There’s a scene in X-Men: The Last Stand in which the mutant superheroes Rogue and Storm have a conversation about a possible cure for the X-gene which creates mutants.
Rogue: Is it true? They can cure us?
Professor X: Yes, Rogue. It appears to be true.
Storm: No. Professor. They can’t cure us. You wanna know why? Because there’s nothing to cure. Nothing’s wrong with you. Or any of us, for that matter.
Though the mutant cure storyline was is most often read as a queerness and homophobia metaphor, it, like most of the run of the X-Men, has also been read over the years as a metaphor for not just for homophobia, but also racism and ableism. Bloggers have written about how this scene is representative of how different people with disabilities benefit from either the social or medical models of disability. For many years, magical or science fiction powers—especially those of the X-Men universe—have provided one of the primary ways we read about disability in speculative fiction. Metaphorical disabilities abound, while real disabilities such as blindness or paraplegia are compensated for with phenomenal cosmic power.
Stranger offers an unusual glimpse of a world which has both mutant-power-as-disability-metaphor and real world chronic pain and injury.
Stranger opens with Ross Juarez running for his life in a deadly environment. Generations have passed since the apocalyptic events shattered civilization and Changed some humans, plants, and animals into new and unusual forms. The plants and animals have evolved into new, frequently deadly and disturbingly intelligent forms. Meanwhile, human Changes more resemble comic book mutant powers; most are unique and unusual, such as the ability to see long distances, run at inhuman speeds, or mold metal by hand. Ross’s part of the world, near what was once Los Angeles, is divided into territories held by those who are strong enough to keep them from invaders. Fleeing from the warlord Voske and gravely injured, Ross is lucky enough to come upon Las Anclas, a rare town where both Changed people and Norms live and govern side by side. In Las Anclas, a wonderfully diverse group of teenagers deal both with all the usual YA traumas of coming-of-age, as well as the mysteries and dangers of their own world. Refreshingly, though the world of Stranger is post-apocalyptic, it is in no way dystopian. Whatever the changes that turned our world into Ross’s, the people of Las Anclas have built a new micro-society rich with pragmatism, love, and found families.
I have injuries which in some way parallel Ross’s. In his flight from Voske, Ross is injured by one of his world’s deadly meat-eating singing trees: a shard of killer tree, thrust in through his wrist, attempts to devour him. Though he survives and escapes, the damage to his arm is severe and possibly permanent. Ross lives with loss of function and some amount of occurring pain. I also live with chronic pain and lost function in my arms and hands due to an old injury, and I was curious to see how such a non-standard physical injury would be represented in fiction. Speculative fiction tends to focus on a small number of physical injuries: blindness and paraplegia are both common. The most obvious example that comes to my mind for pain and lost function from an injured hand is Menolly from Anne McCaffrey’s 1976 and 1977 Harper Hall books. In other words, it’s not that commonly used a trope.
My reading of Ross’s injury is mixed, but most of my negative reactions to the way it’s represented are because of my personal response to the injury. From a narrative point of view, Stranger represents a case where verisimilitude—the appearance of plausibility—succeeds where a more realistic representation might have failed. Before reaching Los Anclas, Ross is an orphaned prospector. He lives by his wits and his physical skills in a deadly world where even children are trained to fight for their lives. Once his arm is healed of the immediate life-threatening danger, the dangerous new weakness in his left side should be terrifying for him, at least at first. If the novel were to focus on realism, rather than a compelling story, then it would likely take quite some time before Ross would not be overwhelmed on a constant basis with things he can’t do. He’s a young man who has survived on his own and needed to strengthen his body to survive, and a sudden, probably permanent weakness should be distracting him at all hours of the day.
Yet that would make a far worse novel, and in many ways, a far worse representation of disability. The novel’s not about Ross coming to terms with lost function. It’s about Ross finding a new family in a gorgeous (if unevenly constructed) post-apocalyptic world. Ross thinks about the new weakness in his hand when it’s necessary because of the novel’s events: when he wakes up after his injury; when he makes plans for his future; when the doctor gives him physical therapy exercises; when he adjusts his combat moves during training; when he needs help with the tasks of daily Las Anclas living; when he fails his comrades in a dangerous situation. If Ross realistically thought about his hand every time he had to open a door, lift a cup, button his trousers, and scratch his nose, Stranger would go from being a novel about Ross encountering this critical moment in Las Anclas history, and would become a book about issues, about injury and physical therapy. Now, problem novels with the goal of exploring important issues are not bad things to exist in the world, and there’s a real value to them. But that’s not what this book is, and that’s what I mean when I say that verisimilitude and the power of narrative are more important here than the realistic shock of a massive new injury.
That being said, I wish Ross felt more pain through the novel. There are perfectly valid in-world science fictional reasons why Ross’s pain is minimal. For that matter, there are plenty of reasons in the real world why a person might get an injury which causes a massive loss of function without too much pain. Nonetheless, I wanted to see how this very pragmatic, tough-minded hero would react to the constant background noise of pain which so many of us know. Instead, Ross’s pain is limited to occasional aches from overuse (and some in-world magic). His injury causes loss of function, but doesn’t cause chronic pain, per se. Ross can make his arm hurt through his actions, but he can also avoid that pain, and usually manages to.
Let’s switch gears briefly to intersectionality, and social justice-based readings which aren’t about disability. The book is a charm of representation. Its only sin is that, in doing such a good job of representing the diversity of the contemporary world, the futuristic worldbuilding suffers (about which more below). There are multiple queer characters: gay, bi, and demisexual, as well as a polyamorous relationship, and characters who are genderqueer to the extent that’s a meaningful concept in a world with somewhat different gender roles. This is also a world with a wide variety of characters of color. Yet in Las Anclas, many generations after the cataclysm, with people living in small, enclosed communities chock-full of intermarriage, the cultural markers of our world stand out as oddly untouched. Tatyana Koslova trains her rats in Russian, even though there doesn’t appear to be a Russian-speaking ethnic enclave in this tiny town. Sujata Vardam wears a sari while her parents serve chapati; after generations of intermarriage, why isn’t there a Gutierrez in a sari? Rivkah Lowenstein makes a brisket and a challah and celebrates Shabbat, while Rabbi Litvak ministers to the community; even in our world there are plenty of Jewish people named Johanssen and Graham and Lee.
Las Anclas is a utopian world, despite the civilization-destroying apocalypse. It lacks racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, qualms about intermarriage, or other prejudices (except against the Changed). In such a beautifully blended world (and one with a small enough population that it surely can’t support closed ethnic enclaves), culture should be less represented by stereotyped shorthand. But it’s a minor quibble, for all that. Where it detracts from verisimilitude, the diverse casting vastly improves other aspects of the book, creating a world that isn’t staffed with a cast of characters straight out of 1950s television. Ultimately, all other dystopias are also informed by contemporary culture, and Stranger only stands out because it’s informed by a more genuine, beautiful, diverse mirror of the world.
In short: Read it.