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”