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The Speed of Dark

Title: The Speed of Dark
Author: Elizabeth Moon
Published: 2002

So here’s a book that I enjoyed despite some glaring deficiencies. It’s the tale of a young autistic man. He’s high-functioning with a genius aptitude for pattern recognition, so he’s gainfully employed. In fact he’s part of a whole unit of autistic employees at some high tech company. But a nefarious autistic-hating supervisor wants to pressure his whole department into undergoing a radical experimental treatment to “cure” their autism.

Plus, there’s a lot of fencing.

OK, so first the negatives. The characterization of Crenshaw, the autistic-hating boss, is just unbelievably bad. Unforgivably bad. Here’s his first line:

“I’m a natural leader,” Crenshaw said. “My personality profile shows that I’m cut out to be a captain, not crew.”

Yup, he’s a villain all right, and Moon deploys him with all the subtlety and nuance of a nuclear bomb. He’s a one-note character, and that note is asshole. I found him utterly unconvincing, and this weak characterization undermined the whole story.

And then there’s the ending. I’m still not sure what I think about that exactly. My opinion seems to be changing even as I type. I don’t want to spoil it for any potential readers, so I’ll say no more about that.

But the majority of the book is narrated from the point of view of the protagonist, Lou Arrendale, and this is what I found compelling: the viewpoint. As mentioned, he’s autistic. He may be high-functioning, but he’s also profoundly different from the “normals.”

I found myself not only able to relate to Lou but also somewhat spooked by just how much of myself I saw in him. I have a number of compulsive habits that wouldn’t have been out of place for Lou. I find myself spelling words backward, then pulling out the vowels and reversing them with the consonants forward, then reversing the consonants but not the vowels, and so on. And I could really relate to Lou’s problems understanding other people. He was constantly confused and irritated because people say one thing and mean another. Me too. I get hung up every time someone says “How are you?” Most of the time, people don’t really want an honest assessment of your current status; it’s just a way of saying hi. But, like Lou, I have a hard time not taking people’s casual pronouncements literally.

I daresay most people will identify with Lou in some way, on some level. None of my autistic friends have read the book (yet) but from what I gather, by scouring various internet forums, many autistic readers have found Lou to be a very realistic depiction of their interior experience. Moon’s son is autistic, so I suppose she’s had plenty of opportunity to see the world through his eyes.

So: a very humanizing perspective, and that’s pretty cool. It also raises some interesting questions about the very concept of normality.

Also in the plus column, I found this an extraordinarily easy read. Lou’s straightforward, logical narrative style was extremely easy for me to digest. I’m not a fast reader, but this was a fast book. I wouldn’t call it fast-paced, though.

Fencing is a theme in the book. Lou’s propensity for pattern recognition serves him well in this arena. Turns out a friend of mine who lives in Austin fences with Moon on occasion. Small world.

The book is set in the near future, and Elizabeth Moon is primarily known as a writer of science fiction. Speed of Dark even won the Nebula. Yet it appears to me that this book is not being marketed as a genre novel. I think that’s wise, because it really does read like mainstream contemporary fiction, or at least what I imagine mainstream contemporary fiction might be like. I don’t venture there often.

When I finished the book last week, I scoffed at the Nebula. Even though I enjoyed reading it, I thought surely there must have been a better science fiction novels in 2002 than this. But I have to admit it’s grown on me a bit since then. Some stories grab you, and others creep up on you.

This paperback is on the shelves of Octavia Books now, and you can join us to discuss it there tomorrow morning at 10:30 AM.

I was saddened to learn that Thomas M. Disch died by his own hand July 4, one week ago today. I have an old anthology of his work in hardcover, Fun with Your New Head. Bleak, bleak stuff, but also incredibly good. I don’t think it’s in print, but poking around the net I found the title story, an extremely short and weird and unsettling piece from ’68 that’s worth a look.

Published inBooks & Reading


  1. KamaAina KamaAina

    You have friends who have autism (in addition to at least one occasional blog commenter)? Excellent! See, I knew I saw quality up on that stage!

    Normally someone I know through the autism community puts me on to these kinds of books. This is a first. Progress, I suppose… speaking of “normally”, we generally refer to the rest of you as “typicals” (the full word is “neurotypical”) rather than “normals”. Then again, I’m not sure that New Orleanians fully qualify as “typicals”, which is why I fit in so well down there!

    Interesting that you seem to be in the process of diagnosing yourself (but why “spooked”?) That is a standard parlor game in our nascent subculture, exceeded in popularity only by diagnosing others (Thomas Jefferson, Bill Gates, even Sherlock Holmes!). At least one other prominent local blogger has claimed, in print, that “my Aspberger’s (sic) is messing with my reading and comprehension”.

  2. Did I say “spooked”? I guess I did. Hm. Funny what you learn when you read your own writing. I think that reveals a subtle prejudice on my part. I don’t want to think of myself as having characteristics of autism because that’s a disorder, a disability — even though this book seems to argue convincingly that it ain’t necessarily so. How neurotypical!

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