McGuire on Allan, 'Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure'

Kathryn Allan, ed.
Coreen McGuire

Kathryn Allan, ed. Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 217 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-34342-0.

Reviewed by Coreen McGuire (University of Leeds) Published on H-Disability (July, 2017) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison

Disability in Science Fiction, an edited collection of twelve essays, focuses on the use of technology as cure for disability in science fiction. This kind of collection is long overdue. Science fiction’s focus on extraordinary bodies, use of prostheses, and technological enhancements seems to invite consideration from a disability studies perspective. That this publication is the first to acknowledge this connection demonstrates the growing strength and maturity of disability studies, still a relatively young field. The book is split into three sections, each of four chapters. The section themes are theorizing disability in science fiction, human boundaries and prosthetic bodies, and cure narratives for the (post)human future. However, the focus on prosthetic assistive devices recurs throughout the chapters, and it makes sense for this to be reflected in the collection’s subtitle, Representations of Technology as Cure, such is its entrenchment in the various narratives.

The interdisciplinary nature of this collection is evident with individual authors borrowing from Marxist critiques, gender studies, literature, queer theory, and discourses around race and passing. The science fiction texts under consideration are mainly books or short stories, although film and television are also utilized. Some of these texts, such as The Bionic Woman (1976-78), Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo (1986), and The Man in the Maze (1968), feature disability as a major subtext, while others, such as in Star Wars (1980) or How to Train Your Dragon (2010), the connection is less obvious yet a fruitful engagement is demonstrated. Indeed, Leigha McReynold’s analysis of disability in How to Train Your Dragon and Avatar (2009) offers a particularly original and subtle analysis of what she terms an “amborg” (animal prosthetic relationship). Although most authors use one or two science fiction texts as the basis for their arguments, others move more widely to debate disability in science fiction as a genre. The chapters that engage with a particular text are especially engaging, and unfamiliarity with the stories should not deter potential readers, as all the writers are careful to bring in brief plot analysis and carefully chosen quotations. In many instances, the reader finishes a chapter stimulated to revisit it after then reading the text under consideration—or watching the screen production.

The collection of essays is well balanced and varied, although there is an emphasis on physical disabilities. With the exception of Howard Sklar’s thoughtful critique of Flowers for Algernon (1959), which considers intellectual disability, there is no full chapter devoted to sensory or cognitive disabilities. Hearing loss is briefly mentioned in Ria Cheyne’s fascinating review of disability as a generic marker in Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo, but sensory loss is given noticeably less consideration than limb loss. It is also surprising that transhumanism is not considered in this collection.

Each chapter explicitly critiques the medical model of disability as technology is seen as failing to cure. The central message of the book invites readers to consider how science fiction allows us to imagine disability in the future in order that we gain new perspectives on how we currently think about disabilities. While many of the texts under consideration function as warnings against the medical model and the advancement of science, the overwhelming message is a positive one. This collection encourages us to think more creatively about disability and technologies, and challenges the reader to realize the future potential for the disabled body.

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Citation: Coreen McGuire. Review of Allan, Kathryn, ed., Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017. URL:

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