Formative genre fiction, an essay by Nalini Haynes
The singularly most formative fiction, or formative work of genre fiction for me was ‘Triantiwontigongolope’. My father bought a poetry book after I admired it in a corner store, age four or five. We brought it home and I started reading it – or trying to. ‘Triantiwontigongolope’ has a fun double-page spread depicting “the trees and grass [as] purple and the sky [as] bottle green”. There was also a cute alien-looking creature.
One day my father insisted I read it to him. He was a demanding perfectionist. Scared of failure, I did not want to read a poem with such long words out loud to him. So I mocked the poem, saying it was silly, and flipping pages to read a different – easier – poem.
He insisted. “Just imagine if that world was real.”
I thought about it. “Could I be normal in a world like that?”
Set in stone
This was a formative moment for me because, from that time, I believed other worlds could be more accepting of me as a disabled person. Thus, my love of speculative fiction was born.
Since then I’ve consumed thousands of stories in various formats. I’ve done a lot of the reading we’re “supposed” to do to be “properly formed” as fans of the genre. I read Tolkien and CS Lewis as a kid; Stranger in a Strange Land when I was fifteen; Asimov and Silverberg and the authors in those yellow scifi anthologies and many more.
Stories were always about others
However, I don’t remember seeing myself in many stories. A little in Chocky as a gifted child who was also deemed “weird” because I’m disabled. I saw myself more in The Chrysalids with its eugenics tropes. I don’t recall identifying with the children in the Narnia Chronicles: ironically, they seemed alien. Although I loved stories, I didn’t usually feel “seen”, I rarely identified with characters.
Andra upset me. I was in primary school when I first watched the series and read the book. After her accident blinded her, authorities wanted to euthanise her. An operation restored her sight, changed her permanently, and the aftershocks ripple throughout the story. Her death at the end fits with so many stories about disabled people, a trope that became Paul Darke’s “normality drama” twenty years later. It was confronting for a child.
Empty World terrified me: I had nightmares for years after reading, aged ten, a story about a pandemic that left just a few children survivors. I figured I would probably be like the child who, believing he was alone in the world, committed suicide minutes before the others found him. I’ve never re-read it: the story imprinted so strongly on me that certain scenes are just as vivid now as they were decades ago.
Reading Heinlein’s Friday was a revelation: a woman was the centre of a story by a man! I enjoyed it but moved on.
The first time since the ‘Triantiwontigongolope’ that I really felt seen in genre fiction was reading Bareback by Kit Whitfield, also called Benighted overseas. It’s not a splodey story. It doesn’t have fast-paced action or sassy dialogue or romance, so you probably never heard of it. Or, if you did, you may not remember it. Bareback is an exploration of society’s complex relationship with people of difference including people who are disabled.
In that world, being a werewolf is normal. Not being a werewolf is a disability with the inevitable insulting slang that is, in this case, “bareback”. However, “disabled” people are essential to society because they look after everyone during the full moon. Even so, they are an underpaid undervalued underclass treated with fear and suspicion.
To me, Bareback was a revelation. Not only did I feel seen, but it went, in my heart, next to social researcher Hugh Mackay’s nonfiction and fiction books. I already believed good science fiction is about characters, about people, about society, but Bareback included disability. But not in a bigoted way like Anne McCaffrey’s Ship stories, which left me feeling ill and nearly in tears the first time I read one. Plus Bareback’s disabled character doesn’t die at the end.
Bareback vs ‘Melora’
There are significant differences between Bareback and, for example, DS9’s episode ‘Melora’. Bareback’s society defined who was disabled. Melora was not disabled by her people’s standards, she just couldn’t walk in Earth-normal gravity.
Bareback’s doctors had the ability to choose – to some extent – who to make disabled to serve society. Melora’s doctor could give her medical treatment to enable her to cope with Earth-normal gravity. Bareback’s “barebacks” had no choice and could not become “not disabled” in society’s eyes. In contrast, Melora chose not to accept treatment because, after treatment, she would never be able to return to her home planet. She effectively became disabled by choice, another ableist trope. And then she disappeared from the series, another “normality drama” ending with the removal of the disabled character.
And don’t get me started on Star Trek’s portrayal of my disability, albinism. I have a word limit here! Let’s just say I prefer not being “seen” by Star Trek’s writers.
Diverse characters are becoming more common but inclusion does not automatically make good representation. Many people told me I should be “grateful” for Zeroes with its “blind” character whose superpower is sight (groan) and Akata Witch despite its similar ableist tropes. Authors, write what you know or do excellent research and consult with “own voices” editors and beta readers.
Discerning fans evolve from reading and viewing stories from diverse genres. It’s also necessary to read good quality writing as well as some garbage, in order to learn what works and what doesn’t. This is more important, more formative, than reading dead white guys. A discerning reader can tell the difference between the author who focuses on twentieth century genre fiction and an author who explores diverse stories. Don’t live trapped in the past.
Cultivate excellent libraries to provide good formative fiction for young readers.