Autistic Book Party, Episode 73: The Timematician

Cover of the book "The Timematician" by Steven Bereznai. A pink skinned robot woman and a man in a face-concealing leather hood pose together above a stylized graphic of a watch.

Today’s Book: “The Timematician: A Gen M Novel” by Steven Bereznai

The Plot: Doctor BetterThan, a genius supervillain who can manipulate time, uses his powers to wipe out all life on earth. Then he has to deal with the consequences – including a mysterious robot woman who seems determined to undo his work.

Autistic Character(s): Doctor BetterThan himself – and the author.

I find that I struggle to review comedies. I’ve done it before (see, for example, “The Damned Busters“) but it always throws me off my game. Normally we don’t want autistic traits to be exaggerated and played for laughs. So what happens in a genre where everything is exaggerated and played for laughs? You have to just suspend your disbelief and go with it.

“The Timematician” is not only a comedy about an autistic person – it’s about an autistic villain, who’s not only played for laughs but is also manifestly a terrible person. Obviously I don’t mind autistic villains or unlikeable characters – I’ve written them myself – but as a reviewer it introduces an additional level of wow-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-this-book.

What I’m saying is that I picked up “The Timematician” feeling curious, but very dubious and unsure if it would ever win me over.

To my surprise, it mostly did.

It helps that Bereznai’s narrative voice is really engaging. Picture the most gleefully cheesy supervillain monologue you’ve ever heard, and that’s your narrator. Everything feels brightly-colored, vivid and quick-moving in the best comic book tradition.

Doctor BetterThan’s autism informs his character deeply (he also has a physical disability). It influences the devices he’s created, including a “social-ometer” that helps him to decode neurotypical characters’ intentions. It also, even more interestingly, affects his style of villainy:

Growing up, I thought that throwing in bits of fancy talk would give me a rougish quality my classmates would ooh and aah over. As with the application of many skills in the spheres of adolescent sociability, I miscalculated. No one understood me or even tried – which prepared me well for adulthood.
“The fools of this world had no use for me,” I say aloud, “well, the feeling is mutual.”
Genetrix bleeps in a womp-womp way.
“Genetrix,” I chide, “sarcasm is the refuge of the inferior.”
I know she’s being sarcastic – a deplorable and cruel form of irony that’s somehow crept into her code – because an inverted question mark pluses on her face. Genetrix bleeps in response.
“Well, people should like know-it-alls,” I answer, “because we know it all.”

The genius villain who feels that no one appreciates their genius is not a new trope; it’s a staple of superhero fiction, and it’s probably always autistic-coded (or at least non-neurotypical-coded) to a degree. But Bereznai brings that connection to the foreground and, by doing so, arguably makes it more interesting. There were a lot of points in the book where I had to stop and think – not because autism changes any of the ethical considerations of being a supervillain, but simply because I recognized the type of person Doctor BetterThan is. We’ve all known autistic people, men in particular, who respond to the pain of ableist social ostracization by retreating into a fragile, narcissistic self-concept – into the idea that because of their intelligence alone, they’re superior to the people who have hurt them.

By foregrounding autism and slotting it into the familiar structure of a supervillain’s grandiosity, Bereznai accomplishes several things. He shows how absurd and unhelpful this kind of superiority complex really is, how instantly familiar it feels even in the absurd, exaggerated setting of a supervillain comedy, how fragile it is and how it’s always on the verge of falling apart – but also how real and visceral and familiar the pain is that lurks underneath it.

In men, this type of complex often comes with a helping of misogyny and a feeling of entitlement to female attention – and that’s a part of Doctor BetterThan’s character, too. I’m not always quite sure what I think of the dynamic between him and his rival supervillain, Mairī Lin. There’s a trope of misogynist man gets redeemed because a cute girl paid attention to him which I’m not super-fond of, and “The Timematician” sometimes veers a little too close to that for my liking. But there’s also an ambiguity about whether that’s what’s really going on, even at the end; and the super-powered back-and-forth between the characters – full of flirting one moment and double-crossing the next, quick-growing crystals, and armies of color-coded, squabbling robots – was enjoyable enough to keep me engaged.

