Malfunctioning Space Stations

I dream of malfunctioning space stations.

They pitch and yaw wildly; the artificial gravity works sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t. It cuts in and out at unpredictable intervals and smashes me into the deck. I float back up, I am weightless. I am slammed into the ceiling. It is my job to fix it, and I can’t even strap myself in to stay safe. I have no helmet, no knee or elbow pads. I am covered in bruises from the falls, and my muscles are wrenched from trying to reorient into some semblance of upright.

I get glimpses of stars and planets out the viewing windows, sometimes. Sometimes there are no viewing windows. Sometimes I’m in an interior room, metallic and futuristic, and it is a future that does not work.

I have a major balance disorder. When I am awake and able to use all my senses, I can reason out the vertical. If you make me close my eyes, I can still get it to within about five degrees of the correct answer if I’m sitting still on a firm surface. If I’ve got a squishy surface, motion, or other things confusing my senses, doubtful. Asleep? All bets are off. I literally do not know which way is up.

Since I have read and written science fiction for decades, what my sleeping brain knows to do with this much disorientation is to process it into a malfunctioning space station. And so I dream. Occasionally my dreams veer into carnival rides, roller coasters, giant swooping swings. But that is someone else’s genre. This is mine.

For the people who read about a malfunctioning space station, or who watch it in a movie, it is thrilling. It is an adventure. For people who live on a space station, it is not thrilling. It is terrifying, but it is also eventually tedious. Oops, another lurch, unpredictably timed but basically like the last one. Ouch, crunch, another slam into the bulkhead or the corner of the bunk. A bruise this time? A cut, a broken bone? Today when gravity reversed itself, I cut my foot. No broken bones, no difficulty walking. I give this day a 3 out of 10, a pretty good day, but always leaves room for much worse.

And when I tell these stories, I walk the line between making them interesting, funny, engaging for the able-bodied reader—between the thrilling malfunctioning space station—and keeping them real. Making the able-bodied reader understand that it is not thrilling for me—that scary, painful, and frustrating can also be pretty boring—without making them bored and having them wander off.

Which they do.

Often preemptively.

When my world goes wrong, I turn to science fiction. Science fiction doesn’t turn to me. I imagine futures where things are different. I spend a lot of my time imagining futures where things are better. But most of the time science fiction doesn’t return the favor. It doesn’t imagine improved technology for people like me; it certainly doesn’t imagine us doing the improving. It imagines people like me invisible, not present at all. I have never seen a character with a balance disorder in a story until I wrote one myself. That was in 2017. It’s not in print. (Stay tuned, I guess?) And while I occasionally get another disabled person to identify with around the peripheries, we’re too few, too far between. Miles Vorkosigan’s energy may be vast, but he can only take us so far.

When it comes to my story, to the stories of people like me, science fiction got bored and wandered off preemptively. We are literally not worth talking about. Our limits are decided for us: you can’t do that, you couldn’t handle it, you’re too broken, the future isn’t about you, you aren’t in this story.

I’m not so sure about that. I know space stations better than you do, kid. I can fix this thing in my sleep.

All of the other Destroy anthologies have been about this very same theme: here is a crew member you’ve been forgetting, and they have an angle on what is going wrong here. The anthologies are called Destroy, but they have a skillset to rebuild. They see the pieces you weren’t seeing before. Well, disabled people have that skillset too.

We know how to think three-dimensionally, we who have to navigate the world with hand-holds already. We who have had to juggle a bathroom hand dryer and a cane. We who couldn’t reach the hand dryer because we were looking at it a little further down than you from our chairs. We can see where you built your space elevator wrong from this angle. We notice that you’ve arranged emergency klaxons that will leave the deaf crew members on your ship vulnerable; that your solar-powered vehicles won’t fit a solar-powered wheelchair; that someone is likely to be allergic to your “universal” new pressed lichen snacks.

The space station that is science fiction has been broken for years now. It hurts as we get ignored and stereotyped and bumped around, and I know you thought you were going to get by with one guy with a banana clip over his eyes as the only disabled person in it with you. But you need the rest of us. We’re the ones who know what it’s like. We’ve been dreaming this all along, and we can help you fix it. We may be the only ones who can.


Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen is among the top science fiction and fantasy writers in the world who were named after fruit. She has many opinions on Moomintrolls. She has been known to cross international borders in search of rare tisanes. Her personal relationships with bodies of water are intense though eccentric. She lives atop the oldest bedrock in the US with her family, where she writes, if not daily, frequently.

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