Unicorns

I have a new poem up in Liminality, Issue #12, called “Unicorns”. Check it out here.

I wrote the first, short draft of “Unicorns” several years ago, in the middle of an attempt at National Poetry Writing Month, most of which was garbage. It felt like something that I wanted to expand, and I spent a long time bashing away at different parts and stanzas, trying to explain the thing I was trying to say, trying to give graphic examples of all its different facets.

In the end, I had to leave the whole mess for a while, and when I came back to it, I realized that the thing I had originally written was already a complete scene which perfectly encapsulated itself. The tiny published version you can see up now is extremely close to the tiny original version.

Just an example, I suppose, of how a shorter poem isn’t always easier to do. 😀

Autistic Book Party, Episode 34: Iwunen Interstellar Investigations (Prologue Season)

Today’s Book: “Iwunen Interstellar Investigations (Prologue Season)”, a web serial by Bogi TakĂĄcs

The Plot: A magic teacher from a planet of autistic people is shocked out of their routine by the arrival of a mysterious, injured stranger – and of some interplanetary intrigue.

Autistic Character(s): Almost everyone, including the protagonist!

Iwunen Interstellar Investigations is set on Eren, the aforementioned planet of autistic people, and so the first thing I want to talk about here is PLANET OF AUTISTIC PEOPLE.

We’ve seen disability-centric societies in previous Book Party episodes. “Kea’s Flight” is set in a society of developmentally disabled teenagers on a spaceship, but the teenagers are supervised by NT caregivers and robots. “This Alien Shore” gives us Guera, a planet where everyone, including the leadership, is disabled or mentally ill. But while there is a major character who comes from Guera, and some interesting scenes of intrigue between Gueran leadership, we saw very little of what Gueran life was like on the ground.

Iwunen Interstellar Investigations starts us off right at the beginning with scenes of relatively normal life on Eren. So right away this is EXCELLENT. Ranai ta-n Iwunen, a magic teacher, is depressed, and is hoping that a new student, Wuda-reyun, will give them something to do – but Wuda-reyun, who is from another planet, is presumptuous and seems ill at ease with Ereni culture.

By the way, Eren is not just a planet of autistic people. It’s a MAGICAL planet of autistic people, in which magic (called “māwal”) is interconnected with high SFnal technology. This is exactly my jam. Unfortunately, once we have gotten to know Ranai and Wuda-reyun, the plot begins to move at such a fantastically fast clip that we only see Ereni society in glimpses. There are some really delightful details woven in – people are formal about power relations so that they are easier to remember! The word for “rules lawyering” is monomorphemic! – but in general, the story is not interested in explaining a lot about Eren. The story is interested in ADVENTURE! Pretty soon, Ranai et al are in a different part of the galaxy entirely, investigating something involving interplanetary politics and weapons deals.

The plot in general goes by quickly enough that readers not familiar with Bogi’s work might get confused at some points. The “Concepts” section on the website does a good job filling in basic background about the universe, and I would recommend it during the early stages of reading.

As to the characters themselves, they are just fine. Almost everyone on Eren shares the “Ereni cognotype” (their word for autism), but characters have their own diverse personalities, from the cautious and authoritative Ranai to the naive and principled Abinayun to Mirun, the stranger from another world, who literally crashlands in the story with great eagerness and little control. We also see glimpses of Ranai’s daughter, Birayu, a creative child with atypical language skills who adores food. Birayu’s presence is important from a representation perspective, as it shows that not everyone on Eren is “high-functioning”, and that a range of abilities are accepted. Ranai is a single parent who employs someone to assist in raising Birayu, which seems to be an arrangement that is working out, although I would have liked to see them and Birayu interact more in early chapters.

There is also a hint of a budding romantic attraction between Ranai and Mirun, both of whom are nonbinary. Since Ranai is demisexual, this part of the story occurs gently and gradually and is still far from being resolved at the end of the season. (Mirun’s origins, by the way, are among the things that aren’t explained in this story. But if you are up for some darker fare, you can find them in “Toward the Luminous Towers“.)

