Give Me Heroism or Give Me Death

Pain and fatigue are everywhere in speculative fiction. The more dramatic the stakes of the story, the more likely you are to witness the protagonist dragging their broken, battered body through a slew of ridiculous challenges to succeed. From Frodo and Sam entering the caldera of Mount Doom to Ripley fighting evil aliens for her very life, pain is seen as noble, a challenge, something the strong and the courageous and the brave overcome to achieve their goals.

The hero, injured and bleeding, fights his way through the angry alien mob to achieve his prize.

Suffering is a noble act in speculative fiction. Pain has a purpose. Sometimes, it is a result of facing impossible odds, or it is a necessary price to be paid for the convenience of time travel or magic use. Fatigue is treated in a similar fashion; it occurs as a result of action and is usually shaken off by the strong and the brave. Heroes in speculative fiction can only achieve monumental success when their bodies are screaming at them to stop, when lesser mortals have quit. They are heroes precisely because they don’t let something as small and insignificant as pain or fatigue stop them. The message is clear: only the weak give in. Only the weak fail.

The heroine, a magic user, collapses from exhaustion only after her complex spell saves the day.

I was diagnosed with chronic pain and fatigue the same year I turned thirty. It felt like I developed a horrific bout of flu that just wouldn’t go away. It hurt to move, to stay still, to be hot or be cold. Headaches were constant, and sleep was broken and unrefreshing.

My reaction to the diagnosis was fairly typical of a career-minded person with a family to support: I ignored it and carried on regardless. That’s what the Strong and the Brave do, isn’t it? They don’t let something as trifling as pain or tiredness stand in their way. They grit their teeth. They gird their loins. They heft their axe and charge forward with grim determination. I did the same.

The protagonist, after enduring more than your average human can handle dragging themselves to that final battle, overcomes their pain and fatigue through sheer force of will to complete their final, heroic act.

Heroes, you see, get over it. Think of Captain Mal Reynolds, barely able to breathe as he repairs the crippled Serenity. Roland Deschain, reaching the Dark Tower despite the odds. That’s what science fiction and fantasy taught me—you keep going no matter what. You ignore the fatigue, and you push through the pain.

Until, one day, you can’t. Because you, dear reader, are not the hero of an epic science fiction series. You are not the archetypical noble warrior. You are human, and so am I.

During a pain flare-up, I sometimes lie in bed too exhausted to cry. Even the caress of my own clothes can be unbearable, and it feels as though needles have been thrust into my joints. My hands can ache so much that I’m almost willing to amputate them with a lightsaber just to make it stop.

As much as I hate to admit this, if my family was kidnapped by an evil sorcerer and the only way to save them was for me to go on some epic quest… well, I’d try, but if I made it past the front door without collapsing it’d be a miracle.

Chronic pain, by its very definition, is an ongoing, unrelenting pain—even when medicine, therapy, and lifestyle adjustments are religiously applied. Those living with it often face contempt or outright disbelief from society, particularly if their illness is invisible. Seeking medical help frequently results in accusations of drug addiction. An inability to hold a traditional 9-5 job can come with the label malingerer.

In science fiction and fantasy, our heroes do not need to lie in bed and hope for their medication to kick in. They don’t seize up and need help getting off the couch. They don’t walk, scrunched over like a thousand-year-old crone as they wait for their muscles to loosen up. Those with chronic pain are not heroes in our speculative fiction because we expect our heroes to overcome their physical limitations and save the day. Even Yoda, with his cane and his hunched back, is able to wield a lightsaber like a youngling when the need arises.

As time runs out, our hero searches for a way to climb the mighty cliffs of doom, knowing that somehow their broken and damaged body will not give out until victory is assured.

In speculative fiction, characters suffer for a reason. Their pain is a result of battling against whatever galactic evil is staring at them, or in a few cases, it follows them after a spectacular triumph. Heroes don’t get told, “Sorry, we don’t know what caused this, and there’s nothing anyone can do to fix it.” They get biomechanical implants or healed by mystical waters. They can pinpoint the source of their pain to the work of an enemy or the result of some dramatic act. And more often than not, they are cured as a reward for their labors.

Or they die, and with that death we celebrate their accomplishments and aspire to be just like them. Heroes remind us to push through the pain even when it will kill us. Anything else is weak, and weakness is not acceptable. It is better to die a hero than live on as a frail, feeble shell. 

If I want to see myself in speculative fiction, then, my only option is to die heroically at the end. 

The heroine staggers across the room to the body of the dead villain, knowing that the world has been saved. She casts one last look at the child she has saved, before allowing her body to finally give out, and she passes from the mortal realm.

The problem with the portrayal of pain in speculative fiction is that it reinforces the belief that people who are in pain are weak, or liars, or both. They are not heroes because they have to hold up their hands and say, “I’m done, folks,” halfway up the mountain. They have to plan long periods of recuperation between missions, knowing that they won’t be able to fly in the next space battle or twenty even if they are the only person in the galaxy capable of piloting the prototype new vessel. It’s not through lack of desire—science just can’t overcome their pain and fatigue.

When I was diagnosed, I struggled to find a reason for it all. Whenever I wasn’t busy pretending it was something I could overcome by sheer force of will, I would ask myself “Why me? Why am I suffering like this?”

As science struggles to understand the cause of pain, and thus remains unable to find a cure, I find myself increasingly angry and bitter. I want to understand why. It is unfair that my pain is not a neat part of my development arc or related to my complex-yet-relatable backstory. It is not a plot point that will undoubtedly become relevant at the climax of my adventures. It just is. It just hurts. It’s just there.

Heroes are never in pain simply because they exist. They are never tired simply because they must be. Instead, we’re meant to marvel at their bravery and nobility and mourn them with heartfelt wonder when they sacrifice themselves so other, pain-free characters might thrive. To earn my place in speculative fiction, I am not supposed to survive my pain.

