Monday, March 9, 2015

Exploring Diversity in SF/R: When Disabilities Lead to Superpowers

Diversity and handicaps have been a part of the SF/R mysticism as long as writers have been penning their stories, but perhaps no tale caught the public's attention quite like the blockbuster film, Avatar.

The story begins with the MC, a diehard Marine in heart and spirit, in a narrative voice over about how he was "lying there in the VA hospital with a hole blown in the middle of my life." This not-so-subtle introduction to Jake Sully hinted he was not going to be a typical soldier in space.

In the next scene, we see the cremation of his twin brother--a scientist and victim of a random act of violence--and observe the officials who have come to speak with Jake ask him if he would consider filling his brothers shoes. With a plaintive glance at his colleague one adds, "So to speak."

It turns out Jake's brother was not just a scientist, but an Avatar driver. A human who was in training to direct-link mentally to a biological construct of blended alien/human DNA. This Avatar could survive on the surface of the distant moon Pandora, where humans can't last more than a few minutes without oxygen.

It's on his flight to Pandora aboard an interstellar cargo ship that the earlier clues are capped with an in-your-face visual. Jake is disabled and confined to a wheelchair, a fighting spirit who has become an invalid as a result of his battle injuries, and without the financial means to repair his body. In Jake's time, the corrective surgery is possible...but it's out of his reach.

Jake has risen to the challenge and assumes his twin's role in becoming an Avatar-driver. In his first introduction to mentally becoming a 12-foot tall alien Na'vi, his reaction is all Marine--an unpredictable, hellbent for leather cavalry charge out of the medical facilities to test out his new, fully mobile body. Jake's expression upon again sinking his toes into the sand speaks volumes. The need to get his legs back--to be whole again--is what has brought him across the vast reaches of space to a deadly alien planet. Because this experience will give back his mobility, at least in his head--Jake will regain what he's lost. He'll be a Marine once more.

But there's a price. After each session as an Avatar--racing through the jungle, battling fierce creatures and becoming closer to his female guide, Neytiri--he must return to reality...and to his wheelchair. Jake soon becomes a pawn for both sides--by the humans who manipulate him as a bargaining tool to persuade the Na'vi to come around to their way of thinking, and by the Na'vi who hope that through Jake they can teach the humans what their world and their beliefs are really all about.

Jake is torn between these worlds and becomes an outcast to both species, forcing him to make a choice and take a stand. But will he side against the man he is or the Na'vi he has become? It's a monumental choice. His superiors have offered to fund the surgery necessary to get the use of his legs back if he fulfills his mission to utterly betray the Na'vi. The Avatar has already given him his legs back, but only for temporary periods. Jake must decide what truly matters even if it comes at the cost of his life--or ever having the ability to walk again.

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In a popular novel series, Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, the heroine, Helva, is born a severely deformed individual who is identified as a superior intellect. Her body is artificially stunted and she is sealed inside a titanium life-support system called a shell where her training begins to become the Brain of a Brainship. Because this process is a huge expense, Helva must pay off the debt in service to the Central Worlds.

She is paired with a physically normal counterpart--a Brawn--who is specially trained to be a companion, helper and perform the physical duties of the team. Her profound mental capacities transcend her disabilities and allow her to pilot her ship with aplomb, as well as to share her gift of song and her capacity as an actor when she mentally performs in a theatrical production for an important alien species. In time, others begin to relate to her as much more than just a Shell Person, including a longtime male colleague.

According to Wikipedia, McCaffrey explained the origin of the idea in a 2004 interview with SFFworld. She said, "I remember reading a story about a woman searching for her son's brain, it had been used for an autopilot on an ore ship and she wanted to find it and give it surcease. And I thought what if severely disabled people were given a chance to become starships?"

Transcending physical hardship is often seen in SF and SFR. It's all about hope, the potential of technology, and the sometimes invisible emotional price tag that might come with such gifts.

Inherit the Stars shares some common themes with both Avatar and The Ship who Sang, but presented in a very different way. Drea, the heroine has, through an experiment that resulted in an unforeseen side affect, acquired a very unique disability. Though she's not physically affected in the strictest sense of the word, the outcome creates tremendous hardship for her. Most who are close to Drea view her as extremely gifted, but she sees herself as limited, emotionally isolated, and beyond any hope of a normal life.

A direct result of her "handicap" is that Drea believes she's unworthy of love or of any future with a potential mate.

When the hero, Sair, first learns of her condition, he's confused and angry that she has kept it from him, but in no way sees her as anything but even more remarkable. He believes he's the one who's undesirable as a potential mate for her, not the other way around. When Drea spontaneously shares just a small taste of her experience with Sair he is overcome with awe, where Drea withdraws into an emotional shell, mortified that he now understands the depths of her inadequacy, loneliness and isolation. Sair's accepting, and eventual embracing, of who and what Drea is, will lead to a fateful turning point in their story.

Are there other SF/SFR books or films you're aware of where a character's handicap led to a strength or special ability? Was there a cost to them personally as a result?


  1. I haven't dealt with an outright disability in any of my work. But, I am someone who lives with chronic pain and it finds its way into my novels. My alien males in A'yen's Legacy are in constant pain from the metallic ink covering their bodies, and it affects every moment of their lives, what they can and can't do, and how well they sleep.

    1. I'd say that's definitely a disability for the characters, Rachel. And sorry to hear you deal with chronic pain. I can see how that would find its way into your work, because you know of what you speak.


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