From the Space of Compassion (Queering SF #28)
“Destroy. That’s the brief of this issue. Destroy science fiction. Why? Because disabled people have been discarded from the narrative, cured, rejected, villainized. We’ve been given few options for our imaginations to run wild within the parameters of an endless sky. This issue destroys those narratives and more.” (Elsa Sjunneson and Dominik Parisien)
Beginning in June 2014, Lightspeed Magazine published special issues dedicated to the proposition of “destroying” genre fiction. They published Women Destroy Science Fiction in 2014, followed by Queers Destroy Science Fiction in June 2015, and People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction in June 2016. (They also “destroyed” Fantasy and Horror. All of these can be found at Destroy SF.)
In 2016, the “Destroy” project was handed over to the editors at Uncanny Magazine, and they published Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction in 2018. In this issue, the stories, poems, reprints, and essays in the special issue offer a wide range of individuals, identities, and abilities. The issue includes works by Rachel Swirsky, Nisi Shawl, Judith Tarr, Karin Tidbeck, Rose Lemberg, Sarah Gailey, and many others. Among the fiction contents is a short piece by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (they/them) a queer/nonbinary writer (who has also published material as A. Merc Rustad).
In this story, Kaityn Falk (they/them) is agender, “autistic and hyperempathic.” Consequently, Kaityn feels uncomfortable on Earth, around the teeming millions of other people. And so, they work for the Galactic Exploration for Peace” (GEP) agency, setting research beacons throughout deep space for the purposes of star-charting. They are a million miles from anyone else, and they couldn’t be happier. Their only companion is an AI/pilot called Horatio.
On a routine mission on Io 7, they (Kaityn and Horatio) detect something on their scanners, and Kaityn quickly senses something, or someone, in pain. Kaityn walks on the moon surface and finds a lifeform that has crashed. However, a rival company has also tracked the signal, and the representatives intend to take the alien for study. They will not listen to Kaityn, and they fire their weapons at her. The alien immobilizes the threat, saving Kaityn’s life. Kaityn says they are now even.
The story raises a number of important issues: confronting Otherness, identity, and compassion.
The lifeform seems wholly Other to Kaityn. They describe it as “octagonal light” with “rippling edges, “two feet in diameter” with no appendages. The lifeform has no verbal language but communicates via empathic sensations. It is alone and in pain, separated from its whole self. In this sense, the alien is the opposite of Kaityn, who feels pain at being in the whole of humanity. The burst of pain knocks Kaityn over; Horatio fears they are dead. The alien lifeform apologizes for the assault, and, significantly, Horatio can also hear the communication. But through this very direct communication, Kaityn now knows the alien’s gender and pronouns (nu/nur). Kaityn and the alien are profoundly different, and yet, they share the value of life and the beauty in space.
At the end of the encounter, the alien is reunited with its whole self, and Kaityn with Horatio. Once the alien lifeform is gone, Kaityn realizes that they have treated Horatio as something other than a life form. They discover that Horatio had been programmed “male,” but prefers to use “ze/zir” pronouns.
As noted, Kaityn’s identity and ability are central to why and how they connect to the alien. In a flashback, we learn that a previous boyfriend had questioned Kaityn’s suitedness to be act as first contact. “‘Wouldn’t being agender just confuse them?’” The now-ex-boyfriend had assumed that aliens would be bigender, just as he really thought humans are (should be) bigender, as well. Hortaio tells Kaityn that her ex had held them back from being their “true self.”
Kaityn had wondered if aliens would have gender at all, let alone two of them. In fact, the alien makes no assumptions about gender. Kaityn does learn the pronouns used by the alien, but we learn nothing more about the alien’s sexual or gender (assuming they are even separate). No, Kaityn’s identity, their being, are precisely what made the interaction work.
Because of who they are, because they are autistic and hyperempathethic, Kaityn senses the alien crash, feels the alien’s pain, and can communicate with the alien. The story’s title gets at this relationship: the frequency of compassion. In one sense, Kaityn seems to be on the same wavelength as the alien (as is Horatio). The other humans seem insensate, on the wrong wavelength. In the other sense, how often do we offer or receive such acts of compassion? For Kaityn, what was a disability on Earth (autism and hyperempathy) are precisely what allow them to succeed with the alien. That “disability” is the key to the compassion.
The issue of Uncanny promised to “destroy” the usual narratives of SF and to make “disabled people” visible, to center them in the stories. In this case, an agender person with autism and a gender nonconforming AI are front and center. Furthermore, their identities are not superficial but integral to the whole plot and resolution. And while I would say that it is not the first SF story to talk about compassion and about meeting an alien from a space of empathy, “The Frequency of Compassion” does it well.
Ritch Calvin (he/him) is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction (Palgrave), editor of “The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism” (Aqueduct), and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls (McFarland).