Spoon Knife 3: Incursions, an anthology of neurodivergent authors writing about the ambiguous edges of reality, is out now from Autonomous Press, and contains a reprint of my popular autistic spiritualist lesbian dinosaur robot novelette, “The Scrape of Tooth on Bone,” which first appeared in GigaNotoSaurus. Enjoy!
Today’s Book: “Changeling” by Delia Sherman
The Plot: Neef, a mortal changeling (i.e. a mortal who was swapped with a fairy and brought to the fairy realms as a child) accidentally breaks a geas. To be allowed to return to her home in a fairy version of Central Park, she must undergo a dangerous quest.
Autistic Character(s): Neef’s fairy changeling counterpart (i.e. the fairy who was swapped with Neef and brought up by mortals). Both Neef and Changeling share a legal, human name, but since true names are dangerous in the fairy world, Neef’s counterpart is referred to mostly as “Changeling”.
Changeling folklore is my problematic fave. The idea of fairies switching their babies with human babies – resulting in human parents having to take care of a disabled, or otherwise defective, fairy child – goes back deep in Western culture. There’s something compelling to many disabled people about the idea that we are not broken or defective humans, however we might appear – we are simply magical creatures who don’t fit into a human’s world. But of course, there’s also something compelling to many ableist parents about the idea that they were owed a normal child, and someone stole it – and that their real, disabled child isn’t quite theirs.
While we no longer believe in fairies, it’s not difficult to see echoes of the changeling myth in modern parents who complain of regressive autism “stealing” their child, or who speak with victory about “getting their child back” when various issues improve. Nor is it difficult to trace a lineage from the parents of changeling folklore, who often threatened the disabled child with harm in hopes of scaring it away and getting the original one back, to various dangerous quack treatments for autism today.
Some disabled people, including myself at times, find something empowering in the idea of being magical creatures. Others find it literally dehumanizing, and will fight tooth and nail to be recognized as always and only and entirely human. (Elsa Sjunneson-Henry’s essay on “The Shape of Water” gives an example of this latter perspective.)
Anyway, Delia Sherman’s “Changeling” is a middle-grade fantasy adventure that doesn’t get even a little bit into any of this complexity, which might explain some of my issues with it.
Or maybe that’s not fair. I don’t expect middle-grade books to be super intellectually complex, or to grapple with all the emotional issues that concern me as an adult. I may be barking up the wrong reviewing tree.
Changeling’s role in the story is a very familiar one for autistic sidekicks. Neef discovers her early in the quest, in a dangerous situation, and impulsively promises to keep her safe even though Changeling annoys her. From that point on, Changeling tags along on the rest of the quest: mostly a burden, mostly annoying to Neef, occasionally very useful, always overtly displaying one stereotypical autistic trait or another, and mostly too busy melting down (or shutting down, or engaging in desparate stimming as she tries to cope with all these new experiences) to give her perspective on anything in particular.
Neef is a cutely bratty tween, and she has no training in how to deal with autistic people, so I don’t exactly expect her to be good at dealing with Changeling, but her consistently annoyed cluelessness didn’t exactly make me enjoy the book.
Changeling stumped up behind me, her face stony. “You took me by surprise,” she said. “I do not like surprises.”
I was in no mood to deal with fairy nerves. “Well, you’re just going to have to get used to them.”
“We’re on a quest, that’s why. There’s going to be surprises, and things jumping out of bushes, and all kinds of things you don’t like. If you melt down every time that happens, we’re dead. And I mean that literally.”
Her mouth set in a grim line. “I am afraid. I want to go home.”
“Me, too. Remember what I told you back at the Museum? We have to finish the quest first.”
Changeling hummed. I tapped my foot. “Very well,” she said at last. “I will do my best to expect the unexpected, and I will try not to have a meltdown. It is only fair to warn you that I am not always in control of them.”
She sounded so like the Pooka promising to try and behave that my irritation vanished. “And I’ll do my best to explain things when I can.”
