Autistic Book Party, Episode 14: This Alien Shore

(Has it really been two months since I last reviewed a book here? UGH. Also, happy Easter, to those of you who celebrate the day.)

Today’s Book: “This Alien Shore” by C.S. Friedman.

The Plot: In a far-future space opera universe, two parallel plots unfold: one involves a runaway teenage girl named Jamisia with mysterious secrets, the other, a mysterious and deadly computer virus.

Autistic Character(s): Kio Masada, the world’s foremost computer security expert, who is summoned to assist in hunting down the mysterious virus.

First statement: This book is complicated. So, <i>so</i> complicated that I’m going to break my usual reviewing rule and talk about all kinds of different things, not just the autistic character. You’ll see why in a minute. But first, an assessment of Kio Masada.

Masada is from the planet Guera. I bring this up because all the humans in “This Alien Shore” are sharply divided by their planetary affiliation. Humanity’s first effort at interstellar travel, the Hausman drive, produced colonies on several extrasolar planets, but had severe side effects resulting in drastic mutations in all of the colonists (for some reason, a different type of mutation characterizes each planet). Horrified by this, the humans of Terra stopped using the drive and left the colonies to fend for themselves. Eventually, the humans of Guera – the first and most powerful Hausman colony – discovered a new means of interstellar travel, one that relies on an extradimensional space called the “ainniq”. The ainniq doesn’t cause mutations, but it is incredibly dangerous to navigate, and only the Gueran Outspace Guild knows the secret of doing so. As a result, the Guild now controls basically everything.

Guera is unique among colony worlds, not only in its enormous political power, but by the fact that Guerans are not physically different from Terrans. Instead, every Gueran has one or more conditions that humans today would classify as a mental disorder. Guerans classify themselves by these conditions, calling them “kaja” and naming each one after an animal. Each Gueran also wears special facepaint identifying their kaja.

I should note that the kaja system is not anything like a caste system. We don’t see much of everyday Gueran life, because apart from Masada, all the Guerans we see are high ranking Guildmasters who are very busy with high-level intrigues of various kinds. However, the Guildmasters have a variety of different kaja, which suggests that on Guera, people really are promoted according to their talents and interests, and not according to preconceived notions about what someone with that kaja can and can’t do.

Masada is an iru, a kaja that strongly resembles Asperger syndrome. He hyperfocuses on his work, forgets to eat or care for himself while absorbed in an interesting problem, dislikes disorder, speaks bluntly, and misses or ignores the subtle social rituals of the other Guerans, without ever actually veering into rudeness. The other Gueran characters take Masada’s iru nature into account when interacting with him – for example, they don’t expect him to participate in subtle social rituals, and they accept blunt communication from him even when other kaja would be expected to use more tact – but their primary attitude towards Masada is, consistently, respect. Masada is first and foremost a world-renowned computer security expert, and is treated accordingly. He is never, ever portrayed as “the disabled one”; this would be highly illogical if it did occur, since all the other Guerans are non-neurotypical in other ways.

So far, so great. (I should note that, while “computer scientist” is a very stereotypical Aspie profession, Friedman is careful to note that there is a range of different professions and interests among iru. Masada’s late wife, for example, was an iru musician. Unfortunately, since she is dead when the story begins, she never actually gets any screen time. Nor does any other iru besides Masada. Boo.)

Masada does lack sensory sensitivities, which is mildly disappointing. Unlike many authors, Friedman doesn’t simply ignore this aspect of autism. Instead, she provides a logical-seeming reason why Masada doesn’t have any:

[Masada] understood the periodic distortions in sensory perception that affected [his wife]’s interactive skills; she understood that for the sake of his work he had programmed his brainware to compensate for such distortions, and thus had sacrificed a portion of his natural essence.

So, a couple of things to unpack here, just in this one sentence:

  1. “Cure” technology actually exists in this universe, at least for certain aspects of certain disorders (which is fairly logical, since in the far-future setting Friedman has designed, everybody has brainware in their head that can make all sorts of other changes, including a “wellseeker” that can regulate heart rate and other emotional symptoms if the user wishes)
  2. This technology apparently exists – at least on Guera – without the kinds of social baggage and pressure that would accompany it if it existed today; Guerans can freely choose how and whether to use it based on their own goals and values
  3. The technology is reversible
  4. Partially “curing” oneself, or removing certain cognitive or sensory distortions that happen to cause inconvenience in one’s life, is considered a sacrifice of a part of one’s identity.

#4 on this list is huge. Guerans – not just iru, but seemingly all Guerans – are proud of who they are, and show a strong cultural interest throughout the book in retaining their non-neurotypical identities. Yet at the same time, many Guerans use cybernetic technology to regulate the more inconvenient aspects of the way their brains work. The result is a fascinating neurological balancing act. It’s important to note that this balancing act is not solely the province of iru; everyone does it, often in surprisingly nuanced ways. For instance, here’s part of a scene from the point of view of a Guildmaster with a kaja resembling Tourette’s:

[Varsav’s underlings] knew him well enough to worry when the frenzied motion of his restless body eased, for it signaled that his brain had found something to focus on so closely that it couldn’t be bothered with extraneous motion. They knew that when his language flowed smoothly and easily it was because there were no inappropriate phrases being edited out by his brainware, the usual case. And they knew that he only found such focus in danger…

This is really interesting. It would be more interesting if, as I mentioned, we were given more of a window on everyday Gueran life. Guerans have technology to change their brains if they wish, and are accepted for who they are by other Guerans. These traits are immensely important, and a huge improvement on what we have today. But are they really, by themselves, enough to produce a society in which everyone of every kaja can flourish? What bothers me about Guera, when I look at Guera closely, is that there is no mention of structural accomodations. What does Gueran life look like on the ground? What about its institutions and infrastructure has been changed in order to allow people of every kaja to function at their peak potential without being pressured to change their brains? Friedman never even begins to touch on these questions – partly because her plot is, rightly, focused elsewhere. But I also have a sneaking suspicion that they are questions which did not, at least not in these terms, occur to her.

