Iron Man and the Science Fiction of Disability

In March 2015, a YouTube video sponsored by Microsoft’s #CollectiveProject made the social media rounds. In this video a well-known bionics expert presented a seven-year-old boy born without most of his right arm with a 3D-printed bionic arm created by engineering student Albert Moreno. As of today, the video currently has 10,447,323 views on YouTube.

It wasn’t the first bionic arm Albert Moreno designed for Alex Pring, and it wasn’t the first time the Collective Project featured the pair. The previous month, Office Video’s YouTube channel shared a video that featured Alex receiving his first arm on Christmas morning, as well as interview selections in which Moreno discusses the creation and mission of Limbitless Solutions, which creates individualized bionic arms for kids. As I’m writing this, that first video has only 276,807 views.

Why did one version of Alex’s story become so popular? The answer, if you watch the video below, quickly becomes obvious: Albert Moreno is not the “bionics expert” featured in the March video. Iron Man is.

Okay, obviously, it’s not Iron Man; it’s Robert Downey Jr., and the title acknowledges as much. But the video itself plays hard with the line between fiction and reality, introducing RDJ coyly as “a leading bionics expert” and having him, not Moreno, present Alex with the new arm — transported, like the movie prop he’s brought along for comparison, in a case with the Stark Industries logo.

“Do you know who that is?” somebody asks Alex off-screen. Alex smiles; he’s in on the joke.

“Iron Man.” (Cue fist-pumping from RDJ.)

“What’s his name?”

Alex isn’t fooled. “Robert.”

But the video keeps the joke going, putting “Robert’s” name in quotes on a subsequent title slide and keeping the actor in character throughout his interactions with Alex as a kind of hybrid between himself and his fictional alter ego. He’s an actor, but he’s also a bionics expert. Robert, but also: Iron Man.

The popularity of this video suggests something to me about the role science fiction often plays as a way of mediating and understanding the most difficult parts of science, medicine, and technology — difficult because they are so incomplete. As incredible as Moreno’s work is, it can’t quite measure up to Iron Man’s suit, which, through the magic of Hollywood and CGI, seems to work as effortlessly as an organic body. In a world where practical science is often as slow, boring, and difficult as it is promising, Stark Industries and Iron Man represent the impractical ideal of assistive and adaptive technologies.

The fascinating relationship between science fiction and disability that the RDJ video suggests goes back a long way; in fact, the relationship has existed since the inception of the genre we recognize today as science fiction. Of course, nobody who studies science fiction can agree on exactly when it “began” — some, of course, point to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. James Gunn actually stretches the definition so far as to include the Epic of Gilgamesh, meaning that science fiction as a genre has existed as long as literature. But this is my essay, and as far as I’m concerned the thing we recognize today as science fiction began in 1926.

Cover of the first issue of Amazing Stories, released in 1926. (Experimenter Publishing Co./Internet Archive | Public domain)

What happened in 1926 was unremarkable, at the time: a Luxembourgish immigrant named Hugo Gernsback, editor of a few low-profile electronics magazines for hobbyists, decided to branch out a bit and publish a magazine for stories of “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” He called it Amazing Stories, and though he couldn’t have known it at the time, it was the start of something big. By the end of his life in 1967, Gernsback would be known as “the Father of Science Fiction.”

Gernsback’s fame, though, was a long way off: the only people who took notice of Amazing Stories in 1926 were kids. In the 1920s and into the 1930s, the genre of science fiction flourished almost exclusively in the dirt-cheap pulp magazines popular among children and teenagers, who bought, collected, traded, and started clubs around publications like Amazing Stories and the many titles that followed on its success: Astounding Science Fiction, Stirring Science Stories, Fantastic Adventures, and more.

