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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Disability in Fiction: Astra

Astra by Naomi Foyle (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014)

Astra by Naomi Foyle is a beguiling and absorbing sci-fi/fantasy novel set in a post-apocalyptic eco-utopia. It tells the compelling story of what happens when a young girl's inquisitiveness, bravery and innocence collide with an adult world of distrust, manipulation and secrecy.It also happens to be an uplifting celebration of bodily diversity and an illustration of the 'social model' of disability in action.

Astra is full of characters with what our society might call 'imperfect' or 'incomplete' bodies. One of Astra's shelter mothers, Hokma, is missing an eye, Astra's shelter father Klor has a prosthetic leg and her primary school teacher uses a wheelchair. But in Is-Land none of these characters are disabled. The hi-tech yet resolutely natural world in which they live is perfectly  accessible to all of them because it has been created with bodily difference at its core. Many of the features which Foyle has invented for her fictional world could be usefully deployed in our real one to make homes, offices, gardens and information technology more welcoming spaces for all the people who use them.

The character of Hokma is particularly interesting. Although she is offered a prosthetic eye after her injury, she prefers to wear an eye patch. Like my teenage self, she refuses to hide her 'impairment' so instead she celebrates it by wearing a variety of beautifully hand-made patches which she co-ordinates with her moods. Hokma is one of the book's pivotal characters. She is powerful, brave and intelligent. Beyond reference to her eye patches, her half-blindness is barely mentioned. This is not because she is ashamed of it. Nor is it because others find it difficult to talk about. It is because blindness is not a tragedy in Is-Land. It is a bodily difference like any other, neither negative nor positive, just there. 

Hokma is clever enough to know that not everyone sees her blindness as a simple fact. Her sinister brother is so unenlightened that he still sees her missing eye as a tragedy, something he should feel guilty about. Hokma has no qualms about using his misguided feelings against him: when she needs his help she uses references to her damaged sight to manipulate him. She is wise enough to know that disability can be used as a kind of emotional blackmail against those too weak or stupid to truly see it for what it is.

It is no coincidence that, like Hokma's brother, the book's other evil characters are those most wedded to the controversial 'medical model' of disability. The shadowy government who controls Is-Land is using a kind of high-level genetic re-coding to rid the country of birth defects of all kinds. This is a sinister and malevolent move which has echoes of both Third Reich eugenics and more recent kinds of ethic cleansing. But what I find most fascinating about this extraordinary book is the way that all the 'good' characters, including Astra and Hokma, share a refreshingly enlightened approach to bodily difference. It is as if Foyle has used her characters' attitude to disability as an indication of their importance, a kind of code which tells us which characters we can trust and which we should despise.

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