(Admittedly, I’m more willing to have patience with tropes like these from an author who, like Bereznai, is openly queer. And there’s a queer undertone to Doctor BetterThan despite the m/f romance; his most treasured childhood memory, for instance, is an opera aria that he once performed in drag.)

Anyway, this whole book is really goofy and also a surprisingly fun ride. If you have dreamed of grandiose autistic villainy in a brightly colored comic book world, then you should check it out.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

There Is No Single Story That Will Do The Work

Sometimes when writer social media starts going back and forth about what kind of stories are best – dark edgy ones, or hopeful gentle ones; stories that sound the alarm about a social problem, stories that offer a solution, or stories that help us to forget our problems entirely – I start wondering if we’ve forgotten Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s classic talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 72: Submergence

Today’s Book: “Submergence,” a novella by Arula Ratnakar, available in Clarkesworld

The Plot: When a marine biologist named Noor dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, a woman named Nithya volunteers to play back and experience her memories. What Nithya uncovers will not only illuminate the circumstances of Noor’s death, but a revelation about the bizarre organisms Noor was studying and a much larger conspiracy.

Autistic Character(s): The author!

“Submergence” is a work I can’t say too much about, since so much depends on watching events unfold and unravelling the mystery, but it’s a fascinating work of near-future hard science fiction that combines cutting-edge biology, neuroscience, alternative communication, and a sweetly odd queer romance – or possibly two.

At the heart of the mystery is an unusual species of sponge, P. meyeri, that can be used to create tailor-made cures to a variety of diseases – but that also reacts strongly and negatively to any intrusion. P. meyeri is even more special than it appears, and the most memorable part of the novella is the sheer sense of detail and wonder as Noor explores it in its natural habitat:

An intricate, coordinated display of flashing light is taking place throughout the chamber, in a beautiful recursive pattern revolving around one of the sponges, far more complex than any temple carving, any rose window, any generative design she’s seen. The sponge releases its larvae, and then a different beautiful light display centering on another sponge begins as that sponge starts to release its larvae. Using the scanner, Noor finds more of those microscopic shrimp fused to the exteriors of the sponges, somehow being controlled. She steels her churning stomach and holds back her revulsion regarding what she’s about to do.

 

The neuroscience of what Nithya is doing is explored in as much detail as the marine biology. Immersively experiencing someone else’s memories has an effect on her sense of identity, as she begins to absorb Noor’s beliefs, attachments, and feelings and integrate them into her own. Nithya and other characters do a lot of introspection about what this means, whether it’s okay, but Nithya is a protagonist who’s refreshingly excited and curious about the process; horror at losing herself isn’t a primary emotion for her.

“Submergence” also does intriguing things with the nameless youth movement that Noor’s daughter belongs to. Reminiscent of today’s youth protests against climate change, but more extreme, children who have joined the movement refuse to speak or show facial expressions until their climate demands have been met. They still go to school, go about their days, and communicate using text, but it is all done silently and expressionlessly.

From an autistic author, a youth movement like this feels like an especially clever invention. You can turn over any rock and find autism parents talking in tones of horror about how awful it is to have a child who won’t speak or won’t smile at them. Why not weaponize that horror for the greater good? (Ratnakar shows a range of parent responses to this movement, but she doesn’t show any children being very badly mistreated, and Noor is supportive of her daughter’s choices despite some misgivings.)