We do get one interesting bit of world-building about changelings early on. Not only is Changeling an autistic child, as the folklore would suggest, but Neef recognizes many of her autistic traits as fairy traits. She counts items to soothe herself, because many fairies also have a counting compulsion; she cannot stand to be touched, because neither can many fairies; her meltdowns are “fairy fits,” and at least one actual fairy has one of those during the story as well.
Neef does make accommodations for a few of these traits, such as holding on to Changeling by her clothes, when hanging on to each other is necessary, instead of holding her hand. But if Changeling’s traits are fairy traits, and Neef has spent her entire life learning how to get along among fairies, then something doesn’t quite add up. Her knowledge of mythological fairies is extensive and she has been deliberately taught and tested on it often – but her knowledge of how to deal with Changeling is really quite small.
I find myself wishing that the book was told from both perspectives and not just Neef’s, because I really want to know what Changeling thinks of many of the developments in the book. She has just discovered that fairies are real and that she, technically, is one. How does she feel about that? Does she want to learn more about fairies in order to better understand herself, or to cling to her adoptive family? How does she feel about Neef, who is essentially a non-autistic version of herself, and who doesn’t seem to like her much? In the latter half of the story, she spends a lot of time looking into a magic handheld mirror that gives her information; what is she watching and learning in there, apart from the quest-relevant things that Neef asks for? Changeling doesn’t say anything about any of these things, and Neef is profoundly uncurious about them.
Changeling also, as I mentioned, does very useful and clever things for Neef a few times, in between shutting/melting down. It’s very unclear whether, and in what way, this changes Neef’s opinion about her; Neef is self-centered like many tweens, and is more concerned with charging ahead to the next part of the quest.
At the end of the book, there are signs that Neef and Changeling have begun to like each other a bit more. Changeling asks Neef to come visit her in the future, and Neef seems moved by the request. But like many friendships and romances in adventure stories, this felt a bit tacked on. I had very little sense of when in the book this sense of friendship had emerged or why.
Overall, I really did enjoy this book more than I’m letting on. Sherman’s fairy New York is a lively and charming place that I enjoyed exploring with Neef. But from a representation standpoint, “Changeling” was a lot like reading a middle-grade version of “Silence” or “Hawk.” Another story where an NT protagonist drags around an autistic character, who is sometimes plot-useful but mostly an annoying burden. I am tired of reading this story. Given the rich emotional significance of changeling folklore is to many autistic people, Changeling’s arc feels like a missed opportunity.
The Verdict: Not Recommended
Disclosure: I have never interacted with Delia Sherman.
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SFF writers writing about their autism!
- I just discovered that autistic SF author Raphael Ordoñez wrote two articles about autism for The Mighty, and I was so excited that I decided to include them in this month’s News even though they are from 2016!
- On being diagnosed in his late 20s
- On how writing supports his mental health
- Richard Ford Burley also has a cool 101 page about autism on his website.
More writing and reviews:
- Rose Lemberg has a new Writing While Autistic post up: this one about accessible writing environments
- Kelly Israel reviews “Hoshi and the Red City Circuit”
- Maxfield Sparrow reviews “Off the Rails: A Documentary About Darius McCollum”
- Brett Kavanagh, a candidate for the US Supreme Court, believes that it’s ok to perform elective surgeries on disabled people without their consent – and wants a greater number of disabled people to be considered incapable of declining or withdrawing consent.
- s.e. smith goes into more detail about Kavanagh’s ruling on this topic and its potential implications for disabled people and others.
Politics and policy from other places:
- In the UK, a judge ruled that it is discriminatory to exclude autistic students from school as a punishment for aggressive behavior.
- According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, ableism is a widespread problem in Ontario’s schools and universities. (Sadly, I don’t think the current provincial government is likely to care.)
