Rebels Without a Cause

(TW: COVID-19, anti-vaxxers, fascism)

These past few months, in my hometown, students have returned to university in-person for the first time since the pandemic started. They’ve been partying in the usual ways that students party, including massive gatherings that break local social distancing laws, and they seem angry at the police and school officials who are trying to get them to cut it out. (Meanwhile, the rest of the city is angry back at them, which doesn’t actually help.)

It makes me think of other people I’ve known who were angry at the requirement to mask, distance, lock down or get vaccinated. People who told me, in so many words, that they’d rather let people die than be told what to do.

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Fawning

Ever since I read this article about fawn responses and people-pleasing, I’ve been thinking about how these responses tie in to the toxicity we see on Book Twitter. If you are prone to fawning – habitually suppressing your own opinions, boundaries, and feelings in order to please other people – then Twitter can be a dangerous place.

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Posey’s Psychically Resonant Super-Plants

I like to say I’ve always been writing, and in a way that’s true, but in a way it’s not quite. There was a specific moment when I decided I was going to write for publication, and it was different from the writing that had come before.

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How Science Feels

Every once in a while someone mistakes THE OUTSIDE for hard science fiction. This isn’t malicious and it isn’t even detrimental to me; it just means the book gets listed on a hard SF bookshelf on Goodreads or someone asks me how I researched a part of the book that I did no research for whatsoever. But it makes me think about what gives a book the feel of hard SF, even when the actual science in it is nonsense.

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Dark Art as an Access Need

When I was a much-younger, more-naive little Ada, I used to worry that I would hurt people by being queer. Not because being queer is inherently, directly harmful – I’d gotten past that already – but because someone might be upset or in distress or lose their relationship with me if they knew I was queer, and isn’t that in some sense me hurting them? Did I have the right to upset other people and make them distressed about their own morality, just so I could gratify my own desires? That didn’t seem right.

I think about this a lot when I think about dark content in queer stories.

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Writing The Seven

When work on THE FALLEN began, I had several problems, but one of them was that I needed to introduce seven new characters all at once. I’d mentioned in THE OUTSIDE that there were seven other former students of Dr. Talirr’s, besides Yasira, who’d tangled with the angels in certain ways. And I did not want to forget those seven, especially given that they all played a minor, indirect, anonymous role in THE OUTSIDE’s big finish. It didn’t seem right to use them that way and then forget about them. I needed the Seven to play a role and come into their own.

But also, that meant seven new characters arrgh why do I do this to myself. Not just seven new characters total in the novel – that can happen naturally, as I find a need to invent people to play particular roles – but seven new characters who were all in basically the same role, a team of friends with similar backgrounds helping the protagonists.

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Autistic Book Party, Episode 65: Nophek Gloss

Today’s Book: “Nophek Gloss” by Essa Hansen

The Plot: A boy named Caiden escapes from murderous slavers and sets out on a quest for justice through a multiverse bigger and more complex than he ever imagined.

Autistic Character(s): Leta, Caiden’s childhood friend. Also the author!

So here we are – this is an important review and one that took me way too long to write. I promised the publisher a review in, what, mid-2020? And now here we are in August 2021. I suppose I could blame my pandemic brain, which is making it almost impossible to read ebooks. I’m doing better with physical books, and with things like online short stories. But from now on I think I will only be accepting physical ARCs, not electronic ones, because taking this long is really embarrassing and unprofessional!

But none of that matters, because none of that is about the book itself, which is a really important and groundbreaking book, both for its content and for a couple of industry-inside-baseball reasons. I think this is the first debut novel I’ve seen, in adult SFF, to come out from the Big 5 from an openly autistic author? And it’s one of a vanishingly few adult SFF books by openly autistic authors to appear from the Big 5 presses at all. (I know of only two previous such authors off the top of my head, Caiseal Mór and Alex White, and I’m not infallible but I’m more informed about this than most! Sunyi Dean will join their number with “The Book Eaters” in 2022.)

“Nophek Gloss” is a long book and it’s dense, in that rich, chewy, detailed way shared by a lot of the cleverest science fiction. Caiden is catapulted into a complicated world that he doesn’t understand, full of countless species of aliens, powerful factions with obscure motives, and breathtaking technologies that he never heard of during his early life as an enslaved mechanic on an insular world. There is a vividly visual and beautiful element to Hansen’s descriptions, from bubble universes with their iridescent rinds, to moon-sized space stations carved out of a mysterious black substance, to a glass-like, translucent spaceship that can constantly shift its own structure. At the same time I found myself wanting a glossary so I could keep track of the different alien species and other unfamiliar words that were introduced. (There may be a glossary in other versions of the book; there wasn’t one in my e-ARC).

