Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Being Human ...

Joseph Merrick, Elephant Man.

I think there are two types of people in the world. There are cat people and dog people. No, sorry, being flippant there. Start again ...

There are two types of people. There are people who find anything and anyone who is different threatening, they hate change. And then there are the people who are curious about the world and invite experiences because they welcome change.

Science Fiction writers and readers, by definition, are in the second category.

Many years ago I read a book called 'Freaks', (nowadays it would not be published under this title, the authors were referring to how the disabled made their living in earlier times). Joseph Merrick was one of the people featured in the book. I remember coming away from reading this with a profound respect for these people and one line always stayed with me. 'No one loves Coffey for himself.' That quote is from memory after 30 years. Coffey worked for Barnum and Bailey and I think he was the 'Man with Rubber Skin'. I don't remember, I just remember Coffey wishing someone could see past the disability to the person inside. Having said that, the people who worked as Freaks formed a tight knit community and accepted each other.

Here is an article by Mike Treder, on how we (I think he means Western Society in First World Countries) are getting better at accepting the differences in people. He says, 'We have learned to accept differences in appearance caused by nature or by accident. And we are getting better about appreciating the diversity of bodily expression that modern society has brought. But all this is only the beginning.'

He quotes Elephant Man, 'I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!'

As writers, we portray people. We sometimes write from a male perspective, or female, or child of either gender, irrespective of our gender or age. If we are Speculative Fiction writers, we'll write from the View Point (VP) of characters who are not human, dragons, elves, aliens and Artificial Intelligences (AIs). Backw hen her First Earth Sea book was published, Ursula K Le Guin was congratulated for writing about coloured characters. Before this, most fantasy had been populated by 'pasty white guys', to quote Ursula.

How often do we write about people who are disabled? (Differently-abled, if you want me to be politically correct). George RR Martin writes from the VP of Tyrion, the dwarf. When I met George at World Con in 2005, I told him Tyrion was my favourite character in the Fire and Ice series. He confessed, Tyrion was his, too.

I have a small, genderless character in my Shallow Sea series, which is currently with my agent. One of the 'Twisted', the character is not pretty and charming, but ugly to outsiders and resentful of them. And I thoroughly enjoyed writing from this character's VP. I really hope this series gets picked up by a publisher. Maybe, if Mike Treder is correct, it will, since I'm exploring what makes us human and how we treat differently-abled people.

Maybe Spec Fic readers will enjoy my Twisted character and sympathize with their frustrations. But the people who most need to learn how to empathise with others won't be reading my Shallow Sea series, or any other books about AIs, Aliens, or Orcs, because they find anything different frightening. How do you reach people who reject difference and want to live in mental strait jackets?

I used to judge a children's writing Competition for World Vision, short stories and poetry by children on the topic of refugees, persecution and hungry children. I'll never forget one 10 year-old boy who said at the end of his essay, 'Why can't we all just be a little bit nicer to each other?'

What led you to becoming a reader/writer of Speculative Fiction? Have you read any interesting depictions of characters who weren't the traditional hero/heroine? Lois McMaster Bujold's classic series about Miles Vorksigan springs to mind.


Mike said...

Different genre, but try George Chesbro's Mongo series -- "Dr. Robert Frederickson, also known as Mongo the Magnificent, is a criminologist, ex-circus headliner, martial-arts expert, and private eye, who also happens to be a dwarf." I've seen them shelved in horror and mystery.

Anonymous said...

I have a story which features a girl with a polio shoulder in the 1940s who can call the wind. Sarah actually published it in Something Magic This Way Comes.

While I have other characters I love, Martha Jane is my all-time favorite one. She is actually based on my Aunt Frances who passed away roughly 25 years ago. Knowing her all of my childhood (that happens with relatives, you know), I heard a lot about how it was to grow up in those times with a physical difference. It was an eye opener for me, a child/young adult trying to get a good bead on the world. I tried to portray what I knew of it accurately.

I respect writers who go there, but I don't like it when writers go "too far" in the other direction and make folks with differences total victims and/or otherwise unflawed people. That will knock me out of a story quickly.

As far as other works of this type, I know I've read them, but they're not coming to mind. I suspect that has more to do with a fried brain than unmemorable works.

Anonymous said...

Whoops. That was me.

Linda Davis

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I guessed it was you, Linda. :->

I am with on how these characters are portrayed. The thing about the internet is that you engage with the mind, not the physical presence of a person.

A friend of mine had a crippling disability, but when you chatted via email and e-lists with him, his intellect shone through. There was also his black humour, which I think you need to survive something like this.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


George Chesbro's series sounds interesting. I'll look out for it.

Chris McMahon said...

There was a book I read a few years ago - The Blind Knight - I can't remember the author, but it was nicely done. I guess blindness is a bit tame as the range of disabilities go, but being able to swing a blade effectively was pretty cool.

Along the same line there was Blind Fury with Rutger Hauer, and also Zatoichi -- the Blind Warrior -- with Tekashi Kitano -- what a classic!

Chris McMahon said...

I remembered that book - The Blind Knight by Gail Van Asten. Its kind of quirky, but is in my hall of fame.

The other thing I just remember is a series of spoof martial arts action films starring Weng Weng - a dwarf 2'9'' tall - who did everything (yes everything) James Bond would do. You have to see it to believe it:)

Kate said...

PTerry. Carrot is a disabled dwarf. Then there's Nobby, who carries a certificate stating he's human. And the Librarian. And... Oh, never mind.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


There should be a T shirt that says. There's everyone else, and then there's Terry Pratchett.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, you must watch some interesting films!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. Only the best kind:)

Brendan said...

Don't forget Casanunder the dwarf. The Disk's Greatest Lover(as long as he can find a ladder)

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