Bogi objected when I filed this story, on Patreon, under “cheerful books”: some bad things are certainly implied, both in Mirun’s vaguely-hinted-at backstory and in the political intrigue. It’s just that, as a dedicated reviewer of books about autistic people, a disproportionate amount of my reading deals with ableism, abuse, and other Bad Things. There are some really well-done, really important books that talk about Bad Things, and Bad Things are pervasive in real life. But I cannot describe how refreshing it is to read an adventure with a happy ending in which autistic people run around without being constantly oppressed for being autistic. That’s what I mean when I call this one “cheerful”. I don’t want there to be fewer books about Bad Things, but I do want there to be MORE books like this one!

This is overall a sprightly, enjoyable read with many twists, and with a gaggle of interesting autistic characters whose personhood is never in question. I’m looking forward to further installments in the series, and I’m hoping that they will take us in even greater depth into the world of Eren.

The Verdict: Recommended

Ethics Statement: Bogi TakĂĄcs is someone I would consider a personal friend. I read eir web serial by waiting for the chapters to be posted for free on eir website. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I read it because I was excited enough about it to read it on my own time. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the pipeline, and you can become a backer for as little as $1 if you’d like to help choose the next autistic book.

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

Autistic Book Party, Episode 33 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord, Rhysling edition!

I’m at a conference this week, so I’m going to be scarce, but not too scarce to point you in the direction of some great poetry by autistic authors. Here’s what I found in my 2017 Rhysling anthology that wasn’t already freely available elsewhere.

*

Sara Backer, “The Genius” (Mithila Review 3)

I have never interacted with this author, but I suspect that this poem is a case of accidental representation. I suspect she wasn’t thinking of autism when she wrote it, but just happened to write a fairly accurate description of some autistic people’s experience: seemingly unoccupied, while intensely engaged in sensory processing, pattern recognition, and reflection. The unintended irony with this one is how it describes the titular character interrupted by “people who want to pay her / to achieve something”. I only wish real autistic people, who face one of the highest unemployment rates of any disabled group, were deluged by such offers. [YMMV]

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Journeymaker to Keddar (II)” (Marginalia to Stone Bird collection)

[Autistic author] This is a part of the Journeymaker Cycle which I previously reviewed, as a whole, in my review of Rose’s collection. In fact, it’s the concluding installment. So I was quite surprised to find that it also stands well on its own. It is an emotional mythic poem about separation and personal growth, on a very large scale. [Recommended-2]

*

AJ Odasso, “Sargasso Sea” (Remixt magazine 1.1)

[Autistic author] An intensely personal poem about intersex experience. The narrator struggles with feelings of monstrousness as lovers, doctors, and others deal with their body very poorly. Like one of Merc Rustad’s protagonists, they ultimately find the idea of monstrousness freeing. Fans of poems about difficult sexual and bodily experiences will enjoy this one. [Recommended-2]

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AJ Odasso, “Widening Gyre” (Not A Drop anthology)

[Autistic author] A poignant poem about things lost at sea, which may be irrecoverable despite rituals intending otherwise. [Recommended-2]

Autism News, 2017/06/11

Because I have been remiss in making these news posts promptly, we’ll start off with some of the tail end of Autism Month:

Jobs:

Politics:

Science:

  • John Elder Robison explains why so much autism research studies things that seem obvious
  • Nicholette Zeliadt on the role of motor difficulties in autism
  • Shannon des Roches Rosa on the shift towards neurodiversity at the autism research conference IMFAR

Writing and media:

Misc:

Sad Things:

  • Clare Hughes on what happens to autistic people in prison
  • Lydia Z.X. Brown on a recent case of education discrimination, plus other ableist things
  • A new study in the UK says that people with autism or learning disabilities experience more hate crimes than any other disabled group
  • A group of care homes in the UK were shut down because of widespread abuse involving isolation rooms

 

 

Cool stories from March and April

I’m ridiculously late, but here are my favorite non-autism-related stories and poems from the early spring. (Stories I read in May and June are being collected separately.)

Elaine Atwell, “Finity” (GigaNotoSaurus, February). This story is frickin’ amazing. It’s like a tragic lesbian story in reverse – starting with grief, and moving from there to love and wellness and hope, showing how difficult and uncertain and delicate that movement is and how it happens anyway. (I think it’s also a deliberate homage to “Passengers”, but one that fixes all the things that made “Passengers” awful.) I need more stories that value human life the way this one does. I need more stories that value queer relationships the way this one does. Also: it has the cutest AI  since “Cat Pictures Please”.

