Who Gets to Survive the Apocalypse? Disability Hierarchy in Post-Disaster Fiction in Australian YA

Abstract

Australia has produced many post-disaster novels since the 1980s, our landscape and sense of global isolation inspiring long lists of environmental and political crises. While this literature provokes considerable work from ecocritical and postcolonial perspectives, the representation or use of disability in post-disaster narratives is less studied. This essay undertakes crip readings of a range of Australian young adult novels published since the 1980s, including Isobelle Carmody’s long running Obernewtyn chronicles (1986-2015) and Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Tribe sequence, particularly The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (2012) and The Foretelling of Georgie Spider (2015).

All fiction creates worlds, but speculative fiction, whether it favours fantasy or science fiction elements, contains worldbuilding. By considering the implications disability hierarchies created for disabled characters in these novels, and how disabled characters exist in these spaces, I am able to draw from disability theory to examine assumptions about the bodies and behaviours of those inhabiting these speculative landscapes and use crip readings to highlight how these texts either reinforce or subvert current understandings of disability, especially disability hierarchy and the subversive potential of interdependence in young adult narrative.

Australia has produced many post-disaster novels since the 1980s, our landscape and sense of global isolation inspiring long lists of environmental and political crises. While this literature provokes considerable work from ecocritical (Braithwaite 23) and postcolonial perspectives (James 151; Murphy 177) the representation or use of disability in post-disaster narratives is less studied. This essay undertakes crip readings of a range of Australian young adult novels published since the 1980s, including Isobelle Carmody’s long running Obernewtyn Chronicles (1986–2015) and Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Tribe sequence, particularly The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (2012) and The Foretelling of Georgie Spider (2015).

All fiction creates worlds, but speculative fiction, whether it favours fantasy or science fiction elements, contains worldbuilding. By considering the implications of disability hierarchies created for disabled characters in these novels, and how disabled characters exist in these spaces, I am able to draw from disability theory to examine assumptions about the bodies and behaviours of those inhabiting these speculative landscapes and use crip readings to highlight how these texts either reinforce or subvert current understandings of disability, especially disability hierarchy and the subversive potential of interdependence in young adult narrative. ‘Crip’, in this context, involves reading a text with an awareness of compulsory able-bodiedness – or, to take Alison Kafer’s expansion of the theory, able-bodiedness and able-mindedness (22) – and questioning its position as an assumed normal. Crip theory (the term was coined by Robert McRuer in 2006) draws from elements of queer theory and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality (‘Demarginalizing the Intersection’ 151; ‘Mapping the Margins’ 1243) to consider how and why ‘normality’ is constructed in media. Crip readings of texts acknowledge that abled identity, ‘even more than heterosexuality, still largely masquerades as a non-identity, as the natural order of things’ (McRuer 2). Post-disaster novels are also rich space for discussions of trauma and change, and discussions of disability grow particularly dense in any narrative that focuses on scarcity. The first section of this essay focuses on defining disability hierarchies and illustrating how Carmody’s novels provide examples of these real-world hierarchical understandings of disability in these speculative works. I then shift focus to concepts of independence and interdependence in dystopian narrative, showing how the interdependent elements of Carmody’s work are undercut by these disability hierarchies already discussed, while Kwaymullina’s work shows the crip potential of concepts like interdependence in dystopian young adult works. In applying the social model of disability to speculative landscapes, particularly those experiencing the stress-test of a post-disaster narrative, I examine how representations of disability and underlying assumptions of able-bodiedness and able-mindedness exist and change over time, and the implications these changes have for a perennially popular young adult genre. Specifically, I ask how worldbuilding in these texts highlights or, in some cases, dismantles, commonly understood hierarchies of disability, and examine the abled implications of independence in Carmody’s novels, and some ways in which Kwaymullina’s work imagines a more crip and interdependent future, making an important contribution to Australian young adult fiction.

The Obernewtyn Chronicles are six post-disaster novels by Australian author Isobelle Carmody, published between 1987 and 2015. Set in a much-reduced Earth following a nuclear event, these novels speculate a possible recovery from such disasters, with emphasis on the changed relationships humans have with each other, with animals and with technology. If further defined, I suggest that these texts are an immersive science fantasy (Mendlesohn 59): the reader is assumed to know most rules of the world (for example, the power structure of church and state in ‘The Land’, and the mythology surrounding the ‘Great White’, or the fear of mutations) and discovers exceptions to these rules at the same time as the protagonist does. Elspeth Gordie is orphaned after her parents are killed for protesting restrictions on the use of herb lore. Her world is co-ruled by a fanatical ‘Council’, determined to maintain order following a nuclear event referred to, in full capitals, as the Great White. They are assisted by the ‘Herders’, a religious order who believe the irradiation that defines their landscape is God’s punishment for the overuse of technology, herbal medicine included.

Orphans are used to farm mildly irradiated ‘tainted’ material, used by the Herders for an unspecified but sinister purpose. Elspeth, aged around fourteen at the beginning of the first novel and approaching thirty by the conclusion of The Red Queen (published in 2015), discovers she has mutant, or ‘Misfit’ abilities. She can communicate her thoughts across large distances (‘Farseeking’); communicate with animals (‘Beastspeaking’), and manipulate small physical objects such as locks, as well as persuade some people to feel or think as she wishes for a limited time (‘Coercing’). Other abilities that exist in this universe that Elspeth does not possess include projecting emotion, as well as experiencing the emotions of others (‘Empathy’, thus capitalised); the ability to persuade the body to heal itself or diagnose illnesses, and clairvoyance (‘Futuretelling’). These abilities come in different combinations and strengths.

