Disability, Technology and the Stuff of Science Fiction

Stuart Murray

William Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral starts with protagonist Flynne Fisher walking towards an old Airstream trailer at the end of her garden. Flynne is a gamer in a near-future small American town, a for-hire surrogate who provides security in virtual gaming worlds, and the Airstream is the physical base from which she operates, navigating her way into a troubling world of haptics, telepresence and shadowy capitalism, recognisable elements for readers familiar with Gibson’s exploration of the complexities of future technologies.

The Peripheral is typical Gibson, dazzling with its imaginative creation of immersive environments but always with gritty undertones borrowed from classic noir fiction of the 1930s. His writing possesses another notable characteristic however, a continued fascination with the stuff of the future, not only the technology that (in this novel) makes extraordinary time travel possible, but also the weirdly material world of objects that fill numerous scenes.

In the Airstream trailer, the stuff is polymer foam. Initially used to expand and provide insulation, a more recent (‘Chinese’) flexible polymer is sprayed throughout – ‘like washing out Tupperware’ – in the present of the novel’s setting. The story moves on after this short description, but the polymer stays in the mind, with its very particular detail a strange resonance.

It is a moment where everyday materials come into focus. Polymer is classic Gibson, filling cracks and spreading over surfaces, but his fiction is full of these fascinations. In Neuromancer (1984), Gibson imagined cyberspace and the idea of hacking, yet the extraordinary technological possibilities explored in that novel sit side by side with a future world full of often ordinary stuff – lingering details of (to continue the theme) Styrofoam cups and cheap rolled foam mattresses. Gibson likes foam, especially when, as part of his wider fictional design, it signals a sort of transitory edge-of-working-class grunge lack of luxury.

Disability is everywhere in Gibson’s writing (surprisingly, this doesn’t figure in critical work on his fiction). In The Peripheral, the Airstream is owned by Flynne’s brother Burton, and is a safe space for a character traumatised in a recent war (the novel mentions PTSD, phantom limbs and disability in its first six lines), while another character – Connor – who has multiple physical disabilities from his part in the conflict becomes ‘re-embodied’ through participation in the future as a peripheral, an extension of self that is created through telepresence. Disability may be constantly at the edge of Gibson’s narratives, but it is often centrally important to the storylines. Body extensions and modifications, online personas that ‘hide’ impairments, and processes of data and pattern recognition that suggest autism, are all common.

And these characters and bodies are all overlaid and interwoven with stuff. Recent critical work that examines the meaning of stuff, as a specific form of objects and things, stresses its curious in-between nature; not quite important enough to be an ‘artefact’, but nonetheless material. As a result, as Daniel Miller notes in his book Stuff, it provokes a ‘challenge to our common-sense opposition between the person and the thing, the animate and inanimate, the subject and the object’. This challenge evokes the critique disability practises, not only to normative bodies, but also to assumed relationships between disabled selfhood and technology. Recently, I watched again Regan Brashear’s wonderful 2013 documentary Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement and was struck by how intelligently the film positions questions of the social impact of future technologies. Brashear juxtaposes the giddy excitement of transhumanists fixated on body upgrades with the stuff of disability lives (wheelchair batteries that don’t work), and sets military-led prosthetics design against what scholar and disability activist Gregor Wolbring (interviewed in the film and shown with the low-tech, everyday stuff of his home) has eloquently termed the ‘ability expectations’ of many emerging technologies. Fixed asks us to think about how we conceive the connections between people and objects, especially technologies that appear to naturally suggest ‘progress’.

Book cover of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Science fiction has explored these connections for decades. In his 1962 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K Dick coined a word for stuff: kipple. Kipple, character John R Isidore explains, is ‘useless objects’, the kind of material that just turns up – paperwork, detritus, leftover technology – almost without origin. If kipple is left untouched, Isidore continues, it multiplies: ‘it always gets more and more’. He adds: ‘no one can win against kipple […] the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization’. In a world dying through overuse, Dick suggests, we’re in a losing battle against stuff.

An important context here: Isidore is disabled, labelled ‘defective’ because of his exposure to radioactive fallout and frequently called a ‘chickenhead’, an analogy that centres on assumptions of his supposed cognitive impairment. But when not called chickenhead, Isidore is termed ‘special’, and the word’s dual meaning alludes to his moral code and the empathy he displays to the novel’s androids. In addition, Isidore keeps kipple at bay, achieving a ‘stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple’ in his apartment. Isidore’s exceptionalism, Dick stresses, is not any kind of deficit but rather the ability to manage the stuff destroying the planet.

Gibson casually drops the word kipple across his fiction, acknowledging Dick’s prescience in understanding the importance of stuff. But where Gibson sees polymer gloss and the cyberpunk gleam of body parts, Dick writes stuff differently. Gibson’s foam is strange, but useful and weirdly attractive; Dick’s kipple will devour the universe. But if Gibson’s disabled characters are always pulled towards the shape (or memory) of wholeness, Isidore interacts with and regulates the stuff of the world. It’s an everyday, ordinary example of Miller’s challenge maybe, but without doubt a disability rethinking of subject and object, people and the stuff of technology.

Related reading

Adam Pottle – ‘Segregating the Chickenheads: Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the Post/humanism of the American Eugenics Movement’, Disability Studies Quarterly: