K is for Jacqueline Koyanagi

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance. And be warned that there are enormous spoilers in the post below!}

It’s easy to say that Jacqueline Koyanagi’s luscious debut Ascension ticks just about every box on the anti-kyriarchy bingo card: our heroine is a queer disabled woman of color (in space!). She falls in love with a disabled starship captain who’s in a polyamorous relationship with another queer woman: a medic who plans on having children with a man-slash-engineer-slash-sometime-wolf. But like we saw with Her Love, Her Land, this book was written from deeply within the perspective of the identities it represents. The characters’ disability is a plot point, but it’s not The Plot Point — the same goes for queerness and race: they’re baked in, functions of character rather than Moving Moments. Polyamory gets a bit more of the Very Special Episode treatment, but this aspect is presented as bridging a gap between two different planetary cultures, one more sexually conservative than the other.

Cover image for Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi. A green space-ish, tech-ish background. A dark-skinned woman with dreadlocks stands in profile with one hand on her hip, looking skeptically at the viewer. Her suit is close-fitting and very jointed, with futuristic seams. Her left hand holds a large futuristic gun, pointed down.And all the characters are compelling, and several scenes made me gasp out loud (Adul!), but what I can’t wait to talk about is how this book treats the problem of humans having bodies.

I say problem because human bodies are a source of profound tension, both in Ascension and in fiction and philosophy and human existence more generally. Our bodies are ourselves — but they are not entirely ourselves. They connect us to the world — except when they prevent us from connecting to the world. When we looked at the meaning of bodies in Vicki Essex’s In Her Corner, they were always one or the other: male or female, healthy or injured. Bodies in Ascension are better described with the conjunction and: they are weak and strong, burdensome flesh and transcendent gifts all at the same time. Characters are not restricted to one single and never-changing attitude to their own physicality: instead, there is a web of constantly shifting priorities, needs, limitations, and abilities.

We begin with Alana Quick, whose genetic disability, Mel’s Disease, is a daily obstacle:

I dropped the scrap and looked at my empty hands to determine how bad the tremors were today — hands that should have ben learning the curves of a ship instead of reaching for prescriptions. Hands that would become unreliable without medication, weak and gnarled. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I knew I could accomplish amazing feats with these hands, given the right tools and a ship to love. It’s just that, well, I got frustrated that my ability to function — to do the one thing I’d loved since childhood — was entirely dependent on synthesized chemicals. (Kindle location 87)

At the same time, the self-awareness her disease requires of her enhances Alana’s natural flair for mechanics and ship-fixing:

Every ship I worked on, I got to know by learning her song. I imagined each one stringing wires through me like new arteries, connecting us until I could feel what ailed her reflected in the pain patterns of my own flesh … Each job made me feel alive. (319)

Her body’s particularity, her disability, becomes a source of helpful experience. It’s not an idealization — disability here is not a superpower —  but it has given her practice with a mode of thought that comes in handy in her work.

At the same time, Alana’s disease is more than simply a personal affliction: it’s a financial burden as well. Alana (and her aunt Lai, who has the same disease) are dependent upon a medication known as Dexitek, which means they have an extra expense they can ill afford with the lack of ship-repair jobs: “People like [therapist] Shrike had no idea what it meant to have to choose between paying bills and paying for food” (107). This is a classic and very real meeting point between disability and poverty: the one reinforces the other, compounding Alana’s suffering just as it compounds the suffering of disabled persons in our own present society. “Life was a privilege, not a right,” Alana says. “Something you had to struggle for when you were unlucky enough to be born at the intersection of poverty and bad genes” (1841). Yes, precisely.

As with Tessa Dare’s Three Nights with a Scoundrel, in Ascension we have a plethora of disabled characters, each of whose experiences is unique and personal. Captain Tev Helix (oh, the hotness!) wears a prosthesis since she lost a leg in a mining accident: her disability has a before and an after with a moment of trauma as punctuation, leading to a different experience of embodiment than Alana’s chronic pain issues or pilot Marre’s terminal slide toward invisibility. “At some point I knew I couldn’t pretend to be whole anymore,” Tev says. “It didn’t even occur to me at first that I’d still be able to have a leg, just not the one I was born with” (2267). The prosthetic is still her leg, still a part of her body: but years later, she’s still paying off the debt for the new leg and her post-injury medical care.

