(First published May 13, 2013)
Today’s Book: “The Meeting of the Waters” by Caiseal Mór.
The Plot: In ancient Ireland, the squabbling Danaan and Fir-Bolg tribes must band together to defend themselves from the invading Milesians.
Autistic Character(s): The author! Yay!
This is going to be a new kind of Autistic Book Party post. There won’t be any “how to write autistic characters” advice, because nobody in this book is autistic. In fact, Caiseal Mór published this book (and 13 others!) while passing as NT. It’s only with his 2007 autobiography that his autism became public knowledge.
It’s important for me to highlight good books by autistic authors, even if they don’t have autistic characters. Why?
First, because representation means paying attention to authors AND characters. If you want to combat sexism in spec fic, I sure hope you’re looking at women authors as well as female characters. With autism or any other group, it’s the same. Nothing about us without us.
Second, because autistic people are often told we can’t write good stories because we don’t have enough imagination, or enough empathy, or whatever. If a straight white NT dude has trouble writing convincing characters, he gets told to go to a writing workshop and build his skills. If an Aspie has trouble doing it, she is contractually obligated to question whether this is an “Aspie thing”, and whether Aspies are capable of writing good fiction at all.
(Side note: Some autistic people have trouble with “pretend play” as children. They do not see the point of acting out a situation that everyone knows isn’t real. But this isn’t the case for all autistic people. An awful lot of us are known to retreat into imagination as a coping mechanism. Others – or the same ones – construct elaborate imaginary worlds as a special interest.)
So I’ve been itching to give you some examples of good speculative fiction by autistic people, and Caiseal Mór – a bestselling Irish-Australian fantasy author – looks like a good place to start.
“The Meeting of the Waters” is an epic fantasy with a large scope and many viewpoint characters. Yet the usual epic fantasy tropes – Chosen Ones, hordes of throwaway villains, long journeys and quests for a MacGuffin – are pleasantly absent. That’s because Mór isn’t using other epic fantasy as his model. He’s gone back to primary sources and to a lifelong fascination with Celtic mythology.
Mór’s take on this mythology may surprise some readers. In “The Meeting of the Waters”, the Tuatha De Danaan have not yet become the immortal, capricious creatures of most modern fantasy. When we meet them, they are ordinary mortals. Here the Danaans, the Fir-Bolg, and the Milesians (ancestors of today’s Irish people) are three human tribes descended from a common ancestor, each with rich musical and magical traditions, a cattle-based economy, and a carefully codified set of rules for war and justice. But each tribe’s choices, as the story progresses, will set them onto radically different paths.
Mór takes a bird’s-eye view of these choices. (Sometimes literally. Parts of the book are narrated by a man who has been turned into a raven.) He moves from character to character as he wishes in order to show us a larger picture. No single character carries the fate of all of Ireland on their shoulders, and no single character is always expected to garner readers’ sympathy. Instead, what changes the course of history is a set of interlocking decisions from many characters. The major players are each interesting and distinct from each other, but none is immune from making terrible choices when pushed. Similarly, no one is entirely unsympathetic, though some characters (especially the Fir-Bolg king and queen) seem to be, for a while. Even the story’s villains – a pair of manipulative Fomorians set on causing discord between the other three tribes – come off as clever and likeable at times, especially early in the story, before we’ve seen the worst consequences of their meddling.
The result is an overall voice which can be somewhat detached, but also very human and forgiving. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But in a genre overrun by NT authors who think the whole moral and physical universe revolves around their Chosen One, I think Mór’s balanced approach is the better one for teaching us empathy.
The Verdict: Recommended
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.