Discovering her abilities, Elspeth, as well as her Herder trainee older brother, Jes, fear she will be discovered and killed, as both Council and Herder law declare that anyone said to display mutations of mind or body be either burned alive or, if the Misfits are young enough, sent to an isolated stronghold called Obernewtyn. Elspeth is eventually discovered and sentenced to Obernewtyn, where she meets others with Misfit abilities and unravels the mysteries behind both the experiments many children undergo at the institution and how they may relate to the Great White. She and the other Misfits gain control of Obernewtyn and set it up as a sanctuary for Misfit children. Elspeth is grievously injured in the process. She also learns that she has a particular destiny: to save the world from a second, and unsurvivable, nuclear event. Carmody’s work is not the first Australian post-disaster narrative that discusses mutations: Caroline Macdonald’s work, such as The Lake at the End of the World (1998), is contemporary, while Joan Phipson’s The Cats (1976) predates it considerably. The influence of Carmody’s series can be seen in many texts, from Victor Kelleher’s work to Anthony Eaton’s Darkland Trilogy (2005–2010) and the more recent works of Francesca Haig (The Fire Sermon 2015–2017) and Alison Evans (Highway Bodies 2019).

Ambelin Kwaymullina’s The Foretelling of Georgie Spider concludes her three-novel Tribe sequence, drawing on Palyku stories to imagine a First Nations response to climate disaster and colonisation, which has potentially powerful intersections with disability. The Tribe, like Obernewtyn, imagines a post-apocalyptic world where children born with paranormal abilities are segregated from the rest of society. Where Carmody imagines Misfits, Kwaymullina’s protagonists are ‘Illegals’, kept in government holding facilities. They are not considered ‘Citizens’, and a person’s citizenship status must be proven by certificate and tattoo. The first novel, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (2012), presents readers with a world where some Illegals are hiding in a semi-sentient landscape known as the ‘Firstwood’. When Georgie Spider, a member of the Tribe with the ability to foresee the future, predicts a second, world-ending event, the children work together to prevent this. Ashala Wolf, the leader of the Tribe, with the ability to communicate and travel through dreams (a ‘Sleepwalker’), has crucial memories altered, and allows herself to be placed in a holding facility where, as in Obernewtyn, government-sanctioned experiments and torture of Illegal children routinely takes place. The Foretelling of Georgie Spider deals with the aftermath of Ashala’s internment and the liberation of many of the children from the facility, as well as revelations from The Disappearance of Ember Crow (2013) about the original disaster that produced both the Tribe’s abilities and the political situation in which they live.

Georgie’s Foretelling ability is portrayed as both crucial and disabling. She experiences debilitating panic and overstimulation from her Foretelling as well as guilt from the results of either using (or not using) this part of herself. Distinguishing what is here and real from what might never happen is challenging for Georgie. Assisted by her cave-dwelling spiders and loyal friend Daniel, she twists vines into ropes that, when connected, map outcomes, concluding that the world’s survival turns on choices made by certain individuals at a particular time. While Georgie can identify the chooser, neither choice nor outcome is foreseeable. Her story is one of a wish for independence, which is slowly tempered by the realisation, and acceptance of, her own need for help, and the importance of interdependence both in her own life and in that of the Tribe more generally. Similarly to Obernewtyn’s inhabitants, the members of the Tribe work and live together in ways alien to the ‘normal’ humans who fear them, but unlike Misfit Talents, the Tribe’s abilities are neither ranked, nor contrasted against something analogous to the defectives in the Obernewtyn universe.

It is possible to read the disabilities of Carmody’s Misfits or Kwaymullina’s Tribe as purely symbolic. Discussion of this work is often limited to the post-apocalyptic elements (Braithwaite 25) and reading these characters as actually disabled instead of as symbols of, for example, either environmental decay or as an ‘evolution’ of humanity, is in its own way a radical act, even as I acknowledge and appreciate Bérubé’s desire to ‘cure disability studies of diagnosing fictional characters’ (20). I am also conscious that the Tribe sequence, while it shares many plot elements with Obernewtyn (post-nuclear event; paranormal children; government segregation and a particular, ominous holding facility; the use of machines for ‘medical’ experimentation for the public good; the use of a machine to extract memories from the children in particular; an impending second disaster that can only be averted by the children themselves), is an explicitly Aboriginal text, and my reading of Georgie in particular as disabled is impossible to separate from my position as a White, disabled reader and a scholar who works in dominant culture disability studies. The world imagined in Kwaymullina’s work, however, does provide an alternative to the hierarchical understanding of disability that I argue is prevalent in Carmody’s work, and I also argue that Carmody’s division and categorisation of Misfit, especially when contrasted with the broader in-world category of defective, relies as much on its disabled protagonists’ awareness of their positions within a disability hierarchy as it does the broader positioning of Misfit/non-Misfit – disabled/abled.

Defining a Disability Hierarchy and Re-considering the Social Model

In 2007, the disability studies scholar David Bolt remarked that the presence of disability in literature is one of Jacques Derrida’s ‘spectres’. It is, Bolt said, ‘neither denied nor acknowledged’ (i). It is just there, ‘haunting’ literature and never given a critical glance. While disability and literary studies have drawn closer together in the years since Bolt’s comment, I write my work out of a similar impulse to Bolt’s, explicitly applying the social model of disability to children’s speculative fiction. Disability is powerfully present in children’s and young adult literature but is rarely discussed at any length in either literary or disability studies.