This brings me, somewhat clumsily, to a second point. While Guera and other colonies are relatively accepting of difference, ableism is a huge point of contention in the universe at large. The point is perhaps best illustrated by this line, spoken aloud by Masada:

“Must I remind you how the Terrans feel about my kaja? The very cognitive style which makes me so valuable on Guera is considered ‘abnormal’ among those people. They did everything they could to eradicate it from their gene pool, and if by some unlucky chance it surfaces now despite those efforts, they use drugs or DNA therapy to ‘correct’ it. Even if the price of that correction is the crippling of a mind, the death of a unique human soul. These are the people you want me to work among? The Terrans are more alien to me than any Hausman Variants ever could be. And you know they dominate the outworlds.”

The problem actually goes much deeper than Terrans happening to hate autism. In Friedman’s history, after the disaster with the Hausman drive, Terrans became paranoid and obsessed with eugenics. There are few or no congenitally disabled people on Terra at all anymore. Autism Speaks, and its science-fictional equivalents, won that war.

Moreover, the tension between Terrans and Variants (a collective word for Guerans and other, more physically exotic descendants of the Hausman colonies) remains one of the major sources of large-scale conflict in Friedman’s present. Terrans hate Variants for their mutations, and for controlling (through the Guild) interstellar travel; Variants hate Terrans because Terrans hate them, and because of their historical abandonment in their colonies hundreds of years ago. There are terrorist organizations on both sides of this divide, and even ordinary everyday Variants and Terrans are shown to be highly distrustful of each other.

I’ve never seen a successful science fiction universe constructed entirely out of disability issues before. I kind of like it. There are, however, a few false notes in the depiction of these tensions, particularly from the Variant side. We see, for example, a propaganda leaflet from the Hausman League (an extremist group of Variants). Yet even while declaring themselves superior to Terrans, the authors of the pamphlet refer to themselves as “damned” and “malformed”. Huh? That’s… not how actual disability activists communicate.

The Hausman Leage may be using deliberately loaded language in order to express great bitterness towards the Terran attitudes that gave them those labels. But even stable, comfortable, politically neutral Guerans like Masada occasionally come out with something that makes my jaw drop:

Had he loved her? Gueran science wasn’t sure if an iru could love. The chemicals were there for it. Sometimes they even combined properly. Wellseekers couldn’t tell the difference.
But subjective experience? No one was certain. No iru understood the language of love well enough to confirm or deny it.
He missed her terribly.

Yeah, no. (And yet, at the same time as Friedman writes this, watch how she deliberately undercuts what she’s saying. Masada’s emotional reactions suggest that he does love his wife, even while he experiences confusion about whether he is capable of doing so, and I think Friedman is on his side there. What bothers me is the fact that this confusion would occur to him when he grew up in a supposedly non-ableist society, and that “Gueran science” is apparently confused about it, too.)

And, as if this review wasn’t long enough already, I now need to talk about our other protagonist, Jamisia. Jamisia is a teenage Terran girl who, due to various plot shenanigans, has acquired mental differences she doesn’t understand. She also has about fifty zillion corporate Terran agents chasing her.

[….AND THEN I wrote a 1000-word rant about Jamisia and about the ending, and why certain aspects of the ending REALLY didn’t work for me, and tried to put it under a spoilertag and did it wrong and WordPress ate that part of the post. SORRY. I really don’t feel like trying to write it all out again. You will JUST HAVE TO WONDER what was upsetting me. :P]

I just…

You can’t look at the book too closely in some of these respects, or it starts to unravel at the seams.

I should note that, if I sound very angry or very emotionally involved in these small setting/plot holes, it’s simply a case of Worst Puppy Ever. Because this is a book that gets a heck of a lot right. By my usual standards – have an autistic character who actually does stuff, portray them accurately and respectfully, etc – it passes just as handily as anything else I’ve reviewed. But it’s also the first book I’ve ever reviewed that tried (and didn’t immediately, horribly fail) to do more with the theme of disability than just having a character here and there. It is, from that perspective, very ambitious, and it accomplishes a great deal of what it sets out to do. I don’t know if a perfect book, which engages with these themes this deeply and fails to leave anything out or offend anyone, is even theoretically possible. I think C.S. Friedman should be proud of having written the book, and I think y’all who have been following my recommendations in this series should read it.

And yet when I look back on this book, I think part of me is always going to think, “Yes, THAT book… With THOSE PROBLEMS in it.” And twitch a little.

Because this was the book that made me dare to hope for more.

The Verdict: Recommended

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

One Reply to “Autistic Book Party, Episode 14: This Alien Shore”

Comments are closed.