Reviewed by Rachael A. Zubal-Ruggieri
Content Warning: This review contains references to themes that may trigger or distress some readers, including but not limited to abuse, Nazism, imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, violence, and ableism.
For generations, writers of sci fi and speculative fiction have asked one of the most fundamental questions in human nature: what if?
–Going Further: Imaging the Futures of Mobility, p. 2; emphasis added
What if the aliens are already among us, and one wrote a book of creepy stories about the experience?
–Koukol, Handicapsules, back cover
The notion of “what ifs” has always fascinated me. So much of what I read, watch, and listen to contains such imaginary circumstances—from Marvel’s “What If” comic issues and new animated series, the Star Trek franchise’s “Mirror Universe,” Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” the sci-fi television series, Fringe, and many more examples. It is clear I have a fascination with all the different ways one might imagine a world that might be slightly different—or very different—from my own reality, from all reality. While I have known about the genre of speculative fiction—or, Spec-Fic—I wondered: is it about “what if’s,” or is it more? In fact, the sub-genre is more—much more, overall—and with the contribution of Brian Koukol’s Handicapsules: Short Stories of Speculative Crip Lit, the genre’s interrelationship with CripLit becomes even more evident.
Handicapsules is Brian Koukol’s self-published collection of his disability-themed Spec-Fic, containing 13 works—ten previously published and three previously unpublished pieces. The published stories have appeared in a variety of places: genre-specific publications, disability literary publications (including Wordgathering), and locations that are far less than mainstream. While Spec-Fic is far from mainstream, it is definitely no less important than other genres, and it is most definitely entertaining.
Placing some disability stories—significantly, CripLit—in the realm of “unreality” (Koukol, preface), and, specifically, within Spec-Fic, offers an innovative way to share Crip narratives; doing so also creates the possibility of expressing ideas about and representations of disability much more authentically than often occurs when portraying disabled people and their experiences in literature. Koukol acknowledges that even when his readers are placed within the “unreality” he creates as a writer, some of his audience may grow to hate his disabled characters—but, then again, readers could discover what being disabled might really be like. Koukol “replace[s]” familiar disabled characters (such as Tiny Tim) with “characters [that are] far from innocent, passive, or sweet… but defiantly human, instead” (Koukol, back cover). Sharing how disability might be central in unexpected ways, such CripLit via Spec-Fic can demonstrate how disabled people have a rightful place in the real world. As Koukol says, “Crip Lit denotes a Disabled perspective liberated from the ableist gaze and its associated demands” (Koukol, preface).
Koukol defines CripLit adeptly and situates his work—and Spec-Fic—within CripLit, as follows:
“[CripLit] rejects the ignorant inspiration porn of the status quo in favor of authentic stories from those with an intimate knowledge of what it means to be disabled—to be marginalized and fetishized and infantilized….[CripLit] seeks to antagonize, to level the playing field, to illustrate that human nature and all of its inherent foibles don’t disappear when faced with wheelchairs, or an amputation, or ever-shortening telomeres” (Koukol, preface).
In my experience, Crips—disabled people—don’t really want charity. Sometimes, we want to be the good guys, the heroes (but, sometimes, we want to be the villains, and can be complete assholes). We can fight wars, cope with ableism, fall in love, get married. Koukol does not mince words—CripLit means disabled writers claiming “crip” (a reclamation of “cripple”)—and he writes disability, truthfully, within all of his stories. Koukol describes how Crips might be (or are) treated in society as a whole while being powerful in other ways. His stories “…subvert disability tropes… [m]ining the deepest ores of non-belonging” (Koukol, book description). His works—as with the works of others who have written disability-centric Spec-Fic—offer a unique Crip perspective, telling stories with characters whose depictions refute less than stellar representations, as noted. In order to further situate Koukol’s work before providing some specific examples from the collection, Handicapsules, below I share some more thoughts about Spec-Fic’s vibrant relationship to disability literature.
Brianna Albers asserts that “Speculative fiction allows disabled characters, and the disabled authors who write them, to imagine a new world. Speculative fiction encourages us, the readers, to dream alongside them—and then, once we’re heady with possibility, make those visions a reality.” While Spec-Fic often includes fantastical elements, science fiction, horror, dystopic and apocalyptic stories, and so on, these fictions can also just be fringe, odd, or otherwise veer from norms. Spec-Fic can also be mysterious, “world-building,” or against the laws of our own universe (Neugebauer); it can encompass “hard” genres and “soft” genres, be postmodern, anti-capitalist, climate-centric, apocalyptic, ethnocentric, and more—and even be the “New Weird” (Oziewicz). In Spec-Fic, the lines between subgenres of fiction are definitely blurred (Bould). The majority of Spec-Fic is comprised of subversive narrative forms—not necessarily undefinable, but mutable and ever-changing, much like the “categories” and understandings of what is meant by disability. Just as there are myriad ways to be disabled, there are many ways to tell stories, Spec-Fic being among them.