A pair of Sad Things links about prisons:
- Gary A. Harki on the crisis of mental health treatment in American jails
- Samantha Michaels on the plight of children and teenagers who are declared incompetent to stand trial
In between the book announcement (aaaaaa!) and the alarming number of short story / poetry publications within a month or two of each other, here are a few other things that have happened recently.
- My Robot Dinosaurs! story, “Research Lab Electricity Usage Timesheet Reporting,” now has an illustration by Kit Leighton! Check out that pair of adorably fearsome little robot raptors.
- I was interviewed on the podcast Females in Fantasy. Notably, this interview was recorded before the book announcement for THE OUTSIDE went live, so mention of that book does not appear in the podcast, but I do talk about autistic characters quite a lot.
- My steampunk dinosaur ghost novelette, “The Scrape of Tooth and Bone” will be reprinted in the upcoming anthology Spoon Knife 3: Incursions. Of all the stories I’ve ever published, I would say “The Scrape of Tooth and Bone” has been the one with the most longevity. It made only a very mild splash on its first publication, but every few months when I least expect it, I still see someone unexpectedly mentioning or recommending the story on Twitter – often in the context of recommending their favorite lesbian SF. (I hasten to add, in case any of those people are reading, that the protagonist of THE OUTSIDE and her girlfriend are also lesbians!) I’m pleased to see that its dino-life will continue to extend itself in this form.
(First published Feb 18, 2014)
Today’s Book: “Dragon” by Steven Brust.
The Plot: Vlad Taltos, an assassin / witch / general-purpose organized criminal, gets drawn unwillingly into a war between Dragonlords following the theft of a mysterious weapon.
(FYI, this is the eighth book in a series that will eventually have 17.)
Autistic Character(s): Daymar, a Hawklord and powerful psychic.
Daymar isn’t described as having any particular condition, but I am not the only reader to interpret him as being on the spectrum. He is responsible, efficient, and very good at his job, but is at the same time confused by many social expectations and reactions that the other characters take for granted.
While this in itself is a familiar autistic archetype, the details of how Brust writes Daymar go pleasantly against stereotype. Instead of showing his confusion through rude and arrogant behaviour, as many fictional Aspies do, Daymar’s response when he doesn’t understand something is to ask polite questions. I find this rather adorable. Vlad finds it annoying; but Vlad is something of an ornery antihero anyway and I do not think that his opinions reflect those of the author.
Unfortunately, as Rose Lemberg warned me, Daymar doesn’t get much screen time. I happen to quite enjoy Vlad and the Dragaera series in general, though I have been reading the books piecemeal and shamefully out of order. But if you aren’t already a fan, it’s probably not worth reading the whole book just for Daymar; plus, there are aspects of the story which won’t make as much sense to readers who are unused to this storyworld.
Daymar may or may not have more to do in “Hawk”, another installment of the series, which may or may not come out this year.
The Verdict: Marginal
For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.
(First published Feb 2, 2014. Note that my policy on non-specifically non-neurotypical authors has changed slightly since this review was written.)
Today’s Book: “Rainbow Lights” by Polenth Blake, a short story collection.
Let me say this up front: Blake doesn’t identify as an autistic author. Blake identifies as non-neurotypical, but says (in eir online profile) that e doesn’t “have any neat label for that”.
Not everybody who is non-neurotypical is autistic. And not everybody who is non-neurotypical is within the scope of this review series. Frankly, there are LOTS of neurotypes that we don’t consider “normal”, and I don’t know a whole lot about all of them. So taking Blake’s “I am not neurotypical but don’t know exactly what to call it” and assuming that this makes em an autistic author, would be offensive, condescending, appropriative, and probably incorrect.
I don’t want to do that.
But I do want to talk about “Rainbow Lights”, because it’s awesome, and I think it is a book worth approaching from a neurodiverse perspective.
So let’s just get that out of the way. This is not an “autistic book”. It is not a “neurotypical book”, either. It is a book. I am reviewing it. YAY.