Western disability studies as we understand them today are built around the medical and social models of disability (Barnes and Mercer 13; Guevara 277; Kafer 10). The medical model of disability has remained relatively static: disability is a bodied problem, bound up entirely in the individual it afflicts, and the burden disability is seen to place on other people. Bodies (minds are often completely overlooked) may or may not be ‘fixable’ in this view, which has often been redefined as an ‘individual model’ of disability (Oliver, Understanding Disability 31). This is because disability, even outside of medicalised spaces, ‘Continues to be seen primarily as a personal problem affecting individual people, a problem best solved through strength of character and resolve’ (Kafer 10). The psychological and personal trauma arising from this definition is significant, and disabled people are often placed within different hierarchies as we are asked to compete for support (Guevara 274).1

The social model exists in part as a response to both the medicalised and individualised understandings of disability. Mike Oliver, progenitor of the term ‘social model’, uses a Marxist framework in The Politics of Disablement to emphasise the separation of disability and impairment, suggesting that disabled bodies must be failed objects or burdens when existing in capitalist societies, where worth is caught up with workplace participation (137). He shifts disablement from the person into the world in which she lives. Inaccessible spaces and other built barriers exclude and isolate, creating and entrenching difference. They are also impossible for a single person to resolve and they ask for change at a structural and policy level. This tension between social and medical views of disability is seen in activism and public policy (Hall 23) but also increasingly in studies of disability and power in fiction, especially film (Longmore, Why I Burned My Book; McRuer; Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis).

Stigma, Complicating the Social Model and Defining Disability Hierarchy

It is important at this point to ground my analysis in a broader discussion of the social model, stigma, and some of the challenges that arise when trying to discuss these elements together. The social model of disability has inspired generations of activists and allowed for a radical re-shifting of disability from individual medical ‘problem’ to a broader understanding of the social barriers to access. These discussions are important and ongoing, but the early ‘strong’ social model’s distinction between disability and impairment, so crucial to early understandings of how an environment might disable someone, has been criticised for its minimisation of pain, illness, discomfort, or any emotion that might provoke pity (Shakespeare 2; 32).

Both the medical model of disability, with its emphasis on individualised treatment of impairments and burden of disease, and the strong social model with its insistence on the removal of all impairment from the discussion of disability, are underpinned by an understanding of disability that is inherently hierarchical. Sami Schalk’s recent analysis of James Cameron’s Avatar and Duncan Jones’s Source Code shows how these represent the (White, male, American) military veteran as high-up on a fiction-based version of a disability hierarchy (403). Schalk defines disability hierarchy as ‘the differential cultural valuation of disabled people which uses multiple social norms to distinguish between types of disabled people’ (405). Those toward the top of a disability hierarchy are deemed more deserving of accommodation and are often celebrated, while those toward the bottom are considered ‘difficult or impossible to integrate’. Schalk’s use of the term disability hierarchy is drawn from the work of John Tringo and Mark Deal.

In in his 2006 research on stigma within disability communities, Deal writes that his work was ‘first stimulated from the personal experience of living and working with disabled people, who … would sometimes try to disassociate themselves from other disabled people in general or people with other impairment groups (cerebral palsy, epilepsy, schizophrenia etc.)’ (Deal, ‘Attitudes’). His own experiences of living with a degenerative muscular condition and as a wheelchair user also prompted him to question ‘whether there were some impairment groups [I was] more comfortable being associated with than others … why this might be the case and whether this was true for other disabled people’ (1). Stigma toward disability from an abled perspective is often considered self-evident, which might be argued to be an oblique form of stigma in its own right and has to some extent become formalised through John Tringo’s Disability Social Distance Scale (DSDS) (Deal, ‘Disabled’ 898). Tringo’s nine-point scale, which investigated different attitudes toward disability groups by establishing both the existence and composition of a hierarchy of preference toward these groups (298), has remained relatively stable over more than thirty years (Hughes; Schalk 408; Thomas 1155) with changes only to where cancer appears on the scale (Thomas 1155).

If a hierarchy towards specific groups exists, it could be suggested that those ranked as ‘least preferred’ will have the most difficulty in being accepted by society (‘Attitudes’ 66; Tringo 296). By using the DSDS scale, ranging from ‘would marry’ to ‘would put to death’, with twenty-one impairments listed in alphabetical order, Tringo found that mental illness was least preferred by the subjects (n = 455). Stephanie Hughes published a modified version of the scale in 2017 and found similar results: sensory and physical disabilities were considered less of a reason to maintain social distance than intellectual disabilities. Sensory, physical and intellectual disabilities provoked less distance within fewer people than psychogenic (mental health) conditions (Hughes). Deal’s research considers the DSDS and examines potential instances of hierarchy within specific disability communities about other disability groups – for example, when asking a wheelchair-user what they find annoying about their disability, it is not uncommon for the response to be related to being thought of as someone with a learning disability, shown through the shop assistant talking to the person in ‘a non-age-appropriate manner’ (‘Disabled’ 898). In instances such as these, the person with a physical impairment may be annoyed at being labelled as having a learning disability. But why? If we accept there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ in being a disabled person, one of the most powerful elements of the social model of disability, being viewed as one sub-group or another, based on impairment, should not, in theory, cause anxiety or insult (‘Disabled’ 893). Stigma is, however, complicated, and pervasive. My use of the scales here is not to highlight a single form of stigma or type of disability hierarchy, nor argue that all people who experience one type of impairment feel any way about another impairment, but instead, to draw on Schalk’s discussion of recent speculative films such as Avatar, as I examine the hierarchy of disability implicit in Isobelle Carmody’s work, and potentially subverted by the work of Ambelin Kwaymullina. The remainder of this essay outlines Carmody’s hierarchal use of disabled characters, and the ways in which The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf and The Foretelling of Georgie Spider’s worldbuilding, focused as it is on interdependence, provide examples of speculative futures full of alternatives to traditional disability hierarchy.