Karen Bovenmyer, “Syncing Minefields” (Strange Horizons, February 20). A bleak, beautiful poem about love and mistakes and, well, minefields.

Amal El-Mohtar, “Anabasis” (Tor.com, March 8). The entire “Nevertheless, She Persisted” flash series on Tor.com is worth reading, but Amal’s story stands out from the pack. It’s the grittiest, the most immediate, the most heartrending.

S. Qiouyi Lu, “A Complex Filament of Light” (Anathema, Issue 1, April). A beautiful story about mental health, grief, culture, and connection (and also ANTARCTIC AURORAS).

Holly Lyn Walrath, “Pine Song, Robin Song, Star Song” (Liminality, Issue #11, March). A love poem between a tree and a bird. I like love poems, but few poems can have both love and death in them and yet still make me feel so light and contented.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 33: A Different Witch

Today’s Book: “A Different Witch” by Debora Geary

The Plot: An autistic witch named Beth travels to Witch Central in California in order to learn more powerful magic than what is practiced by her circle at home.

Autistic Character(s): Beth, as well as a small boy who shows up in one or two scenes.

This was a bit of a frustrating book for me. There was a lot I wanted to like. Witches! Witches with Asperger syndrome! NT witches learning how to accept and accommodate autistic witches!

Years ago, members of the Witch Central circle abruptly showed up in Beth’s circle, told them they were doing everything wrong, and left. Since then, Beth has always intended to find Witch Central and learn more. The main arc of the book revolves around her learning the ropes from Witch Central’s witches, and the other characters learning to adjust what they’re doing to make it easier for Beth.

This is a perfectly good main arc for the book, and its basic information about autism is pretty accurate, though sometimes oversimplified. But I found it irritating to read more often than not, for two basic reasons.

First, the book is all about learning to make accommodations for an autistic person. In the absence of another major conflict, the plot is constructed around Witch Central’s witches trying really hard to teach Beth, succeeding a little, failing a little, going into a knot of angst about why they failed, learning a valuable lesson, and trying again. This might not be a bad thing, except that a lot of the try/fail/angst/learn cycles didn’t really make sense to me. Take this scene, for example, when a witch named Nell watches her three daughters unexpectedly accost Beth:

Beth’s brain was practically shaking. Nell felt her temper firing up. Easy welcome streamed from her girls-and Beth was reacting like she was under machine-gun fire. She touched Ginia’s shoulder, trying to get mama bear back on the leash. “Those are all good ideas. Why don’t you go grab some cookies?” She added a gentle mental shove behind the words, and this time her triplets caught the unsaid message. Three subdued girls made their way into the house. Nell tried to resist the urge to kick at the woman who had deflated their everyday joy. “They’re excited about the party. Sorry if they were a bit overwhelming.” Her next sentence steamed out of its own accord. “Most people who come here for training want to be included in our lives.”

It’s not clear to me why Nell is even angry here, since no one told Beth that she was supposed to be friends with the other witches’ families. It’s not clear to Nell either, and she spends a lot of time soul-searching to find out why she reacted that way. The trouble is that a lot of the scenes in the book fail to make sense in this way. Beth gets overloaded by something, and the other witches freak out, because OMG, what does it mean if their normal practices are overloading to someone? Have they failed at training Beth?? Is it impossible for Beth to be a witch here??? Then I get annoyed at the characters and want to tell them to take a chill pill because sometimes overload just happens and is not meant as a judgment on anyone.

A lot of the solutions to the problems also fail to make sense to me. As another example, Beth is reluctant to go to a big family get-together and decorate for Solstice, because it’s too many people. But the witches agree to keep all the people from getting too noisy (by whatever neurotypical definition of “too noisy” they are using), and then everything works out fine and Beth is touched by their efforts to adjust things for her. Based on my own experiences around people and noise, I would say that while this strategy might work, it comes off as far too easy on the page.

The stakes in all of these problem/angst/solution cycles are also vastly unclear. Why is magic so important to Beth that she’ll get on a plane and go far out of her comfort zone, into a nest of strangers, to learn about it? Why is Beth’s magical development so important that the other witches will go so far out of their way to teach her, apparently without pay? Why do all the witches need to be best friends with each other? Why are we having this conflict in the first place?