Luke, after projecting his Similfuturus to the Battle of Crait, dies in peace now that his strength is depleted.

Even then, though, we must suffer our pain virtuously before meeting our fate. We must fight on, in life as well as in fiction, because to be less than heroic is to be considered weak, or worse, a coward. Think of how Peter Banning is treated in Hook when he fails to reach his children’s hands, despite being unfit and terrified of heights. He tries, but it is not enough for the other characters or for the audience. He is the target of contempt, laughter, and derision.

I could not climb that mast, even with my children at risk. My body would allow me no choice but to fail—and I would be labelled a coward. Why? Because science fiction and fantasy have taught us that true bravery lies in overcoming all barriers, even our own minds and bodies, and anyone can be a hero if they just want it hard enough.

I cannot be a hero, so I cannot be anyone.

I cannot be someone.

I am of no importance to the tale.

The broken scientist, gesturing to their cane, counsels the hero on the upcoming task. “Would that I could go in your stead,” they say, resigned. “I would love to be the hero.”

Chronic pain, alongside many other disabilities and illnesses, relegates those of us with these conditions to the ranks of the disposable in our fiction as often as it does in life. Through omission, science fiction tells us that we cannot be astronauts, that we lack the physical strength to fight from the back of a dragon.

Yet here we are in society, still existing and contributing and even thriving. We can be happy and contented and find joy in life. We love, and we fight. There is no reason not to reflect this in science fiction.

Current medical technology is already producing adaptive technology that will help many of us overcome barriers to our careers. Why, as a genre, do we continue to assume that many of us living with pain and disability could not succeed in roles that science fiction has traditionally reserved for the able bodied? It will look different to the modern world, but isn’t that exactly what our genre is about?

True, even with adaptive technology not all of us would be able to fly intergalactic fighter jets, but that still shouldn’t matter to science fiction writers. We could be medics, or farmers, or scribes, or engineers, or writers, or office workers and cooks and cleaners and mathematicians. We can be the mundane as well as the spectacular, where simply existing while battling the constant hurt in our bodies is, and should be considered, a heroic act.

Following a grueling fitness exam, the hero and their classmates approach the board to see if they have passed. The names at the top all celebrate. The hero stares, stunned when they see their name at the top of the list. Those that fail are shown as dejected and weeping. They are weak and are dismissed from the tale.

In speculative fiction, where writers are supposed to push boundaries and explore lives and try out different perspectives, we often refuse to see that heroism lies within the community as much as through the One True Hero. In Interstellar, for example, Murphy’s brother, Tom, is implicitly criticized for trying to save humanity through his own expertise in farming rather than being an astronaut or a physicist. Even his father dismisses him in favor of his scientist daughter. Without men and women like Tom, how would the engineers at NASA survive long enough to fulfil their goals?

Tom is heroic: he dedicates his life to keeping humanity alive and yet he is portrayed as simple, dogmatic, and unable to fathom life beyond his farm. Tom is battling an impossible enemy and refuses to give up, despite likely being ill from the impact of the Blight. He continues when others, like his neighbors, give up in the face of impossible odds. Is that not the definition of a hero?

A hero with chronic pain may not be able to climb the sacred mountain or pull off complex maneuvers in an overpowered spacecraft, but the point is that they’d never think to try those things, anyway—they would know their limitations. They would think outside of the box because that’s what they’ve always had to do. They would still fight the oncoming horde any way that they could, perhaps through research, or logistics. They’d be able to plan and pack for every eventuality because their quality of life would have always depended on their ability to face the unexpected with as many aids, crutches, and supports as they can lay their hands on. Including other people.

Our genre’s obsession with the One True Hero ignores a vital component of success and victory that many people with chronic pain, or any other disability , already understand. It takes a community, an army, an alliance to face the oncoming storm, and without other people, none of us will survive. Those of us living with disabilities understand the concept of interdependence and the need for humanity to work together to lift us all out of the darkness, because we are already intrinsically linked to those around us to survive. When we have the correct supports, both social and physical, we are just as capable of changing the world as our fully abled counterparts. Perhaps the One True Hero will physically strike down evil overlord, but the person who forged the weapon, the woman who built the transports, the man who farmed the food—without these people, the Hero would not stand a chance.

While we follow the rebel wizards in their quest for the Sacred Items, the rank-and-file, the unimportant and the weak, are the ones who hold the line. They are the ones who battle daily against the banality of evil by leaking information, switching labels, or leaving food and information for the Heroes to access. Sometimes they die. We rarely learn their names.

Pain is part of the human condition. Although some of us feel like we got a larger share of that particular pie than is fair or necessary, the fact is that we exist, and for as long as there are humans with our complex brains and nervous systems, people living with pain on a daily basis will also continue to exist.

We need to write our stories, to show how existing, coping, and even thriving can be a heroic act. We need to express that it is not cowardly or weak to know our limitations, to admit there are things we cannot do. Interdependence should be celebrated, and our role in creating community explored. We must show our role in shaping the future and not be incidental to it. 

Most importantly, we need to celebrate our strength. We need to celebrate our existence, our persistence, and make the world see that we contribute, that our experiences are valid, and that our place in society makes us all stronger, braver, and nobler.

Not all of us can heft an axe.

Not all of us can fight the aliens in hand-to-hand combat.

But, by the gods, we can all be heroes yet.

Gemma Noon

Gemma Noon lives with her family and pets in Alberta, Canada. A former librarian and education manager, she is currently busy learning to thrive with chronic illness while maintaining a writing career and taking care of her kids. When not buried in reading or writing books, she can be found arguing with strangers on the internet or binge-watching Supernatural.

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