The fantastic genres are ideally suited to represent the complex issues of identity politics and thus have been used in a form of cultural activism to shape our perspective of how contemporary and future society might function. Beyond the more dominant sphere of gender, sexuality, and race, though, there is another aspect of human embodied existence that is generally used as to describe identity: that of disability, which is popularly seen as an absolute category and culturally strongly tied in with the concept of normalcy (Davis 1). The fantastic has always been a field of cultural representation that allowed for discourses around the idea of normalcy in that it asks what constitutes the human and what pushes its boundaries. Different embodiments abound in fantastic stories, as prominent examples such as Mary Shelley’s creature, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gollum, or George A. Romero’s hordes of zombies can attest to. But as with race or gender, the cultural representation of (dis)ability has not been without controversy, this is as true for realist literature as it is for the fantastic. While the fantastic „has long explored deviant and disabled bodies“ and is inhabited by characters „whose embodiments are situated along the entire spectrum of ability“ (Allan 2), the kind of representation that these bodies experience is often problematic. As Elsa Sjunneson and Dominik Parisien claim: „disabled people have been discarded from the narrative, cured, rejected, villainized“ (n. p.). Fantastic fictions, they argue, open the potential for marginalized people to claim their existence, in past, present, and future: „to explore concerns and realities in the present and amplify them, correct them, highlight the ways they might become better or worse“ (n. p.). But in order to do so, (dis)ability issues should not be erased from the narrative worlds of the fantastic. That is, impairments should not simply be cured ‚away‘ via magic or technological progress, leaving a world in which impairment either does not exist or is a medical ‚problem‘ to be solved.
This medical model assumes that disability is an individualized experience of bodily limitations due to impairment, which causes that person pain and suffering and which needs to be alleviated through medical intervention (Waldschmidt 73). In contrast, more recent (dis)ability studies scholarship employs the social model of (dis)ability, which sees (dis)ability as an exclusion or mistreatment of different embodiment in social contexts and differentiates between social exclusion (disability) and medical condition (impairment). This shifts the burden of addressing (dis)ability from the individual to society (ibid. 79–80). An extension of this social model can be found in the cultural model, which argues that social practices of exclusion are based in a specific culture of representations of (dis)ability and that (dis)ability is a way to negotiate categories of deviance and normalcy (ibid. 86–87) via culture. According to Tobin Siebers, then, a social and cultural approach to (dis)ability studies is interested in „the social meanings, symbols, and stigmas attached to disability identity and asks how they relate to enforced systems of exclusion and expression“ (4). Moreover, approaching literature through such a lens is an important shift of critical perspective. Disability has long been used as a literary device, as metaphor to comment on the disabled character or the nature of the narrative world—it has been used as „narrative prosthesis,“ that is „as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight“ (Mitchell and Snyder 49). Barker and Murray argue: „the plasticity of the ways in which literary texts make meaning—the combination of (among others) formal aesthetics, characterization, generic afﬁliation, and narrative playfulness – creates rich webs of content“ (10). That is, each text generates meaning of (dis)ability through its employed imagery and metaphors, its narrative descriptions, as well as its generic conventions and histories.
With its narrative focus on „the future, other worlds, altered pasts, and altered present periods,“ the fantastic is especially able to „shift, challenge, and play on what readers expect of bodyminds and reveal how such expectations shape definitions of (dis)ability, race, and gender“ (Schalk, Bodyminds 18). The fantastic genres by default already challenge our notions of normalcy. In addition, though, the fantastic „does not purport to directly reflect reality; rather, speculative fiction brings aspects of reality into newly constructed worlds in which realist rules regarding time, space, bodyminds, abilities, and behaviors need not be followed“ (ibid. 21). It is this ability to explore difference that makes the fantastic such an important resource for (dis)ability studies. The fantastic allows for free expression of (dis)ability, but it also restricts this freedom through the constraints of generic conventions—that is, the demands of genre weigh on how (dis)ability is represented, which images, language, and metaphors are employed (Cheyne 185). This is especially important as, in the fantastic genres more than others, images and concepts are often derived from reference to images and concepts that came before. As Ria Cheyne has pointed out: „The literary inheritance of today’s genre ﬁction is a complex and shifting network of rules, conventions, tropes, and motifs including those directly affecting the depiction of disability. Identifying and examining these conventions opens up new insights into the workings of genres, as well as into disability’s literary history“ (186).
Conventions of Representing Disability
To shortly explore the idea of genre conventions and the representation of (dis)ability outside of the ideals of the progressive fantastic, I want to turn to one of German SF’s more traditional authors mentioned in the introduction. In Sterne in Asche [Stars in Ash] (2014), Uwe Post describes the apocalyptic event of all the stars in the universe slowly losing their energy and dying out. The novel is a space opera, set in a galactic empire and utilizing a variety of alien characters with a broad scope of different bodies and minds. Among these aliens are Leskorians, small humanoids whose adult stage is no larger than a Terran child. Post makes use of several different narrative perspectives to tell of five days during the end of times, but interjects them with chronologically backward moving chapters titled „Flashback — Constitution:Zero“ which are focalized on the character Constitution:Zero, a Leskorian woman whose physical body is described as „a head and cleavage“ (50) or just „a torso, fixed with life-sustaining machinery made of plastic and metal“ (134). She moves by using a six-wheeled platform and mental controls. The Memento-like storytelling, moving backwards from present to past as Constitution:Zero learns about her own history, while the other chapters move forward in time allows Post to introduce the character and her personal quest to understand her own existence and slowly reveal the unusual story of why she is a quadruple amputee. As we learn in the final chapter, Constitution:Zero is actually named Kaalon and used to be the high priestess of a cult that worshipped the apocalypse. As such, she was persecuted and hunted by the governing force, the New Council, who eventually succeeded in pinning her down. Instead of death, though, Kaalon chose to have her arms and legs amputated to be light enough for a war drone to carry her out of the conflict zone.
The depiction of (dis)ability and the amputee character especially are problematic on several levels, though, and markedly differ from the inclusive and empowering representation delivered by the progressive fantastic. First, the story of Kaalon/Constitution:Zero is limited to her status as disabled, as each flashback concentrates on events that have to do with her amputee status: an encounter with a fan that brings her a memory chip, starting the process of her remembering her origin story; a memory of an attack on a black market for people with modifications, where she was caught in the crossfire while trying to buy used, cheap, artificial limbs; a memory of the trial for inciting public disorder, which left her unable to buy prosthesis due to her debts in legal fees; a memory of a rehabilitation clinic, where she fell in love with another reconvalescent during her healing process; and finally, the memory of the attack, in which she gave the drone the order to amputate her limbs and carry her to safety. The backwards order of events and the elliptic and somewhat opaque narrative make it seem as if Constitution:Zero’s amputee status was ordered by the court as a form of cruel and unusual punishment, highlighting even more how the story treats her (dis)ability as a grotesque form of exoticism. Even her name, Constitution:Zero, is based on the amputation, announced by the drone as it cuts off her limbs and monitors her overall constitution, which drops with every limb that is severed („Constitution: One. Death is imminent. Operation progress: 75%“; 189), ending in a repeated refrain of „Constitution: Zero“ (190; 165).