The autistic character, Leta, is mostly confined to the first few chapters. She and Caiden are separated early on, and she becomes a symbol for Caiden of what he’s left behind as a result of his trauma, what he feels he could have done differently, what he feels he should have saved. It can be hard for a character to bear the weight of that narrative role, especially since Leta, who is younger and has an abusive family life, is placed in the role of a victim even before Caiden loses track of her. But Hansen’s descriptions of her are compassionate and intelligent:

“It’s what the older kids say. The ones who don’t pass Appraisal’re sent away, like the bovine yearlings.”
“Don’t be silly, they would have called just the children then, not everyone. And you haven’t been appraised yet, anyway.”
But she was ten, it was soon. The empathy, sensitivity, and logic that could qualify her as a sublime clinician also crippled her everyday life as the callous people around her set her up to fail. Caiden hugged her, careful of the bruises peeking over her shoulder and forearm, the sight of them igniting a well-worn urge to protect and shelter and mend.

 

Leta experiences shutdown and sensory overload without losing Caiden’s understanding or good opinion, and her remembered insights often steer Caiden correctly when his own instincts tempt him to close down or to be too harsh with himself and the world.

Caiden isn’t autistic, but his overwhelmed reactions to the wider universe, especially early in the book when he’s very new to it all, resonate with me as an autistic reader:

The size struck him first. The interior was as vast and multi-leveled as the outside. He blinked at colors and lights, surfaces flickering with imagery like windows to other worlds. Tiny ships and darts whizzed in the open air while beings of all sort milled and streamed and… pulsed. Caiden couldn’t tell what was beast and what was human or whether there was any clear distinction. Individuals and groups clashed. Language blurred the air; everything from guttural rumbles to bird-like trills. The space was stuffed from ceiling to floor with sensory oppression…

Eyes closed, the sensory overload was all he could focus on as the two women moved him to another room. In the back of his mind he thought of Leta’s synesthetic hypersensitivity, how sound sometimes cut her, a graze might bludgeon, and textures sat cruelly on her tongue. Like this… How had she possibly endured?

Trauma and grief are major themes in this book; not only did Caiden grow up enslaved, but the way he escapes that life into the wider universe (I’m going to try to say this without spoilers) is intensely traumatic. A lot of his character arc involves grappling with that trauma and with how to respond to it. Caiden wants justice and for the people who caused the trauma to be prevented from harming anyone again. Is that goal worth harming and further traumatizing himself? Is it worth pushing himself in ways that will make his recovery more difficult? Is it worth pushing people away? Is it worth collaborating with people who are causing other kinds of harm, in ways he only partly understands? This is not a book that gives easy answers to such questions but one that shows Caiden and the people around him grappling with them in emotionally realistic ways, even if the actions available to him (such as a technology that can record his memories and show the world what happened, but at the cost of making his flashbacks and trauma nightmares worse) are science-fictionally fanciful.

Another major theme is manipulation, which is a theme I always love seeing from autistic authors. There are beings in the world of “Nophek Gloss” who can read memories and take on their physical shape, as well as beings who can naturally make the beings around them want to do as they say. We see character using these powers to empathize and help other people, as well as characters using these powers ruthlessly to hurt and control. Caiden himself has to grapple with the question of whether any of his attachments to other beings – including his inevitable ragtag found-family-on-a-spaceship – are “real,” or if he’s unknowingly influenced them to happen.

These kinds of themes – as well as slavery, violence, and extremely high stakes – pull together in ways that verge on the grimdark. There are some intensely unpleasant scenes throughout this book! But it’s the kind of darkness that inevitably resolves into hope. No matter how Caiden struggles and compromises himself, he’s a character who is loved and loves others more than he’ll let himself admit, and that found-family loyalty is what gets him through (and defeats at least one major villain) in the end.

There’s an intriguing teaser at the very end which I won’t spoil, but the early promo for the sequel, “Azura Ghost,” makes it clear that there will be an autistic POV character. This might make “Azura Ghost,” coming out in early 2022, into yet another glass-ceiling-breaker – it could be the first #ownvoices autistic novel, in adult SFF, to be published by the Big 5.