“A Different Witch” doesn’t have the battle-and-action-y stakes of many urban fantasies. That’s not a bad thing; it’s good to see urban fantasy once in a while that’s quieter and not focused on fighting some bad guy. But apart from a few of the spells, I don’t really have a clear picture of how magic is useful in the witches’ everyday lives. Most of the magic in the book involves trying to make pretty bubbles out of different elements, which is cool, but seems a little bit underwhelming when you consider the big emotions and personal sacrifices that go into it. If magic is spiritually significant to the characters, as it is for many IRL pagans, I don’t have a clear picture of how that works for them, either. It’s possible that the answers to these questions might be clearer if I’d read the previous books in the series. But in the absence of that, I spent a lot of the book confused why everyone is angsting so hard about whether or not an autistic witch can make pretty bubbles the right way.

The second problem with the book is that I don’t have a clear picture of who Beth is beyond being a fire witch with Asperger syndrome. Every single thing she does in the novel seems to revolve around her autistic traits. Even the positive, complimentary things people say about her (she’s a strong person) immediately go back to her autistic traits (it takes strength to live with an autistic brain every day, SIIIGH). We know that she is a health food nut, but only because a sugary diet is hard for her autistic brain to handle. We know that she is a lesbian and manages a store with her NT girlfriend, but even her interactions with her girlfriend seem to revolve around her autistic traits:

It was only two words—but so much more rode in her partner’s eyes. Frustration welled in Beth’s veins. “Come on, Liri. You know I can’t read what you’re thinking. You have to tell me.” It was one of the central tenets of their relationship, and something Beth had learned sprang from love anyhow. You gave what your lover needed.

It’s not that I want there to be scenes in which an autistic person’s autism isn’t there. It’s just that the book seems to spend so much time saying “X and Y are hard for Beth because autism” that the rest of Beth gets lost. Aside from wanting to make pretty magic bubbles, there’s not much sense of what is important to Beth or of what Beth’s desires are. Even her relationship is described as having happened because Liri was patient and helped convince Beth that it was a good idea, not because Beth did any normal human things like having a crush on someone. Perish the thought.

A lack of agency on Beth’s part makes the book’s first problem more problematic. The witches of Witch Central were the ones who decided Beth’s magic isn’t good enough. They decide what Beth needs to do to fit in with them, even when it’s something (like getting along with their children) which logically doesn’t have a lot to do with magic lessons. They find out that, for Beth to do these things, she needs accommodations, so they work on that. But once they have the right accommodations, there is no more problem. Beth does magic their way. Beth gets along with them and their kids, and everybody gets to pat themselves on the back for becoming so understanding of Beth. The book spends a lot of time on making accommodations so an autistic person can do what you want them to, and very little time asking what the autistic person wants.

This is a subtle problem, and the book isn’t all bad. Beth does get to call out the Witch Central witches on things they’ve done wrong, including the arrogance of waltzing in and telling her she was doing magic wrong in the first place. There are some heartwarming scenes, including one late in the book where an older witch visits Beth and Liri’s shop and is genuinely interested and respectful.

Overall I think this is a very well-intentioned book, by an author who wanted to educate readers about autism and inclusion. It gets a lot right, but it has subtle problems with agency and tone which continually frustrated me. Unless you have a great love for cozy urban fantasies, I think most autistic readers would be happier reading something else.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I didn’t like it

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Debora Geary. I read her book by buying an electronic copy from Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

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

Some updates from the past few months

I’ve been a bit preoccupied lately in ways that have made me drop at least halfway out of this blog, but things are going well, overall. Here are a few news tidbits that I’ve been remiss in posting:

  • I’ve sold a story, “The Muse”, to Carnation Press’s Trans Lifeline charity anthology. More on that closer to the anthology’s release date.
  • Kit Englard from Femme de Chem interviewed me and produced this lovely article about me. Femme de Chem is a website devoted to disabled people in STEM, and since April was both Poetry Month and Autism Month for many people, it was perfect timing.
  • Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and GigaNotoSaurus, all magazines in which my work appeared last year, were all honoured with Hugo nominations for Best Semiprozine. Strange Horizons and Uncanny were also nominated for Locus Awards. I have no illusions that my tiny poems were a deciding factor in either of those nominations, but it’s still nice to know. Also, my novelette “The Scrape of Tooth on Bone” will be distributed to all Hugo voters as part of GigaNotoSaurus’s entry in the voter pack.
  • Lastly, my Rhysling-nominated poem “The Giantess’s Dream” will be printed on postcards next week as part of Twisted Moon magazine’s participation in Sydney, Australia’s Unspoken Words poetry festival.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 3: A Wizard Alone (Original Edition)

(This review was first posted Mar 3, 2013. It has received minor edits for clarity and style.)

