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.