The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Part 1: The Book Review Proper

Book cover of the edition I read
Book cover of the edition I read

I’ve been away from blogging for a while and that will likely continue for a bit more for the most part. Other things for the time being take priority. Yet I do have plans for this blog. Since so many book-review blogs already exist, I envision coming back to this blog and talking about the development of science fiction as literature and in the context of its time.

In the meantime, I’m making an exception so I can talk about the novel The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. In spite of what I am going to say, I would still recommend the book, but to me the ending abandons all the character development of the bulk of the book and in this sense short-changes the reader.

The novel tells the story of an autistic man named Lou Arrandale in a near-future setting. He is one of a few highly functional autistic people who received treatments as a child to help them interact with the world independently but whose birth predates the invention of a therapy that eliminates the condition entirely either in utero or in babies. Thus, he is one of the last people to be autistic.

Like good science fiction usually does, this novel reflects the concerns of its time. When I was a boy, I heard of autism as a debilitating condition which was not fully understood and which afflicted a rare few individuals. As the condition has become better understood in recent years, the term has become more broadly applied and pseudo-scientific anti-vaccine campaigns have received enough unwarranted attention to bring the condition into the popular consciousness. Unfortunately, stereotypes of the idiot savant such as portrayed in the movie Rain-Man still dominate the common perception.

The portrayal of autism in the book, which coincides with my own understanding of the condition, can be thought of primarily in terms of information overload. In other words, the brain takes in more sensory input data than it can handle. Difficulty picking up social cues and recognizing faces are associated with this due to an autistic brain not filtering or prioritizing information in the same way that a non-autistic brain does.  Therefore what the hypothesized treatment that the main character, Lou Arrandale, receives appears to do is to train the person to handle the glut of sensory data by processing it more slowly.

The primary narrator of the story is Arrandale himself, albeit occasionally this is supplemented by short presentations of perspectives from other characters. From the beginning, we see Arrandale holding down a good job, socializing and appreciating music. Moreover, we see him grow in self-confidence and abilities as he becomes an expert fencer. We see him use his awareness of patterns to succeed in fencing, his job and other situations. We even see him, slightly socially awkward but no more than many a geek or nerd, as he realizes that he loves a woman named Marjory from his fencing group and indeed that she loves him. They simply have not yet pursued or formalized the budding relationship, but their mutual friends are highly encouraging. In other words, we see the main character as a well adjusted normal individual who is socially labeled as disabled because he autistic, but who in reality is a highly well adjusted individual with a good life and foibles no more severe than anyone else.

The conflict of the book manifests itself primarily in thee ways. First, and most incidentally, a woman at the support center that Arrandale goes to on a weekly basis more out of habit than anything else appears to be jealous of his budding relationship and tries to convince Arrandale that he should only have relationships with other disabled people, presumably meaning especially herself. She is not a very nice person, and Arrandale politely but unequivocally gets his lack of interest across as at the same time he realizes that he really does not need the support center except perhaps once in a great while for things such as legal services.

Line art drawing depicting two people fencing

Line art drawing depicting two people fencing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second form of conflict comes from a member of his fencing group named Don whom Arrandale thinks of as a friend who is jealous of Arrandale’s relationship with Marjory and of his accomplishments as a fencer. Indeed, Don whose career is not successful, sees the main character as having a better life all-round than he does and, due to his own prejudices against the autistic in particular and disabled people generally (among whom he classes the autistic people in the world of the book), he cannot handle the situation. So, Don gets increasingly hostile and rude to Arrandale. At first, the other members of the fencing group interfere and shield Arrandale but when Arrandale performs brilliantly at his first fencing tournament and learns how badly Don did at his own first tournament, Don feels hmiliated and blames Arrandale for all his problems. He becomes a stalker and gets violent. As readers, we see Arrandale handle contacting the police, the disruption of his normal life and dealing with betrayal in a perfectly normal fashion. Although logically he realizes the person sabotaging his car increasingly violently must be Don, emotionally he does not want to accept that a friend could do something like that to him, and in his mind Don is a friend. Yet when Don attacks him in the end, Arrandale disarms him in an expert fashion and faces the painful truth. We as readers see him going through the normal stages of denial, anger, etc., under finally he reaches acceptance.

Speed of Dark

Speed of Dark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The primary conflict of the book comes through Arrandale’s work though. He does some sort of math-heavy data analysis which involves looking at things on a computer and discerning useful patterns for a large pharmaceutical company. As part of the work environment, he and his fellow workers in the department, all of whom are autistic, are provided a gym and other facilities to help them cope with the stress. Frankly, that kind of facility sounds to me like an excellent idea whether a person is autistic or not, but it is not offered to other employees. The supervisor of Arrandale’s immediate supervisor, respectively named Crenshaw and Aldrin, decides to illegally pressure the autistic employees into volunteering for an experimental treatment supposedly designed to make them no longer autistic. While Aldrin, the immediate supervisor, objects, he at first feels that he cannot do anything to help. Therefore, we see the main character coping with the issue for himself, and he does remarkably well. Although he considers using the support center to help find legal counsel, he decides that he wants to know more about the situation before doing so. While that seems an odd decision, his reasons are perfectly understandable; he wants to feel in control of the situation instead of being simply a disabled person who immediately has to call blindly for help. He also researches the treatment to find out if it is something he might actually want anyway. Beginning with the information about the research on-line, he then finds the research paper describing the treatment. When he does not understand it all, he uses his autistic abilities to teach himself the biology of the brain in an amazingly short amount of time. He comes to understand the research, its potential dangers and the slimness of the hope it will work as desired. Moreover, he realizes both that taking the treatment would destroy parts of his brain which make him who and what he is and that he likes the person he is. In order words, he comes to rightly view the treatment that Crenshaw would force on him as effectively suicide and decides until the end he is not suicidal. Arrandale and his fellow autistic employees plan to use a lawyer provided by their support center who specializes in relevant law, and the main character has every reason to refuse the treatment, as he seems throughout the book strongly inclined to do until the end. He even uncovers why the company is pursuing the research given how few autistic people remain, although I would have like to have seen this sub-plot more developed.