Today’s Book: “A Wizard Alone” by Diane Duane.

The Plot: In a contemporary YA fantasy setting, a budding wizard named Darryl has gotten stuck in his Ordeal – a wizards’ initiation. Teenage wizards Nita and Kit are sent to figure out what’s gone wrong.

Autistic Character(s): Darryl McAllister.

I really don’t know where to start with this book. Darryl is central to the plot, and there are some very good and very bad aspects of the way he is portrayed. I’m going to start with the good ones, I guess, because there are fewer of them.

First, Darryl is African-American. This is excellent because autism is so often portrayed as something that affects white male children, with maybe a few white girls sneaking in every once in a while. Intersectionality is always a plus. (Kit is also Latin-American, FYI.)

Second, Darryl is intensely good and intensely likeable. We quickly find out that he’s not a helpless victim stuck in his own Ordeal: he’s deliberately drawing it out for reasons that are complicated, but logical, and beneficial to the world around him. And despite having no support whatsoever, he approaches this task with a deep, cheerful courage that instantly endears me to him forever.

Third, the book touches on the problem of one’s preconceptions of disabled people influencing one’s perceptions of them. The first few times Kit sees Darryl, he expects Darryl to be a helpless victim, so that’s what he sees. Kit doesn’t find out the truth about what Darryl is doing until Darryl makes magical contact with Nita – who doesn’t know that he’s autistic, or even that he’s human. Kit then realizes that because he had an idea in his mind about what autistic people were and weren’t capable of, he couldn’t see what Darryl really was capable of. This is a very important point and Duane gets props for putting it in there.

Those are the good points. Now for the bad ones. First, there’s the “cure” theme: as part of what’s otherwise a fairly clever ploy at the end of the book, Nita and Kit give Darryl a magic Get Out Of Autism Free card. (Not literally a card, but you know what I mean.) I need to make a whole separate post on the problems with “cure” stories.

It’s not just the ending, though. Duane attempts to give helpful information about autism to her readers, but most of it is so incorrect that I don’t even know what to say. We are told, for example, that people are not born with autism but become autistic at various ages; that autistic people avoid eye contact because they cannot stand the idea that other people exist; that neurotypical people do not understand what autism is like because not enough autistic people have been cured and “come back” to tell neurotypical people about it; that autism is caused (at least in Darryl’s case) by the devil, and is easily magically separable from the rest of Darryl’s personality; that the withdrawal/retreat symptoms of autism are identical to the symptoms of depression; that all autistic people are hypersensitive rather than hyposensitive to sensory stimuli; and so on. I can’t talk about what’s wrong with each of these points here because it would make this post even longer than the Vernor Vinge one. But they are all incorrect and all harmful.

Furthermore, while Darryl is quite likable, many aspects of his characterization make no sense. He switches very quickly and repeatedly between being completely unaware that other people exist, and being conscious enough of them to use some fairly sophisticated theory of mind. Not only does this speed of switching make no sense, but there’s no middle ground. Darryl never has any realistic impairments in understanding people’s beliefs and motivations, he just forgets that they exist. Duane makes attempts to explain this, but they make no sense either. Apparently, Darryl’s autism causes the world around him to be too painful to deal with, so he intentionally forgets that other people exist, and then remembers again for a while, and then forgets again, and… Yeah. It’s just silly.

The big thing that bothers me about this book, though, is the conflation of autism with depression. This is not a minor point. A significant subplot of the book involves Nita grieving for her mother’s death (which happened in a previous book) and struggling with her own depression. There are some nice things about how this subplot is handled. But Nita doesn’t start to beat her depression until she makes contact with Darryl – and realizes that her withdrawal from the world, in her depressed state, is identical to his. Not that Nita is autistic, of course; they just happen to both be withdrawing from “real”, “meaningful” engagement with the world because it’s too painful. After talking to Darryl, Nita realizes that this is unhealthy for her and she has to stop. She talks Darryl out of it too, which is where the Get Out Of Autism Free card comes in.