The ending feels a little bit rushed to me, with all sorts of grave difficulties and complex dilemmas just suddenly working out in the protagonists’ favor. But it’s a happy ending; and “Submergence” is worth the price of admission even just for its beginning and middle, where we slowly explore the intricate scientific puzzle that Ratnakar has laid out, and the beautiful, intriguing mystery of P. meyeri.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

The Battle of Yavin

Here’s how the Battle of Yavin (from “Star Wars: A New Hope”) breaks down when it’s analyzed using Chekhov’s 21-Gun Salute. You can read an introduction to the 21-Gun Salute method in last week’s post – the key to this method is that every character brings a gun to the battle, in the form of some ability to use or some character arc to wrap up, and every gun must be fired in an effective way.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Chekhov’s 21-Gun Salute: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Battle Scenes

I’ll tell you a secret: I’ve always had trouble focusing on battle scenes, either in movies and shows or in prose novels. There are so many moving parts, things whizzing by in so many directions that I forget what the point of it is – or else so many pages of tedious descriptions of troop movements that I forget what the point is of that, either. I like introspection, dramatic character interactions, and weird supernatural happenings. I can get spooky as hell, but I’m not much of a fighter.

But for THE INFINITE – Book 3 in the Outside series – I found myself in a jam. I’d written the story to a point where of course it needed to be solved with a big, final battle. I wanted to see the battle, the flashing lights and big sounds and drama of it all. But I didn’t know how to put one together in a way that made sense. It was a kind of scene that I knew wouldn’t come naturally.

So I set my mind to figuring out how battle scenes work. I pored over some of my favorite big battles from existing media – battles where even my battle-challenged mind stayed invested the whole way through. I broke them down into their component parts and I figured out what purpose each part served. In the process I came up with a system that allowed even me to write a final battle scene that my editors loved.

I’m going to share that system with you now.

(Read the full post on Substack)

The Autistic Community Is Actually Many Communities

All the talk of “community” last week has reminded me of something I don’t think we talk about often enough. We often talk about “the autistic community,” or similar things like “the queer community,” almost as a euphemism. We talk about “the community” as simply the set of all people in the world who are autistic. But if we define a community as a group of people who are actually in contact with each other in some meaningful way, then it becomes obvious very quickly that there isn’t one autistic community. There are a whole lot of small ones.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 71: Sanctuary

Cover of the book "Sanctuary" by Andi C. Buchanan. The cover shows a stylized, blue and green image of a bottle full of smoke.

Today’s Book: “Sanctuary” by Andi C. Buchanan

The Plot: A group of queer neurodivergent people live together in a haunted house. They are distressed and must get to the bottom of what’s going on when something starts to hurt the ghosts who live with them.

Autistic Character(s): Pretty much all of them! Plus the author.

I’ve written about planets of autistic people before, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like “Sanctuary,” which presents a situation very much on this current planet – one that could be happening right now, except maybe for the ghosts – where a group of autistic people are doing relatively well in a communal living space they’ve created for themselves. There are a lot of things to like about “Sanctuary,” but my absolute favorite is its depiction of Casswell Park – the large, old, moldering mansion where the main characters live – and what life there is like. The book almost feels like a thought experiment in neurodivergent community, and on that front it roundly succeeds.

Which is not to say that life in Casswell Park is perfect. The place is big and run-down and needs a lot of repairs. The inhabitants are underemployed or intermittently employed, and no one ever quite has enough money. They scrimp and save for small luxuries – like the holiday dinner they’re having in the first scene, or the programmable lights that help soothe the protagonist Morgan’s nerves; but fully repairing the house is a task so large that it might never be completed. The residents are also frequently annoyed by ghost hunters, who see the ghosts of the house as a novelty to investigate and who aren’t very respectful of the residents’ (or the ghosts’!) boundaries. And that’s before they receive the mysterious delivery that starts to harm the ghosts, through some unknown means, and to threaten the living residents’ whole life there.

Buchanan’s characters – as is realistic, for certain kinds of autistic people – are intensely concerned with ethics. They’ve thought long and hard about how to be respectful both to each other and to the ghosts. The latter is refreshing – most depictions of ghosts in fiction don’t really treat them as people, in the sense of having human-like boundaries, needs, and preferences. Some ghosts are better able to interact with the physical world than others. They don’t speak, but the residents of Casswell Park have worked out a way of communicating with them – much as one might communicate with a non-speaking autistic person, offering tools such as letter boards to point to.