Further, the novel’s tone is slightly satiric, placing ridicule on its characters and their attempt to deal with the imminent end of the universe. In the case of a devil-may-care sports star and his overzealous fan, this ridicule works to satirize their late-stage capitalist disinterest in the apocalypse. Constitution:Zero, though, is ridiculed and even makes self-deprecating comments, so as to balance out her status as heavily impaired. First, most characters in the story treat Leskorians in general, but Constitution:Zero especially, as children due to their child-like appearance. For example, the first scene in which we meet Constitution:Zero is set in a toy store, where the narrative compares her to the toys around: „Some of those robodolls and dinonurses were bigger and heavier than she was. Than what was left of her, since…“ (49). That she is treated as a child, or worse an object, is further made clear by several characters handling her like a doll, picking her up, placing her on higher objects so that she can see or is seen: „only the table seemed to be improvised. Maybe someone thought it would be inappropriate to simply set a torso on the ground“ (135). But not only does the story satirize Constitution:Zero’s child-like body, it also pushes the idea of a medical model of disability in that it highlights the amputation as an individual problem that can be solved by medical intervention, a solution available in technological augmentation. In line with this, there are instances when Constitution:Zero is described as lacking parts of a ‚normal‘ body: „A complete human would have noticed a spike in adrenaline this instant. Constitution:Zero’s base frame did not have the necessary functions for that. It did not have an adrenal medulla“ (76).
Lastly, Constitution:Zero and her (dis)ability are conforming to the generic conventions of early cyberpunk, which Post satirically incorporates into his apocalyptic scenario in the form of modders, a kind of old-school movement of self-improvement, which stands in contrast to genetic engineering and other technologies. „Modder: Person that has electronic or digital gadgets on or integrated into their body. The rest of the world thinks of modders as hopelessly backwards and marked for extinction“ (56). Most cyberpunk follows a transhumanist philosophy, arguing that the biological body is limited and needs to be overcome for human potential to be fully actualized: „Cyberpunk appeals to the (impossible) desire to escape the vicissitudes of the body and occupy the place of self-mastery“ (Vint 104). The body is mere meat that needs to be controlled and made better. Similarly, in the novel, modder characters conform to the idea of the ‚meat‘ as something to be replaced with better equipment: „I don’t have any real legs anymore either. They were a hassle, really“ (49); „It is the microstructure of my replacement skin, which looks that way. Not bad, is it? Better than before“ (165). In the novel, Constitution:Zero and her origin story complicate this view, as she is never granted full autonomy over the kind of augmentations that she can use, but in general, modding as a transhumanist solution to the perceived lack of biological bodies is a comment on the medical cure for impairments and thus a rather overcome view on issues of (dis)ability. While the overall tone of the novel is satirical, it nonetheless conforms to a rather problematic perspective on (dis)ability. As the example shows, generic conventions of science fiction that view disabled bodies as either part of the cabinet of exotic and strange creatures (space opera) or as a medical problem to be solved via technological enhancement (cyberpunk) are not ideally suited to represent (dis)ability issues in a way that enhances social awareness or allows empowerment. Aiming to better represent marginalized groups and reflect an awareness of difference, signalling towards a more open society, the progressive fantastic thus emphasizes a different position on the representation of disability. The inclusion of characters with bodyminds beyond the abled norm is a relatively common feature in the narratives of the progressive fantastic. What is interesting to note is the variance of differently-abled bodyminds and the breadth of issues from (dis)ability studies that is addressed. In the following, I want to give a short overview of some of the variable notions of (dis)ability and how the progressive fantastic handles them, before delving into two longer case studies to give a detailed account of the positive representation of (dis)ability.
Progressive Fantastic and Disability
In his high fantasy, Das Erbe der Elfenmagierin (2021), James A. Sullivan includes the character of Daludred, a young nobleman who can be read as neurodivergent, because he is on his way to become a powerful oracle. His ability is untrained, which means that his family is skeptical about his clairvoyance, hinting at it only in whispers, always suggesting the boy might be awkward, weird, strange. It is mentioned that he could think „dozens of moves ahead“ (114) in a strategy game and was weirdly obsessed with oracles. In the novel, he is described as hyperfocused on gaining knowledge, ignoring food and passion, instead spending hours upon hours reading. He is rather inept at interacting socially, a strong impairment for a nobleman with high social expectations resting on him. He needs time to get to know people, is described as naive and somewhat too trusting. When he finally manages to harness his latent magical power and comes into his own, he grows in confidence. This is especially helped along by his lovers, the fighter Jerudana and the elven scholar Ardoas, both of whom accept Daludred’s neurodivergence and his differently abled bodymind and fully trust his (clairvoyant) decisions on where to travel next. Overall, the story positively reinforces the idea that each person’s bodymind is able, just in very different ways. It embraces such difference and celebrates it.
In Wasteland (2019) and its sequel Laylayland (2022), Judith and Christian Vogt’s protagonist Zeeto has a bipolar disorder, which the novels portray in detail, showing both his mania and depression and all the consequences either condition has. In a postapocalyptic world, Zeeto lives in a community that accepts difference, in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and bodyminds. When, during a manic episode, he decides to wander off into the wasteland, he discovers a hidden bunker, finds an abandoned child that he adopts and catches the so-called wasteland plague. Thus, in addition to his shifting moods and energy levels, he also has a form of biohazard contagion that will diminish his physical body, draining his life until he dies. Zeeto’s manic phases are portrayed as full of life and ideas. He is willing to fight off the plague, wants to raise Mtoto, the foundling child, with his partner Laylay. During his depressed phases, though, he is full of despair, ready to drop down and die, wishing only to be less of a burden to Laylay and his family. Especially in Laylayland, where the wasteland plague has progressed in him, the novels further emphasize the interconnection between physical and mental aspects, highlighting how Zeeto’s conditions cancel each other out or compound each other depending on the phase of his bipolarity. Zeeto’s (dis)ability forces him to realize how his life hinges on the energy levels that he has each day and that because of this preexisting condition he is more likely to have less energy left for other aspects of his life—here, the novel highlights the idea of crip time.
Ace in Space (2020), also written by Judith and Christian Vogt, is a swashbuckling space adventure whose main actors are a gang of space pilots, the Daredevils, who take on daunting jobs for fame and money. Former corporate fighter pilot Danai joins the gang and soon becomes the gang’s new hotshot—holding her own in dogfights and races alike. In the steep hierarchies of both corporation and gang, Danai needs to assert her dominance, especially in verbal altercations. But Danai has a stutter and is unable to sound out certain phonemes, especially when in social situations that call for quick wit and repartee. The novel emphasizes the setting as especially toxic and pressured, rankings and competition as the norm for both the gangs and the corporations. But it also shows Danai’s coping mechanisms and how she conquers her new social terrain by perseverance. Importantly, the representation of the speech impediment breaks with literary clichés, as Danai is a leader and a fighter. Her stutter is not a sign of weakness or meakness, it is not a literary metaphor for lack of confidence and it is not made fun off, neither by characters nor by the narration itself.
