Disability in Science Fiction Literature: A Reflection on Technology and Mental Disabilities

  • Philip Albert Steiner Karl-Franzens University


Disability in SF novels is a quite multifaceted phenomenon. On the one hand, many positivistic fictional visions of the future simply avoid disabilities, presuming that one day humanity will be able to cure any disability through advanced medicine and technology. On the other hand, however, many SF authors speculate about disabilities that such highly developed societies could bring forth. Consequently, a frequently underlined assumption is, that every society, no matter how highly developed, has its own unique set of disabilities.

 In this short reflection, I aim to highlight notions of disability in works by Isaac Asimov, William Gibson and Dan Simmons. The texts which I will touch upon are, Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov, Neuromancer, "Wintermarket" and "Dog Fight" by William Gibson ( and in the case of "Dogfight" also Michael Swanwick), and  The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. In these stories, the authors portray different forms of disabilities, some of which are decisively speculative concerning the future of human societies. In Robots and Empire, Asimov foregrounds a number of hypothetical mental disabilities each of which is causally connected to a certain path that human social development could take. Gibson's stories foreground the treatment of disabilities through technology and biotechnology and the possible shortcomings of such applications. Lastly, Simmons in The Hyperion Cantos deals with disabilities well known to today's societies, displaying them in futuristic and often metaphoric form.

What all of these texts have in common is the theme of technology overdependency. Will the positivistic urge to eliminate disabilities through technology, lead human evolution into a downward spiral? Are our human shortcomings, the boundaries of our mortal flesh, necessary? These are the questions that Asimov, Gibson and Simmons deal with. The goal of this reflection is to highlight these diverse visions.

Author Biography

Philip Albert Steiner, Karl-Franzens University


Currently enrolled in:

MA Joint Degree in English and American Studies

Teacher training program in English and psychology/philosophy at Karl-Franzens-University Graz