Like some authors I’ve reviewed before, Buchanan is careful to explain why their characters think or behave in the ways they do. There’s a real desire to lay out the steps of the logic so that a reader who doesn’t think like Morgan, or like one of their housemates, will be able to understand their motives. This goes for matters as simple as having lights that flash a certain color, or as high-stakes as how the characters respond to a break-in. This isn’t only a narrative technique, but also a character trait for Morgan, who ruminates and thinks about their reasons for doing something throughout any hour of the day. I appreciate how nuanced Buchanan’s explanations are, often illuminating a realistic subtlety of autistic experience, or a difference between two or more different autistic people, that you wouldn’t find in 101 materials:

Saeed and I sit on the bench outside the laundry room, waiting for the load to finish. On a bad day, noise like this is overloading, but today its repetition is comforting. It’s easier, too, to talk when I can’t hear myself.

This level of detail and explanation is also used for the characters’ paranormal experiences. Morgan has heightened perception, while Denny, an older resident, experiences occasional psychokinesis. Rather than being treated as super-powers, these descriptions match perfectly with accounts I’ve heard from people who are interested in the paranormal in real life:

If there’s a name for my ability, I don’t know it. I didn’t even know it was unusual until my teens. Simply put, I can detect lingering sensations attached mostly to places, sometimes to objects. Most of the time, it’s nothing more than that. I can walk into a house and know with utter certainty that something bad has happened there. I can be buoyed by the remnants of a celebration weeks later, one I never even knew happened. Ironically, given what people say about autistic people like me, it’s probably a form of hyper-empathy, but sometimes there’s a bit more to it. Perhaps a dozen times over my life, I’ve caught flashes of someone else’s memory, a brief image lost as suddenly as it’s seen, just slipping from my understanding like a half-remembered dream.
I don’t talk or think about it much. It’s not strong enough to have a significant effect on my life, and outside of this house – where I’m not the only one with an ability not yet explained by science – not that many people would believe me anyway.

There are occasional places where this focus on careful explanation gets in the way of the story. There’s a final fight scene, for instance, where the narrator takes such care to explain how they feel about fighting and what the fight means to them that I found it difficult to focus on what was physically happening. But for the vast majority of the book the explanations are lovely and thoughtful, painting a rich picture of what the characters’ lives are like, what they value, and how they think.

I don’t know what a neurotypical reader would think of it, but to me the life the characters in “Sanctuary” have built together feels peaceful and affirming. In a world where it’s hard for autistic people to get along with others – where there’s often high conflict for us, even within the community – “Sanctuary” shows autistic characters banding together and supporting each other in a way that doesn’t abstract away all those sources of conflict and difference, but instead shows how bridges can be built across them. It feels like a vision of what could be. It’s a balm to my soul. Also, there are ghosts.

Read this if you want a thoughtful, gently paced urban fantasy unlike any other I know of – and a diverse found family of autistic people who are there for each other no matter what.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Marie Kondo and Talking To My Clothes

One of the most distinctive parts of the KonMari method is the one where you talk to the objects in your house. It’s really an emotional method. You don’t just think in your head about whether you use the object enough to make it worth keeping around; you pick it up, you feel it in your hands, you see what emotions it sparks. If it doesn’t spark joy, you thank it for what it’s done for you before throwing it out or putting it in a box to give away.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 70: Azura Ghost

Today’s Book: “Azura Ghost” by Essa Hansen

The Plot: Threi and Abriss Cetre, two hyper-powerful villains from the previous book “Nophek Gloss,” are in a race to discover secrets that could change the whole structure of the multiverse. Caiden, our protagonist, must unravel the web of mysticism and manipulation that lies between them – and save his childhood friend, Leta, who has become one of Abriss’s servants.

