Sami Schalk didn’t plan on spending her professional life reading and watching science fiction, and she certainly never imagined she’d enjoy it. “I grew up in small town Kentucky and the only exposure I had to science fiction was pretty white and male-dominated, and mainly oriented toward outer space and conquering new planets,” she says. “It was so unrelated to my life and nothing in it represented people I was interested in or could see myself in.” A suggestion from a professor that she read Octavia Butler changed everything. “I absolutely fell in love and was so surprised! I was also a little upset that no one had told me you could do this realist speculative thing, that was Black- and women-centered, and also really experimenting with what I would consider queer forms of sexuality — not necessarily a lot of same-sex desire but with different family configurations — and sex with aliens and sex with vampires!” And so from sex with vampires, Schalk’s career was born.
Today, Schalk is a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin and writes frequently about race, disability, gender, and popular culture. Her first book, Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, dives into works by Butler and N. K. Jemisin — and less familiar names — to dig out the authors’ bold revisions about what race, ability, and gender mean now and could mean in the future. Schalk believes today’s mainstream science fiction erases disability in the same way some early utopian science fiction erased racial differences, even as our history proves that disabled people have always been the ones pushing technology into the future.
You discovered Octavia Butler and speculative fiction kind of late in the game. Did enjoying those works lead you to less obviously political science fiction? Are you a fan of science fiction in general now?
I'm still pretty focused on work that is, if not explicitly political, at least work that's written by women of color, queer folks, disabled folks. When I first started my academic career, and I felt like I had to know everything, people would tell books all the time, “You should read this and you should read that,” and I’d say, “I’ll put it on the list.” But at this point, I'm probably not going to read that white guy's book. It might be really good, I'm probably not going to read it because there's so much really good work out there by marginalized people. It is a rare day that I read a white man's book, it really is.
You haven't read Isaac Asimov and that's fine, you'll just go to your grave without reading him.
Nope. Yeah, I haven't read him, don't intend to do it. I've read histories of science fiction and I've done my research work but I haven't read many of the classic texts in the genre and I really truly don't intend to.
You mentioned work by disabled people. I recently saw a headline that really crystalized, for me, how disability rights and science fiction intersect: “Staircases in Space: Why Are Places in Science Fiction Not Wheelchair-Accessible?” I mean, this is an excellent question, because it gets right to the way that people who write about the future have largely assumed that either disability won’t exist (it’ll be “cured”) or that disabled people won’t exist.
All literature, anything's that's produced in our culture, is going to be pushing back or it's going reflect an assumed norm. The assumed norm in our culture is that everyone wants to be not just able-bodied but as hyper-able as possible. That was also part of my discomfort with early science fiction I was exposed to as a kid. It seemed like it was all about who could gain the most powers and abilities, that of course that’s what everyone wants. The message was about how powerful and cool and empowered we will be, how we’re going to do all of these things — and there was less about how we get there, less about the realities of the human body. We just go to 2000 years in the future where we just figured it out.
I like the science fiction that's in the realm of more near futures, where we’re in the process of figuring it out.
Your book looks at works by black women, and people should definitely read those, but I wonder if you can talk about the ways mass market, mainstream science fiction has dealt with disability. Or not dealt with it.
The most well-known example of that is Avatar. So we have this wheelchair user — and then for the majority of the film, we don't see him in a wheelchair. Technically, he is disabled, but at a certain point, we almost forget it and then at the end of the film, he transfers out of that disabled body. The reward for him being a good white savior guy is that he gets to leave his disabled body behind. This is also true in Source Code. Jake Gyllenhaal's character is a disabled person who's being sustained on this new technology, and then, in the end, he's released into this technologically-created non-disabled body as a reward for being a white male veteran hero.
What we see [in mainstream science fiction] is disability appearing and then quickly disappearing back into able-bodiedness via either powers or technology. It shows that there's not an investment in actually figuring out anything about disabled people and their lives. It’s much more about making us feel better as a majority non-disabled audience. “OK, in the future technology will save us all from having to sit with any of our ableist discomfort about looking at a disabled person's body or dealing with a mentally disabled person's behaviors or embodiment." Early work in disability studies in science fiction has really talked about this a lot; science fiction actually seems obsessed with disability, just obsessed with preventing, curing, fixing disability, erasing disability.
I think, as a culture, we’ve progressed beyond thinking being "color-blind" is the solution to racism, but people not well-versed in disability rights might not understand why “curing” disability is misguided in the same way. We’re supposed to want cures for things, right?
That assumes that disabled lives are inherently worse than non-disabled lives. It assumes everyone would want to be able-bodied because having a disability is inherently, unquestionably bad, that there is nothing to be gained, no knowledge, no experience, no understanding of the world that is to be gained by being disabled.
But the history of technological advancement has often been advancements for people with disabilities. The telephone was developed for deaf folks, all of the speech-to-text technology that we use on our phone was developed for people who couldn't type. The assumption that technology is going to cure all disability and that's what we want erases how that people with disabilities have been technological advancers and inventors for so long, and continue to use technology to be in this world. The idea that technology erases disability versus allowing disabled people to more actively participate in our society comes from the fact that so few people have real relationships with disabled people who are happily living their lives.
I’ve come to realize that in a lot the science fiction that I still love, physical disabilities and body variations, in general, are assumed to be problems that will be fixed—there aren’t any fat people in utopia.
One of the things that reveals is an unquestioned assumption that the only way that we can all get along is if we're all exactly the same. That if there is a difference, we will find a way to marginalize it or lift it up as above others. So a lot of science fiction just envisions a world where we've erased most differences, versus being able to accept differences and support people in different ways. We just declare nope, everyone's body will be the same, will do the same things.
So much early science fiction — especially early feminist science fiction, which I still love — would just create a world where everyone's just this nice golden-brown color. When you just erase differences in skin tone like that, it doesn't tell us how we get to the point of actually accepting difference. And there will always be difference, no matter what we call it, no matter which ones we prioritize, so how do we actually learn to live with and accept difference versus making all bodies, all people, all desires, all abilities exactly the same?