Upper-case Misfits, Lower-case defectives and the Weaponising of Disability at the End of the World

The hierarchical treatment of disability in Carmody’s work is best illustrated not by the terms ‘Misfit’ and ‘not-Mistfit/normal’, but instead by the terms ‘Misfit’ and ‘defective’. ‘Misfit’ is a loaded and yet often unclear term in Obernewtyn’s world. As with many real-life disability terms, it acts as both slur and categorisation, first used by the religious Herders to classify those born with physical abnormalities after the Great White. The term eventually broadens to cover any example of physical or mental difference seen within the population and deemed unacceptable by it. Carmody creates vivid imagery around this in the first novel’s prologue. While the rest of the novel – and the full series – is written in first person, firmly situated in Elspeth’s head, Obernewtyn’s prologue is written in omniscient third person, adding a sense of distance and historical detachment to the reader’s first exposure to the world and its key characteristics: a catastrophic nuclear event and the intense fear of both technology and disability that follows this event. Carmody’s use of neologism (‘Beforetime’), tendency to promote unfamiliar proper nouns, and use of antiquated religious terms (‘The Order, called the Herder Faction, believed that the Holocaust2 was a punishment from God, whom they called Lud …’) combine to create both familiarity and strangeness, as if the story, ostensibly in Earth’s speculated far-future, is taking place in the reader’s past. Technology and disability are entwined in this prologue, both representing a world that is harshly suppressed. Technology is blamed for the nuclear event, and disability – or ‘mutations’ – is seen as a symptom of it. Possible treatments for medical conditions are also stigmatised as a type of technology by this prologue – anyone found practising ‘Herb Lore’, for example, is burned or imprisoned.3 The fear of physical difference is made explicit: anyone with missing limbs or other deformities and adults who developed visible tumours are burned upon discovery in the years immediately following the Great White (Obernewtyn 2). As time progresses, and fewer physical symptoms of the irradiated landscape appear in the population, burnings become less frequent and less socially acceptable. Carmody frames the Herders’ and ruling Council’s shift in interest from visible disabilities and deformity to ‘hidden afflictions’ as overtly political:

This created some difficulty, for while the Council saw the opportunity to further manipulate the community, accusing anyone of whom they disapproved of hidden mutancy, it was more difficult to proceed with a ritual Burnings of someone who had been accepted as normal for most of his or her life. The Council eventually decreed all but the most horribly afflicted would not be Burnt, but would be sent instead [to harvest] a dangerously radioactive element called Whitestick. A new name was devised for anyone with an affliction not apparent at birth – Misfit. (Obernewtyn 3)

The weaponisation of the Misfit label – anyone declared as such is unable to inherit property, marry, exist as an active citizen – is explored particularly through Dameon, the blind son of a Councilman who is, somewhat surprisingly, considering the rules around physical difference already established, declared Misfit not due to his blindness, but as the outcome of an inheritance dispute. Dameon’s predicament is an interesting example of class distinctions, as he has grown up protected from the spectre of Obernewtyn, the government-mandated institution for all Misfits, due to his father’s position and relative wealth. Elspeth by contrast, is raised in an orphan home. Orphans in this universe are used as labour, harvesting the radioactive Whitestick, and as an endlessly replenishing resource for the Master of Obernewtyn, who is rumoured to use Misfit children in sinister experiments. Obernewtyn’s Guardians visit orphan homes each year to assess children for ‘Misfit tendences’. As with Dameon’s case, the actual label of Misfit is often used as punishment – even Elspeth’s own misfit classification occurs not because she is seen demonstrating any unusual behaviour, but because another girl, panicking for her own safety, makes up an accusation of ‘strange dreams’ (Obernewtyn 54). The spectre of disability is in many ways more fearsome and damaging than the reality of it.

The common disability narrative, that it could ‘happen to you at any time’ (Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis 5), is reflected here, and the fact that the children sent to Obernewtyn are so often not actually disabled, or with disabilities so profoundly incidental to the reason for their eventual institutionalisation, creates an uneasy sense of disability as an injustice. While Carmody does play with elements of this ominous first impression, particularly through the reclaiming of Obernewtyn, once experiment site and intuition, into a Misfit-run sanctuary in later novels, the threat not just of difference but of any difference being perceived is constant. This is reinforced by Carmody’s other disabling label: defective.

All defectives are Misfits. Not all Misfits are defectives. This element of Obernewtyn’s implicit hierarchy is established early in the novels. Unlike Misfit, defective does not warrant its own expositional definition in Obernewtyn. In a world already shown to promote proper nouns for emphasis, defective does not even warrant a capital letter. Elspeth, waiting for sentencing once pronounced a Misfit, wonders if a boy who seems overly talkative in the dangerous, untrusting climate is a defective (Obernewtyn 48). She wonders the same when meeting Selmar, a girl with ‘a peculiar, fixed smile’ and ‘lacklustre eyes’ (72). There are twenty-one instances of the word 'defective' in Obernewtyn, the reader developing an understanding of the term through inference and stereotype of intellectual disability. Dameon, who carries visible signs of his own impairments with clouded corneas, should appear the ‘perfectly obvious cripple’ (Garland-Thomson 5) is blind, but he is not defective. Matthew, Elspeth’s closest friend, is perhaps even more perfectly obvious. He has a malformed leg after a bad break and walks with a pronounced limp. These deviances, along with his village’s insistence that he has the ‘evil eye’ and can read minds – yet another use of a disability label as punishment – has Matthew sent to Obernewtyn, but once again, neither his physical disabilities nor the Misfit talents he possesses qualify him as defective in the text. He and Dameon, both more visibly disabled than Elspeth at this point in the narrative, occupy a place like her own on the disability hierarchy, because physical impairment, unlike the assumed intellectual impairment evoked through the term defective, is not as actively disabling within much of Obernewtyn’s world, if viewed through a social model. Matthew’s limp is referred to as a visual characteristic but does not ask any questions of Obernewtyn’s labyrinthine architecture.