Never mind that Darryl is kicking epic-level supernatural butt in his Ordeal while withdrawing from “real”, “meaningful” engagement everywhere else. Apparently that doesn’t make his withdrawal more acceptable. Duane pays attention to Darryl’s awesomeness when she’s actually talking about him, but she’s happy to ignore it when she’s using him to make a point about NTs.

This bothers me for a very personal reason.

Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders affect autistic people too.

Did you read that? Depression is not the natural state of an autistic person. It is a mood disorder that either NT or autistic people can develop, which means there’s actual intersectionality between depression and autism.

A depressed autistic person does not need you to cure their autism. A depressed autistic person needs you to fix whatever is causing the actual depression – whether that’s an imbalance in brain chemistry, an abusive home/work situation, poor mental coping strategies, or what. If you’re going around saying “but autism is just like depression anyway”, you are NOT HELPING.

And that’s the part of “A Wizard Alone” that’s going to really stay with me.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

NOTE: Diane Duane is aware of criticisms of the portrayal of autism in this book. In the New Millennium Edition of her Young Wizards series, a lot of things are updated, and the portrayal of autism is one of the updated things. The New Millennium Edition of “A Wizard Alone” is reviewed separately in Autistic Book Party, Episode 9.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 2: A Deepness in the Sky

(This review was first published Jan 27, 2013. It has received minor edits for clarity and style.)

Today’s Book: “A Deepness in the Sky” by Vernor Vinge.

The Plot: Two rival groups of humans find intelligent life, and other seemingly impossible things, orbiting a variable star.

Autistic Character(s): Technically, the only autistic character is an alien named Brent Underhill. But before we talk about Brent, we need to talk about some other things.

As mentioned, Vinge’s plot revolves around two groups of humans: the Qeng Ho and the Emergents. The Qeng Ho are merchants; the Emergents are slavers. The Qeng Ho are good guys; the Emergents are bad guys. Both groups have fully staffed interstellar space crews, so between them and the aliens, there are Lots And Lots Of Characters. So I spent the first few chapters kind of checking everyone out. “Could she be autistic? Nah… Not really. Could he be autistic? Maybe, but I don’t think so…”

Then I came across this passage, at a juncture where the Emergents have just killed a lot of Qeng Ho. Ezr Vinh, a Qeng Ho, talks to Anne Reynolt, one of the highest-ranking Emergents:

At first, Ezr thought Reynolt was fighting a proper sense of shame: she hardly ever looked him directly in the eye. But gradually he realized that looking at his face was no more interesting to her than studying a bulkhead. She didn’t see him as a person; she didn’t care a jot for the dead.

Oh, I thought. Okay. There’s my autistic character.

It’s true that most autistic people don’t look others in the eye as much as NTs do. NTs tend to find this very striking. (Some autistic people look others in the eye too much, which NTs find striking in a different way. Either way, it’s one of those social cues we rarely get right.) Eye tracking studies show that, while NTs fixate on other people’s eyes, autistic people tend to look all around the room at everything. Including bulkheads. When we do look at people, we’re more likely to look at their mouths than their eyes. Anne Reynolt (as Vinge says elsewhere) looks more at Ezr’s mouth than his eyes, too. She also has an assortment of other stereotypical autistic traits, which I won’t get into quite yet.

“She didn’t see him as a person” needs some unpacking, of course. This kind of coldness is very typical of fictional Aspies on TV. It results from writers confusing cognitive empathy with affective empathy, as I explain in this post. In real life, when an autistic person doesn’t look you in the eye, it could be for a lot of reasons. Maybe they don’t care about you (this is not as common as it is on TV, but it happens). Maybe they are paying attention, but do not find it useful to look at your eyes. (We often aren’t able to pick up emotional nuances from eye contact the way NTs do.) Maybe they’ve gotten in trouble for staring at people in the past and don’t want to offend you. Maybe they’ve simply forgotten that eye contact is expected of them, or are unaware that they’re making less of it than expected. Or maybe eye contact feels intrusive and overwhelming to them, and they don’t want to. So, “she didn’t see him as a person” is a bit of a jump to conclusions – though, within the story, it happens to be correct.