Tev’s leg and Alana’s Dexitek highlight the common SF trope of technology as a means of compensating for physical disability. Where Ascension goes a step further is treating implanted non-compensatory tech as a part of a person’s embodiment. To elude the authorities, who are pursuing them for a crime they didn’t commit, the entire crew of the Tangled Axon remove their communication implants. Alana finds this loss profoundly disconcerting:

I still slept on one side to avoid hitting the transmit switch even though it wasn’t there anymore. I still reached for my neck when I wanted to talk to someone. I still had to remind myself that I now had to seek them out face-to-face. I’d lost a sense almost as integrated as my vision or hearing, and I didn’t know if I’d ever not feel a little incomplete. My body missed the metal I’d lost just as badly as if it had been blood or bone. (1899)

The great anxiety surrounding cyborgs, of course, is that adding robot parts decreases a person’s humanity (Robocop, replicants, the Terminator, the Borg, the current preview for that Johnny Depp thing I’m too lazy to look up right now). Here, the tech incorporated in the body is all but transmuted into human flesh. This is a flexible, inclusive definition of humanity that I admit I can’t stop thinking about: of course we’re going to think of implanted tech as part of ourselves, just as we already personify and anthropomorphize our cars and our phones and our gadgets. Add to this Ascension‘s overlap between a ship’s body and its captain’s, and the metaphysical connection between the pilot and the ship and the crew … There is a receptive physical inclusivity in this world, a fluid resilience and incorporation (pun intended) that I want more of.

Though the Dexitek works well enough most days, Alana and her aunt are saving for a more permanent cure, which the sinister corporation Transliminal Solutions offers for a hefty price tag. At the book’s beginning Alana is offered a temporary taste of this cure, but once she takes it she will need to keep taking it and each treatment is shockingly expensive. Her therapist assures her there are payment plans: “I knew all about their ‘payment plans.’ More like indentured servitude. They’d own not just my city, but my body. My suffering and its relief. My life” (126). Alana carries this miracle drug with her for over half the book but never ingests it — her disability, though often frustrating and limiting, is not the worst-case scenario for her as an individual. Her struggle with Mel’s is at least a familiar struggle — she would like a cure, but not at the expense of her personhood. Life with a disability is preferred to (and importantly not equivalent to) dehumanization.

That able-bodied-ness is not itself an idealized state in Ms. Koyanagi’s text is shown by the attitude of Alana’s sister Nova, a spirit guide (read: New Age-y type thing) who feels that her own healthy able body is still not good enough, still not the sum total of her true self:

The first time I saw Nova injured as a child — a paper cut, nothing more — she screamed and wept for hours, unable to reconcile the visceral, heartbreaking reality of blood and split skin. It was too much, too far removed from her expectations of what little girls should be made of. Surely a tear in her flesh should have leaked purity and rapture into the world. Surely her soul should have escaped in vaporous arabesques, dissipating into the ether. (1115)

The language here is strongly reminiscent of our own culture’s trope that girls’ bodies are innately delicate and ethereal — witness this stunning Yahoo Answers thread from the antiquity of the internet about women farting, only some of which appears to be trolling — but despite that, from all I can tell the hierarchy in Ascension is gender-neutral at minimum and matriarchal at maximum. Most of the characters we meet are women, including all those in positions of power. It’s a straight gender reversal of the usual fictional ratio and as such is welcome and soothing as sinking into a warm bath.

And yet it’s unsettling that in this book we have a sci-fi religion that elevates asceticism and self-starvation as practices that purify the soul, in ways that echo both the modern dietary compulsions of high fashion and the spiritual guidelines from, say, medieval Catholicism or Jainism. I admit to a personal lapsed-Catholic distrust of any doctrine of self-abnegation. Alana, so connected to her body even when that connection causes pain, is horrified by what she sees as her sister’s casual disdain for a functional body: “Her words came from a kind of healthy privilege I couldn’t begin to process” (2168). To Alana, Nova feels ungrateful, squandering a pain-free existence for no practical gain, unnecessarily scornful of an able body that does nothing to impede her connection with the wider world.

And yet …

And yet Nova’s words in this passage are impossible to refute:

“One day, you’ll feel it too … Only you’ll feel it when it’s too late. Your eyes will weaken. Your legs will start to hurt when you climb stairs. The space behind your knees will ache, like growing pains all over again, but this time you’ll know the feeling is your body stretching and reshaping, pulling itself apart to make room for death. You’ll fight it with medication like you always do, but she’ll still come for you. Memories will lose definition around the edges, smoothing over in places that were once sharp and precise. Your skin will seem to expand and deflate, wrinkling in places that were once like silk. You’ll feel as if you’re shrinking inside your skin, disappearing. You’ll get implants and upgrades, you’ll fill your body with scaffolding to hold it together, to buy time, but the truth will remain: you’re dying. You’ve always been dying. Life is a thin film, a veil between deaths.” (2169)

Nova is right: Alana is going to die. Even the cure from Transliminal that she hopes for proves to be an illusion, a fraud. Alana’s focus on her body blinds her to the long-term destiny of every human life. I was strongly, gut-wrenchingly reminded of the passage in Catch-22 where Yossarian spends entire pages wondering which organ could be the first one to fail, the first soldier to fall, the first sign of his own impending demise. And barring catastrophe, there has to be a first step into the descent, doesn’t there? Nova is entirely, horribly right: by virtue of the fact that we are alive, our bodies are destined to fail and to die. This is the way of all flesh.