And Melanie Vogltanz’s dystopian novel Shape Me (2019) is centered around questions of embodiment, fatness, and chronic illness. The novum of the novel is a technology that allows the swapping of bodies and minds in a world that is dominated by the ideals of health and a striving for the ‚correct‘ body weight. In the dystopian society, citizens are allocated a daily calorie regimen, which is used as a form of payment to buy foods. Authoritarian surveillance is used to measure any action against the state’s ideals of a healthy and slim body. Ironically, the technology is strictly regulated and mainly used to allow rich customers to lose weight by swapping bodies with a professional trainer that will do the ‚hard work‘ for them. There are two main story lines that each deal with aspects of a wider definition of (dis)ability. On the one hand, there is Nena Jean, whose identity and body get stolen by another woman, suffering from a chronic and ultimately deadly illness. The novel emphasizes how chronic illness means losing a body, how the impairments restrict life choices and how the onset of illness can feel to the person as if their body (and their future) were stolen from them. On the other hand, the story of Tess Trimm, a personal fitness trainer trapped in the body of an overweight customer because the swapping technology was stolen, deals with the social and personal discrimination due to fatness. What the novel makes explicit here is the hatred and marginalization that fatness produces, thus showing it as a (dis)ability issue and commenting on the harsh psychological impact that fat shaming has. The novel is not subtle in this, and the tone of the representation is not body-positive, but through the satirical critique of the dystopian world pushes against the idea of (self)-hatred of fatness and the glorification of the fitness ideal.
As these examples show, the progressive fantastic has a strong awareness for (dis)ability issues and emphasizes the importance of representation of differently-abled bodyminds. Key for a more inclusive society, accepting of difference in bodymind ability, is thus to culturally challenge normative thinking and realize the breadth of what (dis)ability means. The texts mentioned here are examples of including stories about (dis)ability, challenging conventions and existing metaphors for dealing with (dis)ability, and instead providing new narratives and images that embrace difference and allow for (dis)ability to thrive in its own ways. In the following, I want to explore in more detail the potential of the progressive fantastic to address issues of (dis)ability in two case studies.
Case Study 1: The Short Fiction of Lena Richter
For my first case study of (dis)ability, I want to turn to debut author Lena Richter, who is yet to publish her first novel, but whose short fiction often emphasizes different aspects of (dis)ability. Richter strongly identifies with the ideals of the progressive fantastic and in her activism for both LGBTQ- and disability rights is closely connected with Judith Vogt, with whom she co-edits the magazine Queer*Welten and co-hosts the Genderswapped podcast. I am reading Richter’s short stories „Das Innerste der Welt,“ „Feuer,“ and „3,78 LifePoints“ through the lens of (dis)ability. Richter’s stories explore a range of (dis)ability topics: the reality of living with chronic illness and the price it exerts on a lived reality, the shifting definitions of (dis)ability and how markers of health and illness that are culturally defined by social contract, and how technologies open or close worlds of possibility within the range of (dis)ability.
The Innermost Thing of the World
In her story „Das Innerste der Welt“ („The Innermost Thing of the World“), Richter explores issues of chronic illness and loss through the metaphor of witchcraft. Jennifer, the protagonist, is part of a bloodline of witches, but has stopped learning about witchcraft as a young woman, due to a chronic illness that leaves her body drained of energy. When her cousin dies in a house fire, she is the last of the bloodline and it falls to her find the „innermost thing“ (75) of her family home to secure its magic before it spreads uncontrolledly. Arriving in the burnt out remains of the house she uses her rather restrained witchcraft to identify different objects and the memories connected with them to finally identify the essence of the house and secure its power. Central to the story is the idea that „magic comes with a price“ (74). It will leave its wielder physically depleted, as Jennifer explains (via the second person singular narrative perspective) when she remembers her aunt perform spells to find the essence of things: „When her work was done, your aunt looked pale, exhausted in a way that went beyond tiredness“ (75). Performing magic, the story suggests, takes a toll on the bodyminds of its users and thus marks them as (dis)abled: „No one in your family grew to old age“ (75).
Though chronic illness and disability can be argued to be separate conditions (cf. Wendell), I here follow an expansive definition that, as Alison Kafer argues, in terms of its social, political and cultural identity sees (dis)ability drawing on „collective affinities“ with other groups, from „people with learning disabilities to those with chronic illness, from people with mobility impairments to those with HIV/AIDS, from people with sensory impairments to those with mental illness“ (11). The story builds this connection by highlighting how both magic use and Jennifer’s chronic illness put excessive physical strains on her and limit her ability to function in expected ways/roles. Both the illness and her magic use have a relevant impact on her bodymind. When she first performs a spell, the bright light it generates hurts her eyes and she reflects: „Somehow you expected that magical light would be different, would find a way to not hit your damaged retina“ (77). Her damaged eyesight, in turn, is caused by the drug she takes to manage her chronic pain. In terms of the spectrum of (dis)ability, then, „medicine is not much different from magic. She is the wicked witch in tales of old that demands a price for every boon that she will grant you“ (77).
The focal point of the story is the idea of identity. Richter negotiates this by intersectionally connecting witchcraft, queerness, nationality, family relations, and chronic illness, and the discriminations that belong to the marginalized of those identities. By engaging in finding the essence of her family home, Jennifer moves through memories that inextricably link her family’s history with her own. As a person suffering from the physical impairments of chronic pain, fatigue, and limited mobility, though, each aspect is filtered through her (dis)abled identity. As Stuart Blume reminds us, (dis)ability issues always bring with them a form of embodiment: „We simultaneously experience our bodies and experience through our bodies“ (354). This is especially true for chronic pain. While in able-bodiedness, our body seems to disappear from our conscious thoughts, by „contrast the body reappears, though problematically, as it experiences pain. Though pain is internally experienced, it also rearranges our daily living: the ways in which we deal with space, with time, with others“ (Blume 354). In her story, Richter explores this renegotiated relation to space, time, and others by granting Jennifer a limited amount of energy supply that each aspect of her identity and the way it is discriminated against has demands upon. Her upbringing in the former GDR prompts (micro-)aggressions from her surroundings, ridicule for her accent, hatred about „your former home town being redeveloped“ (78) on her neighbor’s dime. Her relationship with a woman and the desire to adopt her partner’s child, which prompts bureaucratic hassle as their official status as „registered life partner“ is not a equal to a marriage: „Your wife, that you call your wife, even though she must not be“ (79). Her family of witches that she has to leave behind as her energy levels are too low to continue learning and practicing, „you only knew that your heart was too heavy and your bones were too soft“ (79). And the loss over her family that dies, leaving her the last of her bloodline: grandmother, mother, aunt, cousin—all dead.
