The Problems #ownvoices Doesn’t Solve

I’m still chewing over the talk Book Twitter had this month about #ownvoices. A major review website, “We Need Diverse Books,” decided to stop using the #ownvoices label to describe works of fiction about marginalized characters by authors who share that marginalization, because the label has gotten to the point where it’s doing more harm than good.

I don’t disagree with WNDB’s decision. I like #ownvoices fiction, but if you’ve followed me for a while, you know I’ve never believed in only #ownvoices – and I’ve never cared as much about labels as I do about the narratives and beliefs that underlie them.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Writing an Autistic Society

(This post is an expanded version of this Twitter thread from 2018.)

Autistic people often joke that we’re from another planet. When we find other autistic people who understand us, it can feel like coming home. And speculative fiction gives us room to ask: what could a home like that look like? What would a place look like if it was designed specifically, by autistic people, with autistic people’s needs in mind? What would it be like to live there?

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 64: A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe

Cover of the book "A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe" by Alex White. The title and author are written over top of a n image of clouds and a dark sky.

Today’s review is a guest post by Richard Ford Burley!

Richard Ford Burley (he/they) is a queer neurodivergent writer and recovering academic. They’re the author of two novels and a handful of stories, most of which incorporate queerness and/or neurodivergence in one way or another. They blog (infrequently) at richardfordburley.com and tweet (incessantly) at @schadenford.

Today’s Book: “A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe” by Alex White.

The Plot: A magical F1 driver and a magic-less washed-up soldier-turned-grifter join a rag-tag group of salvagers in a search for the titular “big ship,” while some very dangerous people pretty much constantly try to murder them all.

Autistic Character(s): The author, plus while none of the characters are explicitly autistic, many of them seem to exhibit familiar neurodivergent traits.

The book begins in two places. First, we have Nilah Brio, a brilliant (wealthy, privileged) magical race-car driver who’s carving up the track and on her way to secure the galactic championship when someone with very powerful magic kills one of her competitors—leaving her as a witness and therefore in need of elimination. Second, we have Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth, washed-up former treasure-hunting reality tv star, former-former washed up soldier from a now-dead planet, being chased by some folks who she sold a fake treasure map to (and one of whom who happens to be her old war-time captain, one Cordell Lamarr). Nilah meets Boots, both end up kidnapped (and later crew) on Cordell’s ship, and they’re all forced into a shared mission by the fact that the people who wanted Nilah dead now want all of them dead. At that point, it’s a race to try to find out the truth behind the people trying to murder them all before their pursuers succeed.

Before I get into it, let’s get this out of the way: this book is a magical space opera. It is a lot of things—a lot of things I like, I hasten to add—but “subtle,” “pensive,” and “meditative” are not words that are going to show up in this review. But then, if you’re looking for a quiet meditation on magic as a disability analogue, maybe a book called “A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe” isn’t the first place you’re going to look for that. It is, as the saying goes, exactly what it says on the tin.

That said, there’s a lot to love about this book. One of my favourite things is its diverse and endearing cast of characters. The author, Alex White, is autistic (which is, truth be told, why I picked the book up in the first place), and while there aren’t any explicitly autistic characters, most, if not all of them had character elements that felt welcoming to an autistic reader. Boots, for example (who I was completely unable to imagine as anyone other than Tig Notaro for some reason), has a condition referred to as “arcana dystocia”: unlike most of the people in the universe, her brain lacks the plumbing necessary to use magic. There are some…let’s say familiar…moments where other characters say they can’t imagine how she functions, and all she can do is respond with tired, dry wit and a shrug, as if to say she always has managed to function, so clearly their imagination isn’t required.

And there are plenty of others: Armin Vandevere, a socially-brusque datamancer, clearly has bouts of almost self-destructive hyperfocus; Orna Sokol has a delightfully-complete vacuum where any sense of guile would normally be found; and even the brilliant and popular Nilah mentally berates herself multiple times for misreading other characters’ emotional cues. There is a sad moment where [a certain character who shall remain nameless for spoiler reasons] is killed to basically put Boots further through the wringer and to up the ante, but when all of your most important characters are either disability analogues or queer, and you need to kill off an important character for narrative reasons, you’re going to end up killing somebody’s favourite.

And that’s another thing White doesn’t shy away from—the sheer number of terrible things that happen to these poor characters leaves the reader with the ongoing feeling that, in this universe, the consequences are very real. Anyone could die at any moment, even a character you love—and you are going to love some of these characters.

Fans of standalone works of fiction may be a little disappointed by what is clearly designed to be the first part of a much larger story, with threads left dangling both small and large. They range from tiny, gnawing questions like “what’s up with the uniforms on the soldiers they found on Alpha?” to broader concerns, like “well that’s an upsetting number of murdery, god-level villains left unaccounted for.” But one reader’s flaw is another’s feature, and fans of multi-book series will undoubtedly want to continue reading in order to find the answers.

Overall: “A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe” is a cinematic, fast-paced, compelling magical space opera with a great cast of characters and a real sense of consequences. If that sounds like your kind of book then it is definitely your kind of book.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

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Notable side-note: Even though it’s in reference to the racing world, it’s still incredibly brave for an author to name the very first chapter “D.N.F.” Reader, as you can tell, I did in fact finish it.

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

Love and Fiction

When I was younger, I used to worry that I didn’t do romantic love correctly, because it only made sense to me when it was half fictional.

I feel like this is common for autistic people, actually – the idea that our special interests and our deepest desires for other people occupy some of the same brain circuits. Finding a new special interest feels a little like falling in love to me, and falling in love feels like finding a new special interest. But fiction isn’t a special interest, in itself – it’s more like an overarching framework through which all my special interests emerge.

