use this increased interest to the benefit of all members of our (neuro)diverse society. Her lecture included very important clarifications of general terminology; for instance, the differentiation of the neurodiversity paradigm (variation of the human mind) from the neurodiversity movement (social justice movement); and it also included a short summary of basic terms (neurodivergent, neurotypical). Cheyne called attention to the fact that there is a multiplicity of ways academia and the wider public defines neurodivergence – hence researchers have the responsibility to consider the consequences to using these. She also formulated a warning about analysing speculative fiction and film: you cannot simply substitute the Other for any marginalised group, but you always need to give further thought to why you are using neurodiversity in a critical context.

Panel 1 bore the title “The Fantastic as Methodology,” and it contained three superb presentations. David Hartley demonstrated how cinematic versions of autism represent the state of estrangement. Based on the modes of engagement with estrangement, he identified two types of filmic approaches to autistic neurodivergence. In his view, autism films are those that include an autistic character, whilst autistic films are pervaded by a unique, autistic aura. His conclusion, that an ethical representation of disability may result in a re-evaluation of what it means to be human, is a clear message for us researchers, readers, and watchers of such cultural products. Emma Dee then provided the audience with a brief, but very interesting insight into hauntology. A literary author herself, Dee revealed through short excerpts of her own texts how she turned re-lived trauma into an embodied experience. Responsibility was also a key term in Dee’s presentation, highlighting that authors have responsibility in depicting all facets of human experience. Josefine Wälivaara’s presentation focused on non-normative time in speculative fiction and film. Wälivaara dived deep into the concept of normative time as a cultural construct; the white, cisgender, hetero, able-bodied and able-minded point-of-view of a much more complicated phenomenon. Speculative narratives, however, may provide the necessary estrangement from the familiarity with which we organise time.

Panel 2 consisted of two sections: “Senses and Sensing the World Differently” and “Lived Experiences.” The first section felt like an exciting journey through the senses and the ages. Sara Neef gave an interesting example of how blindness is represented in contemporary urban fantasy, then we travelled back in time to Sidney’s New Arcadia and observed the depiction of mind-blindness and how it might be compared to our 21st century perceptions of neurodiversity and neurodiverse people. The third presentation led the audience to the future: Leigha McReynolds showed how conventional categories of mind and body are disrupted in Samuel R. Delany’s classic science fiction novel, Babel-17. The second section of this panel uncovered very interesting landscapes for future disability researchers. I particularly enjoyed Jennifer Slagus’s presentation on graphic novels for children that focus on the lived experience of neurodiversity. The social impact of this kind of research is invaluable, as in the long term, it may contribute to the mental wellbeing of neurodiverse children. Brian Keeley’s very important presentation on the representation of heart transplantation in films left me slightly disturbed and with questions I have never thought of before. Clearly, more attention should be paid to the lived experience of heart transplantees and post-surgery experience in general.

Panel 3 focused on two themes: “Disability and Neurodiversity on Screen” and “Disability, Myths and Mythmaking.” Yet again, the symposium managed to cover a large area of screen representations of disability and neurodiversity ranging from a novel adaptation series (Good Omens, presented by Margaret Tedford) through a lesser-known Disney movie (Treasure Planet, presented by Jess Gibson) to the representation of augmented bodies in American and Japanese animation (Rebecca Jones). This section clearly showed that in pop culture research, more and more connections are developing between the wider audience and researchers (who, in many cases, are themselves fans). The two presenters of the “Disability, Myths and Mythmaking” section, however, presented on completely diverse, yet very up-to-date topics. Clare Moore, unlike any other presenter of the symposium, extended the disability topic to landscape, and demonstrated      how this terminology might be applied to the landscapes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. This was a unique take on disability and had a heart-wrenching conclusion in the face of the ongoing climate crisis. The other presenter, Ellena Deeley, focused on diasporic experience through the representation of (formerly) conjoined twins in Nalo Hopkinson’s marvellous realist fiction. It was interesting to consider how the rare bodily experience of sharing a conjoined body with your twin might affect your mental health.

The symposium concluded in a creative panel with author Bogi Takács and editor Jo Ross-Barrett, both of whom belong to the neurodivergent community. An interesting discussion ensued, focusing on how disability-aware fiction is made and what the lived experience of a neurodivergent author and editor incorporate into their work. Ross-Barrett shared details of her experience as guest editor of the disabled and neurodivergent people’s issue of Shoreline of Infinity (November 2021). She reflected on such key concepts as the neurotypical gaze and how it affects our perception of neurodiversity on a daily basis, then she went on to list the most typical tropes regarding neurodiversity and disability and revealed in what ways they are harmful to both ‘normal’ and disabled people. I especially liked her harsh criticism of the trope that shows neurodivergence as supernatural in origin. Takács started a very interesting conversation about the role and dangers of allegory in neurodivergent fiction. By that time, the creative panel’s atmosphere turned cheery and colloquial, making room for such comments as Ross-Barrett’s ‘definition’ of allegory as “a taboo-friendly nonsense we have grown up with” – stating that allegory feeds the keeping-up of taboos. I found Takács’s reflection on this particularly thought-provoking as e said that this may be the reason why Eastern European speculative fiction (Takács emself is originally from Hungary) is still so fond of using allegory.

On the whole, I am very grateful for the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Medical Humanities and the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic for making this event possible. Extra thanks go for keeping the online format – otherwise many of us would not have been able to participate. As the keynote lectures are available on the YouTube channel of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, I certainly recommend them to watch and share the experience with us.

Mónika Rusvai is a PhD student at the University of Szeged, Hungary. She has been involved with the fantastic since her BA studies. During her MA she got acquainted with monster theory and wrote her thesis on the cultural significance of various European dragons. Since then, her road turned to the enchanted forests of European fantasy: she currently focuses on Robert Holdstock’s Mythago novels, and intends to cast new light on the series through a combination of critical plant studies and fantasy theory. As a fantasy author herself, she eagerly advocates literary myth-making of all cultural backgrounds.