The story makes clear that all aspects of Jennifer’s life are touched by her (dis)ability and the impairments of chronic fatigue and pain. She „has become a master in parceling out your energy, every day is meticulously organized“ as her „energy is an account with a high rate of interest, every overdraft will have to be paid in future installments“ (81). This refers to what critics like Margaret Price call „crip time,“ that is „a flexible approach to normative time frames“ in which (dis)ability structures the relation of time and space. In „Das Innerste der Welt,“ Jennifer needs to plan out her days, as she has no energy reserves to make spontaneous adjustments: „you have strategic planning sessions with your self, in the morning, when you wait for movement to return to your extremities“ (82). The story connects chronic pain and magic through crip time and its need for flexibility, as Jennifer’s magic abilities are as severely limited as her physical energy levels. As Ellen Samuels explains, „crip time is sick time,“ meaning that (dis)abled bodies do not function according to the „strange arithmetic“ of a 9-5 job, and that they were „attuned to my own physical state rather than the external routines of a society ordered around bodies that were not like mine“ (n. pag.). For Jennifer, this means that she cannot simply perform one potent spell, locating the essence of the house, but has to exhaust her power with a small spell that then bounces along from object to object, revealing its individual history. (Dis)ability here means having to wait out the little energy that is available, seeing the magic move along slowly and painfully (in both the literal and the figurative sense). As Alison Kafer argues, „Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires reimagining our notions of what can and should happen in time, or recognizing how expectations of ‚how long things take‘ are based on very particular minds and bodies“ (27). In the story, an able-bodied witch could find the innermost thing of the house „with just one spell,“ the „elegant sequence of words“, the „long fingers plucking cautiously“ (75), while Jennifer describes her own ability as „bumbling,“ and in need of a trick: casting a spell for auras and one that keeps perpetuating the original spell from object to object. This method takes time and is exhausting to the limited energy she has, but it works, showcasing how crip time is „a challenge to normative and normalizing expectations of pace and scheduling. Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds“ (Kafer 27). And even though Jennifer adheres to crip time, her impairments still cost her more energy than she planned for, exhausting her bodymind beyond her limits to find the essence of her family home—a seed that evokes the memory of her and her partner’s forming of a new family and makes her realize that all her identities are intersectional and connected, that her life is open to new potential: „All the spells have evaporated and you are you again. Just Jennifer, mother and daughter and somehow, yes a witch too, loved and happy and sad and ill, and alone in the ashes“ (86). In this, the story emphasizes that chronic illness is not separate or monolithical but that Jennifer’s crip identity, i.e. having to deal with the lived reality of chronic illness, impacts all other aspects of her life in many varied ways.
„Feuer“ (Engl. „Fire“) is harder to place in terms of genre, as the narrative world is far-future post-apocalyptic with remnants of high technology but also featuring aspects of folk lore and mythology. The story is about an encounter between teenage boy Tarnik and an Amazon warrior named Cyrix, who is being hunted by a stranger called a „renewer“ (26). Tarnik has run away from home and finds Cyrix in an abandoned building, wounded and unconscious. A fan of Amazons through popular stories and games, he bonds with the woman, before they are attacked and have to fend off Cyrix’s pursuer together. An important element of the story is the emotional and physical condition that Tarnik experiences and which is the reason for his running away in the first place. Tarnik, as the narrative voice, refers to this condition as „the Anger,“ an uncontrollable force that „drives me like the storm drives away a swarm of drone birds“ (21). The Anger seems to be both a physical and a mental condition, and the words he uses to describe it are negatively connoted, representative of his culture that defines it as a sickness: „The Anger in me was a monster with too many tentacles. They strangulated my gut, they let my body shiver with wrath, they balled up my hands into fists and let them lash out against walls and turn over tables. They retched up words from my throat, hateful words, that shot through the room like arrows and found their target in the wounded eyes of my fathers, in the tight-pressed lips of my sister. I did not know how to tame this monster. I could only pick up the pieces after the tentacles had let me out of their grip“ (21). He feels overwhelmed by the condition and cannot cope with hurting his family and thus chooses to leave instead.
Even though Tarnik’s family wishes to help, they are ultimately confined to „silent mourning“ (21) as they have no cure against the Anger and society demands ostracizing the threat. In Tarnik’s culture there is a stigma around the Anger; it is seen as „an illness that can befall some people in their young age“ (21) and is associated with puberty. It hits Tarnik shortly after his fourteenth birthday, when „in just a few weeks, I had grown by a head, my voice had dropped and the Anger had awakened in me“ (22). The description of the anger is steeped in (dis)ability discourse. The society of Tarnik’s village stigmatizes the Anger as a threat to the normative majority and ostracizes those that are afflicted as „unable to live with others“ (21). This echoes Margrit Shildrick’s idea that disabled people are alienated from society because their „embodied selfhood“ runs counter to society’s „understandings of what it is to be properly human“ (31). Shildrick continues that „valued attributes of personhood are autonomy, agency—which includes both a grasp of rationality and control over one’s own body—and a clear distinction between self and other“ (32). But Tarnik does not have this status of ‚proper human’ in that he is unable to remain rational and to stay in control of his body—in fact, the Anger is repeatedly described via images of a loss of agency: Tarnik is „deeply startled“ by the roar that he let loose and giving over to the „tentacles of the Anger taking control“ (28). His community sees this loss of agency and reacts, as Shildrick explains, with „a deep-seated anxiety“ (32). What is important to note here is that even though Tarnik’s community is described as quite different to ours, readers are invited to draw comparisons to their own society. The speculative aspects of the story, its far-future scenario and the loss of knowledge that follows from an apocalypse, invite us to question „who is and is not human or sentient, to explore what aspects of humanity we want to save or dispose of“ (Schalk, „Bodyminds, Science Fiction“ 10). Oscillating between recognition of (dis)ability and the estrangement of a post-apocalyptic world ignorant of mental conditions like the anger, the story pushes us to renegotiate our own categories of normativity and able-bodymindedness.
But the story moves beyond just showing how (dis)ability leads to alienation, instead shifting the definition of the Anger. When the renewer attacks Cyrix, Tarnik at first feels helpless to aid the warrior, but then suddenly realizes that the Anger is empowering him to fight, „as the monster in me awakened with a loud rumbling“ (28). Further, not only does the Anger make him strong enough to hold his own, it also connects him to the Amazon warrior:
I did not know that I could scream like this, so loud, so full of wrath. All at once I was on my feet and running forwards. […] I ran, screamed, and hit him in the side. […] Once more, the tentacles of my Anger had taken control, were hitting the attacker again and again with my hands.
And Cyrix answered. […]
I heard my own cry, blending with the cry of the Amazon. For a split second, it felt like I could feel her heartbeat in my chest, hear her thoughts in my head. (28)
After defeating the renewer, Cyrix tells Tarnik that she knows about the Anger and that it will grow and eventually kill him if it is not controlled. Cyrix explains that the Amazons refer to the condition as „the Inner Fire“(29) and that is an ability that makes the Amazons fierce warriors and its presence in a person makes them an Amazon: „The Fire will consume those that do not learn to control it. But to those that master it, it will grant fury and power to fight that which threatens this world […] The Fire can awaken in any human. And whoever masters it and fights against the powers that let the Old World burn, is one of us“ (29). By giving the Anger a new cultural framework, by realigning it in the spectrum of (dis)ability, Cyrix claims a different embodied reality for people living with the condition and thus, in a sense, performs a ‚cripping.‘ In the same vein that Robert McRuer argues for queer, Richter here uses the idea of crip as a fluid marker for identities that „are shaped and reshaped across differences and that interrogate and disrupt dominant hierarchical understandings“ (cit. in Sandahl 26), in this case not of gender or sexuality but categories of (dis)ability. Cripping, as Carrie Sandahl argues, „spins mainstream representations or practices to reveal able-bodied assumptions and exclusionary effects. Both queering and cripping expose the arbitrary delineation between normal and defective and the negative social ramiﬁcations of attempts to homogenize humanity“ (37). Cyrix challenges the notion that a loss of agency is disabling, instead exposing the embodied difference of those with the Inner Fire and claiming Amazonian subjectivity—not despite of her difference, but because of it.
