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The Speed of Dark

February 23, 2011

The Speed of Dark
Elizabeth Moon
384 pages, 2005

I put this on my library list because Robin McKinley reviewed it on her blog. She’s a fantasy author, and two of her novels, Beauty and Sunshine, are among my all-time favorites. The Speed of Dark was fascinating.  I think I’m going to have to buy a copy so I can have it on hand, instead of having to give it back to the library.

Excerpt/summary from McKinley’s review.

Lou Arrendale is autistic. He works in a special department of a large corporation with other autistic people—autists—in an area set up for their special needs: Division A. The story takes place in some undefined time in the near future in what still looks like present-day America. There are a few crucial differences: one of them is a live space-exploration program. Another is a cure for autism. Autism is now treated in the womb, before the baby is born; Lou is a member of the last generation of ‘genuine’ autists, of people who have had to learn the hard—the gruellingly hard—way to cope in the ‘normal’ world. Lou is the high functioning end; not only does he have a good job, he lives alone in his own apartment, and drives his own car. He also takes fencing lessons, and has a heavy crush on one of the women he fences with.

I was curious about it too, because the idea of autism playing out in scifi caught my eye. I’ve read about autism, I’ve read Temple Grandin, and essays about being the parent or sibling of someone with autism. But it’s not part of my experience… I was curious how Moon would craft the character, how real he would seem.

Very real.
Moon uses the present tense for Lou’s first person narration, which is at once both methodical and strangely poetic. I kept wanting to read it aloud, to check whether it was following any meter I could pin down. I knew it wasn’t, but there was something subtle about the cadence of his words that kept catching me off guard. I think the matter-of-fact level of detail, resonated with the tight focus scenes of Billy Collins or Ted Kooser, poets I love.

Lou is dedicated to his work, something inexplicable he can sink into, using pattern recognition. Pattern recognition spills over into his everyday world, absently counting tile patterns in the floor, noticing hidden colors in people’s eyes, even using what he knows about patterns to make him a better fence.. I like that the reader doesn’t entirely know what Lou does at work. Even when we get the candor of Lou’s voice, his daily experience, there’s a reminder that we as readers don’t think or live his cognitive experience.

There’s so much we do have in common with Lou though. Things we all have in common regardless of the names and diagnoses we call our brain workings. Moments of social befuddlement, trying to be methodical when scared, fears about our jobs, fears that medical science intended to help might have frightening side effects.

One of the things this does is give you a reality check on Lou: he is very bright and very observant, and it would be easy to assume that what he says is the truth, because he explains it so painstakingly.‡ But he’s wrong sometimes, as we all are. Another semi-incidental pleasure, and I don’t know if Moon meant it as ironically as I read it, is that some of the things that make Lou an autist also make him a hero: not merely the protagonist but an honest-to-goodness heroic-type hero.

Yes. What Robin McKinley said. Heroic in the sense of the stand the plot points let him take- the objective everyman courage he can display… but also in really owning his cognitive perspective and his self-knowledge of what works for him. Some of that is the privileged work setup he has, where he and his colleagues have a fancy work gym set aside, so that they can take care of their emotions and stresses by bouncing on a trampoline and listening to music. Some is the community of good friends, and references to his supportive parents.

By reading Lou’s present-tense interior monologue, you catch  flashes of confidence in his preference. Which makes the question of a treatment for autism especially interesting as a question of his identity. He knows what works for navigating his life and really owns it. He eats his beef jerky and fruit for lunch. He listens to music. He goes grocery shopping on Tuesdays when it’s not too crowded. He loves his fencing class. He seems decently together, well adapted to his inner workings.
A “normal” person might feel hesitant to speak up for what s/he needs to feel happy and safe and focused. Even if the needed things are just this simple. And we all have these moments. I know I do.  But… what’s normal anyway? I saw certain similarities…


For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library. Donate now to help them keep me in books!

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