Neurodiversity in SFF

Earlier this year I attended QuaranCon 2022, an online speculative fiction convention in its second year featuring speakers from all over the world.

Today I’m highlighting a particular panel that resonated with me: Neurodiversity in SFF. From the QuaranCon YouTube channel description:

“We’re not all wired the same way, and that is a thing of beauty, something to be celebrated. A group of neurodiverse authors and bloggers discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of neurodiversity in fiction.
Featuring C.M. Caplan, Caro, Dianna Gunn, Darby Harn, Al Hess, Rachel Rener, Raidah Shah Idil, and MV Pine as moderator.”

Here is the video. At just over an hour, you may wish to set aside a time to settle in.

Did you skip ahead? No problem! I’m going to discuss a few thoughts here, anyway.

We read fiction to have two science-fictional experiences: time travel and telepathy. Fiction takes us to other times and places (Regency England, the Ice Age, the moons of Jupiter), and it takes us inside people’s heads, where we hear their thoughts and feel their feelings.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Nature, 2017

First, I should say that I enjoyed this panel discussion because I am myself, neurodivergent. In addition, I have been exploring the use, portrayal of, and potential for neurodiversity in speculative fiction over the past few years. In my Archivist series, protagonist Cassia Tan is a cybernetically enhanced human with access to all the galaxy’s information inside her head… but not a whole lot of an idea of how to use it. Cassia, to me, is fundamentally neurodiverse. Raised in an intellectual, semi-sheltered Academy on a metropolis world, taught to strictly follow rules, and led to believe that information is the most important commodity in the universe, Cassia struggles with unpredictable social interactions, a moral compass that conflicts with her supposed neutral status, and a fear of failure.

Much of Cassia’s outlook and many of her struggles were informed by my own experiences as a neurodiverse person. I am diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder, ADHD, and Autism (formalised this week). Writing Cassia allowed me to play with a non-neurotypical outlook on the universe, and explore what it means to be vulnerable in a high-stakes, fast-paced space adventure. Interestingly, it wasn’t until two years after that first draft was written that I received my neurodiverse diagnoses… and suddenly it all made sense.

Science fiction allows us the distance to circumvent issue fatigue in our very troubled times. We can play out ideas and scenarios because we are creatures of parable and myth and allegory, TED talks and ethical trolley problems. Fiction is how we grapple with ourselves. By imagining the unimaginable, it’s possible to make reality more bearable.

Lauren Beukes, Nature, 2017
Infinity pastel rainbow – neurodiversity symbol
by MissLunaRose12 on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Header image by NTB Scanpix on Shutterstock (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Neurodiversity, much like other marginalised identities, needs more representation, more acceptance, and more understanding. What better place than in speculative fiction, where the world is sometimes like our own and sometimes very much not.

…to craft scientific and technological metaphors for our complex era, we must turn to sciences of complexity. Biology, neuroscience and economics are still woefully underused in modern science fiction — although the work of authors such as Johanna Sinisalo and Nancy Kress, among others, shows their power and wonder. These novels teach us empathy for characters caught in the unravelling of intricate human, technological and ecological systems: one might call it systems fiction.

Hannu Rajaniemi, Nature, 2017

On the back of my new diagnosis, I’m now more determined than ever to advocate for, and include, neurodiverse representation in my work and that of others. I can’t wait to share these characters and worlds with you.

Here are some additional links to dive into speculative neurodiversity. Happy reading!

  • The Illustrated Page: a blog by Sarah Waites (also has lists of LGBTQI+, POC, and female protagonists in speculative fiction)
  • Another great blog post for writers thinking about neurodivergence is on Mythic Scribes.
Mythic Scribes - the art of fantasy storytelling

The ability to write characters who are different from you is a vital skill for any author, and creating characters who are neurodivergent is one way to put that skill to use. In this article I’ll discuss how to do research for your neurodivergent characters (NCs), different ways to portray them, and the challenges and advantages they might have depending on your fantasy world.

Emma Lammers, featured author
Imaginary Worlds

One of the most common requests I’ve gotten over the years has been to do an episode about why so many autistic people are drawn towards science fiction, and these suggestions have come from listeners who are autistic or have autistic children. Fiction writer Ada Hoffmann, writer and professor Dora Raymaker, YouTube presenter Quinn Dexter, and author and professor Nick Walker, who also co-runs the publishing company Autonomous Press have each given this subject a lot of thought. Their experiences and perspectives as autistic sci-fi fans and creators overlapped in many ways, from the joy of complex worldbuilding, to identifying with fictional characters like Data or Spock, to wanting to imagine a future where aliens, humans and A.I. can coexist without a hierarchy of neurotypical perspectives. Also featuring actress Shannon Tyo reading passages from Ada and Dora’s novels.

Eric Molinsky, Imaginary Worlds
QuaranCon 2022 - a fantasy convention for staying the F home. Again. Yet again.
  • Quarancon has an amazing selection of recorded panels if you have several hours to spare. Meanwhile, do check out that video – and here are the Neurodiversity Panel author links:

MV Pine – The Reinvented Heart: Tales of Futuristic Relationships
C.M. Caplan – The Sword in the Street
Caro – Sensory: Life on the Spectrum
Darby Harn – In Between: Stories of the Eververse
Al Hess – Mazarin Blues: Hep Cats of Boise #1
Rachel Rener – [multiple titles]

And a final thought…

…the thing about fantasy and sci-fi is that removing the bonds of what is realistic or possible in our everyday worlds makes space for difference.

Alex Macfadyen, Murderbot Does Not Want A Hug, in The Cultural Gutter, 2021

Hear, hear. Let’s embrace neurodiversity – in speculative fiction, and in the waking world. 🙂

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