Autistic Book Party, Episode 65 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

David Hartley, “The Guest Book” (The Drabble, September 2019)

[Autistic author] An ominous bit of microfiction about a host and their guests. The way that the host lures the guests in, through an elaborate charade, strikes me as something an autistic author with experience masking is particularly well-positioned to write about. [Recommended-2]

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A.C. Buchanan, “I Will Teach You Magic” (Cossmass Infinities, Issue 4, January 2021)

[Autistic author] I love this piece, which is about magic as a metaphor for disability accommodations but also about imagining what would happen in a world where magic could be used that way. The sharp edges and humiliations of the systems that are meant to be helpful come across clearly – the need to prove the author is really disabled enough, the need to prove they’re only using the exact correct socially-approved magic for their condition, the way people look down on them thinking that using magic means they “have it easy.” But where the story really shines is in showing how both the narrator and the younger person they are addressing find their own ways of using the magic, their own joys and comforts, regardless of what the system says. [Recommended-2]

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Bogi Takács, “All the Trees That Have Perished Alongside My Childhood” (The Deadlands, Issue 4, August 2021)

[Autistic author] An elegy for vanished trees and gardens which effortlessly shifts between the personal and the political. The narrator is someone who has fled Hungary because of its increasingly corrupt, oppressive government, and the poem examines the plant life that surrounded them once from multiple angles. The plants had personal, emotional importance for them, but the tragedy of their removal isn’t just about that – it’s one more sign of the government paving things over on every level, erasing certain things and people for its own convenience, including eventually the narrator’s ability to live there or to honor the missing trees as they feel they should. A sad, haunting read. [Recommended-2]

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Ember Randall, “On the Tip of Her Tongue” (Cast of Wonders #486, October 2021)

A story about a non-speaking autistic girl named Aquila who uses magical AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) in her job taking care of sentient magical books, supervised by a caring bookwyrm and a very ableist, uncaring AI. When a power shortage knocks her preferred AAC device out of operation during an emergency, she has to scramble to cope. I have a few quibbles with this story (for instance, if the bookwyrm can talk but not pick books up, and Aquila can pick books up but can’t talk, why not have them work together more closely?) but in the main, it is a lovely story that shows tons of empathy for Aquila and her strengths, needs, and intelligence. I particularly like that it’s Aquila’s ability to care for the books and help them – even for harmful-seeming books that have been the cause of all the trouble – that resolves things in the end. [Recommended-1]

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Rebecca Campbell, “The Language Birds Speak” (Clarkesworld, November 2021)

I’m kind of flailing trying to figure out how to express what I feel about this story, which is probably appropriate given the subject matter. It’s a story about a mother named Gracie and her very young son Alex, both of whom have expressive language issues but also find themselves speaking small bits of a mysterious language, written as “[]”, which allows them to convey their sensory and emotional experience directly and even control the world around them. Naturally, a group of scientists become interested; naturally, the scientists are shady as fuck, and Gracie has to figure out how to deal with that.

The word “autism” never appears in this story, but it’s shown with so many details and talked around with such deliberate care, in a story which is overall meticulous about having done its psychological research and citing its sources, that I fully believe autism is in there on purpose. Gracie’s autistic traits manifest not only as an expressive language difficulty, which is written very believably and with great care, but as anxiety, sensory overwhelm, hyperempathy, and a full range of plausible autistic traits; what’s more, she works around and tries to live with those traits in ways that are very familiar to me, including masking, rehearsing conversations, and relying on a more expressive partner. The elision of autism, as a specific, nameable word, is made impossible to ignore with lines like these:

“I wasn’t ever diagnosed.” she began. “I’ve been through a bunch of. You know. Sensory stuff. Anxiety. No diagnosis. But I always wondered if.”

Normally I like autism stories to come out and say the word to avoid ambiguity, but in a story like this – where the main characters have something going on that presents as a form of autism, but is also mystical and fantastical in a whole other way; and where there’s such emphasis on the limits of normal, verbal language as opposed to direct transmission of experience – it feels like the negative space created by not naming it may have been exactly the right call.

