The Speed of Dark

by Elizabeth Moon

Cover image

Publisher: Ballantine
Copyright: January 2003
Printing: March 2004
ISBN: 0-345-44754-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 340

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Lou Arrendale is autistic. He was born in the generation after advances in understanding of autism, and after the development of teaching aids and learning mechanisms that allowed autistic people to learn basic interaction skills, but the generation after his had a cure that could be applied in the womb. He's part of the last generation of autistic people. They work for a biomedical firm using their perceptions of patterns to develop new drugs. Every few months, Lou has to go to a psychiatrist (employing him is a tax break for his company) who treats him like a backwards child. He can interact well enough to tell his story, serving as first-person narrator for most of the book, but social cues are extremely difficult and he doesn't think like normal people.

Elizabeth Moon is the mother of an autistic child as well as an experienced SF writer. I'm unsure how much of each skill went into this portrayal, but this is one of the finest bits of characterization of different mental processes I've read. Lou's perspective frequently includes philosophical musing and self-examination, with just enough cuts to other perspectives to show what others got right and wrong and to provide needed touches of background. Moon adds plot tension to keep the story moving — a hostile management change at Lou's company leading to pressure to take an experimental procedure, and the mystery of attacks and vandalism against Lou's car — but this book is all about building a picture of a person.

The Speed of Dark strikes a delicate balance between disability and ability, echoing the problematic relationship autism has with mental illness. The classification of autism between mental illness, developmental disorder, or simply difference is highly controversial, as is the question of a cure. Moon tackles this issue head-on in this book, showing the full range of reactions: exploitative misunderstanding, condescension, blind altruism, unique talents possibly improved by autism that could be lost, and all the risks and difficulties inherent in changing the core of who someone is. At first, experimental treatment that might be a cure is a clear and obvious evil coming out of a hostile and abusive work environment, but the question is more complex than that. Moon shows the reader, and helps the reader appreciate and enjoy, Lou's unique perspective, but she shows the difficulties and Lou's consideration of the upside of a cure at the same time. The choices Lou faces by the end of the book are extremely difficult to write about in an even-handed fashion. From my perspective, with little personal contact with autism, Moon did as well as I could imagine.

This book begs comparison with the later mainstream novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, also featuring an autistic viewpoint character (although Haddon leaves this unstated) — both begs comparison and underlines the flaws of Haddon's treatment. Curious Incident is a wonderful literary game with a compelling viewpoint character, but Moon's superior characterization of Lou shows where Haddon misses on creating a realistic autistic character rather than a literary game. In Moon's protrayal, Lou, and autistic people in general, are not unemotional or strangely logical, nor do they lack the reactions of non-autistic people. They express them differently, find different interests, and have different gaps of understanding. Lou is more real by far than Haddon's Christopher, which makes his communication difficulties and his limitations all the more compelling. Moon does an exceptional job of walking the tightrope between showing embarassing situations and not making her viewpoint character pitiful or off-putting. Haddon's Christopher feels like a literary device; Lou feels like a person.

A better comparison, particularly given Moon's thematic concerns, is to Flowers for Algernon. Keyes's classic also tackles disabilities, differences between internal image and external perception, and the effects and dangers of a cure for mental illness. Moon, though, takes Keyes's subject matter one step further. For all its tragic expansion, Flowers for Algernon doesn't question the basic assumption that Charlie's mental illness should be cured if possible. Tragedy lies in how the disabled are treated and in the effects of the cure, and in how ignorance can be a poignant sort of bliss, but Keyes leaves the core assumptions around mental disability unquestioned by dealing with mental retardation. Autism is a far more complex and problematic condition. Moon covers much the same ground plus the ethics and risks of going from different to normal when both have benefits lost to the other. The Speed of Dark holds its own in comparison to a classic of the genre, and I think in some ways surpasses it.

SF reaches out to the alien in large part to portray the everyday in a new light. In future societies and alien races, SF authors hold up mirrors of our own hopes, fears, and concerns so that we can examine them better. Moon finds the same difference closer to home, and the moments of recognition I felt towards Lou's thought patterns are all the more thought-provoking when his alienness is grounded in a difference we know the human brain can already produce. Moon adds SF and future extrapolation with a light touch, using it only for necessary background and as a plot device to let Lou function better than he probably would today. She keeps it out of the way of the characterization and has the confidence to let Lou carry the story.

I have quibbles with some of the supporting characters; the evil new boss, in particular, is a sort of one-sided evil that rings hollow admidst more thoughtful characterization. The ending is a bit too safe and happy, not quite poignant enough to validate the difficulty of the choices Lou has made. But quibbles aside, this is a masterful work, clearly the best SF on this topic that I've read since Flowers for Algernon. It deserves to be just as much of a classic. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-03-19

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