“Fix science fiction, not the disability!”

Deane Saunders-Stowe is a science fiction author whose debut novel, ‘Synthesis:Weave’, introduced a disabled main character.

In this blog, Deane talks about how science fiction often looks to ‘fix’ disability and how he wants to challenge the genre and bring something new to the table.

Alien worlds, sophisticated space stations, high powered laser weapons – but not a wheelchair, guide dog or hand-signing gesture in sight.

Science fiction has a problem with disability – it wants to fix it. With my partner, Kris, being a wheelchair user, I have a problem with that!

I believe fiction should provide role models and characters with which the reader can empathise rather than sympathise. If these characters are disabled, this should not be the focus. It should simply be an aspect of a character’s life, not their defining trait.

Above all, fiction should not attempt to ‘fix’ disability. It’s all too tempting to do this in futuristic sci-fi, simply because it’s the way technology is progressing and it requires less imagination to deal with. Prosthetics will become like real limbs, many medical problems will be solved and genetic therapy will cure many debilitating conditions.

Fixing disability tells readers that it is a negative. Disabled readers can feel betrayed if characters they enjoy suddenly lose their disability.

Instead, fiction should show positive ways in which disability can be dealt with creatively, or give characters insights or ways of solving problems that their non-disabled counterparts may not have.

Time to redress the balance

Inspired by my partner, who has a degenerative knee condition, I set about writing a novel to redress the balance. In ‘Synthesis:Weave’ I introduce Aryx Trevarian, a double amputee wheelchair user.

Aryx doesn’t feel as though he has to adapt to fit in with society. Society should adapt to accommodate him – and quite right, too! There aren’t only humans in the story, but a variety of alien body shapes and capabilities, and certainly no excuse not to put ramps and elevators everywhere.

A man sits in a wheelchair with holographic prosthetic legs and an alien looking device sitting on his lap
A promo image of Aryx, the disabled character in Synthesis:Weave

Fiction is all about tension, conflict, and plot twists. Conflict can be internal or external, emotional or physical and arises from a character’s desires being at odds with the reality of what they can achieve. If a character achieves their goals easily, there’s no conflict. If they do it quickly, there’s no tension.

With Aryx as an amputee wheelchair user, I knew there would be plenty of conflict and challenges that he would face on his journey. He’s comfortable in his role as an engineer, but his desire to do more would collide with his capabilities when a greater burden is placed upon him. Even though his home environment is adapted to his needs, he is aware that if he wishes to go farther afield he must change himself. To this end, he develops a prosthetic backpack that has its own drawbacks.

If I fixed his disability, readers would no longer relate to him, nor be able to see him as a realistic inspiration for them to overcome their own challenges. So whilst he can use his prosthetics in certain circumstances, he still uses his wheelchair throughout the book.

Don’t make assumptions

If you’re a writer wishing to use disability in a story, rather than make assumptions about disabilities and their impact on daily life as many people do, it’s important to get feedback from people living with those conditions, ensuring you can push boundaries without being insensitive. Ask people how they may deal with certain situations – you may be surprised at the creative and interesting ways people adapt.

I discovered this myself whilst writing the short story Synthesis:Pioneer, in which I had to pay special attention to all of the sensory descriptions I could use.

Above all, write with respect, give strong role models and provide an experience that is enjoyable for everyone.

To find out more about the Synthesis series, follow Deane on Twitter or like his Facebook page. You can also head to Deane’s website to find out more about his books.

Deane is currently working on the sequel to ‘Synthesis:Weave’ which he hopes will be finished late 2017 to early 2018. In the meantime, you can read the short story, ‘Synthesis:Pioneer’, free on Amazon.