In some ways, I can thank my high school English classes for sparking my long love of speculative fiction. Between reading and discussing such notable literary classics as 1984, Brave New World, and Watership Down, I quickly came to prefer a good “what if?” story to any other kind. Amongst all the excellent choices on my high school reading list, however, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon stood out to me as the most poignant and affecting.
I never imagined there would be a worthy modern successor to this powerful and bittersweet tale. Indeed, I would not have expected anyone to try. Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark therefore took me completely by surprise. I’m sorry that I missed this 2003 Nebula winner when it first came out. But I’m pleased to have stumbled across it now. Jay Snyder’s expert narration only added to the experience.
Moon’s novel tells the story of Lou Arrendale, an autistic who’s spent his whole life adjusting to a society built for people who think differently. Through early intervention and a lot of hard work, he’s learned to interpret some of the facial cues and tonal nuances in the unwritten social language most of us attain fluency in as toddlers. But he’ll never be a native speaker. Living independently and using his talent for pattern analysis, he works in a tech firm in a section with other autistics. In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and, perhaps more importantly, in recognition of the section’s astounding productivity, supports are provided to create a good working environment for the autistic employees.
The simple addition of assigned parking provides structure and predictability they crave. When Lou becomes upset, he listens to Bach, turns on the fan and watches the pattern of colour as his spin spirals glitter and turn. On Tuesdays he does his grocery shopping. On Saturdays he meticulously cleans out his car. Though he doesn’t tell anyone at work, he spends Wednesday nights at fencing practice, with “normals”, reveling in the new patterns of a fresh opponent.
He is happy, he thinks. Content, at least. He long ago gave up on a childhood dream of travelling into space. He talks himself out of thinking that Marjorie, the woman at fencing practice, might have the same kind of funny feelings inside when she thinks about him, as he does for her. He is safe, leaving things as they are.
But things will not stay as they are. A new boss at work resents the “special privileges” provided for the autistic employees. A series of unexpected episodes, a mean-spirited officer at airport security, an act of vandalism on his car, leave Lou flustered and feeling the full extent of his handicap. Then he hears about a new experimental treatment, expected to reverse adult autism. To make him normal. And he is faced with a life-altering choice.
This is an important work, because, like Mark Haddon’s 2003 Whitbread winner, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, it provides a voice for people like Lou who many of us may never get a chance to know ourselves. The Speed of Dark dispels the myth that autistic people don’t have feelings; that they are static and do not experience growth and change; that they are somehow inhuman. But it’s not only important, it’s also incredibly readable. I can therefore recommend this book for everyone.
(More info on the book and on autism can be found at Elizabeth Moon’s excellent blog.)
Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2008) The Green Man Review