The Reclamation of McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang

From Clockworks2
Jump to navigationJump to search

Swehla, Tessa. "The Reclamation of McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang: Irony as Resistance to Utopian Ableist Narratives." Selected ICFA 2021 Papers, conveniently published and as of November 2021 available on line in SFRA Review 51.3 (Summer 2021).[1]

The "Reclamation" may overstate the importance of academic publications — even one as influential in several fields as Donna Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" — but with that nit picked: this is an excellent argument against a reading of Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang (and other Helva stories) as pre-feminist and ableist.

The main character of The Ship Who Sang is a disabled woman, Helva, whose body is encased in a spaceship. The text positions Helva as disabled in the opening lines[...]: “She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies” [...]. Here is a government, Central Worlds, that has seized complete control over medical institutions and is concerned intimately with the bodies of its citizens, but styles itself as a [...] utopia that cares about the happiness and wellbeing of all its citizens. Helva is positioned as labor for Central Worlds: she is a cargo ship, a diplomat, an artist, a scout ship, and an informational processing machine [...]. [...]

The controversy surrounding the novel stems in part from a misreading of the text by Donna Haraway. In her “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway briefly references Helva as an example of how people with prosthetics might pose a challenge to organic integrity: “Anne McCaffrey’s pre-feminist The Ship Who Sang (1969) explored the consciousness of a cyborg, hybrid of girl’s brain and complex machinery, formed after the birth of a severely handicapped child. Gender, sexuality, embodiment, skill: all were reconstituted in the story. Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” [***]

In her blog post [...],” disability activist Sarah Einstein reacted to reading the first lines of the novel with horror at the thought of a future where “disability is so depersonalizing that the very promising are rewarded with slavery and disembodiment; those who don’t pass the test for these rewards are put to death” (Einstein). These readings are supported by the paratext surrounding the novel. After all, the back cover of the Del Rey collection of these stories includes [...,] “Helva Had Been Born Human… but only her brain had been saved — saved to be schooled, programmed and implanted in the sleek titanium body of an intergalactic scout ship” (Ship). This is inconsistent with the novel, which insists again and again that Helva and the other shell-people are not disembodied brains but are bodyminds whose nervous systems have been connected to a ship as an advanced form of prostheses. It is easy to see how Haraway may have misread the text through the lens of this framing, and it is furthermore understandable why many crip theorists and disabled readers have dismissed the novel as ableist [...].

What McCaffrey’s novel does is explore the ironic relationship between utopia and cheerful affect. [...] In The Ship Who Sang, the cheerfulness of these characters, a signifier of utopia, is deliberately juxtaposed with darker signaling of dystopia to create that double-vision [...]. Helva is [Ursula K.] Le Guin’s “child in the basement” ["The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," 1973[2]] that allows the Central Worlds to thrive; she exists in a dystopia within the same spatial plain as utopia, a utopia that relies on her very existence. [3]

RDE, finishing, 7Nov21