The stories in “Rainbow Lights” are organized by color associations, and the opening story, “The Squid Who Lived Forever”, sets the tone. The protagonist in this story is an undersea robot, whose displays of personality, identity, and autonomy are treated as “behavioural malfunctions”. The way the protagonist is treated will be familiar and painful to anyone who has gone through behavioural therapy themselves. Fortunately, the robot gets away, and then there are squid.
Themes like these – of disability, marginalization, outsidership – are an undercurrent running through the whole collection. They are never the point of the story, nor are they ever entirely absent. They recur on almost every level I can think of, not only levels of ability (which is not surprising, given the multiple marginalizations of the author).
Standout stories from a disability perspective include “Grandmother’s Dreaming” – in which the protagonist and her grandmother are almost certainly autistic, and save their village from a freaking awesome magical ocean in which physical tendrils of dreams come out of a vent – and “The Monsters in the Gaps”, in which a dyslexic narrator learns to trust his own perception.
(I should talk about “Grandmother’s Dreaming” a little more, since this IS Autistic Book Party. The protagonist has an atypical, subdued reaction to her grandmother’s death, and gets flak from it from NT villagers, who think she is uncaring. She is simply unemotional about death, as her grandmother was before her. Many autistic people, though by no means all, have this kind of trouble with social grieving rituals. Instead of mourning with the NT villagers, the protagonist sets out to accomplish something in her grandmother’s memory – and ends up discovering and fixing a very important problem which is tied to her grandmother’s past. Concurrently, the better-known parts of her grandmother’s past are explained in flashback, and we learn that the grandmother’s atypical processing actually equipped her to take on a dangerous task when all the NT villagers failed, amid vaguely Lovecraftian sinister sea beings, and save her people many years ago. This isn’t actually spelled out in so many words, because it’s not a Message Story, but it becomes obvious as things progress, and it’s wonderful.)
It is important to note, in light of recent fandom conversations, that absolutely fucking none of this is “message fiction”. The characters are not subject to a gaze that makes their differences the focal point of the story, even though their differences have realistic consequences for them and can affect the plot. They are not avatars of a particular difference; they just are, and the stories are richer for it.
This is really important, and really hard. When privileged writers – even accomplished ones – are consciously trying to “write the other”, it shows. There are effusive demonstrations and descriptions of Just How Much Research The Author Has Done and of Just How Authentic This Is (even when it’s not) – or else the “otherness” of the story becomes so minor that it nearly disappears. Blake’s writing has none of that. Instead it has a kind of nonchalance.
I know enough about art to know that, for authors who “make it look easy”, it’s probably anything but. But one gets the distinct sense that none of this is “other” to Blake; rather, it comes easily precisely because it’s where Blake has lived all along.
When we don’t read multiply marginalized authors, we miss all this good stuff.
Blake is also excellent at writing nonhuman protagonists, including scorpionlike aliens, clockwork automata, and post-apocalyptic beetles, with the same kind of understated ease.
A few stories in the Orange and Red sections do begin to feel self-conscious – including “Incident in Aisle Five,” in which people are somehow living in an enormous department store that takes days to cross. Yet even in this kind of story, when one scratches the surface, one finds a seething unease rooted in real experience:
The world kept us walking in straight lines down the aisles, managed our open hours, said what were in and out this season. We didn’t get more choice as we grew. We just learnt to be silent, because asking all those questions never got answers.
The only real clunker in the book is the poem “To Laugh at Acorns”, which caught me off guard, because it reads like something straight out of an Autism Speaks commercial. I have no idea how an author who’s otherwise as clueful as Blake fell down so hard on that one. It doesn’t actually mention the word “autism”, so maybe Blake was simply thinking of something else when e wrote it. I have no idea. Mercifully, that one is short.
So in summary, there are uneven bits, as in any collection, but my overall impression was positive. If you like diversity and awesome sea creatures / aliens / robots, and stories that are unusual without feeling strained, and you want more non-neurotypical authors in your collection – or mix-and-match any subset of these – this book is for you.
