Speed of Dark
by Elizabeth Moon
Ballantine Books Hardcover: 0345447557 ISBN: PubDate Jan 03
Review by Ernest Lilley
352 pages List price $23.95
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Flowers for Algernon, The Martian Child, and now...The Speed of Dark. Congratulations to Elizabeth Moon on writing a superb novel of autism set in the near future and giving voice to a world normally left in silence.
The Speed of Dark is the story of Lou, an autistic man in the near future, who is fairly well integrated into society...though society would like nothing better than to erase his different-ness and make him as unremarkable as possible.
It's told in first person, which immerses the reader in Lou's perspective, but I found that I needed little encouragement. Like many SF readers and Tech Types, I've got a hint of attention deficit disorder, and the internal dialog of autism is immediately accessible to anyone with any ADD. Either you can't pay attention to what someone is saying, in Lou's case to the point of not being able to understand the words, or you wind up focusing so intently on a computer screen that hours pass unnoticed while you intuit patterns deep within data readouts. None of that seems unusual to me.
Lou's inner life is presented as a comfortable world full of interesting things, from watching the way light bounces off shiny surfaces to learning the craft of fencing, getting together with the other members of his autistic community, looking for the patterns in data that a corporation has hired him and others like him to find. And falling in love with a normal.
Lou is one of the last generation of autistics, thanks to a genetic therapy that allows for a cure in the womb. As such, he lives in a world that is shrinking around him, a world where there is no place for the different. It's not an alien world in the far future, but one that looks very much like here and now.
It is often said that if you don't stand up for members of oppressed groups, no one will be left to stand up when they come for you. I dislike that line of thought on the grounds that it appeals to self interest rather than altruism, but heck, you probably don't believe in altruism. A lot of the thrust of this book is to look at the value of genuine humans rather than the engineered cattle that post-humans might become. It's interesting that the forces that work to dismiss the wildman aren't AI's after a post-Vingian singularity, where machines have become our masters, but the economic forces of corporate life. Actually, we'll probably look back and see that they were the same thing, just not in the way we were expecting them to be.
The characters range from really nice people to really self centered jerks, and both are sprinkled across gender and venue. Lou is likes a woman at his fencing class, Marjory, and she likes him back. Don, another fencing student, likes her too, but he's a classic jerk and it's little surprise that Marjory rebuffs him. At work, Lou and the other autistics perform intuitive analysis that defy computers, for now anyway, but an ambitious manager wants them all to act as experimental subjects for a new treatment to cure them. Whether being what they are needs to be cured or not. Between the stresses at work and away, Lou has plenty of conflict to deal with, and best of all, he's tremendously likeable.
I'm distrustful of the author's ability to know the inner workings of the autistic mind, though I gather that she did a lot of research, getting to know both the facts and the people behind them. It's just that I'm wary of presuming on the unique lives of these people. I have a strong feeling that those of us who are not autistic presume too much in our attempts to understand their world, even though we may do it with friendly intent. Or perhaps not. The feeling nagged at me while reading The Speed of Dark, the feeling that the author had made it all too accesible at the cost of the reality. When Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey, he intentionally made it cold, sterile, and impersonal. He made the aliens unfathomable. Years later, when 2010 was filmed, it had none of those elements. The people and their conflicts were immediately understandable. Even the elements from the earlier movie that showed up were shown in warmer colors...including the change in Discovery from pristine white to sulfur coated yellow. Or maybe that was a coincidence. But the point it that Kubrick intended for the movie to convey an inaccessibility to the audience...to get the idea that aliens were really alien across. The latter movie lost that...but it was fun.
So, I have the feeling that The Speed of Dark loses some of the alien quality of being autistic...but hopefully not too much...and it's really enjoyable.
Elizabeth Moon's story takes things that were once science fiction themes ("Fans are Slans!") and integrates them into a world recognizable to fan and mundane alike. Like Mary Doria Russell, author of The Sparrow, she is writing in a mainstream voice about Science Fictional concerns. Unlike Ms. Russell, though, since she is well know as an SF writer, she's has to swim a bit farther upstream to get where she wants to go. It took SF Fans a while to catch on to The Sparrow, but when they did, they loved it. I wish Ms. Moon equal success with the normals.