Injury and disease are a part of life, as well as fiction. But I’ve noticed that our media tends to avoid this topic, and I think that’s a mistake, particularly when it comes to physical disabilities and prosthetic limbs.
Why would we avoid taking a serious look at people wearing prosthetics? Probably because they make us uncomfortable. No one wants to think about losing a part of their body, but I think we’re also bothered by the idea of wearing an object that is not only limited in function, but is also visually unappealing and that marks the wearer as disabled.
But there may be a better way.
In fantasy stories, we rarely see medieval prosthetics. On occasion there is a pirate with a peg-leg or a prince with a silver nose. In science fiction stories, we see prosthetics so advanced that they seamlessly replace the flesh-and-blood limb. Of course, in science fiction you’re just as likely to regrow the missing limb as well!
Steampunk takes a different approach to this subject. The artificial limbs are functional, but not perfect, and clearly not “human.” They’re also not rare. It’s not at all unusual for a steampunk novel or movie to include a functional mechanical prosthetic. (Heather Massey has a list of some examples here.) Cherie Priest wrote about one in Boneshaker. Kenneth Brannagh had one in Wild, Wild West. I’m sure you can think of a few, too.
The interest in steampunk prosthetics extends beyond fiction to the real world. Costumed steampunks can often be seen sporting complicated armor (usually on the arms) to simulate a mechanical prosthesis. Sometimes these are quite detailed, with working gears and joints, fluid reservoirs, wiring, and lights.
And this seems a bit unusual to me. Usually we see folks dressing up to portray characters who are super-strong (like futuristic soldiers) or super-pretty (like medieval fairies), and so on. But in steampunk, able-bodied fans work very hard to portray characters with physical disabilities. Why is this? I think the answer is fairly obvious.
With a steampunk prosthetic, the wearer isn’t seen as disabled.
In fact, the wearer becomes imbued with many attractive and even super-human traits. First, there is the visual appeal of steampunk gear, the brass and clockworks, which makes a nice addition not just to clothing but to the body itself. And second, the implication is often made that a steampunk prosthetic makes the wearer stronger or faster, or in some way better than a “normal” person.
I think there’s a wonderful implication here. We’ve discovered that technology, even if it doesn’t resemble the human form, can still be so beautiful and capable in its own ways that we would willingly (or even eagerly) integrate it into our own bodies.
In real life, prosthetics today range widely in appearance and functionality. Some legs and feet are very simple in form but allow the wearer to walk, run, and even climb with ease. Other devices, notably hands and arms, may be more limited in action. The most advanced devices in development today require complex mapping of sensors to surgically re-arranged nerves to allow the wearer to move individual mechanical fingers and to feel temperatures and textures. Complicated, but impressive all the same!
Now what can steampunk teach us about how we perceive and feel about real prosthetics and physical disabilities? I see two lessons here. First, the more functional a prosthetic is, the less the wearer is viewed as a “disabled” person.
And second, when a prosthetic is more visually attractive it makes the notion of having one more attractive as well. Athlete and model Aimee Mullins discovered this when people couldn’t tell that she was wearing prosthetic legs at a fashion show, and that other women actually envied her ability to “grow” taller using different legs.
So while the engineers out there are bringing us closer to a world of fully functional prosthetics, maybe the designers out there can take a page from the book of steampunkery to give us more beautiful prosthetics, too. And together, we can better learn to embrace both the prosthetic and the person wearing it with greater understanding, acceptance, and respect.