And in her cripping, Cyrix confirms that general society is ignorant about the Inner Fire, that „they fear the Anger“ and only know that it is somehow connected to Amazons, banishing them for it, blaming them for it: „They won’t let us into their cities, even though we could help“ (29). Due to the apocalyptic event that formed this society, a lot of knowledge about the Inner Fire has been lost, but Cyrix draws a connection to old technology. The man that had pursued Cyrix is called a „renewer of the Old World“ (26), a hunter seeking to destroy any form of technologically enhanced being, „Amazons and Technimals […] They are after anyone with implants or abilities“ (26), wanting to bring back a world in which the few exploit the many via war machinery, thus linking Amazons with concepts of social justice and peace-keeping. The story’s description of the Amazons as superhuman heroes, people with „abilities,“ falls into the category of what Schalk refers to as the „superpowered supercrip narrative,“ a story about a disabled person „who has abilities or ‚powers‘ that operate in direct relationship with or contrast to their disability [… becoming] exceptional by dint of their extraordinary powers and abilities alone“ („Reevaluating“ 81). And even though Schalk warns that „people and characters represented in this type of supercrip narrative in many ways exceed their own embodiment through their abilities, to the point where their status as disabled may be called into question“ („Reevaluating“ 82), the social context of the story allows for a less critical reading. Cripping, or even supercripping, in this case means spinning the culturally normative reading of the Anger as a fatal illness that makes Tarik a pariah in his own community to reveal the social ignorance that drives the definition of this (dis)ability. Instead, the Inner Fire is turned into an extraordinary power, which generates a new community and identity for the boy. Consequently, at the end of the story, Tarnik feels „the monster“ in himself, feels „the Inner Fire awaken again“ but for the first time welcomes it—by claiming his (dis)ability, he has found his own subjectivity.
Picking up the idea of subjectivity and a form of identity because of embodied difference of (dis)ability, in „3,78 Lifepoints“ Richter denies the empowering moment of claiming crip that Tarnik was given in „Feuer.“ Instead, the story negotiates how a genre like science fiction can become problematic in its representation of (dis)ability due to SF’s tendency to render invisible (dis)abled bodies by providing technological solutions to what is essentially framed as a problem. As Allan has pointed out, SF usually sees disability as „as a physical or mental impairment that is supplanted through the application of technology, transforming the disabled body into a figure of prosthetic awe and medicalized prowess“ (8). Even more problematic is the tendency of SF to portray these transformations as empowering to the point of become superpowered supercrip narratives (see above; cf. Schalk „Reevealuating“). Consequently, as Stuart Murray points out, more „than with most disability narratives, those shaped by technologies create fantasies—of rehabilitation, restitution, cure and (in a posthumanist age) of the superhuman” (67). In „3,78 Lifepoints,“ Richter denies both the erasure of (dis)ability through technology and the superhuman fantasy of a supercrip body. Instead she exposes „the illusions of inviolability and self-mastery over the body“ (Allan 5) that technologized supercrip narratives uphold.
In the story, the non-binary character Amii gets a job delivering a package to a specified location. As the story opens, their „SeroTone device“ (123) stops working and leaves them stranded in the streets unable to manage their surroundings. As they soon find out, the device was cut off, because the social security office has flagged Amii as being uncooperative. Without it, Amii is unable to mentally process all of the sensory overload that the fully mediated cyberpunk world presents—they get overwhelmed by lights, sounds, smells, and motion: „Videos and Gifs in screaming colors, cute animations of animals, thin bodies jumping up and down in front of a mirror. Everything moves, is too colorful, too bright, too much. Normally I only notice this at the edge of my consciousness, but the disruption of my implant has pushed my brain into the normality of this way too fast“ (123). Amii’s brain cannot filter the information that their sensorium provides and they just cannot focus on necessary tasks to navigate the world: „Impressions of every kind grab at me, demand my attention, before my brain moves on and latches on to the next impulse and the next and the next“ (124).
Here, Richter links Amii’s (dis)ability with their ability to work and to perform in the capitalist system. As McRuer argues, this is a main point of the „compulsory nature of able-bodiedness: in the emergent industrial capitalist system, free to sell one’s labor but not free to do anything else effectively meant free to have an able body but not particularly free to have anything else“ (8). This is, of course, in line with the historical conception of prostheses as means of the rehabilitation of soldiers otherwise too wounded to work and provide for their family’s livelihood (cf. Harrasser). Prosthetics were meant to restore the capability to work and not need social aid. Compulsory able-bodymindedness (to extend the concept) as a normative „nonidentity, as the natural order of things“ (McRuer 1) thus means that in order to perform to capitalist expectations, the (dis)abled body has to be repaired, cured, fixed. The story makes this explicit when Amii associates her situation with a memory of a poem about a blind man that a school teacher had students read for them to realize their own privileges. The teacher argues that through prosthetic technology, (dis)ability such as blindness could be eliminated: „Problems such as this are problems of the past, the woman from the lesson had said. […] I remember how she continued: By now, everyone could work to earn a set of artificial eye replacements in case of a loss of vision“ (124). It is a poignant irony then, that without prosthesis work itself becomes harder to accomplish.
What „3,78 Lifepoints“ makes clear, then, is that able-bodiedness is a necessity to work in the oppressive capitalist system of its narrative world. Because of Amii’s cognitive disability, they neglect to comply with the social security office, overlooking one message of a „summons to participation“ among several „announcements“ and „notices“ (125) and miss sending in one of a list of several documents needed to stay on social benefits. Here, the story highlights the social dimension of (dis)ability and how a cognitive impairment might interfere with compulsory compliance to rules measured on the able-bodyminded (and politically comments on the German social system reform Agenda 2010, which saw punitive action invoked against non-compliant citizens in need of social benefits). As a beneficiary of social services, Amii is compelled to bring documentation about every aspect of their life, and if they don’t the office can turn off their SeroTone device. Amii does not own the device outright but receives it as disability aid to help them perform their job. Because of the non-compliance, even though accidental, the device is turned off, which effectively makes complying with the social security offices’ demands even more impossible, as the disconnect in turn impacts Amii’s ability to work. This is a feedback loop they cannot break out of: „Without the implant, it might be possible to work, but it is grueling. Without the implant, I do not manage 60 hours per week, I do not get highest level evaluations for friendly demeanor. Without those evaluations I will never succeed in any of the applications I constantly put out. For real jobs, permanent jobs with access to all health care services“ (125–26). Amii’s whole existence is centered around making enough LifePoints to warrant better services, to move along the projected axis of normative behavior and thus fit in with able-bodyminded society. But the events of the day throw them back onto their own cognitive impairment. What becomes clear in the story, through the narrative perspective of Amii’s position, is that Amii’s disability is a social construction. Sensory overload is produced through the capitalist need for accumulation and the ever-present advertising. The pressure to work 60 hours a week and always be superficially nice is socially constructed because society persists in its compulsory able-bodymindedness and the need to define norms of behavior. In addition, political institutions do nothing to alleviate the social and material barriers for people with (dis)ability, instead relying on technology to ‚cure‘ or ‚erase‘ the problem. As Kafer argues, an individualized and medicalized conception of disability, as displayed in the story, „presents a future vision of technological and medical intervention—not social transformation or political action—as the only proper response to disability“ (22). It is not the ableist demand of normed behavior that is the problem, but the lack of a technological device to make Amii’s (dis)abled body comply. But the hypercapitalist system which demands compulsory able-bodymindedness through technology, denies access to the technologies via high market prices, so that „many of these cyborg technologies remain out of reach of the people for whom they are imagined,“ as the „ability to become cyborg is too often economically determined“ (Kafer 107). Thus, „3,78 Lifepoints“ shows how SF’s promise of technological cures and superpowered prostheses are fantasies of privilege, that capitalist systems of exploitation can just as easily limit access to technologies or deny (dis)abled subjectivity all together.