Anyway. Everything in this story is really well drawn, from Gracie’s mix of neurodivergent kinship with and concern for her son, to the husband who’s supportive but doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, to the way sensory overload and overwhelmed reactions are handled, to the yearning for a way to fully express oneself, to the evil doctors themselves – who start out with an easy charm that makes Gracie feel at home with them, and who slowly, steadily reveal themselves to be worse and worse and worse. (As a cognitive scientist I really appreciated all the little references to real psychology, including horribly unethical parts of psychology’s history; despite its fanciful premise this really does feel like a work of hard science fiction, in which psychology is the science in question.) It gets scary in places, but it’s a beautiful story and well worth the ride. [Recommended-1]

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Will McIntosh, “Mom Heart” (Clarkesworld, November 2021)

A widower tries to console his grieving children, one of whom is autistic, by pretending that their mother’s soul inhabits a household robot. This is an interesting story that raises questions about appropriate responses to grief and the ethics of well-intentioned lies. The narrator in this story clearly cares about his autistic daughter, Karina, but he lacks the connection with her that her mother had, and many of his attempts at help early in the story – nagging her into hugs she doesn’t want, physically forcing her into eye contact – feel misguided at best.

It’s good that by the end of the story, the narrator realizes that he can connect to Karina through imagination and play – and that he actually had this ability all along. But, given the tendency of autistic people to be particularly intolerant of lies, I really wonder how Karina is going to feel about these events when she looks back on them later in life. That – along with the cluelessness about an autistic child’s specific needs, the portrayal of understandably concerned teachers as the enemy, and the general trope of a mediocre dad who is treated as the story’s hero for eventually getting some of his shit together – leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. [Not Recommended]

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Jennifer Lee Rossman, “Epicenter” (Hexagon, Issue 7 – Winter 2021)

[Autistic author] This is a fun, breezy story in which Val, a self-described “crypto-seismologist,” helps get to the bottom of a series of earthquakes which she believes might be caused by a Mongolian death worm. I talk sometimes about how the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in media, rather than existing solely as a male fantasy, can be a portrait of a particular kind of non-neurotypical woman. Although Val’s neurotype isn’t mentioned at all, she’s a really fun example of that type – passionate about her unusual interests, unflaggingly enthusiastic, dressing and acting as she pleases even when others don’t know what to make of her. The story draws a good balance between showing the trouble Val’s traits can get her into, the humor that she unintentionally causes, and the doubts she has about herself, while also keeping her the hero of the story and allowing her unusual skills to prove genuinely useful for saving the day. [Recommended-1]

Firsts of the Year

I love calendars, and I love holidays. There’s something about breaking up time into repeating patterns that appeals to my sense of order. Back when I went to church I loved the liturgical calendar, with each season having a different spiritual focus. When I’ve gone through phases of being curious about paganism, the Wheel of the Year has been one of the ideas that appealed to me most, because it’s sort of the same. When time is separated into units like years or months or seasons then you can think of it differently; you can reflect about what happened in a unit, like it’s a chapter in a story, instead of just a conglomeration of days with different things happening in them.

(Read the full post on Substack)

My Favorite Stories and Poems of 2021

(Apologies for the slight delay in posting! I have been having a time.)

Happy Solstice! It’s that time of year when we’re all making wrap-up posts, and I would be remiss if I didn’t wrap up talking about my favorite things I read this year – books, short stories, and poetry.

(Read the full post on Substack)

2021 In Review and Award Eligibility

2021 was an incredibly transformative year for me. A lot of that transformation took place behind the scenes, in my personal life, rather than anything that would be immediately visible to readers. I bought a house and cleaned the fuck out of it! I ended one relationship and started a few more. I found a more solid community locally. I processed some trauma. I did all this under the auspices of Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic, which threw emotional and logistical monkey wrenches every which way and which doesn’t look like it’s going to be over anytime soon. Like, legitimately I was a badass.

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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.

(Read the full post on Substack)

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.

(Read the full post on Substack)

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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