The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon
Elizabeth Moon‘s The Speed of Dark [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] was a hard book for me to read, and an equally hard one to figure out how to review.
Moon has an autistic son, which clearly informed her writing of this book. The Speed of Dark tells the story of Lou Arrendale, an autistic man living in a near future very similar to our own time. The back of the book blurb focuses on:
…an experimental “cure” for his condition. Now Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that may change the way he views the world–and the very essence of who he is.
But the book is so much more. This isn’t an action or adventure novel, and the treatments and potential cure for autism is pretty much the only real SF element in the story.
The most powerful thing, to me, is the way Moon brings you into Lou’s perspective:
It is hard to drive safely in the hot afternoon, with the wrong music in my head. Light flashed off windshields, bumpers, trim; there are too many flashing lights. By the time I get home, my head hurts and I’m shaking. I take the pillows off my couch into the bedroom, closing all the shades tightly and then the door. I lie down, piling the pillow on top of me, then turn off the light.
This is something else I never tell Dr. Fornum about. She would make notes in my record about this…
As the father of a boy on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum, I spent a fair amount of time reminding myself that Lou’s experiences aren’t meant to be a universal representation of autism. Lou works with other autistics, doing pattern-analysis for a large corporation, and Moon does a very good job of showing Lou and the other characters as individuals. Autism is a significant part of who they are, but it doesn’t define them.
Moon shows many of the challenges Lou faces, both the internal and the external. A new supervisor wants to eliminate the “special accommodations” Lou and his unit receive at work. A man from Lou’s fencing group blames Lou for his problems, accusing people like him of stealing jobs from “normal” people. (Sound familiar? Much of this book could be set in today’s world.)
And then there’s the potential cure, the chance for Lou to be normal, whatever that means. Moon does a decent job of exploring the moral messiness and complexities of “curing” autism, though I would have liked to see more of this part. Should we cure someone who’s able to function? What about someone we define as low-functioning? How many of the challenges autistic people face are inherent to the condition, and how many of those challenges are externally created?
The Speed of Dark is a book that makes you think. Lou is a wonderful, sympathetic, beautiful protagonist. This isn’t a plot-oriented, action-packed book, but it’s one I definitely recommend reading.
For those of you who’ve read it already, I’d love to hear what you thought.
August 18, 2011 @ 11:09 am
I also liked it, though it’s been years since I read it. I’ve been interested in autism for years, since working with low-functioning autistic kids in a volunteer capacity that really stretched me as a young 20 something and then seeing the high-functioning end of the spectrum through the remove of friend of the moms a decade later. My brother’s son was recently diagnosed and it was like “Oh, duh!” My brother was so obviously autistic and we always just thought it was “weird.” My father kept trying to “punish” him out of it. It’s also pretty clear that most of my family (probably me included) are somewhere on the scale, which is another reason why I’ve been interested.
I heard Elizabeth Moon speak on autism in one of my very first cons way back in the early 90s, so when the book came out I read it right away. In some ways I connected with Lou too much and his decisions were really painful to see. But in the end I thought it was a brave book to write and I thought it was well done. Not a perfect book, but a book that did enough of the right things, if that makes sense. I haven’t read it since, though, and there is a good reason why. It was too painful and real. I am still not ready to go back to it. Maybe someday.
Jim C. Hines
August 18, 2011 @ 11:11 am
That makes total sense, and I can also understand the reluctance to go back. There are some brilliant, powerful books out there that I still wouldn’t choose to read more than once…
August 18, 2011 @ 4:18 pm
I thought that the first three quarters or so of the book, before it became sci-fi, were brilliant and moving, and I have repeatedly recommended it to people who are looking for books that deal with the autism spectrum. (I read it when it came out as well, so I don’t remember the details of the ending, but I do remember feeling like the book I loved so much went away after the plot shift.) I wish I could remember the name of the other book I read about a child on the spectrum at about the same time, which was very different but also excellent.
Jim C. Hines
August 18, 2011 @ 4:21 pm
Re: other books, a friend shared the following link on Twitter, which might be helpful.
August 20, 2011 @ 12:19 pm
This post spawned my own post on my autism blog. I don’t believe it’s what you were looking for when you wrote your post which is why it’s not in your comments. That and it’s much too long. 🙂
http://bit.ly/pyRFX7 (Blogger mirror)
August 20, 2011 @ 3:08 pm
My son is now a young adult on the spectrum- the book meant one thing to me when he was younger and I see it differently now. I plan to re-read it this week because I expect to see ELizabeth Moom at Dragon Con
Jim C. Hines
August 20, 2011 @ 8:02 pm
The book definitely hits you differently when it’s an immediate and real thing in your life, as opposed to a more theoretical SFnal “what if…” idea.
Have fun at Dragon Con! And if you see her, tell her I said hello! 🙂