As the book comes to its climax, Aldrin sabotages what Crenshaw is doing and brings it and its potential legal and PR consequences to the attention of higher management by doing what Crenshaw tells him to do in ways that will expose the whole mess. So, in the end, the company does offer the treatment to its autistic employees but without the pressure of coercion. Once he is no longer pressured into undergoing the treatment, for reasons which come across entirely as a whim, Arrandale agrees to the treatment. Of course it works at least on him but he never pursues the relationship with Marjory, he abandons fencing and his promising tournament career, and he turns his back on all his friends who love and admire him for the person he is. In other words, he takes his great life and flushes it down the proverbial toilet for no apparent reason beyond, “Meh, I want to be normal,” when he has thoroughly debunked that notion for himself already. The ending was not tragic but rather a betrayal of the reader as all character development established throughout the bulk of the novel is abandoned in the end to try to make a point about “embracing the future“, whatever that means exactly. The character we have seen up until that point would never make such a decision, and having him do so simply makes no sense.

Part 2: Society and the “disabled”

In a sense, the above is my review of the book. All that needs to be said for that purpose has been. Until the end which I hated I loved the book and I wanted the natural ending of the story I was reading instead of the tacked on ending I got in reality. Yet I want to make a deeper point that requires going into far more personal detail than I usually would on the internet.

Although I am not autistic, Lou Arandale is a character with whom personally I can much identify. He is a person who is “disabled” only in the minds of some other people, especially those who do not really know him, and he has built a good life for himself. Speaking of myself, I have had from infancy a fairly severe eye condition called nystagmus with associated conditions. In practice, I am effectively severely near-sighted, and while on some days my vision is better than on others, I am always what was termed when I lived in the United States as legally blind. In other words, I cannot safely drive a car. Yet I grew up sailing boats perfectly well. I read avidly and use a computer for much of my day, but my vision gets worse when I’m tired, stressed or need sleep.

This ability to identify with the character is greatly strengthened by his strengths and talents. He uses pattern recognition and manipulation well beyond what would occur to most people to be possible. Since I was a small child, I was labeled as a mathematical genius. I would define math as the study and application of patterns. I have used my ability to perceive patterns to learn physics and math, and I have published research applying mathematical physics to cosmology. Yet I have also used that ability to learn Classical philology and to then develop the skills learned to be able to learn lots of other languages so that I comfortably read novels in numerous languages. As Arandale the character realizes, patterns are everywhere and an ability to recognize patterns can be used as a basis for dealing with virtually everything.

The character also has difficulty picking up social cues, especially those related to faces. Since so often I cannot see  people’s faces in detail, I also tend to miss these kinds of social cues. Yet I am more aware therefore of what I can see such as how a person moves and stands. Liars tend to broadcast to me through their body language what they are unless they are pathological enough to convince themselves they are really telling the truth at least while they’re saying it. Even then, the pattern emerges after a while.

What I am talking about here are the related concepts of compensation and adaptation. Throughout my life, I have avoided being officially labeled as “disabled” and I certainly do not think of myself in those terms. Yet, all my life many people who think of themselves as well-intentioned have treated me that way, and some do even now. For example, I do not know how many times I had people pressuring when I was a child to pray for a cure or making remarks to the effect that I would be handsome if my looks were not ruined by how my eyes look. For me, nystagmus involves not just constant movement of the eyes but an inability to entirely open my eyes and a need to hold my head at an angle so that I can see properly. That way of holding my head and people’s reactions to it probably hurt me socially growing up far more than missing some social cues did. Yet I adapted and found a way to interact with people that works for me. Yes, I married late and during dates did many things I was advised were precisely the wrong thing to do on a date, but in the end I ended up happily married to a woman who makes me as happy as I can imagine anyone doing. In other words, I also have like the character built what is for me a good life.

Like autism, nystagmus while manifested in the eyes is fundamentally neurological. To “cure” me of the condition, one would have to do things to the brain which would inevitably make me no longer who and what I am.

So if hypothetically I could be “cured” of nystagmus and the related conditions, I could not imagine wanting such a thing at such a price. So why does the character in the book who seems in an analogous situation want such a thing? The only explanation I can see is that he has an exaggerated compulsion to be “normal”. Putting aside that literarily this attitude makes no sense for the character, to me it reflects the unconscious bigotry of so many people toward what they call the “disabled”, the “pity” anyone whose abilities are deemed not quite normal is shown. The author is the mother of an autistic person according to the book cover, so she presumably should know better. Yet if she does, it did not come across in the novel; no such point is made as far as I can see. Rather its point seems to be that “disabled” people naturally want to be “normal” so long as they do not lose autonomy over their own bodies. As someone who is not “normal”, I am sick of dealing with people who refuse to see past my nystagmus and I do not need to be “cured”. Hence the end of the book to me is just a slap in the face; the rest of the book deserves better.

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2 Responses to The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

  1. JD says:

    Your review said exactly what I wanted to say in mine, but couldn’t quite say. As a ” disabled” person as well (I am epileptic), I also identified with Lou, and that ending was just wrong.
    Thank you.

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