Wednesday, 22 February 2017
The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
Writing with a main character on the autism spectrum is a tricky path, one that I feel like I've seen many people stumble off, falling down on amusing or adorable instead of giving their subjects any kind of complexity or autonomy. These characters need to be jolted out of their routines and it's hilarious as they learn to do more. They feel like books written for neurotypical readers, with autism less a different way of thinking than a prop in a comedy. (The more I think about The Rosie Project, the more I am bothered.)
I was worried that reading Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark would be the same sort of experience. What I found here was much richer and deeper, and while I am not sure what readers on the spectrum would make of the ending, I at least felt that the book as a whole took its main character seriously, allowing him complexity, keeping the autism in the picture while not using that to strip him of any further humanity.
This is not "the story of an autistic man," this is the story of Lou, an autistic man who has a job, lives independently, fences in his spare time, and while Moon is definitely not portraying him as just like everyone else, he has found an equilibrium, more or less, with the world around him. More than that, he is capable of thinking about how he thinks, about how he experiences the world, capable of analyzing not only patterns, but eventually, issues beyond those patterns. It's a slow process, but by meticulously thinking his way through, he is capable to making connections that, it sounds like, many of the people around him never thought he would be capable of.
Of course, the world he lives in is not particularly kind to the non-neurotypical, and in the world Moon has posited, this may be exacerbated by Lou's knowledge that he is more or less part of the last generation of those with autism, as he got the best help growing up, but now, in his world, there are medical techniques to "cure" autism in babies and very young children. There will not be a generation after him, but still, he has to live his life. Then a new breakthrough makes it possible for he himself, in his thirties, to go through a similar treatment. Is his autism easily extricable from who he is? Will this, in essence, kill one person to create another with the same face and a more usual brain?
It doesn't sit entirely well, the eventual decision Lou makes to take the treatment. Initially, the company he works for, and more specifically, his boss, wants to force he and their other autistic employees into enrolling in the same company's medical experiment, and that part is so uncomfortable. Then the coercion is taken away, and it's his decision, coloured, of course, by recent attacks on him by someone who can't stand the thought that someone they think of as defective is functioning better in society than they are. (Wow, that section is powerful about how we only want to deal with disability if we can pity it.)
While Lou's journey to that decision is done convincingly, it's still an ending that makes me a bit uncomfortable. Particularly given some of what I've heard from people with autism talking about who they are as people and their own perspectives on difference.
Still, coming from someone who is as neurotypical as I am, this is by far the best rendition I've seen, and the story is both disquieting and perceptive, even if something still doesn't feel quite right.