For example, Matthew is not presented with any difficulty performing tasks on the home farm or climbing Obernewtyn’s many stairs, turrets, or flagstone corridors. He is expected to be, and expectant as, part of the novel’s main plot, and the main plot is apparently still built in ways he can traverse. Dameon, while raising concerns that escape from Obernewtyn would be impossible when their group is made up of too many disabled minds and bodies, highlights himself, Matthew, and their friend Cameo, who carries the defective label. He says that they, ‘a blind man, a half-lame boy, and a sick, defective girl’ (Obernewtyn 192), would be unable to escape the institution due to their various impairments, but in-world, Dameon appears almost as unaffected as Matthew when within the institution itself, though it is implied in several places that Dameon’s relative independence is the result of practice and accommodations on his part. Obernewtyn’s world, to borrow from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s serendipitously named but unrelated work on fitting and misfitting, ‘fails flesh’ (600) for Dameon in ways it does not for Matthew, as he contorts to learn the space and exist within it in ways that both promote his own physical safety (learning to walk the maze, for example, so he cannot be stranded in it on another’s whim (Obernewtyn 57)). Cameo, the ‘sick, defective girl’ Dameon mentions, is given none of Dameon, Elspeth or Matthew’s agency, and I suggest that this is partly because of the world-rules around her classification, and where this leaves her within this world’s disability hierarchy.

The use of term ‘defective’ appears to apply to a particular type of Misfit who is rarely afforded agency in Carmody’s text, or through Elspeth’s own narrow focalisation. The novel’s introduction to Selmar, as already shown, highlights Elspeth’s perception of her strangeness, focusing particularly on whether there is a ‘spark’ of feeling or intelligence in her eyes (47). Cameo, the girl referred to by Dameon in the previous quote, with a name that implies ornamental stillness, is characterised as ‘feeble’ or ‘simple’ multiple times in the novel. Elspeth once again catches on her eyes as a site of difference. They are ‘naïve’ and ‘childlike’.

Cameo is a tragic love interest for Matthew and is the body and mind upon which some of the more terrible experiments are wrought. The changes in Cameo – increased fear, night terrors, weight loss, bruising, memory loss and garbled speech, amongst others throughout the novel – highlight the urgency of escape for the other characters. She is an object of pity. Selmar, the more socially alarming defective girl with unsettling eyes and a propensity for aggressive stimming (repetitive motions such as hand flapping) and loud outbursts, is a horrifying mirror to Elspeth, as she learns that Selmar has not been defective since birth, but instead experienced a traumatic brain injury after undergoing some of Obernewtyn’s experiments.

… I tried to ask Louis about Selmar.

This time, he did not fly into a rage. ‘She were a good girl,’ he said sadly. I frowned because he spoke as if she were dead. ‘She’s nowt escaped,’ he added.

‘Where do you think she is, then?’ I asked him very softly.

‘… That Doctor will be treatin’ her again,’ he added.

Louis had spoken of Selmar being different on her arrival in the mountains. He had called her the hope of Obernewtyn. I did not know what he meant by the latter, but it was blindingly obvious now that Selmar’s mind had been destroyed by the Doctor’s treatments. (134)

… All I could think of was the terrible dead look in Selmar’s eyes. Whatever had been done to her could happen to me. (166)

Michael Bérubé suggests that intellectually disabled characters ‘can haunt all narrative by serving as examples of humans who cannot fully account for themselves’ (Bérubé 121). While Berube’s own research on the unspoken and persistent presence of intellectual disability in children’s fiction shows that intellectually disabled characters, especially point-of-view characters, do far more than this, Selmar and Cameo are stark hauntings. Returning to Tringo’s, Deal’s and Hughes’s works on scales of disability stigma and general hierarchy, the Obernewtyn DSDS scale would fall into the ‘least preferred’ category. Both characters provoke narrative compassion, but also disgust and urgency, especially through Elspeth’s first-person narration.

Elspeth, while often oblivious to ‘emotional matters’ and often nudged toward greater empathy by characters such as Dameon, is not framed as an unreliable narrator in Obernewtyn or the subsequent novels. As she ages, she is prone to periodic reflections that her understanding of the world may be limited, as well as self-deprecating wishes to be more like her strong-willed younger self, but there is very little to undercut most of Elspeth’s discoveries or understanding of the world in which she lives, even as she and the other Misfits do their best to make their world more generally accessible to and accepting of them. The way Elspeth views defectives in The Red Queen, well into adulthood, is much the same as it was in Obernewtyn, and there is little to suggest that she is alone in this. The term appears less frequently in later books, but not because of any intimation, from Elspeth, Dameon, or any of the other 100-plus named characters that make up Obernewtyn’s universe, that stigma surrounding defectives has changed, but simply because, as focus shifts further from Obernewtyn as a disability institution, and more toward a singular quest narrative in which Elspeth must save the world from a second nuclear event, defective characters have (even) less room in the narrative than previously allowed. Obernewtyn, from The Farseekers onwards, becomes a haven for Misfit children, where those whose bodies and minds were previously legislated against and experimented upon are now able to demonstrate their autonomy. The emphasis, however, remains entirely upon Talented Misfits.

The worldbuilding example I would highlight here is the eventual creation of a rotating Misfit governing body, the ‘Guildmerge’. The Guildmerge contains representatives of each Talent in Obernewtyn, as well as the animals who live with them on the property. Animals, thanks to the Beastspeaking Talents of some Misfits, are proven to possess their own agency, and both expect and are expected to have their own place in the running of Obernewtyn. The acknowledgement of agency raises interesting and potentially powerful questions about how animals and humans coexist. Disabled people and disability studies more generally distance ourselves from socially presumed and derided ‘excessive proximity to nonhuman animals’ (Carlson 128). The dubious historical identifications with savagery – Michael Newton’s (10) ‘savage girls and wild boys’ – and the Western reverence of ‘rationality’ has served as a rhetorical basis for the dehumanisation of disabled people. Darwin’s theory of evolution provided much of this paradigm shift, identifying ‘feeblemindedness’ and racial differences as key evidence of human animal origins (133). Contemporary bioethicists now identify cognitively disabled infants as ‘non-paradigm humans’ who lack the capacity for the caretaking of others and debate the value of their species status with dogs and other, ‘less sentient’ creatures (Jaworska and Tannenbaum 248), suggesting, I would argue, that ‘unlearning eugenics’ (Herzog 4) is a long and fraught process. To borrow from Mitchell and Snyder, it is ‘safe to say that the relationship between disability and animality is a strained one’ (‘Precarity’ 258), and the continued existence of a hierarchy in which one branch of coded disability is still left unacknowledged is especially uncomfortable in this context, as is Carmody’s use of the Darwinian ‘feeble’ throughout. The rules of their new world do not consider defective Misfits outside of their previous Council categorisation; defective Misfits are not accorded point of view. Their existence remains an assumption, a private anxiety for the protagonist, and very much at the bottom of a hierarchy that is not yet dismantled. The following section of this essay hopes to show that while many disabled futures in fiction are still haunted by Darwinian understandings of disability, there are other works, such as the Tribe novels of Ambelin Kwaymullina, that are underpinned by different stories and worldbuilding that create new disabled futures with different rules.

