Monday, April 18, 2011

Book Review: The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon

Originally posted at my Goodreads Account. The original review can be found here. Also: If you don't have a goodreads account, and you're an active reader like me, I highly recommend it.

***Spoiler Alert***
Immediately after finishing The Speed of Dark, I was forced to sit down in a quiet corner for a few minutes and cry, shivering and trying to bring myself "back to planet earth" so to speak. That's how upset I was, as an autistic person, by Lou, the protagonist, meeting such a fate. There are very few adult autistic protagonists out there for me to relate to. The one I have been most strongly influenced by is Lisbeth Salander, of the Millennium Trilogy. Lou Arrendale, of The Speed of Dark, had great promise as another one that I could relate to. But, by the end of the novel, he is no longer Lou as I knew him in the rest of the novel. He had completely transformed into an unrecognisable neurotypical, because he had elected to have a new treatment which made him "normal", in the words of the book.
It's an upsetting, horrible realization of what was inevitable all along; in a society that did not respect Lou's disability, it would be only a matter of time before he was pressured by one thing or another into accepting the "cure" that was made available in the story.
But that doesn't mean that this was a bad book, or that Elizabeth Moon, the author, was condoning the disablist notion that autistic people would be better with a cure. Far from it. Lou's fate is tragic, and she makes this clear. He loses interest in the things he loves doing, he becomes detached from his friends, and his life takes on a bland desperation.
It leaves a grim impression towards the end, but before it slid down that sad road, I greatly enjoyed my journey with Lou, and felt great sympathy for him, living in such an uncertain world for people like him. I can relate as another autistic person who is extremely disturbed by the eliminationist rhetoric which surrounds conversations about autism in the mainstream. In one way, I envied the world Lou inhabited, because he received workplace accommodations I could only dream of. But he was in a hellish world for me, the last of his kind, and facing a future where it is certain that after he dies (or is "cured") there will be no more like him. There are no autistic elders for him to seek consolation or advice from, and no autistic children to guide and offer help to. A true nightmare, being an endangered species.
Lou seems content with many aspects of his life though, and has friends who are both neurotypical and autistic like him. He holds down a job doing pattern recognition, and is given the necessary tools to have a job, like a gym to stim, colourful accessories for his office, and breaks to listen to music. Heavenly.
However, in the eyes of one of his bosses, this is considered a nuisance, and he seeks to "cure" the auties working for his company in order to minimize what he sees as unnecessary expenses, to fund an expensive space project. This space project ends up being a sort of Chekhov's Gun for Lou after he is given the treatment, it is significant that it is the original catalyst in pushing for him to be cured.
As the novel progresses and it becomes unclear whether Mr Crenshaw, the boss, will have his way with the autistic employees, Lou's life is revealed to be one of orderly calm. It is disrupted, however, by this news of Mr Crenshaw's scheme, and his love for a neurotypical woman, which becomes a central point of his life as he grapples with whether to ask her out or not, and he feels the fallout of another man's jealousy, which takes a violent turn.
There are many other plot points in the story which seem unresolved or are simply dropped once Lou is "cured"; his relationship with a neuro-atypical woman named Emmy who sneers at him for hanging around "normals", but seems to harbour a crush on him, the autistic brother of another boss, Mr Aldrin, and the potential Lou has to become a fencing champion. All sort of sputter and die once the treatment drops the ball.
The writing isn't what I would call airtight, I mentioned earlier broken threads, and there is some meandering to the writing, and sometimes tangents which don't advance the story or plot, such as when Lou contemplates the fate of someone who attacked him. In this century, there's a rather Alex DeLarge style treatment used which cures violent impulses of criminals, and Lou spends much time musing on the implications of such technology, but never really comes to a fine point on how this relates to his upcoming treatment, and how his brain will be altered.
But the strength of Lou as a character, his tragic fate, and the pro-neurodiversity message outweigh the weaknesses. It may have an unhappy ending, but it is not the end for autism. Moon wrote this before the burgeoning of autistic self-advocacy, and I get the feeling that works like these which plea for understanding rather than hasty disablist cures will aid a rosier future for people with autism become a reality.


  1. What I remember about Lou is his love of fencing.

    The book was published in 2004, and it had a special meaning for me in the light of the neurodiversity movement: WrongPlanet and Aspies for Freedom.

    Lou's situation was like the Sandwich generation in reverse: there was no-one. It made me realise anew that a community cannot sustain itself with workers only: it needs elders and children.

  2. Hmm. I came away with a different interpretation of the end. While I was a bit saddened that Lou chose to be "cured," I believe that the point at the end was that it was, in fact, his *choice* - not something that had been forced on him. And it was a choice he made not because he thought other people wanted him to or because he couldn't survive a changing world without it - it was a choice he made so that he could achieve a dream that he knew he was not capable of as his autistic self.

    I also got the distinct impression that after the treatment the autistic side of his personality wasn't gone - he could feel it, it was still there, but it was something he could choose to let out or not, depending on the situation.

  3. Allison: In my eyes, he was forced into it because it wasn't his autism that was preventing him from achieving this dream. It was the barriers put up by the society he was living in which prevented it. Lou and other characters specifically mention borderline Orwellian measures against autistic people, such as needing a special permit to get married, and it's hinted that they can't have biological children and are required to adopt if they want to be parents. Same with his dream, he was barred from doing it legally, but not by anything caused by his autism.

  4. I'll have to re-read the last chapter. My interpretation was that he felt that he would not have been able to cope with space travel as he was (if he found himself in a bad headspace he would not have been able to just "go home"). I don't recall any mention of specifically being barred from space-based employment, but I might have just skipped over it.

  5. In the chapter when Lou first reveals his wish to have gone into space, he makes it clear that autistics were discouraged in his day and age from entering careers like that, and that he was encouraged to go into his field so he could seek gainful employment.