Last week I reviewed the service dog representation in Mary Robinette Kowal’s murder mystery in space. I thought Ms. Kowal did a fantastic job. Read why here.
This week I’d like to take a look at how the book portrays life with invisible disabilities, examining main character Tesla Crane’s personal experiences and social interactions. Visible evidence of “otherness” has its consequences, of course. But when people can’t see or don’t recognize your needs you encounter a different set of challenges.
Tesla Crane’s Disabilities
Due to a traumatic laboratory disaster robotics expert and tech magnate Tesla Crane has a skeleton being held together by metal rods and pins. She experiences balance issues, chronic pain, and limited mobility. she can’t lift much weight, either. All of these add up to interfering with a wide variety of basic self-care and daily life activities.
Also resulting from the accident, Tesla suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, there is a lot of debate around whether or not mental health disorders ought to be legally classified as disabilities, for the purpose of receiving benefits and accommodations. But there is no doubt that PTSD can be extremely debilitating. So, for the purposes of this article I am including it in the category of “disability.” And, just like her other injuries, it is invisible to the casual observer.
By the time we enter Tesla Crane’s life she has kicked a drug addiction gained while trying to manage the pain of her injuries, and exchanged it for a brain implant that impacts her nerves’ ability to communicate pain to her conscious mind. She can change the setting to control whether her pain is a dull back-of-the-mind ache or a burning, raging fire, but the pain never fully goes away.
And, of course, there are consequences to using the Deep Brain Stimulator. It doesn’t just turn off pain receptors, it restricts the flow of almost all sensory information to the brain. While Tesla might not feel the pain of her metal spine, she would also miss out on the feeling of having her feet firmly planted on the floor, or the heat from a cup of coffee. Pain and discomfort warn us of all kinds of changes in our environment and ourselves. Going without it, or even reducing our awareness of it can have serious consequences. If Telsa wants to reduce the pain enough to hurry to catch up to someone, lift her luggage, or try a yoga class she would have to sacrifice her awareness of scraping her leg or the soft boop of Gimlet’s nose.
I’ve never met a piece of assistive technology or a medical device that gave functionality without taking something away. Canes and wheelchairs take away anonymity and can give bruises and posture problems. Hearing aids can give headaches, oxygen tanks and screen readers and walkers and grasping devices all take effort or cause minor discomfort that must be contended with. What a person with a disability does and does not choose to use to support themselves is ultimately determined by their own personal cost-benefit analysis.
Tesla is financially well-off, and so she has pretty fancy assistive devices. Ms. Kowal makes no bones about her character’s privilege, and that in and of itself is interesting to see. The idea of being able to afford all that we need to support ourselves can be a fun daydream, so If ound this book to be a nice piece of escapism. And that is one of the reasons I read novels.
Tesla and the Public Blindness
Tesla Crane is traveling incognito so she can enjoy some privacy on her honeymoon without paparazzi and her social network of fans. This means that she foregoes any awareness of her disabilities that her name recognition might have afforded her throughout most of the book. Sadly, it doesn’t keep one particularly antagonistic character from doubting their existence despite lots of public documentation of the accident.
But throughout most of the book Tesla has to repeatedly advocate for her needs, explain odd behaviors, and ask for help from total strangers, bearing deeply personal medical and traumatic details for their evaluation. This wears on the body and soul, having to constantly expose oneself in order to function safely and effectively in society. I found Tesla’s rich inner monologue about her experiences, others’ reactions, and the toll it takes on her to be both relatable and clarifying. Ms. Kowal puts into words feelings of fear, weight, dread of emotional labor, and exhaustion that I know all too well.
Ms. kowal does an exquisite job of exposing how every-day ablist behaviors continually avoid detection by their well-meaning perpetrators and impact those whose burdens of mind and body aren’t readily apparent. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a way to examine their own habits in search of better ways to treat the hidden members of the disability community lurking in their own social circles. I also recommend it to lovers of science fiction, murder mysteries, cocktails, and cute dogs.
Today your favorite blindfluencer asks “what book should I review next?” Share suggestions of service dog and disability fiction in the comments. Extra points for own-voices recommendations!