‘Georgie Never Leaves the Firstwood’: Point of View, Interconnectedness and Crip Futures in The Foretelling of Georgie Spider

As previously discussed, the Obernewtyn chronicles and Kwaymullina’s Tribe sequence have in common several plot and narrative choices. A key point of contrast, however, in The Foretelling of Georgie Spider is the text’s use of point of view. Both The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf and The Disappearance of Ember Crow focalise almost exclusively through Ashala, with occasional slips into another character’s memories or dreams as Ashala’s abilities manifest or another character describes a scene she does not experience. Ashala, even in the first novel, where her memories have been tampered with and she is routinely drugged, presents herself in a direct, matter-of-fact first-person narration characterised by short sentences and wry, self-directed asides:

He was taking me to the machine. I’d known they were going to start the interrogation today as soon as a smiling Doctor Wentworth had pronounced me ‘much better’. She’d sounded pleased. Proud of her work, I guessed. I suppose she had a right to be, because I’d been in bad shape when I arrived – barely conscious, and bleeding from the hole in my stomach where the blade had gone in. (Interrogation 1)

The Foretelling of Georgie Spider, by contrast, alternates between chapters focalised through Ashala and Georgie. This is important for multiple narrative reasons – Georgie is, by nature of her Foretelling, prone to seeing multiple possibilities at once, which leads to a voice both distinct from Ashala’s and not conducive to linear narrative.

My name is Georgie Spider, and this is the real world.

This is the real world. I think. Unless … unless it isn’t.

It wasn’t working. Telling myself in my head that the world was real didn’t anchor me in the here-and-now the way it did when Ash said, ‘this is the real world’ out loud. Maybe because she was always so sure, and I never was. How does she know the world is real? I’d have to ask her. Then I would know too. Or I had already asked, and she’d said, ‘There’s only one world, Georgie’? I wasn’t certain if that conversation had happened or if it might happen. Ash’s answer made no sense anyway, because every moment was filled with millions of possible futures, and every future was a world of its own. Had I said any of that to Ash? I didn’t know, and I might not have explained it right even if I had. (Foretelling 1)

Georgie’s point-of-view chapters are characterised by self-directed questions, querying her own timeline (‘I’d have to ask … Or I had already asked’) and also by limited use of paragraphing. Paragraphs are used when necessary for sense-making – and the opening lines, where Georgie is explicitly trying to emulate Ashala, are in a paragraph of their own – but there are fewer than in Ashala’s chapters, creating a visual representation of each of Georgie’s thoughts as interconnected, many threads within a single idea – every future, a world of its own.

Georgie, on a more practical narrative level, also ‘never leaves the Firstwood’, (Interrogation 11), not just because of the risk of her Illegal status in the outside world, but because she is unable to function safely in crowded places full of people (and potential futures) she does not know. The trope of a place-bound oracle is not uncommon in speculative texts. Some examples include the use of disability metaphor from the Bat Girl-turned-Oracle in DC comics (Alaniz 59; Cocca, par. 4), Isobelle Carmody’s characterisation of Misfit Futuretellers in the Obernewtyn books, and Rick Riordan’s interpretations of the Oracle of Delphi in the Percy Jackson novels (Riordan). Kwaymullina’s use of Georgie as a point-of-view character, however, lends Georgie’s narrative weight beyond the trope. The switch from single to dual protagonists in Foretelling both provides readers with a world beyond Ashala’s head and allows the story to proceed in ways that could only be focalised through Georgie in the text – the multiple futures, the sense of interconnectedness – without having to move ‘beyond’ what disables her. Georgie can exist as a central character, and her disability is not framed as something she ever must overcome. Her character growth comes from accepting that there are elements to the world (and herself) that she can, and cannot, change, but the elements that may be read as disability within her characterisation are not part of them, subverting reader expectations from audiences used to characters like Georgie wishing for ‘normal’ life when they are given voice at all. Instead, The Tribe sequence, especially Foretelling, emphasises the importance of interdependence.

‘Perhaps This Could Be the Real World’: Interdependence as a Queer-crip Concept in Speculative Fiction

Interdependence is a term I introduce from disability studies and principles of accessible design and relies on the principle of more than one entity working together to achieve a common objective. In healthcare and disability, interdependence is separate from dependence because one of those people working toward a common goal is always the disabled person herself, while removing expectations of complete independence, which is a fundamentally abled ideal (Bennett et al. 161). Independence is also a common theme among protagonists and hero narratives in young adult and children’s literature (Day et al.; Trites). A crip reading of Foretelling that considers principles of interdependence – that requiring assistance is expected and unstigmatised; that physical, psychological, and social needs change; acknowledgement of each person’s individual dignity and autonomy; understanding that independence is not an inherently ‘better’ outcome for any person – allows for readings where Ashala’s voice scaffolds Georgie’s when it is required without robbing Georgie of any of her own power. This enaction of interdependence is doubly reinforced by Georgie’s interpretation of the final novel’s central conflict – a ‘blizzard’, which chills potential futures until the world is no longer able to change or grow. Georgie is horrified by this possibility, which appears to centre on Ashala’s death, and so Foretelling begins with a powerful misunderstanding that Ashala, as their leader, is the most important person for the fate of the world. Georgie soon realises, however, that the danger her mind represents as a blizzard is not an inevitable result of a single person’s death, but of disconnection, of miscommunication. Georgie’s friend Ember, an Artificial Intelligence, interprets Georgie’s descriptions of the terrifying blizzard more like electrical static: ‘… it’s not a storm, it’s disconnection’ (69).