Anyway. Reading this paragraph, I thought I had this book figured out. Reynolt was autistic and a villain; her autistic traits would be used to accentuate her villainy; end of story.

As it turns out, I was dead wrong.

Before I say more about Anne Reynolt, let me talk a little about Focus. The Emergents, as I mentioned, are slavers, and they keep their slaves in line through a form of virus-based mind control called Focus. When a person is Focused, they become intently, obsessively interested in a topic. Within that topic, which can be anything from repeated database queries to high art or theoretical physics, Focused people will willingly work without stopping. They pay no attention to their personal comfort, social cues, hygiene, people who love them – or even an ongoing medical problem. They are not mindless nor emotionless. They are capable of creativity and nuance in their work, and form strong opinions about it, even getting in physical fights with other Focused who disagree. Preventing them from working makes them anxious and uncontrollable. But everything and everyone outside of their topic is simply irrelevant to them.

Now, what does this description of Focus remind you of? Raise your hand if you said “an autistic person in a fit of excitement about one of their special interests.”

Anybody? No? Is that just me?

To be fair, a lot of the worst parts of being Focused have nothing to do with autism. The Emergents treat most of the Focused badly, but even with the kindest owner, a Focused person is neurologically unstable and must be frequently “retuned” to avoid psychosis. Plus, Focus is more or less permanent. It can be reversed, but that’s a complex procedure with potentially severe side effects. So there’s no chance of, say, being Focused eight hours a day and then having the evening off for self-care and relationships (and getting paid – which I think would actually be a pretty sweet deal. Imagine never being bored or distracted from your work!) Plus, most of the characters who are Focused did not consent to it. Please don’t think I’m trying to argue in favor of Focus or the Emergents. As it’s presented in-universe, Focus sucks.

Still, there’s something strange about the rhetoric others use to describe the Focused. They’re “zombies”. They’re “dead inside”. They’re “less than animals, like – like machine parts”. And while the most hurtful name-calling comes from Emergents, the Qeng Ho say this stuff too. (The Wikipedia plot summary refers to Focused people as “brilliant appliances”, so I guess readers are responding that way, too.) And this is strange to me, because the Focused are not zombies or machines – they are conscious and clever and still capable of experiencing some very strong feelings. It’s just that their meaningful experience is restricted to one topic.

On top of this, Vinge seems to go out of his way to give Focused people autistic traits even when those traits have nothing to do with narrow/specialized interests. They’re brusque and literal! They miss sarcasm! They don’t make eye contact! Vinge won’t shut up about eye contact, seriously.

And while Vinge never uses the word “autism”, witness this bit of dialogue:

“But you know about really creative people, the artists who end up in your history books? As often as not, they’re some poor dweeb who doesn’t have a life. He or she is just totally fixated on learning everything about some single topic. A sane person couldn’t justify losing friends and family to concentrate so hard. Of course, the payoff is that the dweeb may find things or make things that are totally unexpected. See, in that way a little of Focus has always been part of the human race.”

This comes out of an Emergent character’s mouth, so words like “dweeb” shouldn’t be taken as reflections of Vinge’s opinion. But it’s clear that the resemblance to autism isn’t accidental. I’m not reading autism into a place where it wasn’t intended. Vinge didn’t stumble onto these traits by accident (which might be plausible for an author in 1999, when autism wasn’t on All The TV Shows yet). He knows that Focus is an exaggeration and distortion of the traits of real people.

So much for Focus. Now, back to Anne Reynolt. As it turns out, Reynolt isn’t autistic! Instead, she herself is Focused. Normally, it’s impossible to Focus someone on leadership. But Reynolt is special, and while she lacks traditional social skills, she’s the best there is at managing other Focused people.

Now for Brent Underhill. Brent is an alien, the son of a brilliant scientist named Sherkaner Underhill. Sherkaner is eccentric (I might classify him as close to the spectrum, like many scientists) and cheerfully indifferent to people’s expectations. To the shock of many other aliens, he and his wife have children “out of phase”.

