Young People Read Old SFF

A Matter of Proportion

Anne Walker

Young People Read Old SFF

16 Dec, 2019

In general, classic SF wasn’t particularly interested in fiction about the disabled, except perhaps as a first step towards a new life as brain-a-jar piloting a space ship or a cyborg covert operative, or to justify testing Phillips’ experimental regeneration treatment on a Lensman. In A Matter of Proportion, Walker focuses on the challenges facing a disabled individual in a world not particularly invested in accommodating their needs. Anne Walker is an author new to me, one I discovered thanks to Rediscovery, Volume 1. This story convinced me I need to seek out more of her work.

Will my Young Readers be quite so positive?

Rediscovery, Volume 1 is available for order here. 

ambyr I have read it now and am on team, Huh, I need to think about that a bit.” This is the first story in the collection that I am surprised has not been reprinted more widely — or discussed; I’ve read a fair amount of academic criticism about portrayals of disability in science fiction, but I’ve never heard this story so much as mentioned.

Joe This is perhaps what I expected to find in an anthology of 50s and 60s sff in its base speculation, insofar as the story revolves around positing technology which is even today well into the realm of science fiction — the brain transplant and the ICEG — and yet the setting doesn’t appear to have some much more basic technologies.
So despite medical technology advancing to the point of brain transplant, there don’t appear to be any mobility aids that Edwin Scott can use — even the spikes on his shoes are custom-built. And institutional accommodation for disability is similarly nonexistent — no lifts, no ramps…
It feels like there is more scope in the story for a commentary on this neglect of disabled people’s needs as important, but it never quite goes there.

ambyr This felt to me as though Walker wanted first and foremost to write a story about what I today would call the social model of disability – about the way society unnecessarily creates barriers for disabled people, barriers that could easily be addressed if able-bodied people had any awareness or empathy, forcing disabled people into heroic measures to accomplish simple tasks, measures society doesn’t even recognize until they’re recontextualized in a manner more relatable to able-bodied people. Science fiction is the tool she chose to do that, but it’s not a core feature of the story. There’s something particularly saddening, I think, in the fact that Walker felt she needed ICEG (a technology that lets you feel other people’s experiences as your own, in real-time or in recording) for her able-bodied character to understand and sympathize with her disabled character. The brain transplant feels even more like an afterthought, a technology she has no interest in exploring beyond the fact that it makes her thought experiment of comparing the societal response to the actions of disabled and able-bodied people possible, and that’s unfortunate because there’s a whole lot to unpack about a White man’s brain being transplanted into a person of color’s body. (Also treated as a complete afterthought: the geopolitics of the situation. The Invaders don’t even get a name or motive.) I appreciated the story as an early example of a theme still being actively explored in science fiction today, addressing an issue still sadly prevalent in society. And I also appreciated its craft; the pacing is unusual but still gripping, the characters sympathetic, and there are worlds of interesting backstory in single throw-away sentences. (Tell me more about Operation Seed-Corn, Walker!) But I am really curious why Walker decided on science fiction as her tool of choice, and I wish there were interviews on record with her.

Gavin This is definitely a weird one. It’s both fantastically descriptive of physical movements, and also hard to follow and visualize those movements. Not sure if that’s a failure on my part or the story’s part. I can picture the shimmying up the beam part perfectly, but climbing the steps is something I have no frame of reference for, and thus have extreme difficulty visualizing.

Kris I think Ambyr reflected a lot of my feelings about this well. I appreciated what Walker was trying to do but not sure it quite worked. It was interesting to decide to explore these themes, particularly before they were being really addressed in mainstream politics.
One other interesting feature was the way language was used in order to convey the different speech patterns. Again not sure if it worked as well as I would have liked but interesting to see it tried.

Travis Mirroring what others are saying, I think the exploration of disability is what stood out to me about this story. The brain transplant was an interesting concept, but I don’t feel it was a good fit for the disability theme. It’s sad that a story addressing how society treats disabled vs abled individuals is still so original” today. While there are brilliant stories out there now that tackle this, the status quo in SFF literature still pushes disabled people to the fringes.

ambyr If I was assembling a reprint anthology on disability and science fiction, I would definitely include this.

Kris That would be an excellent anthology and would definitely read it.

ambyr If you want non-reprint anthologies, there’s Accessing the Future and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction.

Travis Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is incredible. There are a lot of great essays and poetry included with the fiction.

ambyr But neither is taking on the project of examining shifting depictions over time, which would be a cool project.

Kris Yeah I have read both of those they are great. Would just like one that draws on the history of the genre too.

ambyrClearly we need to read more old stories so we can assemble it!

Kris Anthologisers ASSEMBLE!

JoeI’ve read some of Disabled People Destroy… but not Accessing the Future — I’ll have to look into that

Joe (I’d also love to know what else is in your hypothetical reprint anthology, ambyr!)

ambyr I don’t know, that’s why I need to read more!

ambyr Probably some problematic stuff, like the original The Ship Who Sang story.

ambyr Flowers for Algernon.

Kris A Miles Vorkosigan short story would probably fit.

ambyr Yeah, that would be good.

Nina I read an article a while ago about how science fiction often doesn’t include disabled characters at all, because it assumes that advances in medicine will simply render disability non-existent. Of course, this means people with disabilities don’t get to see themselves represented in the genre. I was pleasantly surprised to see a story from so long ago that not only includes a disabled character as a central figure, but also shows what would be a mundane task for an able-bodied person from his point of view. I would have liked more information about the war that was going on in the first part of the story, though. As Ambyr said, we don’t know anything at all about the other side of the conflict.