What Lena Richter’s short stories thus show is that (dis)ability is defined against social and cultural parameters of any society, and that the progressive fantastic is one way to negotiate (dis)ability, that it can „shift, challenge, and play on what readers expect of bodyminds and reveal how such expectations shape definitions of“ (Schalk, Bodyminds 29) any form of identity. Further, the representation of (dis)ability that these short stories deliver, is powerful proof that we need (dis)abled voices to understand how people with (dis)ability are denied subjectivity and what needs to change. „Das Innerste der Welt“ explores the concept of crip time and the need to negotiate time, space, and relations with an understanding of the challenges faced by differently abled bodyminds. „Feuer“ shows the social and cultural perceptions of what constitutes able-bodymindedness and how this is connected to subjectivity. It challenges this notion and by an act of cripping affirms a position of acceptance for the whole spectrum of (dis)abled bodies as human. And „3,78 LifePoints“ highlights that the neoliberal capitalist system we are in might provide technological solutions to (dis)ability, which means reducing the issue to individualized and medicalized concepts, thus erasing social and cultural dimensions, as well as ultimately entrenching (dis)ability as a marker for otherness.
Case Study 2: Memories of Summer by Janna Ruth
While Lena Richter’s short stories allow for the pointed and short discussion of smaller issues of (dis)ability studies, my second case study explores more widely the interconnection of (dis)ability and poverty. In Memories of Summer, Janna Ruth offers her readers three different (dis)ability narratives in one story. First, there is Mika, a kid from a low-income family barely making ends meet, who has found a way to make additional money while helping others. Mika has been donating childhood memories to an institution called the Memory Transfer Clinic (MTC), which uses them as a means of treating depression and behavioral disorders in others. But there is a limit to how much the MTC will take, as the side effects of losing too many of your own happy childhood memories are yet unclear but feared to cause mental problems in the long run. Second, there is Lynn, who has been suffering from severe depression caused by her mother’s abusive narcissism and her father’s abandonment. Lynn is an old childhood friend of Mika’s, but when they meet at the MTC, Mika does not recognize Lynn, having sold all his memories of her. They reconnect and discuss the pros and cons of the memory transfer technology for both the donor and the recipient. Thirdly, there is Philipp, Mika’s father who suffers from lupus, a chronic illness that restricts his ability to work and move without pain. The story makes explicit how aspects of finance such as the income of patients are what studies consider „key social determinant[s] of health,“ as income is directly related to „the quality of early life, levels of stress, social exclusion, availability of food and transport, incidence of addictions“ (Raphael 10) or the most obvious: access to treatment in a capitalist health care system. In the novel, Mika’s family is under strong financial burdens, not able to pay for the father’s health care needs on top of cost of living (food, shelter), and thus forced to cut costs where possible. This pushes Mika to seek out a black market dealer of memories who will extract more memories beyond the safety limit, no matter the health cost that Mika will pay.
As with Jennifer in Richter’s story „Das Innerste der Welt“, Mika’s father Philipp has lupus, a severe illness with chronic fatigue, chronic pain, and limited mobility. What compounds the issues of (dis)ability in the novel, though, is its intersectional relation to poverty. The heightened capitalist health care system and the lack of social welfare systems like disability aid in Memories erects barriers to Philipp’s management of the illness—in fact, the story’s plot kicks off with Mika discovering his father’s illness when the family has to move. As Philipp explains to his son: „The treatment has cost us a lot of money. More than we can afford“ (29). The family needs to move to a low-income neighborhood and into a smaller apartment, as the treatment becomes increasingly expensive: „The last few years, my condition has worsened. The drugs don’t work anymore, and the more powerful antibiotics we just can’t afford. I am having more and more episodes“ (30). Even though better treatment would be available, the financial situation will simply not allow for it. In this, Ruth’s story is a reminder of how for-profit-privatization of health care can run rampant, as it does currently in the US, where a severe health issue can bankrupt you and the fear of paying for health care is perceived as scarier than having a health issue (Khatri 5–6). This is true for Philipp and his family, which in the absence of social security systems has to cope with the financial burden of treatment as well as maintaining the cost of living with a diminished income.
Moreover, the situation causes emotional stress for the family. Mika discovers that he has been ignorant of the situation for a long time, that his father was diagnosed nine years ago and the family had moved once before to accomodate the treatment plan: „Nine years ago we moved from Ottergrund to this apartment. Because the money was tight. Because his way to work was shorter. No, not to work, to the hospital“ (30). In the end, though, the illness progressed nonetheless; a decision between the costly treatment and the cost of living in relative happiness with his family, Philipp decided to not burden his family more than necessary. As Mika realizes the illness is medically treatable, or at least manageable, his father has to admit that they were and are lacking the resources for comfortable management and that he will eventually die as the illness moves to its final stages: „My kidneys are beginning to fail“ (31). It is through Philipp’s lupus that the story emphasizes how (dis)ability and other forms of marginalization intersect. Within a capitalist system, here in the novel fully encompassing medical and health care, getting adequate treatment is hindered by poverty as a factor, which creates „almost insurmountable barriers“ (Mollow 414). Instead of highly specialized pain medication, Philipp can merely afford basic over the counter medicine (46).
These barriers of capital then prompt Mika to illegally sell more of his memories—the additional money is meant to pay for his father’s pain medication and constantly needed dialysis. Nonetheless, Mika is barely keeping up with the basic costs and only manages to keep his father alive, not to stop the progression of his illness. And the progression prompts more impairments, as Mika notices when his father is unable to complete his way home from work without getting on a train, even for three stops. A few weeks later, his father has to stop working altogether, losing the family its main steady income. Philipp’s body is no longer part of the logic of capitalist accumulation through exploitation, having lost its ability to „function like machines“ (Russell 30), and it is thus eliminated from the workforce. Without even the aid of social systems, the family now depends on Mika’s mother’s income for their overwhelming cost of living plus the treatment.