Many activist-scholars have noted that disability is often used as a narrative’s plot device, or as a kind of prop (for example, Mitchell and Synder’s “narrative prosthesis”). Disabled characters are at times used to “teach the abled characters a lesson” (Hawley); sometimes, disability is simply not a primary representational identity in a story arc. Disability is often “in there,” but more often than not, it is included by nondisabled writers seeking to diversify their texts or to offer a contrast to the able-bodied, able-minded main characters, to make them appear better. Many stories don’t even come close to passing the Fries test.
Koukol’s works mesmerized me, and the first three stories were the ones that garnered most of my attention. This volume breaks with the adage, “save the best for last.” While reading his first three stories, “Circling the Brain,” “Rock and a Hard Place,” and “Propinquity,” I had to stop and start reading many times, taking profuse notes. As a fellow Crip, I related to the plot points and devices, characters, situations, and more. While I read on, into, and through the other stories, though, I took fewer and fewer notes. I had to remind myself that this is a book of CripLit, of Speculative CripLit, and so my compulsion to take notes waned, unless it was a setting, situation, or character of particular importance to me. The stories are not just “one-offs” (yet they are); reading one of the few volumes of Spec-Fic CripLit felt refreshing. For me, the experience of reading these stories was real—far from speculative—and all I can say, or ask for, is…MORE.
“Onions destroyed my marriage,” writes Koukol (1). Reading this first sentence in “Circling the Brain” made me smile. This story is the collection’s best, in my opinion, and while reading it, I couldn’t help but experience a few echoes of the Head Museum from the animated TV series, Futurama. And, maybe the story just helped me gain some perspective of what it might be like to be “only a head in a jar,” both literally and figuratively. The story also uncovers the broad spectrum of able-bodied people who perceive caring for disabled people in decidedly negative ways, or how a pickled head in a jar might be metaphorical for any other manifestation of disability, especially how it might affect one’s love and relationships. This tale and Koukol’s other stories relay reactions to disabled bodies and minds, thereby underscoring nondisabled discomfiture at the vagaries of life—typical or not. Koukol asserts that these stories aren’t meant to make anyone “feel good,” anyway.
While reading “Propinquity,” I thought a great deal about the X-Men character, Rogue, and other narratives, both fictional and from real-life, wherein touching, and physical contact of any kind, is unbearable and can even be deadly, whether or not the contact is positively reciprocated. What is the true horror within this story, that Valentin’s touch is deadly, or his innate, forbidden expression of feelings? The alien insectoid main character is empathetic, and his own self-awareness is complicated by the fact that his own kind exterminates empaths. In this character’s reality, empathy and emotions are considered disabilities, flaws to be wiped out. Ultimately, he is allowed to live, to “suffer” among the most emotional beings of all: humans. Valentin both envies and fears for the humans, as his touch is a death sentence. Koukol’s idea of these aliens exterminating their own kind because of empathy is an out-of-the-ordinary plot mechanism to include and comment upon disability.
“Propinquity,” as with nearly all of the other stories in this volume, features all types of symbolism about how physical differences can make interactions seem nearly impossible. In daily life, disabled people frequently become spectacles against our own will. Many of Koukol’s characters faces nothing but despair, regardless of how many moments seem hopeful.
At times, Koukol’s disabled characters are figurative (e.g., sentient AI, caregiving robots, and compassionate aliens). However, Koukol is not implying that disabled characters are less than human; rather, he includes these intriguing, figurative characters among his various disability-centering examples. While Koukol introduces his readers to unique and unusual stories and characters (as promised in his preface), I cannot determine if any of the disabled characters hold other marginalized identities.
Handicapsules addresses themes of control and choice in disabled lives and how, too often, control is withheld from us. Bureaucracy, including paperwork, can place an individual into precarity, with at times disastrous consequences. The stories include descriptions of bureaucratic hierarchy—including paperwork; abuse; mistreatment within disability communities, between individuals with different forms of disablement, and by caregivers; and experiences of being used and exploited. Koukol uses bold, expressive terms to describe disabled characters (“useless taker” is among these, in an explicit reference to and criticism of Nazi ideology).
