Elizabeth Moon – Speed of Dark

elizabethmoon-speedofdarkLou is different to ‘normal’ people. He interacts with the world in a way they do not understand. He might not see the things they see, however, but he also sees many things they do not. Lou is autistic.

One of his skills is an ability to find patterns in data: extraordinary, complex, beautiful patterns that not even the most powerful computers can comprehend. The company he works for has made considerable sums of money from Lou’s work. But now they want Lou to change – to become ‘normal’ like themselves. And he must face the greatest challenge of his life. To understand the speed of dark.

SPEED OF DARK is a powerful near-future thriller, the theme of which is both universal and intensely personal. It is dedicated to the author’s own autistic son, and to other parents of autistic children, ‘in the hope that they also find that delight in difference’.

Speed of Dark was May’s Hodderscape Review Project title. It wasn’t my first Elizabeth Moon as I’ve read and enjoyed her Serrano Legacy books. However, while Speed of Dark is ostensibly SF, it is so in a very different way from her Serrano Legacy series which is far more space opera and military SF. Speed of Dark takes the question ‘What if medicine has advanced so far that we could cure almost anything, including extending life and repairing spinal cord injuries? What if this could also cure autism?’ as its central concept  It takes this question and looks at the many ethical and moral complications connected to it and does so in a compelling and sensitive manner. 

Before I go further, I have to give some background. Disorders on the autism spectrum are something I’m intimately familiar with, as I have two brothers who have been diagnosed with ASDs and my husband works with special needs children, many of whom are also autistic. Admittedly, the people with autism I’m familiar with are all highly-functioning, so that might shape my bias, but the idea that autism is something that should be cured by definition is one that raises many doubts for me. Of course there are many autistic people that manifest in catatonic or uncommunicative ways, who will never be able to live an independent life. But there are also many highly-functioning autistic people who excel and who would take the suggestion that they should be cured as an insult. There are many different forms of autism and again as many different manifestations. So I found myself reading Speed of Dark very much from a place of scepticism and rather hoping that Lou would choose to not have the treatment.

The book is mostly told from Lou’s perspective, though both his supervisor, Mr Aldrin, and his friend Tom get their own points of view. Moon conveys the rigidity of Lou’s thought patterns and routines clearly and compellingly. Sometimes Lou’s voice was somewhat uncomfortable as his reasoning is so different from mine, and I’d guess most neurotypical people. However he’s also quite endearing and I really rooted for him to choose what’s right for him, even though the question of what’s right for him wasn’t that easily answered. Yet, treatment or no, rigidity of routine or no, Moon also shows that to be human is to change and Lou changes and grows throughout the book. In fact it’s his changing that makes up his mind as to whether he wants to have the treatment or not.

Moon explores the prejudices harboured against disabled people in her version of our future and how those fully-abled but unsuccessful often blame them for their failures. It’s something that is relevant in the here and now not just with regards to differently abled people, but with regards to race, gender, and sexual orientation as well. The division between the normally-abled and the differently-abled is emphasised by the prejudices being mirrored by the people at the Center where Lou meets with his fellow autistics each Saturday. Especially Emmy is disgusted by the fact that Lou has developed feelings for a normal, even if this is partly fuelled by jealousy. It also made me wonder how much of this isn’t the internalised prejudices of the norms speaking through Emmy, as she just can’t imagine a neurotypical woman being interested in Lou for Lou without any ulterior motives.

Lou’s dilemma and that of his co-workers is looked at from every angle thinkable and all possible reactions are shown, from those affected immediately – Lou and his friends at work – and from the neurotypical people in the book such as Lou’s fencing friends, his supervisor at work and others. I was quite surprised by the strong reaction of Detective Stacy, whose positive enforcement of Lou was unexpected. I found Lou’s boss, Mr Crenshaw and the medical doctors involved with the medical trial rather frightening in their wilful pushing of the procedure, especially Crenshaw who seems to act from a perspective of both prejudice and financial gain. Lou’s stalker is disturbing in his blind anger and violence, but Lou’s reaction to his punishment – the placing of a chip to take away his violent impulses, much like Spike on Buffy – is graceful and honest, even if ultimately irrelevant; he can’t prevent the punishment being administered.

Did I ultimate agree with Lou’s choice? I’m still not sure. I think he was already changing and growing and perhaps becoming more “normal” which is what he thinks he needs to be to achieve that which he wants. In the end though, it’s a fitting choice and it’s Lou’s choice, no one else’s despite all the outside forces interfering , and that’s all that matters. I very much enjoyed Speed of Dark. I think Moon handled a complex story with care and consideration and provides much food for thought. Great example of the way SF can make us examine our own opinions and prejudices about elements in our own current time more closely. If you like more introspective and slower-moving near future SF, then I’d certainly recommend giving Speed of Dark a read.

This book was provided for review by the publisher as part of the Hodderscape Review Project.