There is a quote late in the book from another character who resists the inevitability of death: “Birke’s voice echoed in my thoughts. I will never lose her again. I will build a new universe where bodies aren’t fragile, where the soul is limitless, where medicine is pure magic” (4093). And this is our villain. Who — spoilers! — happens to be a double of our heroine, from another universe, one where Nova had Mel’s and died of it instead of Alana. So the Alana-double is searching through various realities, trying to find a Nova-double she can use to resurrect her sister. She is Alana’s resistance to the gospel of death, taken to its logical conclusion.

And yet …

And yet Birke is clearly, unambiguously a villain. She kills remorselessly, wiping an entire planet and its population in one stunning surprise of a scene. (I told you there were spoilers!) It’s doubtful this is the first time she’s done this in one reality or another; if death is inevitable, why bother waiting for it? Why allow other people to wait for it, when you have a personal stake in eliminating them? Nova’s self-abnegation is a questionable virtue, but Birke’s willingness to abnegate others is clearly much more terrible.

While Birke-as-Alana’s-doppelganger does show up somewhat out of nowhere at the climax of the plot — can this really be the very first double we’ve met from the othersiders? — the way her appearance complicates the text’s structure of embodiment is symbolically satisfying to a profound degree. As Alana wonders: “How could someone who shared my body be so alien? Was it the difference of a single synapse? One twist in the timeline, and this is what I would have been?” (3904).

The answer to this question is yes, as Alana realizes while Nova chooses to give her life in sacrifice to save Marre’s (despite what she’s said earlier about death’s inevitability):

Her [Birke’s] grief resonated with mine. I knew its bitter taste, its color. I knew how it felt to see the empty space they once occupied. To resent even happy memories for the flaying pain they brought to the surface. I understood then that it was true: given the right set of circumstances, I could have become Birke. Any version of me from any reality could have become her. (4093)

Body and self, self and other, the individual and the universe — it always comes back to that first conjuction, the all-important andAlana is right about the body, and Nova is too. Nova is also right about the soul: her last gift to her sister is this memory from their childhood:

“I said there’s two reasons to have a soul … One … is to feel the all world inside you, from now to then and back again. To breathe the breath of every ancestor, to know where you’ve been and anchor you to the physical world — to your body and everything it touches.”

I grabbed Nova’s finger and pretended to bite it. She laughed and shook it out, but didn’t break her stride. “The other … is so that one day, you can look into the eye of the universe and burn away that which separates us from God.” (4112)

Reader, I admit I teared up at this part. So often genre fiction will set one ideology against one another until one of them wins — the brooding isolated hero is brought back out into the world, the cold uptight heroine learns to relax and enjoy life. Ascension manages to draw a great deal of tension out of opposing worldviews, yet it doesn’t feel the need to resolve the tension in favor of one or the other. Engineer Ovie is a wolf and a man, simultaneously. Alana and her sister are both right, and both wrong. The body is a gift and a burden. It depends on who you ask — and how they’re feeling when you ask them.

Side note: Stay tuned for my upcoming essay Oh My God, I Just Realized How Many Parallels This Book Has To Star Wars Let’s Talk About Them Forever Especially The Things About Tech And Disability And Family And Choices.

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Last year Tor.com posted an excerpt from Kathryn Allan’s Disability in Science Fiction, and later a review of the book. I haven’t had a chance to read this yet myself, but Interlibrary Loan has a chance to change all that!

Dr. Laura Vivanco let me know that for a limited time, the archives of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies are free to access. There’s a lot of great things in there! I’m going to learn so much!

I owe a great intellectual (and therefore personal) debt to the incisive Ana Mardoll, whose writing on the now-defunct-but-still-visible FWD/Forward was a light in the darkness of my privilege, and who continues to be awesome by writing the viscerally readable Annotated Index of Ross Geller.

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Koyanagi, Jacqueline. Ascension. Masque Books, 2013. Ebook.

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4 thoughts on “K is for Jacqueline Koyanagi

  1. I think in some ways this book, in the deeper genre waters I swim, has been overshadowed by Ann Leckie’s ANCILLARY JUSTICE.

  2. I’ve been eyeing this one for a while, though I’ve received mixed opinions on it, and since it’s sci-fi (curse you sci-fi bias) I’ve been holding off on buying it. I think I’ll do so now though, as you’ve pushed my curiosity up beyond what I can tolerably ignore.

  3. I love this book, ever since I discovered it in a local bookstore’s remaindered section and picked it up largely because it seemed to deal with disability honestly and in science fiction that’s rare.

    It’s also nice to have a proper working class protagonist for a change, somebody who has to worry about paying her bills and being in debt.

    And yeah, I think Paul is right in seeing this as overshadowed by Ancillary Justice, which had the benefit of a larger publisher behind it. As good as Leckie’s debut is, Ascenscion is as good if not better.

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