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Choosing The Best Possible Future: Thoughts on the Accessible Futures Contest at Its Close

It’s also true that some people with disabilities don’t want to have their embodiment normalized. This can be difficult for able bodied people to understand. Not all deaf people who could be made to hear through cochlear implants choose to do so. Some chair users consider their way of moving through the world as a part of who they are, and don’t wish to walk. How we live in the world in large part determines who we understand ourselves to be, and not every disabled person wants her or his embodiment altered to conform to ideals of normativity.

After another lull in submissions, a third wave of stories came in just before the deadline. Well, maybe not a wave… more of a deluge. The bulk of the work we read came in during this period. It was in these stories that we found the submissions that best met the contest call: The submissions should portray disability as a simple fact, not as something to be overcome or something to explain why a character is evil. The submissions should also incorporate the portrayal of disability in a world where universal access is a shared cultural value. There were some beautifully imagined alternate worlds: survivors of a wrecked ship adapted to life under water on one of Jupiter’s moons, a blind artist used new technologies to sculpt trees out of water, a brother and sister scrambled their way through a post-apocalyptic city to find a fully accessible utopia being built by people of all embodiments and abilities.

There were good stories in every wave of submissions, and several times during the process that we thought a certain piece would probably be the eventual winner. But then more new work would come in, and a good story would be bumped by a slightly better story. There were times when two stories competed on different merits; one better written, the other with a more compelling vision of a fully accessible future. I’ve helped to judge several other contests, and in none of them was there such a preponderance of really good work. We had an embarrassment of riches, and for a long time it seemed that it might be impossible to chose a single piece and call it “the best.”

But then Nick Wood’s story “Lunar Voices” made its way up through the pile, and I knew we had our winner. A story that stood out even among so many other well-written, creatively conceived entries for many reasons. The writing was strong. The characters were well-developed. The setting was beautifully rendered. The plot combined imbued a classic trope of science fiction—the characters potentially stranded in hostile terrain, relying on their innate abilities to reach safety—with new and interesting possibilities.

And it got the idea of full accessibility right; more right than I could have gotten it, if I had been an entrant in the contest instead of a judge. (That’s right, I would most definitely NOT have won this contest. Just like all the others I have entered.) I don’t want to give away too much detail, in case you’ve decided to read this essay before you read “Lunar Voices,” but I do want to point out a few very praiseworthy things.

For me, as a judge, the true magic of this story is the way in which disability is woven into the story as an important—and authentically portrayed—detail in the development of Mary as a character without ever becoming the most important detail we learn about her. (I found competence is the defining element of her character.) This reminded me that we live in a world where many disabilities have been fully accommodated and so recede in their importance: in a world without corrective lenses, for instance, my mother would never be able to drive a car. And yet glasses are so common that we don’t think of those who wear them as disabled persons accessing assistive technologies. I felt the same way about Mary’s deafness in the world and time of this story; it was a fact, a detail like glasses, and not any longer something “disabling.”

And yet, although Mary’s deafness receded from the foreground of the story, it didn’t disappear. She wasn’t made into a hearing person, rather, technology allowed her to live as a deaf person and to retain her own language. If there is a single master stroke in this story, a detail which I would identify as being the reason it rose above the competition, it was the author’s choice to have Mary speak in British Sign Language instead of Signed Exact English.

When I got to Mary’s first line of dialogue in the story, I knew we had a winner.

“Beautiful, burning now, both before we be; and after we be; yet not caring *if* we be”

This is the sort of decision that is always the difference between good and great writing. It also requires a depth of knowledge on the part of the writer that most of us don’t have. If Dr. Wood is deaf, he did not disclose this in any of our correspondence, but he did share that he had studied British Sign Language. It’s well-worn advice, but bears repeating, “Write what you know.” Dr. Wood’s obvious knowledge of and comfort with writing in the grammar and structure of British Sign Language are really what set this piece apart.

I’m very honored that so many of you allowed me to read your work, and I hope you’ll take to heart my assurance that we really did have a very big “this could be the one” pile. Read them over again, find the details that could elevate your piece, and send it off to other journals. We saw a lot of publishable work. And we’d like to see it again, out there in the world where other people can see it, too.

Thank you for your submissions,
Sarah

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3 comments

1 Redstone Science Fiction #4, September 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 09.01.10 at 11:44 am }

[…] Choosing The Best Possible Future: Thoughts on the Accessible Futures Contest at Its Close by Sarah […]

2 Editor’s Note – September 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 09.02.10 at 1:34 pm }

[…] incorporating the use of British Sign Language into a story of lunar isolation and solar radiation. Sarah’s essay on the contest provides some insight into the contest process and why Dr. Wood’s story embodied the […]

3 Christopher { 09.03.10 at 11:32 am }

“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” – Stu Ungar

That’s always been my problem with writing competitions, both as admin and contestant.

“Wow, I’m such a hack. I will never write anything as beautiful or thoughtful as this. I should stop trying.”

I’ve never felt this way. Great writing inspires me. And frankly, I’m not sure if I believe you.

“Seriously? This piece of shit beat my own well-developed, compelling work?

Yeah, about 96 percent of the time. Someone should study what it is that binds writers so strongly to their own work. A whole “self-publishing” scam industry has sprung up to feed on this grand delusion, so I know it’s not just me.

“Well, this is also a very good piece—maybe better than my piece, maybe not, but I can see what the editors were looking for and why they chose it. I’m glad they did, so that I had the opportunity to read it.”

Maybe once or twice.

The problem with the theme for me was that I couldn’t get my head around a disability having no impact on a person’s goodness or badness, strengths or weaknesses, i.e. character. Like it was almost ironic or paradoxical to try to approach. Made me feel like I had to tippy-toe around my disabled character to stay “correct” (and as I feel was done with Wood’s scarcely developed and so marginal Mary of Yoda-esque grammar) and focus primarily on events and technology. Like if the theme had been to incorporate a character whose race or gender or sexual orientation or wealth or poverty or ugliness or beauty or even some super-human prowess or skill had no impact on their character, I’d have been equally flummoxed. And to create any character neither good nor bad (villainous or heroic) yet still somehow deep and interesting and relatable, as in one I cared at all about, also stymied me. The only way I could think of around this was to portray the character before and after the disability. I guess I’m confessing that I wound up working around and even against the theme, but which then as a sort of anti-theme managed to inspire. So thank you, Sarah.