Autistic Character(s): Leta (and the author)

I already liked the previous book in this series, “Nophek Gloss,” and I was excited to see what happened when Leta – a young supporting character, presumed to be dead, for most of the first book – came into her own as a co-protagonist. I was not disappointed. “Azura Ghost” is as vivid, imaginative, psychologically and philosophically complex as its predecessor – and it more than does justice to Leta as a powerful, vulnerable, grown-up autistic woman trying to untangle the influences that have led her where she is.

In the decade since Caiden last saw her, Leta has been transformed into a “Grave” – a modified being, imbued with psychic powers, able to shift her consciousness into a nearly indestructible artificial body, or to move it through a dimension called the “luminifery.” With these abilities, she serves Abriss, the Dynast in charge of most of the multiverse. The Graves are very powerful, but also very vulnerable; their modified bodies won’t survive for long if they aren’t regularly using their artificial ones. Abriss promises that her next breakthrough will solve these problems – but she hasn’t been right about that yet.

Abriss and Threi both possess an inborn ability called “gravitas.” The people around them are influenced by their presence, naturally love them and want to please them. Threi uses this ability more forcefully than Abriss, who makes a show of using gentle suggestions rather than commands. But both of them are used to the people around them fawning on them – and to the unpleasant awareness that this is the result of their power, rather than a connection they’ve earned.

Caiden has a degree of gravitas too, and is guilt-ridden about it. His efforts to avoid using his powers, and to punish himself for having them, actually cause more problems than they solve. They’re feelings he has to work through in order to achieve his aims and save the people he loves, even as he struggles with the ethics of who he is and what he’s doing.

I’ve talked before about manipulation as a theme in autistic fiction, and the existence of gravitas allows Hansen to deal with that theme in imaginative, fantastical, nuanced ways. Leta, being autistic, is more vulnerable to gravitas than most. But treating her as a helpless, deluded victim doesn’t get Caiden anywhere. Leta isn’t a simple naif, pulled this way and that unquestioningly – her training doesn’t allow her to be. We can see from her POV that she’s constantly thinking and calculating, trying to be sure whether or not the course she’s currently following is the right one. The narrative affords her a great deal of dignity and agency, even when we know – from context, from subtext, and from the narration in Caiden’s POV – that she’s been manipulated all her life. In the end the way Caiden repairs his relationship with her is by learning to respect her choices, giving her space to figure things out for herself – and listening to her insights.

Hansen brings this kind of nuance not only to the topic of manipulation but to the novel’s other themes. Much of the conflict between Abriss and Threi revolves around whether to keep the multiverse in its current state or whether to merge it into a single universe. This concept, which could be hopelessly abstract and MacGuffiny in a lesser writer’s hands (hi, Marvel; we are not going to talk about Marvel), is brought to life by the shades of personal meaning it has for the characters. We can see why the concept of merging universes might be so desperately important to Abriss, as well as why it might be ruinous for many others. And we can watch all sorts of other nuances come into play – such as the poignant scene where Leta and the other Graves discover that their vulnerabilities, including Leta’s sensory overload, affect them differently in different universes, and that Abriss has hidden this from them. Overall it shapes up into a conflict that might not have an easy binary answer – but the characters eventually find a satisfying course of action that suits their values and protects what they love.

This hovered very close to the “Highly Recommended” line for me – if it wasn’t the second book in a trilogy, if the themes of autism and manipulation and difference that it explores so deftly had come to a stronger conclusion, it might easily have vaulted into that category. Regardless, it’s a wonderful second book in a trilogy. It’s absolutely full of the vivid sensory invention, strong friendships, psychological and philosophical depth that Hansen did so well in the first book. I can’t wait to see what happens to Caiden, Leta, Threi, and Abriss next – but fortunately Book 3, ETHERA GRAVE, is coming in 2023.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.