I am kicking myself for not having got around to reading this Elizabeth Moon novel before. In this house we have a long shelf full of her excellent space opera (I posted a happy note about the first one, here), but Speed of Dark arrived unnoticed, and stayed on our shelves for years unremembered. But oh what a treat to spend the entire evening reading it on the sofa. Speed of Dark sucks you in with the first pages, in which Lou the protagonist silently comments on the intrusive and facile questions that his psychiatrist is asking. It’s plain that Dr Fornum doesn’t realise that Lou is a highly intelligent man, or how he thinks, since he is autistic, and she is obtuse. Published in 2002, this is a near future vision of our world, still recognisable, but with some utopian, or dystopian, differences.
Like the narrative voice in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, published only a year later, Lou’s internal commentary brings the reader close to the experience of what it might be like to be a high-functioning autist. He is American, in his 30s, living independently since both his parents are dead, and holding down a specialist job in pattern recognition in a computer company that gets tax breaks for employing autistic technical specialists like him. The company has arranged a special parking area for their autist employees, since they need to park their cars in the same spots every day at the same time. This is important for their comfort and equilibrium. They have their own offices with doors, which they can decorate as they want (Lou has spinners and whirling wheels that he sets off with a fan, all carefully positioned so that the pattern of twinkles and shine are right for him). They have a special shared room with a trampoline which they can use to calm down, to express their energy or fear or excitement, and they are comfortable with each other. They go out for lunch together to the local pizza house, where Hi-I’m-Sylvia knows them, but they try to avoid going when Hi-I’m-Jean is there, since she is unpleasant. Their supervisor is Mr Aldrin, who is increasingly anxious when the novel begins, since a new manager has been installed who doesn’t like people with special privileges.
Lou is interested in patterns, everywhere. He understands that recognising the expressions that ‘normals’ make with their faces is hard for autists, though he and his friends read other signals to help them make sense of how ‘normal’ people communicate mood and emotion. Lou is in a fencing club rung by his friends Tom and Lucia, and is realising that his pattern recognition skills are making him better and better when they fence. Tom takes him to a tournament, where Lou wins the novice medal, and learns more about how people cheat, get angry and interact when they don’t know him. Lou has warm and confusing feelings for Marjory, who is also in the fencing club. He doesn’t understand why she looks angry when Don takes her bag, or sprawls on the ground talking at her but looking at Lou. Emmy, a woman who goes to the Center on Saturday mornings, has begun to shout at Lou for hanging out with normals, insisting that Marjory is his girlfriend and that this is wrong. Emmy tells Lou that Marjory is a spy, since she also works at the medical research centre in the university. Lou decides he doesn’t need to go the Center on Saturday mornings any more. He has his routines (Tuesday is groceries, Wednesday is fencing, Friday is laundry, Sunday is church) but he is feeling more comfortable about changing them.
Lou’s neighbour Danny is a policeman, and is friendly to Lou, which Lou likes because policemen, and security men, and people who are angry, make him feel tight and tense, and he stutters. Danny is there when Lou finds that all four of his car tyres have been slashed, and helps him through the reporting procedure. Danny and Miss Kimberly in the laundry room know Lou’s routines well. So does Mr Crenshaw, who waits for Lou to arrive every morning, and times his lunch break absences. Mr Crenshaw is planning to force the autistic staff out of their jobs by making them take the new experimental treatment for autism. Mr Aldrin is looking even more worried, and Lou and his colleagues are busy reading about the treatment on the internet and talking to their friends around the world about it. They share the scientific and medical papers, and Lou begins to read more biology courses online. Lucia, a doctor, is astounded when Lou shows her his tests, because Lou’s reading has got him through an undergraduate biology degree in two weeks. He’s starting on organic chemistry and biochemistry now, and the scientific papers are making more sense to him.
This novel is about patterns, and about sharing information. The characters who don’t share data are lost, unhappy, miserable and destructive. The characters who manage to make connections look after each other, and learn how to feel comfortable. Moon’s background as a parent of an autistic man has obviously stimulated her awareness of autists’ lives, and her desire to create Lou as the leading protagonist in a seriously far-reaching science fiction novel. She has written a beautiful and deviously clever examination of what it might be like for an autist to experience love, learn to change, and to feel as well as understand how social patterns work. The central plot device, of the ‘cure’ for autism and what it will do, is handled with sensitivity and nuance, making no point of view wholly negative or wholly positive (though Mr Crenshaw is an aggressively one-dimensional villain, with a highly satisfying end at the hands of nervous, connected Mr Aldrin). Choice is paramount, and we have been with Lou all the way as we learn how his choices are shaped. I so admire how Moon has handled this contentious and challenging theme, and I cannot recommend this novel highly enough: for utopian/dystopian vision, for sheer narrative power, and for depicting autism as a way of being. It won the Nebula Award in 2003, and was a finalist for the Arthur C Clarke Award in the same year, which shows you its sf credentials.