When I was 5 years old, I was bitten by a bug-eyed monster (BEM), and have been infected with its venom ever since.
It happened during a visit to my grade school. Like most disabled kids in the late 1960s/early 1970s, I was tutored at home, so seeing where the other kids went was an adventure.
Our first stop was the library, where I was invited to pick out any book I wanted. Even at that age, I didn’t go in for sickeningly sweet tales about duckies and bunnies. Being a city (or rather, suburban) boy, neither could I relate to stories of wilderness survival, which were quite popular at that time.
Just as I was getting bored with the whole reading idea, and was ready to go home to watch “Speed Racer,” I spotted it... Revolt on Alpha Centauri.
Its cover showed a boy in a silver spacesuit and bubble helmet, tethered to a gleaming, blue-white needle of a spaceship. All the adventure and possibility of the so-called Space Age, captured in a few inches of colorful pasteboard.
“That’s the one I want!”
A love is launched
Don’t ask me why. My family was never enthralled with space travel; my dim memories of the first Apollo moon landing in 1969 are of relatives shaking their heads and grumbling about a “waste of tax dollars.” All I knew was that here was a book that would take me far beyond the world of wheelchairs, doctors, and kids who would only gawk and point, rather than play with me.
Too many years have passed for me to clearly remember the plot of this thin yarn. What I do remember is a story about smart kids on a grand adventure in the stars, using their intelligence, imagination, and amazing pieces of technology to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
I was home.
From then on, instead of pouting and feeling left out when the neighborhood kids went off to play ball or ride bikes, my imagination became my playground, through both reading and writing tales of the fantastic.
When I could pilot a spacecraft to Jupiter, travel to alternate timelines or (as I grew older) make love to a purple-skinned alien woman beneath a sky with three moons, I quickly realized that I wasn’t missing out on a whole lot!
Another positive aspect to my obsession is that it taught me to embrace, rather than fear, advances in science and technology. When I woke up in the hospital a few days after my seventh birthday, tied to a ventilator through a tracheostomy, I told myself: “This machine is helping me breathe, like a life support system on a spaceship. Nothing to be afraid of.”
Fast forward a couple of decades: The reason I took so quickly to the Internet was because I’d spent my 20s reading cyberpunk writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. True, most of their characters were hackers, data pirates and other high-tech lowlifes, but the concept of using computers to free the mind from the body was attractive to me.
And consider this: Where there’s no gravity, hardly any strength is required to perform even the most complex tasks. Imagine giant space stations in Earth orbit, populated entirely by quadriplegics who’ve left the ground-based world behind, and established a society where they are the norm.
Far-fetched? Probably. But that’s the beauty of science fiction — it’s a never-ending game of “What if...?”
Meetings of minds
One downside to such an imaginative life is that it’s made me even more of an outsider than I was already. Bad enough that I have a disability; the fact that I also like to read “that weird stuff” has just added to my image as the proverbial square peg.
Although for the most part I’ve always liked standing out from the herd, it can be a bit lonely sometimes. And when you think differently, at best you’ll be ignored and at worst held up to ridicule.
That’s why I regard my first science fiction convention (or con) as one of the greatest events of my life. When I stepped — well, rolled — into that convention hall, my hands and knees were shaking because I could sense that here, all that mattered was what you carried inside your skull. Interesting ideas, not their containers, were what counted.
Up until that point, I’d never felt entirely comfortable with groups outside my family. Whether it was a school outing, church festival, the Boy Scouts or even just eating in a restaurant, people seemed to regard me as an alien who was only visiting “their” world.
Not so at a con! When there’s a gang of Klingons cheering on the Green Bay Packers, a mother and baby both dressed in uniforms from the TV series “Babylon 5,” or a sexy vampire chick (complete with fangs) welcoming you back every year with a hug and kiss, a wheelchair and ventilator don’t make much of a splash! These people would actually talk to me about what I thought, not about what I was.
In all, I attended 16 cons before traveling became too strenuous for my dear parents.
It’s now been almost eight years since my last con, eight years since I’ve had direct contact with my fellow madmen. But that’s OK. We communicate via e-mail and, as always, the adventures that we love so much are only a book or a DVD away.
If there’s any advice I could pass on from my experiences, it would be this: If you have a disability, there are some things you simply can’t do. So what? The human mind only needs a little data in order to transport you to places where the flesh could never go.
Read — science, history, geography — then pour all that fuel into your imagination and hit ignition. There’s a starship resting on your shoulders, so use it!
See you in orbit.
Michael P. Murphy, 40, has spinal muscular atrophy and lives in Oconomowoc, Wis. He has written two science fiction novels, To Rule in Hell and Data Streets, and a thriller, Innocence Kills: A Paul Murdock Mystery. These novels may be ordered from the publisher at www.authorhouse.com, through Amazon.com or at local bookstores.