Koukol’s Spec-Fic encourages readers to ponder what it means to feel, and to be human; while underscoring disability experiences, the stories explore issues that can affect anyone. Disparate while cohesive, the stories’ themes have a wide range. Among these themes are the misusing of painkillers and medications (to get “out of one’s head”), and examples of physically disabled people who are dealing with phantom pain from their no longer present body parts, and the accompanying frustration at how, despite magic and all kinds of wishes, their absent limbs cannot reappear or grow back. Many of these story devices could also be considered idioms about (or possibly examples of) Koukol’s experiences as a man with muscular dystrophy, thus signifying how important it is that he is writing these stories, rather than the stories having been created by a nondisabled author. Importantly, these stories are not the result of an author “researching” or “reading up” about disabilities, who then reinforce ableist literary tropes.
Some of Koukol’s stories include characters who are not “born” Crip, but acquire their disabilities through trauma, impairment, or diagnosis. His stories demonstrate that the existential shift from nondisabled to disabled is seemingly necessary; becoming Crip can change you, sometimes in an instant. In “Rock and a Hard Place,” the reader discovers a man desperate for a future, but at a cost—he commits a completely selfish act, and sometimes being human means facing the repercussions of choices made when negotiating impending debility or disability. This story may also be cautioning readers that if one chooses to seek a cure for disability, such a strategy may end up backfiring, and yes—SPOILER ALERT—may lead to humanity’s downfall.
“Useless Eaters” is all about how disabled people are often warehoused, lumped together, and given the “shitty” jobs, and sometimes sell each other out. “Cry Havoc” is a take on a classic fairy tale, where the reader meets a Crip version of a notorious villain, who faces betrayal, greed, and fraud, and ends up the hero. “Compost Stress Disorder,” the longest story in the volume, tells a tale of the complications and repercussions of war and its interrelationship with disability—including how disabled veterans are sometimes treated, and how often the ultimate price paid by combat veterans is in flesh, and bad memories. Koukol adds to these already pointed images the themes of environmental toxicity, post-war futurity (“…he knew better than to expect anything of the future. Better to end each day with a period, just in case the next sentence never came” Koukol 122), living moment-by-moment, and soldiers as not only expendable, but serving as puppets, alongside golems of war.
“Cardiophobia” is about managing health care anomalies. The story addresses the criticisms of life-sustaining treatments, the issues of dying but not really dying, and how far one might go to stay alive, really alive, to prove that while “…your heart is vestigial” (Koukol 179), one likely will still want to live, all while despising that which keeps you barely functional, needing loathsome supplemental and life-sustaining care to survive, even when doing so feels revolting—and, all of this happens in the context of the story’s critique of class, race, and imperialism. “Regeneration Gap” is about aging, the complex relationships with caregivers and, ultimately, a fear of technology, and its role in our future. “Fish in a Barrel” is another story about getting crappy tasks and responsibilities, but it is also about choice and control as intermingled with life and death.
Koukol flips the script on language used to describe disabled people, both in his preface and his stories. More times than can be counted, we, disabled people, are thought to be “suffering” from our disabilities and health conditions, when it’s more than likely we are suffering from ableist environments, so how else can we demonstrate worth, or complications, than through imagined lives, future, past, present, unreal? Just as the book cover illustrates, with a brightly colored, complex image of a ship, labelled as an escape pod, crashed upon an unknown landscape, there are several capsule shapes—“handicapsules”—containing Crips within, rescued, safe, freed from ableism. Every time I inspect the image, I posit that the escape pod and these “handicapsules” are not just freeing, but accessible. How else might they be conceived of and imagined as accessible, since we rarely witness access in the real world?
Can disability-centric Spec-Fic (just one form of CripLit, as discussed above) only exist if the imagined worlds are just as inaccessible (damaged, “disabled”) as the world that is here-and-now? Clearly, there is far more to these stories and the questions they raise than just interpreting what is meant by “access” and how to assure accessibility. Of course, disabled people inhabit worlds that are far from speculative; these worlds are very real, and sometimes, well, sometimes they are really fucked up and messy, so I appreciate how Koukol sure as heck does not sugar-coat any disabled existence. Disability is folded into Koukol’s stories, perhaps as a “post-truth” condition—and his Spec-Fic offers a response, a way to “idealize the real and to call for the defense of reality against the corrosive effects of the unreal” (Lee 9). Koukol hopes “… that any preconceived notions of what Disability is might be short-circuited through the unreality of speculative fiction, bypassing the sort of reflex that all too often gets in the way of emotional truth” (Koukol preface).
