Monday, September 8, 2014

Brief Q&A with John Scalzi - Disability, Lock In, and #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Lock In is the newest book by the well-known sci-fi author John Scalzi. In my review at Huffington Post, I wrote:
On a certain level, this is a story about "wheelchairs," or rather assistive mobility devices. That's unusual. While many science fiction stories depict advanced technological responses to plagues or injuries, such stories usually involve seemingly miraculous cures. To my knowledge, this is the first science fiction novel based largely around the complexities of providing reasonable accommodations for disability.
The essay I wrote had to cover a lot of ground. It had to feel like a review and it had to engage the complex issues that are invoked by the book. It's a place to start with the conversation, not at all a place to finish. Still, I am encouraged.

Over the last many months, the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been floating around twitter. And we do - our books tend to be so western, so white, so hetero, so reinforcing of perceived normative values. My particular focus, of course, is disability as diversity, but to write about that is not to ignore the pressing needs of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and more. 

I am, however, pleased with Scalzi's new book. I felt he wrote right up to the limits of his knowledge of disability issues and nicely wove that material into the book. 

I asked him two questions which he kindly answered.

1. You raise lots of issues about disability in Lock In. What research into these issues as you wrote? Are they issues which you were interested in before trying to flesh out the politics of your premise?
​Some of it I knew, in a very basic sense, from having friends engaged in various communities, in particular the deaf community. This gave me a lay of the land that I could then backstop with additional research. I was casually aware but not deeply engaged in disability issures prior to the book, but once I developed the idea for the novel it was important for me not to just blunder through imagining the development of the Haden culture -- I wanted it to have some resonance with disability cultures that exist today. As I've noted elsewhere, I still run the risk of missing things, but if so it's not for lack of effort. ​ 
2. In Old Man's War, you deal with age (which can be seen as a form of disability) and a new body. In Lock In, it's disability and a new body. Is this a Scalzi theme? Technological responses to the body as it doesn't work as expected? Is that an intentional theme, or more something that I, as a disability writer, detect?
​I think it's true that I am interested in how the body can be extended and as a result what that means for the identity of the person who is "extended" in that fashion -- and obviously as a science fiction writer, the path of that extension will be through technology (rather than through magic, as it might be for fantasy). I don't intentionally work the theme you identifiy -- but that doesn't mean it's not there. Writers often miss themes in their work that others detect.
The main theme in Scalzi's work is his engagement with re-purposing classic genres, this time murder mystery. It's also, in a way that appeals to me, an anti-zombie premise. Zombies are stripped of their mind, their identity, and their bodies just churn forward, based on a simple need to feed. Hadens, on the other hand, retain their identities and minds even as their bodies cease to respond.

Finally - I totally blew it in my review in two instances. The minor one was that I revised the review just before publishing, and I forgot there's a hilarious appearance of a wheelchair in the book. Just one. Originally, though, I wrote, "Technically, no wheelchairs appear ..." Oops.

More interestingly, I entirely missed that the main character, Chris Shane, is intentionally gender neutral. Scalzi uses no pronouns. There's no description of a human body. But I, a man, reading a book written by a man, with the surname Chris, assumed male. That was my mistake.


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