One of these clubs, composed though it was of schoolboys, gained a degree of notoriety that has earned attention from scholars since, and it’s this group that I want to focus on. The Futurians, as they called themselves, were simultaneously a fan club, a writing workshop, a casual friend group, and a Communist collective, living together in rented rooms in Flatbush. For some, involvement with the Futurians provided a cover for their Communist sympathies; for others, the organization was a training ground for careers in publishing. For many, the Futurians represented a kind of “extended family.”1

But a love of science fiction drew them all together from the fall of 1938, when Donald A. Wollheim and his friends John Michel and Frederik Pohl established the “Futurian Science Literary Society,” until 1945, when tensions between members led the group to expel Wollheim, and Wollheim to sue the remaining members, effectively ending the brief but vibrant lifespan of the New York Futurians.

While the dream lasted, though, the Futurians had more in common than a love of science fiction. Several members of the group — in fact, the same people who formed the core of Futurian membership and leadership throughout the decade — shared a history of illness and disability from an early age. Donald Wollheim contracted polio at age 5, which affected his muscular development and would damage his coordination for the remainder of his life. John Michel, Wollheim’s close friend, was paralyzed in the right arm and leg from ages 9 to 11 following a bout of diphtheria; later in life, osteomyelitis, alcoholism, and mental health issues gave him constant trouble. Frederik Pohl was so ill as a child that he was taken out of school until age 12, and Robert Lowndes’s club foot had been only partially corrected by surgery during his infancy.2

Donald Allen Wollheim, Frederik Pohl and John Michel, c. 1938. (Elizabeth Wollheim/Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)

The Futurians often acknowledged themselves the ways in which science fiction offered an escape from a world of pessimism, of limited opportunities, of political unrest and economic uncertainty — yet none of them noted the appeal of “stirring science stories” to readers whose bodies had, in one way or another, been failed by medical science. Donald Wollheim, as a successful publisher of science fiction in the 1970s, recalled, “The problem was psychological. The problem was that you had no future … there were absolutely no jobs, no openings, no anything. It was an endless futility–you knew what you wanted to do, but there wasn’t a chance in the world.”

The problem was psychological; it was political; it was above all economic. And following this logic, the Futurians sought solutions to the psycho-politico-economic problems through the twin channels of Communism and capitalism, with John Michel leaving the Futurians for the Communist party and his former friends Wollheim, Pohl, and Lowndes pursuing successful careers as publishers, writers, and literary agents.

Yet all four, Communist and capitalists alike, retained their interest in science fiction and the deeply personal insecurities that had helped draw them to the genre in the first place. As their economic fortunes and political leanings changed, science fiction, with its endless possibilities and limitless solutions to real-world problems, remained a vital part of their worldview and their sense of self. Though none of the Futurians ever pointed to their disability as the source of their interest in stories about the future, the pattern is undeniable: early science fiction, it would seem, appealed strongly, vitally, to those for whom science was at best a mixed blessing, a tool of infinite promise and limited returns.

But maybe it isn’t just the promise of perfection that science fiction offers to the pains and frustrations of illness and disability. As he compares “gauntlets” with Alex Pring in the Collective Project video, Robert Downey Jr. finds that the light on his prop is flickering.

“I’m having a technical glitch,” he tells the camera, and turns to Alex. “Half the time I design one of these, it winds up breaking on me. But what I do is I keep working on it. Kind of like you’re working on it with Albert.”

This technical glitch is fiction, just as much as the idea that he’s a bionics expert, or that Alex’s arm was made by Stark Industries and not Limbitless Solutions. But this is a different kind of fiction — a fiction of nonfunctionality, a fiction that reassures Alex, and the viewer, that it’s okay for science to be imperfect. Difficulty is a part of this science-fiction narrative just as much as success, providing a balance between limitless optimism and human struggle.

“He keeps working and working,” Alex says of Albert Moreno, the bionics expert who gave him two arms, “until he gets it right.”

“Yeah,” Iron Man agrees. “But I think yours is still a little bit more right than mine.”

Notes

  1. Damon Knight, The Futurians: The Story of the Science Fiction “Family” of the 30’s That Produced Today’s Top SF Writers and Editors (New York: John Day, 1977), 52. Return to text.
  2. Michel and Lowndes also lost their mothers to illness early in life; Michel’s mother died of tuberculosis of the spine when he was young, and Lowndes’s mother was one of the thousands of casualties of the 1918 flu pandemic. Return to text.

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