The Verdict: Recommended
For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.
(First published Jan 27, 2014.)
W.H. Pugmire & M.K. Snyder, “The House of Idiot Children” (Weird Tales, Jan-Feb 2008)
An Orthodox Jewish man doing Facilitated Communication with autistic children discovers that the children are capable of seeing extra, magical letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This one is wince-inducing, not because of the magical powers per se, but because the magical powers are used to exoticize the children without humanizing them one bit. They are, as the story’s final paragraphs say, “more angelic than human,” and never once does their apparent enlightenment give them anything to say about their preferences, their desires, the way they are treated, etc. This is actually a very common kind of fail, and one of the kinds that can be mistaken for an inspiring story by well-meaning NTs. (As if the title wasn’t already warning enough.) But fail is what it is. [Not Recommended]
Ryan Leeds, “Updates Available” (Expanded Horizons, March 2011)
[Autistic author.] An autistic narrator writes to their only friend, a robot, just before being forced into “cure” surgery. Very short, but good. [Recommended-1]
Erika Hammerschmidt, “Furnace” (This Is How You Die, July 2013)
[Autistic author.] Far-future archaeologists discover a Machine of Death long after the end of our present civilization and proceed to comically misunderstand its purpose. Autism as such isn’t mentioned, but the archaeologists seem to have some autistic traits; in particular, there’s an adorable scene of the two main characters melting down together after something goes wrong. [Recommended]
Conor Powers-Smith, “The Day” (Lakeside Circus, January 2014)
I’m not sure if the protagonist in this flash fic is supposed to be autistic, but his sensory defensiveness in the opening paragraphs is instantly recognizeable to me. (Seriously. I use my iPod that way all the time, though not actually at max volume, and usually with bands I enjoy.) Unfortunately, we never get much sense of his emotions or thoughts apart from his immediate sensory experience. I don’t think this intentionally comes from a place of ableism; I think it’s just sloppy writing. [Not Recommended]
Malisha Dewalt, “Misery Is Not a Virtue” (Stone Telling #10, January 2014)
[Autistic author.] Okay actually it’s a visual/prose poem, but it deserves to be on this list anyway because it’s very much about autism and people’s social expectations. Apart from the general theme I must admit I found it hard to understand. But readers who enjoy stream-of-consciousness work more than I do should definitely check it out. [YMMV]
Kerrie Seljak-Byrne (writing as Kerrie McCreadie), “The Knight’s Inn” (The Spectatorial, Issue 5, June 2016)
[Autistic author] A poem about search engines, sexual assault, triggers, and memory. Like the poems in Augur Magazine (which Kerrie edits), this is at heart a realistic psychological poem but with myth and monstrousness constantly flickering in its peripheral vision. If you can handle the subject matter, it’s well-done. [Recommended-2]
Raphael Ordoñez, “Salt and Sorcery” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, August 2016)
[Autistic author] A mysterious, not-quite-human girl is marooned when her airship crashes in an unmapped salt flat. This adventure story has a bit of an anime feel to me. The visual descriptions are beautiful and unsettling by turns, and the plot is full of both charming and frightening surprises. .[Recommended-2]
A.J. Odasso, “The Devil In Boston” (Barking Sycamores, June 2017)
[Autistic author] Elegant and menacing like a lot of the best poems about devils, Odasso imagines the devil adapting themself to East coast hipster culture. [Recommended-2]
A. Merc Rustad, “For Now, Sideways” (Diabolical Plots, August 2017)
[Autistic author] A gritty, bittersweet story about mech-suit soldiers in the aftermath of war. I like the way the characters carefully, hesitantly support each other; like some of Merc’s other stories, the importance of that kind of support is drawn poignantly and in sharp strokes. [Recommended-2]
Rose Lemberg, “Pollen” (Mithila Review, September 2017)
[Autistic author] A small, gorgeous poem about flowers and spaceships. [Recommended-2]
Yoon Ha Lee, “The Starship and the Temple Cat” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2018)
[Autistic author] The ghost of a cat is called on again to protect her dead space station from an impending attack. Extremely adorable, and terribly sad. [Recommended-2]
Bogi Takács, “Four-Point Affective Calibration” (Lightspeed, February 2018)
[Autistic author] A story about using neurological technology to try to communicate with aliens, packed with semi-autobiographical detail. There’s a lot going on in a very short space here, but in part, this is a meditation on the non-universality of thoughts and emotions, and on an autistic character’s fear that their mind on a very basic level will not meet the standards of their own experiment. The ending is happy, though. [Recommended-1]
(First published Dec 5 2013. Minor edits have been made.)