(Read the full post on Substack)

New (?) poem: “I grew out of it”

With the absolute whirlwind of drama that April was for me, I neglected to announce a poem that came out in that month – “I grew out of it,” in Not One Of Us #66.

Better late than never! You can still go pick up the issue, which is an adorably old-fashioned paper zine with many good things inside.

“I grew out of it” is dedicated to Jacqueline Flay.

Queer Is All The Parts Of Speech, Actually

Well, it’s Pride Month, and I’m watching queer discourse cross my social spheres the way it always does. There’s one particular discourse that’s really been bringing up a lot of feelings for me this year – the idea of “queer as a noun” vs “queer as a verb.” Is queer a thing you are, a thing you just know about yourself somehow, even in the absence of having taken any queer actions (such as dating someone of the same gender as you, or undergoing a gender transition)? Or is queer a thing you do?*

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s both, actually – and that a lot of the problems with “queer as a verb” stem from our not recognizing how many queer verbs there really are.

(Read the full post on Substack)

US Book Show – In Conversation with Ada Hoffmann

Hi all! Are you going to the Publisher’s Weekly US Book Show? I’ll be doing a virtual meet-and-greet at the Angry Robot Books virtual booth on Tuesday, May 25th at 4 PM EST / 9 PM BST.

The event is thirty minutes long; we’ll be talking about THE FALLEN and what makes it amazing and special! Anyone who visits the booth will also get a downloadable sampler of the book dropped into their virtual briefcase.

If you’re a US bookseller, librarian, blogger, member of the press/media, buyer, or member of the book publishing industry, I would love to see you there!

Your Bigotry Is A Lie

Sometimes I struggle to explain why I’m so interested in autistic representation in the genres I read, because I’m not sure I vibe with everyone else’s reasons. The prevailing story is about how lonely people feel when they don’t see people like themselves in the stories they read, and how validated they feel when they finally do. I can empathize with this – people should definitely be able to feel validated rather than lonely! I’ve even had moments of validation like that, myself, and enjoyed them. But deep down I don’t think that a desire for validation (mine or others’) is what drives me in this work.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that what really drives me is an autistic desire for truth.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Author Interviews!

I decided not to link to each individual autistic author interview on here, but I’m not sure if that was actually the best decision! In any case, the interviews series on Substack is now finished. I had a lovely time talking to eighteen different autistic spec fic authors from eighteen very different backgrounds.

If you missed the interviews and would like to read them, I’ve got two masterposts up, both with links to the individual interviews:

Or you can just browse the Substack archive. Three of these interviews are special content for subscribers only, but the great majority of them are free for anyone to read without a subscription.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 63 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Raphael Ordoñez, “At the Edge of the Sea” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, April 3, 2014)

[Autistic author] This is a quiet tale of a man exiled to a remote island, which gradually incorporates familiar cosmic horror themes, such as ancient monstrous creatures, obsession, and transformation. Although the events of the story have horrific elements, I was impressed with how the narrative tone of the story remained soft and peaceful; it may well be that the fate the characters meet is one that was suited to them and their situation, after all. [Recommended-2]

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Robin M. Eames, “ritual” (Speculative City, Issue 2: Game, Fall 2018)

[Autistic author] This poem playfully juxtaposes OCD rituals, superstitions, and folk magic – implicitly asking the reader to guess where exactly the lines are drawn between these things, or if the lines are blurrier than we often want to suppose. [Recommended-2]

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Jennifer Lee Rossman, “The Good, The Bad, and the Utahraptor” (Cast of Wonders 332: Dinovember – November 30, 2018)

[Autistic author] A Weird West story of a cowgirl named Rosita who tames a wild Utahraptor. This is great wish-fulfilment fun. I especially like how Rosita notices her raptor is different from the others, disabled in some way, and how she bonds with the disabled raptor as a fellow misfit. [Recommended-2]

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Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Bring the Bones That Sing” (Diabolical Plots #65B)

[Autistic author] Muriel, a young autistic girl, discovers that her grandmother is a psychopomp for birds – and accidentally disrupts one bird’s journey. I really like the way Muriel’s sensory needs and overload are depicted in this one, the accommodations she is and isn’t given in her daily life, and the way her grandmother understands her. The underworld she has to enter is a storm of sensory overload, and the music of her grandmother’s magic makes more sense to her than reading, a skill with which she struggles. As with some of Merc’s other stories, I feel this is a good example of how to write an autistic character with magical abilities – neither the autism nor the magic are reducible for, or simple metaphors for, each other, but Muriel’s neurotype actively influences the way she experiences and uses the magic. [Recommended-1]

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McKinley Valentine, “The Code for Everything” (Fantasy Magazine, Issue 65 – March 2021)

[Non-neurotypical author] Izzy, a non-neurotypical young woman, has trouble working out what her friends expect of her. After being humiliated at a party, she is whisked off to fairyland, where the abstruse rules of fairy interaction are sensibly and explicitly written down. I don’t find this story completely satisfying – I think I, personally, would be very overwhelmed by a sudden change of scenery and an imposition of new rules like the one that Izzy experiences. But the fantasy of interacting with beings whose social rules are plainly intelligible has clear appeal, and is a fantasy many autistic readers will enjoy. For me, what rings especially true are the descriptions of how hard Izzy tries to fit in with her friends, and how miserable she feels when she makes a mistake. But don’t be fooled by my dour descriptions – this story does have a happy ending. [Recommended-1]