Ashala, a charismatic leader with a deep sense of environmental justice, is a powerful communicator, and the other members of the Tribe are sure that without her their way of life would end, and the separation of Illegals and Citizens would continue in a cycle of mutual destruction. What Georgie (and Ashala) learn, however, is that it is not necessarily Ashala’s life that is specifically so important, but that the chilling effect of lost connection can be countered by interdependent effort. Ashala’s journey is supported not just by Georgie but by a whole host of other characters – ‘people with choices who matter’, who all work together to overturn the citizenship accords and create a new future. This point is emphasised in the final book of the sequence, where many young adult dystopias show their protagonists’ final acts of individual heroism or self-sacrifice – from Elspeth’s own lonely trip through the ‘Blacklands’ in The Sending and The Red Queen to the fates of protagonists in well-known dystopian narratives such as Divergent or The Hunger Games. Foretelling shows The Tribe working together as a collective, each member enacting small elements from Georgie’s foretelling to support both Ashala and the Tribe as a whole. ‘I was part of the Balance’, Ashala reflects. ‘I mattered as much as anybody else’ (304). Her life matters at the end of Foretelling as much as her death matters at the beginning of the novel. This shift of narrative emphasis away from individual sacrifice subverts reader expectations of how characters like Ashala are treated in dystopian young adult fiction, and highlights the narrative possibilities of interdependent worldbuilding.

Georgie’s own survival, as a disabled point-of-view character, is a potent element of this shift and goes some way to show disabled bodies and minds outside of the more traditional narrative tragedies in which novels such as Obernewtyn can operate. Cameo and Selmar, for example, both die in Obernewtyn in ways that provided tragic incentive for Elspeth’s narrative continuation. Georgie’s survival, meanwhile, is a crucial part of the Tribe’s own narrative successes. Some important characters die throughout Foretelling’s ending sequence – Georgie’s romantic partner and primary carer Daniel is killed by the council, and later pages of the novel are devoted to showing the other members of the Tribe, especially Ember and Ashala, stepping in to support Georgie as she grieves, reassuring her that she is still loved and supported. The following passage occurs immediately after Daniel’s death; the use of italics and bold text shows different characters communicating telepathically with Georgie.

I looked around. The ledge is filled with people.

The Tribe is here.

That’s good, Georgie. I think you should let them take care of you now. Yeah?

Daniel’s dead.

I know, Georgie, I know. But Daniel would want you to let the Tribe look after you, so that’s what you should do, okay?

Okay.

The Tribe did look after me. They stroke my hair and spoke softly and when I begin to cry they gathered all around and held me tight.

I Saw no futures. (ch. 26)

While Georgie, in her current grief, sees no futures, Kwaymullina’s novels, with their focus on characters looking after each other, makes sure she has one. Worldbuilding in the Tribe sequence shows characters such as Georgie as more than potential tragic incentive for characters occupying a higher position on a hierarchy. There are interdependent aspects to Carmody’s worldbuilding in Obernewtyn Chronicles, as well, especially in the relationships between Misfits and animals, as well as the collective governance of Obernewtyn as an institution. Elspeth, too, has moments where she learns she is not completely alone – that she has friends, lovers, people who would mourn her, but her narrative is still, however, is very much one of heroic independence and isolation. Where Ashala’s family think that Ashala is the most important part of their world and some of this importance is subverted by Georgie’s realisation that Ashala is not the only one ‘with choices who matter’, Elspeth is the protagonist who must save her world, even if as a Misfit she is one of many.

Narratives involving young adult protagonists ‘daring to disturb the universe’ by exploring the limits of their own power through heroic isolation are not new, nor did Carmody begin the trope (Trites 4). But the example of Elspeth is stark enough that I highlight the miracle cure that occurs in the second novel of the series. Elspeth has what reads as third-degree burns at the end of Obernewtyn, left with a profound limp and ‘twists of shiny, ropy scars and pain as [her] feet stubbornly refuse to heal’, (Farseekers 3). She learns to accommodate the new pain and mobility issues during the novel, but is informed, explicitly, that she cannot be the ‘Seeker’ her people need while burned in this way. During a magical quest towards the end of The Farseekers, Agyllians, god-like beings tasked with watching Elspeth’s journey who rarely intervene directly, teach her body how to heal itself. ‘You must learn’, she is told. ‘You must save’. Elspeth’s disabling injuries are treated by the text as a narrative prosthesis (Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis 54) – a problem solved, in this case quite literally, through miracle cure.

Interdependence is also a powerful concept in queer (McRuer 4; Mitchell and Snyder, Biopolitics 77) and ecological studies – scholarship which examines built environments raises questions of how and where people live together (Ray and Sibara 13). Kwaymullina’s work particularly benefits from an eco-crip reading inflected by an understanding of First Nations relationships with the land and dominant culture. The novel draws upon principles of interdependence in how the Tribe, even beyond Ashala and Georgie, interact with each other and, through dismantling processes of oppression such as the citizenship certificates and holding cells, the world they are building as they live within it. Communication with animals is as common here are it is in Obernewtyn – each member of the Tribe takes an animal name; Georgie’s own spider, ‘Helper’, is both a protecting force in the novel and a source of both comfort and practical assistance, physically ‘spinning’ the futures she describes. But where the interdependent, non-hierarchical relationship forming between animal and human in Carmody’s work is undermined by the positioning of defectives in that universe, Kwaymullina’s work shows the potential of interdependent worldbuilding without leaving some characters out in the metaphorical cold. In her concluding notes to the trilogy, Kwaymullina writes that in ‘The Foretelling of Georgie Spider, a better future is ultimately created by the global interconnection of those who choose compassion over intolerance, courage over fear, love over hate. Perhaps this could be the real world’ (314). In the final novel of the Tribe sequence, Georgie and Ashala’s perspectives are presented through dual narration. This strategy implies interconnectedness and interdependence and asks readers to view characters outside a disability hierarchy.

