(First published Feb 2, 2014. Note that my policy on non-specifically non-neurotypical authors has changed slightly since this review was written.)
Today’s Book: “Rainbow Lights” by Polenth Blake, a short story collection.
Let me say this up front: Blake doesn’t identify as an autistic author. Blake identifies as non-neurotypical, but says (in eir online profile) that e doesn’t “have any neat label for that”.
Not everybody who is non-neurotypical is autistic. And not everybody who is non-neurotypical is within the scope of this review series. Frankly, there are LOTS of neurotypes that we don’t consider “normal”, and I don’t know a whole lot about all of them. So taking Blake’s “I am not neurotypical but don’t know exactly what to call it” and assuming that this makes em an autistic author, would be offensive, condescending, appropriative, and probably incorrect.
I don’t want to do that.
But I do want to talk about “Rainbow Lights”, because it’s awesome, and I think it is a book worth approaching from a neurodiverse perspective.
So let’s just get that out of the way. This is not an “autistic book”. It is not a “neurotypical book”, either. It is a book. I am reviewing it. YAY.
The stories in “Rainbow Lights” are organized by color associations, and the opening story, “The Squid Who Lived Forever”, sets the tone. The protagonist in this story is an undersea robot, whose displays of personality, identity, and autonomy are treated as “behavioural malfunctions”. The way the protagonist is treated will be familiar and painful to anyone who has gone through behavioural therapy themselves. Fortunately, the robot gets away, and then there are squid.
Themes like these – of disability, marginalization, outsidership – are an undercurrent running through the whole collection. They are never the point of the story, nor are they ever entirely absent. They recur on almost every level I can think of, not only levels of ability (which is not surprising, given the multiple marginalizations of the author).
Standout stories from a disability perspective include “Grandmother’s Dreaming” – in which the protagonist and her grandmother are almost certainly autistic, and save their village from a freaking awesome magical ocean in which physical tendrils of dreams come out of a vent – and “The Monsters in the Gaps”, in which a dyslexic narrator learns to trust his own perception.
(I should talk about “Grandmother’s Dreaming” a little more, since this IS Autistic Book Party. The protagonist has an atypical, subdued reaction to her grandmother’s death, and gets flak from it from NT villagers, who think she is uncaring. She is simply unemotional about death, as her grandmother was before her. Many autistic people, though by no means all, have this kind of trouble with social grieving rituals. Instead of mourning with the NT villagers, the protagonist sets out to accomplish something in her grandmother’s memory – and ends up discovering and fixing a very important problem which is tied to her grandmother’s past. Concurrently, the better-known parts of her grandmother’s past are explained in flashback, and we learn that the grandmother’s atypical processing actually equipped her to take on a dangerous task when all the NT villagers failed, amid vaguely Lovecraftian sinister sea beings, and save her people many years ago. This isn’t actually spelled out in so many words, because it’s not a Message Story, but it becomes obvious as things progress, and it’s wonderful.)
It is important to note, in light of recent fandom conversations, that absolutely fucking none of this is “message fiction”. The characters are not subject to a gaze that makes their differences the focal point of the story, even though their differences have realistic consequences for them and can affect the plot. They are not avatars of a particular difference; they just are, and the stories are richer for it.
This is really important, and really hard. When privileged writers – even accomplished ones – are consciously trying to “write the other”, it shows. There are effusive demonstrations and descriptions of Just How Much Research The Author Has Done and of Just How Authentic This Is (even when it’s not) – or else the “otherness” of the story becomes so minor that it nearly disappears. Blake’s writing has none of that. Instead it has a kind of nonchalance.
I know enough about art to know that, for authors who “make it look easy”, it’s probably anything but. But one gets the distinct sense that none of this is “other” to Blake; rather, it comes easily precisely because it’s where Blake has lived all along.
When we don’t read multiply marginalized authors, we miss all this good stuff.
Blake is also excellent at writing nonhuman protagonists, including scorpionlike aliens, clockwork automata, and post-apocalyptic beetles, with the same kind of understated ease.
A few stories in the Orange and Red sections do begin to feel self-conscious – including “Incident in Aisle Five,” in which people are somehow living in an enormous department store that takes days to cross. Yet even in this kind of story, when one scratches the surface, one finds a seething unease rooted in real experience:
The world kept us walking in straight lines down the aisles, managed our open hours, said what were in and out this season. We didn’t get more choice as we grew. We just learnt to be silent, because asking all those questions never got answers.
The only real clunker in the book is the poem “To Laugh at Acorns”, which caught me off guard, because it reads like something straight out of an Autism Speaks commercial. I have no idea how an author who’s otherwise as clueful as Blake fell down so hard on that one. It doesn’t actually mention the word “autism”, so maybe Blake was simply thinking of something else when e wrote it. I have no idea. Mercifully, that one is short.
So in summary, there are uneven bits, as in any collection, but my overall impression was positive. If you like diversity and awesome sea creatures / aliens / robots, and stories that are unusual without feeling strained, and you want more non-neurotypical authors in your collection – or mix-and-match any subset of these – this book is for you.
The Verdict: Recommended
For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.