A few weeks ago I came across a Kickstarter campaign called Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. It was all over my Twitter feed because it was around this time that the American House of Representatives was trying once again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and this time they came dangerously close to managing it.
It seemed like the campaign had dropped out of the sky to send me a message: science fiction is finally doing something about representation! Also: check this thing out.
Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is part of the Destroy series (previous: Women Destroy and People of Colo(u)r Destroy, among others) by “Uncanny Magazine,” an online science fiction and fantasy magazine that publishes fiction, nonfiction, and some killer artwork.
I reached out to the editors of “Uncanny,” Lynne M. Thomas and husband Michael Damian Thomas, who along with Managing Editor Michi Trota and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Guest Editors-in-Chief Dominik Parisien and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, discussed the upcoming issue and its place in the current sci-fi scene:
1. What have you noticed with representation in sci-fi over the years? A lot of people would argue that sci-fi has a representation problem – what’s your take?
Michi: If you’d asked me several years ago, I’d have said that there wasn’t much representation beyond primarily white people, particularly white men, writing SF/F. But I think that’s because I didn’t know where to look, as well as the fact that SF/F writers, editors, artists, and other creators who aren’t able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white men are just not made very visible by the industry. Because the truth is that marginalized creators have been a part of the genre since the beginning, and there are so many creating amazing stories and art. But we’re continually pushed to the side and erased so that it seems like it must be “a new thing” whenever waves of visibility for us come back around. Which can be really discouraging for marginalized creators who want to be part of SF/F; – it’s hard to imagine yourself as part of something if you don’t see people like you included from the get-go. It’s a long-standing problem because there’s still the entrenched idea that women, POC, queer people, disabled people, etc., aren’t “appealing” to a general audience, as if, say, white able-bodied characters will appeal to everyone, but stories featuring disabled POC are “niche” and therefore not worth the marketing effort.
I think what we’re seeing reflected in projects like Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and the previous Destroy projects, is a push for those with power and influence in the industry to be more aware in their choices of work and creators to publish. There’s more of a desire to actively combat biases and normalized systems of discrimination instead of just waiting for these problems to fix themselves, or relying on marginalized people to do all the work of addressing our own oppression. And the more visible marginalized creators are in all aspects of SF/F— – as characters, writers, artists, editors— – the more it encourages other marginalized people to imagine the possibility that there’s also room for us to be an active, welcome part of the genre.
2. The Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue is coming at a time when the Affordable Care Act is on the brink of repeal. Was this part of the impetus to develop this issue?
Elsa: No, but it’s certainly a driving force behind how I look at the issue. As a disabled person, and certainly as an editor, right now my perspective is shaped by what’s happening to disabled Americans, and this legislation and repeal are a huge part of that. But it’s also about the legislation that already exists: The ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] turned 27 this July, and yet there’ve been no improvements to the law in that time, nor have there been better laws put in place. Civil rights for disabled people are a long ways from equal, and that shapes how I look at disability representation as a whole, too.
When we’re not equal in real life, in our governance as citizens, it’s hard to envision futures where we’re equal. I hope this issue challenges that, and creates better futures for us.
3. How would you describe the representation of disabled people in the sci-fi and fantasy genres generally?
Elsa: Well, there’s not as much representation as I’d like. And by that I mean, there isn’t enough variety. There was a hashtag by Netflix recently: #FirstTimeISawMe, and I saw a lot of disabled people posting that they’ve never seen themselves in literature or film. Myself included. I’m partially deaf-blind. I’ve certainly never seen myself in science fiction, though occasionally I’ve seen pieces or parts of my experience.
Often, disability is erased, especially in settings in the future where medical science could theoretically cure all disabilities and illnesses. Same goes for fantasy settings where magic can do the same. The good representations are few and far between. Of course there’s the beloved Miles Vorkosigan series [“Vorkosigan Saga”], and there’s Inquisitor Glokta [“The Blade Itself”]. But it’s not enough, and there’s very few film representations that involve disabled actors (count: None as far as I know.)
4. What are you hoping to achieve with this special issue? Is there any particular goal or conversation you’re trying to induce?
Dominik: For my part, I want to give disabled writers an opportunity to tell their stories. It can be difficult to want to write about a character like yourself if you’ve never encountered one in media. It’s easy to internalize the conception that you don’t belong, that people don’t want to read about others like you. I want to help disabled authors who might be reluctant to write themselves or people like them into their stories to have the confidence to do so, not just for this special issue but in general. Something like Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is important, but it’s an opportunity and not a solution. You can’t have these stories appear only in this environment, otherwise their value becomes limited, sanctioned in a way. I want editors, writers, and readers to see people’s enthusiasm for the project and demand to see more material like it elsewhere.
And for able-bodied writers who want to write disabled characters into their books, I want them to read the material — the fiction and poetry, but especially the nonfiction and personal essays — and to consider how they’re writing those characters, and why. Are they actually writing a character, a person, or just a trope or a plot device? Are they perpetuating harmful representation? These are important things to consider, especially because it’s too easy to dismiss criticism later by hiding behind good intentions of “‘ just wanting to include those characters.”’ Stories have an impact, and our nonfiction in particular is a powerful way of showcasing that.
Elsa: Dominik hits the nail on the head here: having disabled authors tell their stories is the most important part of this issue, and that includes nonfiction. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to share a wide variety of experiences from disabled authors, about genre, about their writing processes, about themselves.
5. Let’s talk about the “Destroy” series more generally. What was the goal of the series originally? Has that transformed over the years?
Michael: When “Lightspeed Magazine” started the series with Women Destroy Science Fiction, they began their mission statement with: “Women aren’t writing ‘real’ science fiction, the fallacy goes. ‘Real’ science fiction is… . . . whatever science fiction certain men like. Some days this makes us sad. Some days it makes us angry. And some days it just seems hilarious… . . .and a quip on Twitter turns into a special issue of LIGHTSPEED in the space of roughly half an hour.”
This was expanded for their Queers Destroy Science Fiction and People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction special issues. The goal for the series is to challenge the idea that science fiction literature’s default is cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, American male creators and characters who shared those creators’ points of view. These special issues quite successfully countered that these stories should be privileged over everybody else’s.
The Destroy series has transformed over time by finding many different marginalized voices from a variety of backgrounds with each subsequent special issue. The series has also more and more embraced intersectionality and understood that there is an axes of oppression and discrimination.
Of course, the biggest transformation has been passing the series to “Uncanny Magazine”. Since “Uncanny” already shared these values with the series, it was really a perfect fit for us.
6. What’s next for “Uncanny Magazine”?
Michael: Year Four for “Uncanny Magazine” promises to be extremely exciting. Thanks to the amazing response to the Kickstarter, we know we will be doing both the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue and a shared-world dinosaur issue along with our four regular issues. The Hugo Awards are in a week (“Uncanny Magazine,” the Thomases for editing, and “Uncanny” stories by Alyssa Wong and Brooke Bolander are all finalists) and the the World Fantasy Awards are in early November (the Thomases and Bolander’s story are also finalists for that award). We will also have a new poetry and reprint editor (Mimi Mondal) and interviewer (Shana DuBois) for Year Four.
We are so grateful for all of the community support of the magazine. We think we are doing something important, and it’s only possible thanks to our contributors, staff, and readers.