Here, we again encounter crip time as sick time (Samuels) just as in Richter’s short story. Building on the concept of „queer time and queer space […which] develop according to other logics of location, movement, and reproduction“ (Halberstam 1), crip time in the novel dominates the lived realities of Mika’s family: moving house in relation to treatment facilities, costs, time, and energy needed to allow for the impaired mobility. The chronic illness, the potential of fatality, pushes Mika and his family into queer/crip time, which emphasizes the present moment: here, crip time „deflects attention away from the future altogether, attending only to this moment, finding urgency in the present“ (Kafer 35). Mika takes on this exact claim in his reasoning to sell more memories. To him, his memories of a distant past are not worth keeping for a diminished chance at a present with his father. His father’s illness thus forces Mika to step out of the „paradigmatic markers of life experience“—the normalcy of an unburdened childhood, growing up and old with a father present—and into the „alternative temporalities“ (Halberstam 2) of a queer/crip time. And because Philipp’s chronic illness is linked to poverty, its impact is intergenerational and ‚contagious,‘ generating more (dis)ability in Mika himself.
In the beginning, Mika uses the MTC to shore up his spending money for technological gadgets. He is a carefree teenager enjoying the possibility of a little financial leeway, until he meets Lynn, whom he does not recognize even though she is a close childhood friend. Already at this point, Mika is trapped in the capitalist system, exploiting his bodymind in order to generate income: „The concept, that you have to sacrifice something to get ahead in life seems to be completely new to her“ (26). Thus, he sells what he considers „blurry memories, full of gaps anyway“ (26). But as his word choice here makes clear, there is a sacrifice, a price to be paid in health, either mentally or emotionally. He finds his old photo albums and looks through a lot of images he does not recognize of himself and Lynn during their childhood: „The images are there, but there is nothing in me. These are the childhood images of two strangers. Cute moments, no doubt, but even in the videos, they feel eternally far away“ (33). For Mika, Lynn is a new acquaintance, while she feels intimately connected to him, knows much about him. They both decide to make new memories with each other, but ultimately, Mika’s (dis)ability to remember is an effect of crip time. His neurodivergence „extract[s him] from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast[s him] into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration“ (Samuels). (Dis)ability is, as Ellen Samuels argues, a form of „time travel“ which for Mika has erased his memories and forces him to restart the clock on his relationship with Lynn. While at first, this seems not so bad, Mika’s excess at donating memories, beyond the safe limits, pushes him evermore into crip time and the effects of falling out of linear time.
In an emotional scene with his sister Anni, she explains to him that she feels Mika is on the same track as his father Philipp, which prompts Mika to argue that this is not true as he is not sick, but Anni counters: „Not yet. But you are not my Mika any more either“ (227). She explains that ‚her‘ Mika used to build apps for her and that for seven years he used to gift them to her on her birthday, always some creative program that he had made himself, but: „For my thirteenth birthday, you gave me a gift certificate for clothes“ (228). As practical as the gift was, and as much as it was a necessity born out of poverty and the stress of making ends meet, it is also a symptom of Mika’s (dis)ability. He realizes this and pleads with Anni to never sell her own memories. In a revealing reversal, when Anni argues that „they are just memories,“ Mika implores her: „What you are selling are my apps. The apps that I have given you on your birthdays, which you missed so dearly this year. It’s the memories of championship wins and of little fights. Of family vacations. And of dad“ (229). He confesses that the gift certificate was not just a practical gift, but actually „because I completely forgot that I build an app for you every year. […] I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything“ (229). Having forgotten aspects of his childhood, his relationships to Lynn or his family, here his sister Anni, have become fractured. Mika is experiencing crip time as „broken time,“ which „requires us to break in our bodies and minds to new rhythms, new patterns of thinking and feeling and moving through the world“ (Samuels). Mika cannot go back to remembering Anni’s apps or having spent a childhood with Lynn, he has to adapt to crip time, to new patterns, and he has to establish new relations to his surroundings.
Even more than with Anni or Lynn, Mika realizes how strong his impairment is—how the loss of his memories has altered his life’s trajectory—when his father dies and he is confronted with his own grief. During the family’s mourning, people share stories of his father and compare Mika to Philipp, but Mika is unable to join the family’s grief: „To be honest, I have no idea how my father used to turn around or how he kept his hands. I don’t remember any more“ (183). Instead of feeling close to his siblings, their memories of their father make Mika realize his loss, feeling his „throat close up“ and „becoming jealous“ (183) of them. While the family is healing through the process of sharing their stories, Mika is becoming „a stranger in my own house“ (185). His bodymind is divergent from the expected norm, causing him to have „feelings of asynchrony and temporal dissonance“ (Kafer 34). He is experiencing crip time as „grief time […] a time of loss, and of the crushing undertow that accompanies loss“ (Samuels). Because he cannot remember, he has to give up his father without even knowing what he has lost. His mourning then, is less for his father, and more for the memories of his father, which he had to sacrifice to keep the family afloat. His loss is of a common past, of a loving relationship. The memories of his father left to him are of disapproval for the memory transfers, and of the fights they used to have about the financial situation. In his despair, he realizes that his „father has died and all that I have left of him is these image scraps in my head. It doesn’t feel like he has died, it feels like he stopped existing. […] As if he had never existed“ (188). Mika’s divergent bodymind has broken his position within linear time, having erased Mika’s past experiences with his father.
In addition, though, he also has to grieve for a possible future, as he realizes that the intersection of (dis)ability and poverty makes it impossible for him to follow his dreams of becoming a programmer for a tech company or a memo-scientist with NEURO, the company that invented the memory transfers. At the beginning of the novel, Mika was day-dreaming about his soon-to-come graduation from school and how the extra money from the memory transfers could help him to finance an internship, or how the high-tech RedPad he bought would help him work on programs and apps. It seemed like social upward mobility was possible—that is, until his father’s illness got in the way and Mika’s reckless disregard for his own health produced a severe (dis)ability in him. With poverty looming over the family, Mika becomes the provider for the family. After his father’s death, his mother will have to raise his two younger siblings and will, on her single salary, not be able to manage their life. Mika’s additional income is needed to pay for the apartment, thus studying or getting an unpaid internship are not possible. The alternative, moving to the remote rural countryside and living with Mika’s grandparents, similarly eliminates the option for a career as the tech business is located in the city. Mika realizes that, after all the struggles to have a present with his father, the intersection of (dis)ability and poverty preclude him from both his past and his dreamt of future—to him, it feels as if his life is „lost, it is all for nothing“ (186). Lastly, Mika has also lost his present in the process of dealing with his (dis)ability. As Lynn argues, „you have changed. […] You used to be enthusiastic, easy-going, and just started talking because you noticed the girl in the waiting room. You had dreams“ (213). His reality now, with the memory loss and the financial burden on top of it, is much more dire: „Now you are stressed, frustrated and resigned“ (213). Mika has aged years in just a few months, again stressing the time travel effect of crip time. He has become a grown-up and lost not just his childhood memories, but also his child-like outlook on life.
