Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Jacob Topp-Mugglestone of Drying Ink

There are a few things I don’t do well so I don’t think I’ve ever done them on my blog. One of those things is opinion pieces. I’m not good at them. I don’t think I’ve ever written a list of things people should be paying attention to, or discussed what elements of fantasy I wish I saw more of. I never have, and I don’t know if I ever will, but I am always envious of the people who are smart enough to put together thoughtful, in depth discussions of aspects of speculative fiction I wasn’t clever enough to think of. Jacob of Drying Ink is one of those people who is very good at opinions and voicing them in such a way that they provoke thought rather than offend. That’s a real talent. Coupled with his outstanding reviews, his blog is really something to pay attention to.

Drying Ink is one of those blogs that I’m really envious of. Not only does Jacob do wonderful reviews, but he has some pretty clever and entertaining features and regularly discusses some aspect of speculative fiction that I hadn’t ever even thought of before. Basically, Jacob is far too clever for his own good, and I’ll be eternally jealous of him for that. His blog is wonderful and thought provoking. I really think that if you haven’t been there yet, you need to put it on your radar. Jacob is one of those quieter voices in the blogosphere who constantly pumps out high quality, in depth content that puts bloggers like me to shame.

So, without further ado, I’ll let Jacob have the stage.

About the author

Jacob Topp-Mugglestone blogs over at Drying Ink on all things SFF – articles, reviews, and more recently, aerial piranhas. He lives in the UK, is firmly on the hardcopy-preferable side of the Great Ebook Debate (despite owning a Kindle), and has recently enjoyed novels by Anne Lyle, Robert J Bennett, and just about anyone else.

About an ignored issue…

Disability is a universal issue – and unfortunately, almost universally ignored by the SFF genre. Yes, there are exceptions: but just how many disabled protagonists can you name? I’m guessing it’s not more than a couple. In fact, just finding protagonists with lasting injuries can be difficult. And no, I don’t count scars-as-ornamentation (much as I love Rothfuss’ writing, he’s a prime example of this). This trend has been understandable at times. (Outside Discworld, how many ‘barbarian heroes’ could fight from wheelchairs?) But SFF has moved on in terms of content and – to me – this attitude is no longer so comprehensible. Especially since disabled protagonists can be carried off so well, in the form of those exceptions I mentioned earlier. Well, this is my attempt to talk about one of said exceptions (I may also praise it. I make no apologies for this!) – and thanks to Sarah for inviting me to write a guest post about it!

The exception in question is Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, and though she’s written other applicable works, I’ll mainly be talking about the Vorkosigan series (which I ran a read/review-through of earlier this year). Personally, I find it a fantastic example of how the protagonist’s disability can be handled – and, naturally, in the fact that having a hero who isn’t the traditional physical ideal doesn’t mean the novel becomes unenjoyable, or even focused around said difficulty.

For those who aren’t familiar with the series, it’s essentially character-driven space opera , though often becomes far more than that – and its unusual protagonist is Miles Vorkosigan. The son of a great man (to Barrayarans – the brutal ‘Butcher of Komarr’ to the rest of the galaxy), Miles was born short, deformed, and with exceedingly brittle bones. So much that a fall from a fence leaves him with one broken during his military entrance exam. (Needless to say, he didn’t pass) It’s a physical deformity on a planet where mutation is a historical taboo, and though not the focus of the series, many of Miles’ actions require him to confront that prejudice. It’s something I particularly enjoy about the series: aside from being, y’ know, enjoyable, it’s also somewhat of a character study, following Miles over a considerable portion of his life. And true to reality, there is prejudice – and how his reaction to this changes is fascinating. It also makes several very good points about the nature of changing these attitudes –not least that it’s not only overt action that’s necessary. That’s one point in its favour.

That’s not to say the novels are focused around his disability. Exactly the opposite, in fact – which helps the series avoid the second major fallacy of these things. In giving a protagonist a particular trait, it can’t be forgotten that a character must be more than just this trait! Miles is physically disabled, yes, but that doesn’t define his character. He’s manic-depressive, a brilliant planner, and determined to succeed despite his handicap – a much more interesting way to give a character agency, rather than having them simply defined by an inability. To my mind, this is a hard trap to avoid – but Bujold manages it. Miles’ personality has partly been shaped by his restricting disability, yes: but he’s also, for instance, the son of a ‘great man’ – and there are far more influences upon his character than the physical.

Miles also succeeds despite his disability.  When reading one of the (many) sequences in which Miles walks into a mess, and through some feat of cunning, manipulation – or just plain cheating – manages to turn the situation around, I can guarantee the last thing you’ll be thinking is that he has brittle bones. Yes, he is hindered in certain situations – but he’s far from the passive, pitied side characters (who at best inspire the protagonists to action – and at worse, turn out an easy ‘kick the dog’ moment for the villain) to which poorly handled disabled characters can be relegated. To my mind, Bujold handles this balance extremely well – not to mention enjoyably. Fun reads that aren’t guilty pleasures? Count me in. This isn’t to say he’s an action hero, or even that he should be. Just that these sorts of characters shouldn’t be passive. In a genre where every character is a pulp action hero, this could be understandable – but SFF has moved far away from that. I would venture that in the modern genre a good number of protagonists aren’t incredibly martially skilled (although I’ve read disabled characters who were), so there really is no excuse. Your hero doesn’t have to be able to jump-kick a Martian across New York to be interesting.

Really.

To me, Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is a perfect example of balanced handling of disability in SFF: possessing a disabled protagonist without making said hero just a disability, confronting him with not just historical prejudice but also acceptance (speaking as a reviewer, a world entirely hostile to the protagonist can become just as tedious as one which exists to serve him/her), and most of all – allowing him to earn success – not just be granted it by authorially contrived coincidence. It might not be a series which revolves around disability, but it’s nevertheless impressively handled.

Unfortunately, there’s a drawback – that one small word, ‘exception’. Because it is one, and it shouldn’t be.

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You can find Jacob on Twitter (of course). And, as I mentioned above, if you haven’t visited his blog yet, I suggest you do. Jacob pumps out some outstanding insights, reviews and opinion pieces about speculative fiction. Put him on your radar. He’s worth watching.

One Responses

  1. SF Tidbits for 5/29/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog  May 28, 2012

    […] Bookworm Blues (Jacob Topp-Mugglestone) on Special Needs in Strange Worlds. […]

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