Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Science Fiction's Responsibility (and Guilt before) the Mentally Ill

Budd recently brought up Orson Scott Card's novel Xenocide, which created a religious movement out of OCD. As someone who suffers from OCD, I have always been fascinated by Card's depiction in Xenocide. I think OCD is a deeply underused mental illness in science fiction, even more than the almost equally underused schizophrenia and bipolar. Phillip K. Dick, at least, portrayed the complexity of schizophrenics lives in unusual, tender terms. But OCD is even a more interesting mental illness, in sci-fi terms. What Xenocide pointed out is that OCD has some evolutionary benefits. For instance, my OCD gives me literally almost superhuman powers of concentration. I can read 300, 400 pages a day often, or work on a paper for 10 hours straight, and not be tired. I think contemporary science fiction too often emphasizes the victimized or maladaptive elements of mental illness, without realizing that mental illness is not necessarily maladaptive, if channeled in the right directions. Of course it causes problems. But so does one's sexual orientation and science fiction authors don't routinely demonize LGBT people (nor should they).I think science fiction really needs to come to terms with its own history of psychophobia. Obviously, I am in part talking about Scientology. I don't think its any accident that it was science fiction that created the most deeply anti-mentally ill ideology of the last century. Science fiction, from its conception, has always emphasized the power of the ubermensch, and therefore neglected the hidden powers that undermensch populations can also have. Science fiction's history of ableism and racism is directly linked to its inability to divorce itself from the myth of the superhuman. But I'd really like to science fiction to link itself to the underdog for a change, not for the Paul Atreides's, Enders, and Supermans of the world. Science fiction, quite simply, owes mentally ill people for the crimes done in science fiction's names. And it's about time that mentally ill people collect.
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Budd said...

first off, awesome post. I think a story where they try and breed/train a certain aspect of OCD into the population would be incredibly interesting. Especially when dealing with the side effects.

Just think how interesting a sci-fi story about a paranoid schizophrenic could be. Or a planet full of them, because they were sent there as part of a far reaching mental hospital but a disaster occured destroying the machines that were "treating" them. the people go forth and multiply, with a (not sure how the pundant square would work on this we will say the gene is resessive and that the resesive gene will sometimes provide the trait)possible 75% chance of passing on the trait. After a few generations the Super paranoid schizo alleles would begin breading with even higher rates of the condition. Given several generations you would have a planet full of it. That would be one crazy place.

Anonymous said...

Great thoughtful post, John. I had never really thought about the uber vs under-mensch as protagonist before. I mean, fantasy and SF is full of the underdog making good -- from Frodo to Harry Potter -- but that's usually overcoming expectations/stereotypes and showing someone(s) that you thought lesser, really wasn't.

But what about someone that IS lesser? I'm going to have to think about the different stories that I know and see if someone fits the bill. Thomas Covenant comes to mind, but he was a paranoid that was given power to be "uber" -- so that doesn't really apply.

I'm going to be thinking about this for a while. Great post.

Ross said...

Very interesting post. I think you're correct that this is something not often considered in sci-fi, and really should be evaluated in other lights.

That said, I think the few novels and stories (sci-fi or otherwise) where the protagonist has had some sort of mental illness ("Motherless Brooklyn" stars a man w/ Tourette Syndrome, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime" is from the perspective of a boy with Asperger's, Niven's ARM agents are called Schizes due to the artificially induced state of paranoid schizophrenia they are kept in to enhance their usefulness as law enforcement officials) do portray some of the positive qualities or benefits of those with such an illness, but tend to focus on the fact that in all reality, mental illness DOES create hurdles for people to overcome. And while having the capability to perform savant-like calculations or have the observational aptitude of Sherlock Holmes may provide a "hook" on which to hang a character's profession or lifestyle, in the long run, mental illness is just that - an illness that handicaps the afflicted in much the same way a physical handicap can hinder a person. I agree that it is nice to get a well-rounded, even-handed portrayal of such people, but the truth is many DO suffer in life and aren't able to hack it as well as other ably-minded people, which tends to not only help further a plot but give a sense of pathos and grandeur to a novel.

I'd love to more stories where the "side-effects" of a mental illness are used to enhance a person's lifestyle - if you come across some, please let me know.

Brian S said...

An interesting take on extreme OCD can be found in Vernor Vinge's Deepness in the Sky, where one faction manipulated a brain-destroying disease to instead induce an obsessive state centered around the vicitim's expertise. These "Focused" became incredibly bright specialists, but lost any ability to effectively communicate with or relate to the non-Focused (or even Focused outside their specialty). One of the themes here was how the Focus removed the humanity of the victims, from the perspective of the non-Focused.

Budd said...

Brian, It has been years since I read that book. The focused where on the spider planet?

All I am remembering is Pham Nguyen and the tree in the middle of the ship and the radio broadcast for spider kids that they would all try to listen to.

Budd said...
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