What is interesting about the novel and a clear departure from the rather more conventional depictions of a (dis)ability in science fiction is that Memories does not rely on a technological solution to Mika’s impairment, though it initially suggest one. When Mika is most dispirited, Lynn suggests getting back his memories and asks „Is it possible to re-implant your own memories back to you?“ (189), to which Mika replies that even if re-implantation was technically possible, there is no way to know „how full of holes my brain is right now. It might just be the hardest puzzle in the world to reconnect all of my memories so that they make sense and not just create something new“ (190). Here, it might be important to digress the argument about how the novel portrays Mika dealing with his impairment of memory loss to analyze how his memories are a key component in how Lynn and others deal with their (dis)ability of depression. The novum of the novel is the medical procedure of memory transfer, which has been designed to offset a negative outlook on life with positive memories in order to „help people with depression“ (37). Therapy works by extracting negative memories from the patient with depression and exchanging them with donated positive childhood memories to alter the overall mood of the patient: „The basis of the memo-donation is that happy childhood memories help the human mind to stabilize and thus make it more resilient in fighting off depression“ (56). In the novel, two cases of adults with depression are mentioned in more detail, as is that more memories are needed to alleviate a person’s depression than „a single human could have donated in 18 months“ (168), meaning that there is a far greater demand for therapy than there is currently available. This makes childhood memories a valuable commodity and the technological cure for the (dis)ability of depression only available to those with strong financial means.
The two examples of the memory transplant and its effect on depressed patients in the novel are a man called Liam, whom Lynn and Mika visit when they try to locate Mika’s memories, and Lynn’s mother, who is depressed from her husband’s cheating and abandonment and has caused a lot of similar issues in Lynn. Interestingly, both patients are described as wealthy, living in large houses with their families. Interestingly, though, when Lynn and Mika visit Liam and his family, they mention the fear of losing Liam’s income and their social status as a major source for Liam’s depression. He lost his job and could not easily get another, thus becoming more depressed, which in turn makes it harder to find a job. In a way, this reflects an idea proposed by Marta Russell that disability and poverty are linked as categories in the existing labor system, excising disabled bodyminds from the workforce and making them dependent on public aid: „Most important, public policy that equates disablement with poverty means that becoming disabled (a nonworker) translates into a life of financial hardship […] and generates a very realistic fear in workers of becoming disabled” (35). Liam fears just that, becoming more and more disabled and not being able to provide for his family. When the family decided on the memory treatment, they argue that „it was noticeable right away, that something changed“ (217). In contrast to Mika, who has lost all grip on past, present, and future, Liam experiences the opposite, a sharper focus on his place in time and space: „I knew before that had to do it for the kids, but with the memories I suddenly realized what I had really lost and that I would not want to risk that again, ever“ (218). In this case, Liam only needed a very limited amount of treatment („it wasn’t much, we were careful“, 217) and improved noticeably but without other side-effects.
Lynn’s mother, though, seems to have suffered a stronger and more entrenched form of depression. Whereas Liam still had his family’s support and only suffered from depression for a short time, Lynn’s mother has chronically suffered for years, becoming more and more overwhelmed by her own situation as a single mother and pushing this illness onto her daughter as well. At least twice, Lynn is witness to her mother’s suicide attempts, as well as bearing the brunt of her anger and frustration: „She never trusted me, blamed me for her situation, and kept threatening to find herself a new family as well. […] That is, when she did not cry without pause or try to kill herself“ (212). But even though this is traumatic to Lynn, she at least feels like she has an understanding of what is going on, what is causing this behavior and how to deal with it. As Lynn’s mother’s depression is much more severe, the treatment is also. First off, it does not just mean receiving positive childhood memories but also extracting „all those traumatic memories“ (212) of the last few years, including how she treated her own daughter because of her trauma. Second, Lynn’s mom got a lot more memories to balance her mood and stabilize her, making Lynn feel „as if she were a stranger. I don’t know my own mother any more. I do not know how to handle her“ (212). Lynn is missing the connection to her mother, the bond over having suffered the same feelings of abandonment and trauma—and since Lynn only has those memories of her mother, she is just as unmoored in past, present, and future as Mika is.
But whereas Lynn can rely on her memories being intact, to the point of refusing her own treatment and instead opting for the traditional forms of therapy, Mika has lost his memories for good. Which returns us to the science-fictional ‚go to solution‘ for (dis)ability: that is, technology. But while the novel does open the possibility of a technological solution to Mika’s ‚problem‘—that is the option of retrieving and re-implanting his memories—this solution becomes loaded with a moral dimension. Most of Mika’s memories have been taken by the black market dealer Alistair, who, it turns out, is illegally working for NEURO. The company is trying to expand the range of their break-through technology—as demand is much higher than the supply—and using Mika’s neighborhood with its high rate of crime, substance abuse, and poverty as a testing facility to siphon more and different memories. When Mika and Lynn manage to visit the NEURO facility, they sneak off and wait for evening to explore the laboratories, discovering how NEURO is harvesting positive memories from orphaned children, aptly named the „happy-memories-project“ (281), how they pay off dealers such as Alistair to provide them with enough raw materials to keep innovation and progress going. During the stand-off with the head scientist, Prof. Pattern, she makes Mika the offer that she can re-implant all of the memories that Alistair took from him, in addition giving him a job and financial security for all of his family. This is the technological solution, the science-fictional fix to eliminate Mika’s impairment (at least in theory), but it comes attached to a breach of his own ethics. The technology he thought was a utopian break-through curing depression, was only possible by scrupulous capitalist machinations, by exploiting the poor and the powerless.
Herein lies the biting commentary of the novel, that discussions of health issues, especially chronic illness and (dis)ability, are entrenched in capitalist notions of exploitation and accumulation and that the (dis)abled bodymind is an important factor in this kind of thinking. First, as (dis)ability limits the possibility of exploitation as a worker, exemplified in Philipp and Liam, both of whom needed their bodyminds to adhere to capitalist expectations of a worker but had very different options to choose from due to financial security. With the compounding issue of poverty hanging over him, Philipp had only limited choice of treatment for and adaptation to his impairment, ultimately forcing him out of exploitative labor and into disability benefits—which in this case were not provided by government policy but his own son’s exploitative commodification of his bodymind. Liam, by contrast, invested in his health and was able to treat his impairment and ultimately rejoin the labor pool. Second, (dis)abled and impoverished bodyminds are a commodity in the health industry—willing subjects of experimentation as they have no other option but to agree to any and all conditions. Mika has no other choice but to offer more and more of his memories to make ends meet. Shady characters like Alistair, as much as the corporate criminals behind him, use the desperate and powerless to experiment upon.
The novel concludes with only one of all donated memories being re-implanted into Mika, which I read as the novel’s moment of techno-utopian hope that without the capitalist corporation running things and the medico-ethical issues cleared up, technology can indeed help to cure impairments and alleviate (dis)abling practices in our society. Ultimately, though, I believe, the stronger impulse in the novel is its focus on living with (dis)ability and adjusting the social frame around it to better accept it. Yes, the one technologically replaced memory does help Mika, but ultimately, it is his relationship to Lynn and his family that allow Mika to balance his life again. Instead of regaining the memories of his childhood, Mika learns about them through his new (dis)abled bodymind’s perspective when he reads a long letter by his father, who had written out several important memories of his son’s life. The mediated memories, the new and adjusted perspective to a life with and acceptance of his (dis)ability is ultimately more effective at helping Mika find a future than any technological cure.
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