Robert McRuer argues extensively that disabled bodies and lives – and the interdependencies that are part of these lives – are in themselves a queer experience, if queer is to be read as nonnormative (55). The members of Ashala Wolf’s Tribe and Obernewtyn’s Talented Misfits all demonstrate elements of found family common to both queer experience and, increasingly, explicitly queer narratives in both adult and children’s fiction. While the act of ‘choosing’ one’s family is usually associated with queer narratives (Ahmed 169), it is also a part of the lives of many people with disability (Findlay x; Kavanagh-Ryan 59). Mitchell and Snyder echo this idea, while also asking if disability hierarchies and abled expectations of individual success are the ideal measure of self-worth. Can we, they ask in Biopolitics of Disability, keep ourselves ‘open to the experience of nonnormativity as something other than inferiority, deviancy and intolerable aberrancy?’ (31). In allowing for failure, for assistance, for independence, disabled narratives crip (and queer) understandings of self-worth, and even of heroism.

Elspeth is a protagonist who first appeared in text over thirty years ago. What would she, and the world of Misfits, look like today, written during a time when heroic quest narratives are being subverted in novels like Kwaymullina’s, or in Corinne Duyvis’s On The Edge of Gone, where the author of the #OwnVoices hashtag (6 September 2015) also wrote these words for an Autistic protagonist at the end of her world: ‘Whether someone is useful only matters if you value people by their use’ (Edge of Gone 306). Most heroic characters in speculative work are lauded for their use – Elspeth, who as a Beastspeaker, Farseeker, Coercer, occasional ‘Teknoguilder’ and latent Futureteller, has the most simultaneous Misfit talents of any character in the Obernewtyn universe, even before she is given the ability to heal her own injuries in The Farseekers. Misfits may be despised and feared, but she is the most talented, and the fate of the world explicitly depends on her alone. Without Elspeth, both Obernewtyn the in-world institution and Obernewtyn the quest story cannot exist.

Ashala, too, is a leader, but she neither expects nor is expected to work in heroic isolation. Even the original conceit of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, where Ashala has her memories altered to successfully infiltrate the facility without betraying the rest of the Tribe, requires extensive input and assistance from her friends after she temporarily forgets she has any. Even Georgie, whose foresight is profoundly useful on the macro-plot and micro-character level, has been developed in a written world that reads as if it would function, just in another way, without her abilities. The most important part about Georgie, as with Duyvis’s protagonist, Denise, is that they exist. They exist, even when parts of their worlds fear them or find them expendable. They exist, neither as burdens nor weak points, nor as narrative prostheses. Their existence is sometimes dependent on others, and if this essay has done nothing else, I hope it has shown some of the crip and queer power of such an existence, including this need. The characters and stories analysed in this essay do not just mirror hierarchical understandings of disability, but also, to paraphrase Rudine Sims Bishop (ix), open windows and doors to worlds presenting alternatives to our current understandings of them and ways of living in the world. In this sense they constitute a disability equivalent to what José Muñoz explores as utopian imaginings of worlds not yet realised (106; Reeders 117), where ‘failed’ bodies and minds become sites for exploration and the building of new worlds beyond abled, or otherwise normative, expectations. If Carmody’s work is the speculative mirror in this essay, Kwaymullina opens a new window, and one of the crucial elements of this process shines through in the interdependent relationships formed between characters, and the fictional worlds built to contain them.

Footnotes

  1. One Australian example is the discussion of what ‘reasonable and necessary’ supports a disabled person is entitled to in the National Disability Insurance Scheme (Foster et al. 28). The NDIS is Australia’s most visible work of disability programming. Dehumanising, and often fixated on whether NDIS participants are allowed to access sex workers (Dickinson and Smith), public conversations on the NDIS turns to disability spectacle, where disabled bodies and minds are expected to behave in known and particular ways to be ‘worthy’ of funding. This is similar to the American experience of disability through the charity telethon (Longmore, Telethons). A medical understanding of disability is also deeply hierarchical, as shall be analysed further in my discussion on stigma.

  2. Carmody’s use of the word ‘Holocaust’ should be noted here. ‘In-world’, the term refers to the nuclear event that foregrounds Obernewtyn, and while there are no explicit references to the events of 1933–1945 in Carmody’s novels, the use of the term in the context of the segregation, institutionalisation and experimentation on disabled-coded children is highly evocative. A hierarchical understanding of disability is crucial to the medical model of disability I have already discussed and is also a foundational aspect of eugenics (Gibson 315). Dagmar Herzog writes, in their discussion of the competition for funds and attention between sexual and disability rights in post-Nazi Europe, ‘It was never self-evident what it might mean to unlearn eugenics. Indeed, in the first post-war decades, no one showed much interest in doing so’ (4, emphasis mine). The use of disability hierarchy in Carmody’s work, whether explicit or implicit, shows a world in which these extreme responses to disability will form, just as a desire for an ‘assumed normal’ shows its worst outcomes through eugenic practices.

  3. This distancing from our own understanding of medical technology is reinforced several times during the series, from the reinvention of vaccines for a smallpox-like illness in Ashling (1996) to periodic prophetic dreams of Elspeth’s in later novels, which often highlight her surprise at innovations such as wheelchairs or casts for broken limbs.

Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Australian fiction, Disabled characters.

Cite as: Kavanagh-Ryan, Kit. ‘Who Gets to Survive the Apocalypse? Disability Hierarchy in Post-Disaster Fiction in Australian YA.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.4801bfd4aa.