The story: Luna Lindsey, “Touch of Tides”, Crossed Genres, Issue 8 (August 2013)
Lindsey’s protagonist, Dr. Mara Skyberg, has Asperger syndrome, though this isn’t explicitly explained in the story (Lindsey mentions it in her New Author Spotlight interview). She also experiences synesthesia. Both her synesthesia and her autistic traits prove invaluable when she discovers sentient alien life during her job as a scientist on Europa.
The role of the synesthesia will be obvious to any reader, and is cool to see. The role of the autistic traits is subtler. Mara is impatient with the social compromises and power games which slow her NT co-workers down when a crisis happens, and bravely swims out into Europa’s ocean to solve the problem though the rest of them object. Also, her co-workers frequently make incorrect assumptions about her feelings and needs, thinking she will want the same kind of interaction preferred by NTs (which is a very, very common communication problem that happens in real life). Mara has picked up on this, so she is also quick to figure out when the humans have made incorrect assumptions about the aliens’ needs.
It’s really cool to see a situation where an autistic character’s way of thinking becomes an asset to communication. Instead of assuming that the autistic character will always be bad at it and the NTs will always be good.
Also, I wanted to mention this line:
I also hate when he calls them barns. I can’t help but picture the station full of farm animals.
Which is a throwaway line and not important at all, but it made me happy, because I used to respond to a lot of non-literal statements in this way. Autistic people are famous for taking statements literally, but it’s often more complicated than a simple comprehension problem. I used to strongly picture literal meanings even though I knew perfectly well that the speaker didn’t mean them, and it would bother me, especially if the literal meaning was something hyperbolically emotional or violent.
(As a grown-up, I’ve mellowed out about this, but I still hate the “exaggerated negative emotions as humor” trope. My brain focuses on the negative emotions rather than the absurdity of the exaggeration, and it gets very awkward.)
Anyway, that’s a tangent, but Lindsey is a cool autistic author who’s written a cool autistic story, and you should check it out. I’m certainly adding her other stories to my TBR list.
The Verdict: Recommended-1
A nice light news cycle this month (or maybe I was just paying less attention – lots of big stuff happened for me this month, including moving in with a SO for the first time!) So we won’t bother with as much categorization as usual. Still some good autism stuff that came out, though:
- Maxfield Sparrow discusses a study that elucidates how non-speaking autistic children’s communication is ignored by their teachers.
- Maxfield Sparrow on meltdowns as a warning signal (Tw: abuse discussion. I am struggling to figure out how I feel about this article – I am very fixated on the idea that my meltdowns could cause harm to other people, which is an issue that it doesn’t address – but I found it very powerful and thought provoking and I definitely recommend a read.)
And some good pan-disability stuff:
- Captain Awkward explains why we don’t diagnose real people with mental disorders based on a secondhand account of their behavior – and where the temptation to do so comes from. (This is not at all specific to autism; I include it because it’s the best and most thorough explanation I’ve seen of a disability issue that I often struggle to articulate. For bonus points, the part that mentions autism describes EXACTLY the reaction that I have in that situation, lol.)
- J.R. Jackson on special minority-focused issues of magazines
- Henry Claypool on accessibility and self-driving cars