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How to Write Great Sci-Fi About Disability Law

John Scalzi's latest novel conjures a fantastical world where the plot revolves around the Americans With Disabilities Act—and it's gripping.
Robot night sky

About halfway through Head On, the new novel by John Scalzi, Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Chris Shane is being chewed out by the head of the Philadelphia office for wrecking a $50,000 piece of durable medical equipment while trying to save a cat from a fire. Shane's partner comes to his defense with the argument—unusual for a tense scene in a sci-fi cop drama—that, if he penalizes Shane, the chief will be "hauled up for violating the ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act]."

Shane, whose gender we never learn, is what people in this near-future America call a "Haden," or a survivor of "Haden's virus." The virus, as explained in Scalzi's free "origin-story" novella Unlocked, has infected almost three billion people, killed 400 million, and left millions—like Shane—"locked in": Shane can no longer move their body, but their mind is able to connect to both virtual realities and specially designed robots, known as "threeps" (for C-3PO). Threeps let Hadens walk around, play sports, fight, and jump into burning apartments to try and rescue cats. Threeps aren't indestructible, though, as Shane finds out again and again. Fortunately, in this case, the ADA comes to the rescue.

Robots, disembodied minds, and the future of human-technology interaction are common features in science fiction. Serious engagement with regulatory, legal, and political systems that support or threaten disabled lives is, on the other hand, extremely rare in any sort of fiction. Maybe it just doesn't strike many writers as exciting or fantastical to think through what we know about disability and society today, and then extrapolate it to futuristic scenarios. Scalzi, though, has now based two excellent near-future murder mysteries around the politics, cultures, and economics of durable medical equipment.

Scalzi is one of the most visible authors in the world of contemporary science fiction. His books are fun, and he's pleasantly prolific, with new books appearing every year. He's particularly gifted at manipulating familiar types of stories around innovative sci-fi twists. Reading his books feels at once comfortable and novel. As I read more and more of his corpus, I was surprised to discover how many of those twists involved directly addressing the fate of aging or disabled bodies as they encounter futuristic technology.

In his 2005 novel Old Man's War, Scalzi dreams up a galaxy in which senior citizens, once they reach 75 years of age, can leave Earth by signing up for the Colonial Defense Force. En route to basic training, their consciousnesses are transferred to new, bright-green, powerful bodies with computers embedded in their brains. The series is often at its most interesting as aged characters feel disconnected from their youthful bodies, struggling to make sense of their current identities. In later books in the series, the brains of spaceship pilots are wholly extracted from their bodies and implanted in ships, forced to serve as slaves serving evil forces that threaten galactic stability. Scalzi's 2012 novel Redshirts weaves complex meta-fiction about characters in a Star-Trek-like television show who discover that they are likely to die as "extras." It might sound like a silly premise, but there were moments at the end when I teared up.

The Dispatcher (2016) is a novella set in an alternate Chicago where murder has become impossible: Anyone murdered disappears from the site and re-appears, naked, in their bed at home. I don't want to spoil it, but the plot revolves around chronic illness in a world where the nature of health and injury has changed. If you get terribly hurt and can persuade (or hire) someone else to kill you quickly enough, you get reset to a pre-injury state. Suicide doesn't work though. And what about the people who aren't quick enough when they get hurt, or find themselves alone? As I listened (the novel was released initially only as an audiobook), I wanted to know much more about how disability rights might play out under this premise. Would people who got injured but refused to be murdered and rebooted lose their health care? Scalzi, limited by the length of the novella, just hits at the depth of possibilities here. I wanted more.

Head on by John Scalzi

'Head On.'

In Lock In (2014) and its new sequel, Head On, disability policy becomes central to the whole plot. Thanks to the scope of the virus' depredations, not to mention the interventions of early celebrity victims and their families, all of American society has reshaped itself around supporting the locked-in survivors of Haden's Syndrome. Massive federal subsidies and corporate investment have created the network and hardware capacity for Hadens to port into threeps, or to participate in robust virtual realities online. This collaboration among government, corporate, academic, and community organizations sounds ideal, but Scalzi soon shows how government assistance for a group of disabled people comes to cause resentment, envy, and opportunities for graft. Conventionally abled people demand access to the world of threeps, complaining that Hadens are being given unfair benefits. Businesses try to profit from government subsidies to boost their bottom lines, rather than helping people who need those subsidies.

