About the Author
As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.
There’s a real appetite for fresh angles in speculative fiction these days. From Saladin Ahmed’s Middle-Eastern influenced take on the classic fantasy adventure yarn, to Nnedi Okorafor’s African themes to China Mieville’s fearless examination of homosexual protagonists and the underclass of the political revolutionary. There’s still plenty of room for the straight, able-bodied, white male in speculative fiction, but critical acclaim paints a picture of an increasingly diverse readership with a growing appreciation of a wider range of perspectives.
This is a very, very good thing. The whole point of the genre is to push the envelope, to break from the boundaries of the real world and be truly free to explore our imaginations. I’ve heard it said that speculative fiction is the language of ideas, and I think that’s a great way to put it. Ideas are limitless, and so should the vocabulary we use to encompass them.
I wrote a blog post for Chuck Wendig a while back on why I felt there was a recent surge in interest in flawed, even “bad guy” protagonists. The bottom line of that piece was that I felt that readers have a tougher time relating to the saints of classical fantasy. Frodo Baggins, Wil Ohmsford and Bink are all far too perfect to be fully relatable to a post 9/11 audience. We have come to see ourselves reflected in media that finally understands that to be a protagonist, one need not be a hero. Writers are beginning to tap into the ultimate resonant chord in everyone: That we are weak, that we are broken, that we are desperate to repair/heal/forgive ourselves to a point where we can see the good we do in the world outweigh the bad.
So it isn’t surprising that we’re just now beginning to see what I hope will be more robust examinations of disability in fantasy. I’m not surprised to see that it’s still in it’s infancy. Issues of race, gender and sexual equality have taken center stage in our nation’s politics for decades now. We are only just now beginning to pull ourselves out of a centuries long dark-age of oppressing homosexuals, but the day appears to finally be here, when at least on a legal level, we take another step toward embracing our own national vision of true equality.
Disability is a conversation I don’t see getting the same degree of media attention by a long shot. The Veteran’s Affairs department, in a disturbingly concrete statement on our national priorities, has experienced a 2000% percent increase in claims backlogs over the last four years. We are only just beginning to see real changes in accessibility to public transportation, in permitting military service to those with disabilities, in taking workplace accommodations seriously.
I’ve often pondered why this is the case, why there isn’t a national conversation as loud and as vigorous as the one we’re so recently having on marriage equality. I don’t have the answer, other than the quiet shame I see in the faces of veterans who return from war missing limbs, or with trauma that impairs brain function. These are people who have always taken their unfettered participation in society for granted, only to find it suddenly . . . not snatched away, but restricted, hemmed in by barricades made just as often by sympathetic head shaking as an inability to climb stairs.
I’m an idealist. I believe that righteousness is like a weed. You can pave over it, but it will grow relentlessly, inch by inch, until it chews through the thickest concrete. If, just five years ago, you’d told me that we’d stop oppressing homosexuals in the military I love so much, I’d have shaken my head and sighed at your naiveté. But, here we are.
I think we will take disability more and more seriously as the years wear on, investing the money necessary to develop truly enabling prosthetics and therapies, taking mental health treatment seriously enough to make it as unstigmatized and easily available as treatment for hypertension. I think we will realize that a missing leg no longer precludes someone from jobs involving walking or standing. I think we’ll come to believe that public transportation that takes 3-4 times as long for the disabled isn’t truly accessible.
We will come to a place where we no longer see these things as “disabilities,” and instead as differences. Things that simply put us in the world in different ways, and that demand the same basic respect that compels us to give up our seat on a crowded bus to the elderly or a person burdened with heavy bags. Because humans are social animals, and a society is, at it’s root, a collective of individuals working together to help one another.
Otherwise, why live together at all?
And I think speculative fiction will catch up too. Because the reading public is tuned to the zeitgeist, and so are writers. We’ll demand it. We’re seeing it already, in Jamie Lannister’s missing hand. In San Dan Glokta’s broken body. In Abban’s twisted leg. And even more expansively, in Cersei Lannister’s sexual dysmorphia. In Ferro Maljin’s PTSD induced insanity. In the Warden’s functional drug addiction.
It’s not happening nearly fast enough, but it’s happening.
And that means a broader range of touchstones readers of all stripes can connect to, more opportunities to see oneself reflected in a protagonist and to have that revelatory moment that saved my life so many times. “If they can, well, maybe so can I.”
And that’s a very good thing, indeed.