Contains spoilers for A Darkling Plain, so be warned!
I’ve just finished up Philip Reeve’s Hungry Cities books. They’re really good, and I’d recommend them to any young adults reading, or anyone else who is into YA. Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain are full of complex female characters in a well-realised world, engaging with lots of ethical meatiness. The story is essentially about a future time in which there are mobile cities that move around finding smaller cities to “eat” for resources. Anti-Tractionists, meanwhile, live in static settlements and fight against the Municipal Darwinists. I have a few problems with the books, but I’ll keep it brief and address the rather irritating disability fail that starts off in Infernal Devices and runs through A Darkling Plain.
General Naga is the head of the Green Storm, which is the dominant Anti-Tractionist force for a good portion of the series. He has sustained war injuries and now an exoskeleton-type device allows him to move around. It’s emphasised that he’s a good and honourable man, gracious to all and working for peace. Well, up until he thinks Lady Naga has been working for the other side, at which point he is violent towards her, imprisons her and turns back to war. Almost inevitably, there is disability fail. To focus on the last book, (because that contains most of the references to General Naga, and because that’s the only one I have to hand!) alarm bells were ringing for me on page 35. Here is what goes through the mind of young Anti-Tractionist Theo Ngoni as he converses with General Naga’s wife, Lady Naga (aka Dr Oenone Zero):
‘He had seen Naga; a fierce warrior who clanked around inside a motorized metal exoskeleton to compensate for his lost right arm and crippled legs. He could not imagine that Dr Zero had been in love with him. It must have been fear, or lust for power, that had made her say yes.’
At this point, I thought, of course not. It’s going to turn out that she really loves him and married him for who he is, and this is just to set up breaking down that perception of unlovableness, right? Wrong. ‘She did not love him. She was just grateful for his protection, and glad that the leadership of the Great Storm had passed into the hands of a decent man. That was why she had been unable to say no when he asked her to be his wife.’ Naturally, a woman marrying for security. Part of my mind says that plays into the complexity of the relationships in these books, and it’s good to read something written for young people in which the happily ever afters aren’t really. Another part is thinking about how this sort of thing happens over and over again in popular culture, you know, where a disabled character isn’t being loved despite their being disabled or something.
And it goes on much like that, really, with lots of references to the crippled man! with his unrequited love! and he’s ‘half a man, wrapped up in clanking armour,’ according to one character, did we mention?
General Naga sacrifices himself in the end for the greater good, which frees young, unblemished Lady Naga from her horrid situation (tripping the sarcasm detector there). This “the cripple must die” dynamic that comes up so much in popular culture is really troubling, because its prevalence is just another betrayal of the societal view that disability is totes the worst thing ever and how can you live like that and why won’t you die and stop messing up my pretty world?! At the same time, he dies a hero, saving the people of London, following an illustrious career. Which is not exactly nice, but something.
What stories like this do is assume an abled readership. At least, I hope so, because consciously putting all this stuff onto young disabled people is a bit much. If a good part of writing fantasy/SF/spec for young people is to assist them in escaping and building up their imaginations and experiences, where are disabled youth to live out fantasy lives? Disabled youth are quite as deserving of an imaginative playground in which to develop their minds and thought as anyone else. In fact, I think it’s particularly vital that people so marginalised in the world be given opportunities to work at rich internal lives. What stories like this do is present full worlds and characters, contrasted with a bundle of cliches making up the one stock disabled character, and in doing so put disabled readers in their place: not deserving of anything more than that, and aren’t you glad you got represented at all? (Hello Doctor Who!) Which is not to mention that one dimensional characters represent another way of talking down to younger people. Younger people are quite capable of relating to characters outside of tired stock character types.
And at the end of the day, I find that these representations take me out of a story and just distract me. It’s poor storytelling, often inconsistent with the quality of the writing otherwise. It’s insulting to the audience, disabled and abled, young and old and in between.