Scalzi is a keen observer of human nature and political cultures, as evidenced by his popular non-fiction writing. The sharp, maybe unprecedented exploration of assistive technology in a major work of science fiction benefits from the author's savvy awareness of how these issues are playing out in our contemporary culture and politics. Support for marginalized people, in Head On, breeds both jealousy and opportunity for graft, both of which manifest in the world of Haden's virus. Conventionally abled people, in Scalzi's scenario, start to advocate for access to threeps and their benefits. As the second book opens, Congress has just cut funding for long-term supports and services, in part because of concerns that corporations are gaming the system and disabled people are scroungers, siphoning off resources that could be spent elsewhere.

All of these scenarios felt very plausible. As I read Head On, I not only thought back to the recent bill passed by the House of Representatives that would gut the ADA, and to the Medicaid fights of last summer, but also to a 2016 piece I wrote about crowdfunding for wheelchairs. At the time, I was reporting on the ways that technology was transforming how disabled people access the world, even as bureaucracies and costs erect new obstacles to people from marginalized spaces. Scalzi finds dramatic potential in these tensions. Shane, a billionaire's child, can wreck threeps all day long and has a gorgeous virtual personal environment in which to get away from it all. At one point, Shane encounters an ex-Haden-athlete (who played a sport in which threeps compete against each other, violently) who is forced to reside in a shoddy, pixelated virtual space because he's poor. Shane also gets asked to join a start-up that plans to rent threeps to Hadens who can no longer afford to own or refurbish a personal mobility device. Austerity is going to be bad for the people who are "locked in" and don't happen to be billionaires. In these tensions—people seeking power and profit, pitted against people scared for their basic livelihood and access to necessary assistive technology—Scalzi finds his drama.

While many works of science fiction explore the transhumanist potential of separating the mind from the body, I struggle to think of many that engage such premises through the lens of assistive technology. Anne McCaffery, one of the most famous speculative fiction authors of the 20th century, did so in her Ship Who Sang series. In McCaffery's universe, physically disabled babies are euthanized unless their minds are sufficiently exceptional. The brains of those lucky few are implanted into life-supporting shells to become organic computers, and some of them get to become spaceships and roam the universe. Those novels were published in the 1960s. I read them in the 1980s, as a teenager, and thought them marvelous. Today, I shudder. I'm not alone. In an essay titled "The Future Imperfect," Sarah Einstein explains why that universe feels so grim to contemporary readers: "In McCaffrey's world, disability is so depersonalizing that the very promising are rewarded with slavery and disembodiment; those who don't pass the test for these rewards are put to death." The problem is that McCaffery—like me as a teenage reader—didn't really understand that The Ship Who Sang isn't a tale of liberation; it's a horror story.

More generally, contemporary fiction that treats the ADA as real is fairly scarce. On Twitter, I recently joined Ari Ne'eman and a number of other criticssome of whom identify as disabled, some who don't—in racking our brains to think of any reasonably thoughtful representations of disability law in fiction. We didn't get very far. Mostly, fiction is so eager to portray gross acts of discrimination overcome by a single, towering act of heroism, that we get few truly methodical depictions of civil rights protections among protected classes of people. It doesn't have to be that way.

James Daily, author of a fun blog called "Law and the Multiverse" that explores the legal ramifications of superpowers, wrote an excellent post in 2010 about superpowers and the ADA. Daily concludes, "Many super-powered individuals (particularly mutants in the Marvel universe) face discrimination" on the basis of their identity, and so might well have ADA claims. Superhero stories are often at their best when providing unusual angles into social commentary—take the work that Netflix's Jessica Jones does on post-traumatic stress disorder and rape, especially in its first season. Daredevil can use his supranormal senses to fight bad guys, but he still can't read a digital clock face without assistive technology. Meanwhile, disabled people increasingly challenge the facile idea that obstacles can be overcome through personal heroism rather than through promoting systemic change. Let's see that play out with literal heroes. I, for one, look forward to watching Professor X face down HR 620, his greatest nemesis yet.

In the meantime, I have Head On, a future in which disability laws exist and support civil rights for some disabled Americans, but not for everyone. Meanwhile, there's a murder, and the agents at the FBI have to figure out whodunit.