It would take a while to explain what “out of phase” means and why the aliens find it shocking. But, among other things, the aliens believe that out-of-phase children are likely to be disabled. (Cue a montage of ableism in which aliens wring their hands about Sherkaner’s children being “monstrous”, “deformed”, etc.) Conveniently for Sherkaner, though, only one of his children is disabled. (Cue some wince-inducing dialogue, which boils down to, “See, I didn’t have that many disabled children! And they’re not that disabled!”)

Brent’s disability isn’t named, but it resembles autism so strongly that I’m comfortable calling it that even though he’s an alien. Brent, like Sherkaner’s other children, is highly intelligent, but he is so quiet that most people don’t realize this. He’s language-delayed as a small child; he’s awkward and shy; he takes social rules literally; he speaks in a monotone, and asks questions that might come off as rude, though he doesn’t mean them that way. He is fascinated by strings, knots, and patterns. His senses are slightly enhanced; Vinge doesn’t talk about eye contact with Brent, because the alien visual system is, well, very alien. But Brent spends a lot of time standing in corners, looking inattentive, while actually quite aware of what is going on.

Brent is a pretty peripheral character, but when he does appear, he kicks autistic alien butt. When Sherkaner’s children are kidnapped, Brent is the most effective at fighting back against their kidnappers. Part of this comes from his fascination with string, which just happens to be useful – but most of it is sheer courage, smarts, and observational skill.

Brent is also present, very peripherally, as part of an important team of aliens once he grows up. I like Brent, and I selfishly wish we saw more of him. But in an epic novel with All The Characters, there’s only so much you can do, and I really can’t find fault with the way Vinge writes him.

So this leaves me at a reviewing impasse. Vinge is clearly capable of writing autism well – so why does he pile so many bad autistic stereotypes onto the Focused?

It wasn’t until the end of the story that the reasons behind Vinge’s narrative decisions became clear. Here, have some BIG ENDING SPOILERS, under the cut.

Continue reading “Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 2: A Deepness in the Sky”

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 1: Blind Lake

(This review was first published on December 12, 2012. It has been given minor edits for clarity and style.)

Today’s Book: “Blind Lake” by Robert Charles Wilson.

The Plot: Scientists are using a super powerful quantum computer to look at aliens on another planet. Then suddenly their town is put under quarantine for reasons that are not explained to them, the aliens begin behaving strangely, and everyone has to figure out what’s going on.

Autistic Character(s): Tess Hauser, an eleven-year-old girl.

Tess isn’t a protagonist (the protagonists are her mother Marguerite and a science journalist named Chris), but she is one of an ensemble of viewpoint characters and plays an important role in the plot. She is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome several years before the story begins, and while there are a number of therapies in her past – including medication – Marguerite has come to accept her autism simply as a personality type.

Marguerite is a realistic portrayal of a well-meaning NT parent. She is long past the point of trying to “fix” Tess, but it is still painfully obvious to her when Tess is less communicative than other children, or when she has trouble making friends. Marguerite and Tess have recently moved to a new city when the story begins, and Marguerite worries a lot about how Tess will do at her new school – at least until the plot throws bigger problems at both of them.

But Marguerite’s view of Tess isn’t the only one we get. We see plenty of scenes through Tess’s eyes, and Tess wastes little time thinking about her differences from other children. Instead, when reading from Tess’s POV, we see how intelligent she is, and how easily she is captivated by weather, nature, and symmetry. Tess is uncommunicative, not because she has no opinions, but because she is constantly lost in thought about things the other characters aren’t thinking about. Wilson shows us these thoughts appealingly and convincingly without ever putting too fine a point on how they differ from the thoughts of the adults. This is a very tricky point, and one that you can’t get right just by looking at the DSM, but Wilson, in my view, gets it right.

We also see Tess through the eyes of other adults who don’t worry about her as much as Marguerite does. Her father doesn’t think about her autism much at all (though he is the villain, and his attitude to Tess is mostly possessive). Meanwhile, Chris befriends Tess and accepts her immediately; in fact, Tess reminds him of his own younger sister.

But there’s one more point about Tess that I need to bring up before giving her the “cluefully written Aspie character” stamp, and that is the fact that Tess sees things other characters don’t believe in. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about this without EXTREMELY MAJOR SPOILERS, so follow me under the cut if you dare!

Continue reading “Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 1: Blind Lake”