Koukol’s stories demonstrate that disabled people are just that—people; that in many ways, we (or “they”) are like any other human being and, with his stories, he shares “… holistic characterization of individuals who can be as unlikable and lazy and selfish as those who suffer from chronic good health” (Koukol preface)—in other words, realistic disabled characters, refuting those ridiculous tropes, even those stories with positive disability representations (Hawley). But perhaps the point is that in order for nondisabled readers to even begin to envision/interpret/understand the notion of disabled lives—and true Crip futurity—they must have it demonstrated for them, vis a vis CripLit and Spec-Fic, and those works must include Koukol’s Handicapsules.
This doesn’t mean nondisabled people can’t write stories about disability, but if they do, they need to get them right (refer to McGinnis).
Micro Mutant Postcard #163–For Brian
(listen to this poem, read by the author)
How many ticks of the clock does it take to really communicate—I do my best work off the beaten path. Crip conniptions, Mad music, and Queer quests all communicate Mutant solidarity, keeping all best Freaks close to the accessible escape pods, fleeing analog ableist oppression.
Albers, Brianna. “Speculative fiction is recognising the power of disability.” The Bookseller, 18 Jun. 2020, Blog. https://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/speculative-fiction-recognising-power-disability-1207483.
Bould, Mark. “Speculative Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First Century American Fiction, 2021, Cambridge UP. Editor:Joshua Miller, pp. 63-78. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108974288.
Hawley, Erin. “Ableism in Fiction – A Guest Post – Books by Erin Hawley | Disability in Fiction.” Intisar Khanini, 20 Feb. 2017, Blog. http://booksbyintisar.com/2017/02/20/ableism-fiction-guest-post-erin-hawley-disability-fiction/
Lee, Toby. “The Radical Unreal: Fabulation and Fantasy in Speculative Documentary.” Film Quarterly (2021) 74 (4): 9-18. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/fq.2021.74.4.9
McGinnis, Jared. ‘You don’t have to be disabled to write about disability, but you’d better get it right.’ The Guardian, 16 Jul. 2021, Website. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jul/16/fiction-viewed-from-a-wheelchair.
Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, Corporealities: Discourses of Disability Series, University of Michigan Press. DOI: 10.3998/mpub.11523.
Neugebauer, Annie. “What Is Speculative Fiction?” Annie Neugebauer, 24 Mar. 2014, Blog. https://annieneugebauer.com/2014/03/24/what-is-speculative-fiction/.
Oziewicz, Marek. “Speculative Fiction.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Literature, 29 Mar. 2017. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78.
Toyota Mobility Unlimited. Going Further: Imaging the Futures of Mobility. Web. https://www.mobilityunlimited.org/sites/default/files/Going%20Further%20-%20Imagining%20the%20Future%20of%20Mobility.pdf.
Title: Handicapsules – Short Stories of Speculative Crip Lit
Author/Publisher: Brian Koukol (self-published)
About the Reviewer
Rachael A. Zubal-Ruggieri is the Administrative Assistant of the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute. Mother to an Autistic teenage son, Rachael writes and presents about neurodiversity and autism parenting, seeking to debunk and disrupt traditional representations of “the autism mom.” She is a recent graduate of the Human Development & Family Science program at Falk College, with a Disability Studies Minor, at Syracuse University (SU). Her research interests include Creative and Design Thinking, Technical Documentation and Usability, Technology and Disability, and Parent and Family Involvement in Education. Rachael has dedicated her career to improving the lives of people with disabilities, including broad-based support to multiple disability rights initiatives on campus, in the CNY area, and nationally, through many grant-funded projects and opportunities and via long-term relationships with community agencies and programs. Rachael worked for over 30 years at the Center on Human Policy at SU. She is a founding member of the university’s undergraduate disability rights organization, the Disability Student Union (DSU). Rachael’s current activities include her roles as Co-Advisor of the Self-Advocacy Network (formerly Self-Advocates of CNY), and as a Board Member of Disabled in Action of Greater Syracuse, Inc. Rachael is also co-creator (with Diane R. Wiener) of “Cripping” the Comic Con, the first of its kind interdisciplinary and international symposium on disability and popular culture, held at SU. At conferences and as a guest lecturer, she has for many years presented on the X-Men comic books, popular culture, and disability rights and identities.
Read Rachael A. Zubal-Ruggieri’s poetry, “Micro Mutant Postcards 41, 44 & 45” in this issue of Wordgathering.