Meanwhile, “Nophek Gloss” is a mind-expanding sci-fi doorstopper in the best tradition of mind-expanding sci-fi doorstoppers, vivid and imaginative and psychologically complex, and is well worth a read.

I will try very hard to take less than a year to review the second one!

The Verdict: Recommended-2

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

Animism

I’ve been struggling for a while now to find a way to talk about autism and animism – the belief that natural objects, and other things that aren’t people or animals, have minds of some sort.

It’s intriguing to me that even as we are criticized for not understanding the intentions and desires of neurotypical people, a lot of us are also thinking very hard about the desires of our stuffed animals or dishes or favorite shirts, or of the plants and earth and other natural objects around us.

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Autistic Book Party, Episode 64 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Robin M. Eames, “is this a gender?” (Subbed In, June 30, 2019)

[Autistic author] “Delightful” is not the right word for this poem, but I really love what it does with its own medium and format – playfully bringing in memes as part of the poem, while simultaneously deconstructing the role of memes and other seemingly facetious statements in online trans culture, using them to expose a much more serious truth underneath. [Recommended-2]

*

Noe Bartmess, “Squeezing and Entering” (Translunar Travelers Lounge, February 15, 2020)

[Autistic author] This is a super-fun, cheerful little story about a sentient octopus doing a yarn heist. I particularly love the way the octopus’s consciousness is portrayed – biologically only some of an octopus’s brain tissue resides in its head, while the rest is distributed throughout the arms, and the result (as Bartmess writes it) is a mind which is coordinated, but made of several parts which might at times disagree. [Recommended-2]

*

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Behold the Deep Never Seen” (Avatars Inc, March 2020)

[Autistic author] In this story, MIDOS, a deep-sea exploration mech, discovers something that motivates it to turn against the rapacious mining company that created it. The plot is familiar, but MIDOS’s narration is adorable, and its mindset around ethics – clearly caring very much about what it sees, but processing this in terms of discrepancies and roles, is very autistically relatable to me. [Recommended-2]

*

Sunyi Dean, “This Song is Dedicated to the End of the World” (Prole Poetry and Prose, Issue 30; I read it on Sunyi’s web site)

[Autistic author] A sad, sweet, bracing story about a rock star trying to get her band back together at the end of the world – spurred on by something that may be an angel, or may be more of a hallucination under drugs and duress. I started caring about these characters quickly, with their hardscrabble beginnings, their determination to make the most of the time that remains to them knowing the world doesn’t have long, and the painful human mistakes they’ve made along the way while trying to do just that. There’s a line near the end that moved me very deeply. [Recommended-2]

*

Jennifer Lee Rossman, “The Steel Magnolia Metaphor” (Escape Pod 786, May 27, 2021)

[Autistic author] A moving story about a young autistic girl, Astrid, coming to terms with her mother’s cancer and the experience of grief. Astrid has difficulty with metaphors, with acknowledging that things might not all work out in the end – and with overbearing, well-meaning relatives who try to hug her despite her touch aversion. Knowing her mother’s favorite movie is “Steel Magnolias,” but not really grasping the plot of the movie or the metaphor at the heart of the title, Astrid instead builds an actual robot magnolia tree that can zap insects. But of course neither metaphor nor human feelings can really be escaped forever, and even the actual robot magnolia ends up turning out to be a metaphor – maybe a metaphor that will work better for Astrid than the original one. I love the space and respect that the story gives to Astrid as she slowly learns a hard but valuable lesson in her own way. [Recommended-1]

*

R.B. Lemberg, “The House of Ill Waters” (The Deadlands, Issue 2, June 2021)

[Autistic author] A heavy, ominous poem in which the poet confronts a spirit responsible for storms and disasters, only to find that it’s almost entirely done with humanity’s entreaties, broken promises, and crimes. This poem is set in a secondary world, but it’s extremely easy to read the parallels with real-world climate change and spirituality. It’s chillingly well done (pun not intended) and will be staying with me for a while. [Recommended-2]

Goodness Is Something That Blazes

I prefer villains – I really do. When I write good people, it’s so easy to get frozen up before I write anything. It’s easy to feel the pressure that a good character can’t make a mistake – any little thing they say or do could make readers stop liking them.

I think this is more common for autistic people than we admit. So many of us are natural rule-followers. So many of us learn from an early age, either through therapy or through social pressure and our own attempts at figuring out how the world works, that life is full of rules that don’t instinctively make sense to us, and we have to follow them, because people who don’t follow them are horrible. Also the rules are always changing. Also neurotypical people won’t always tell you what they are…

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