Today’s Book: “Hoshi and the Red City Circuit” by Dora M. Raymaker.
The Plot: Hoshi Archer, a private detective with a developmental disability called K-Syndrome, investigates a series of ritual murders that appear to be targeted at people just like her.
Autistic Character(s): …It’s complicated.
Dora M. Raymaker is an autistic author, and the goings-on in her novel revolve around a fictional disability quite a lot like autism. The similarity is so strong that I am hesitating over whether to call the Operators (as people with K-Syndrome are officially called) autistic characters or not. Before I go into that, I need to zoom out and give you a better idea of what is happening in Raymaker’s fantastically detailed science fictional world.
Hoshi Archer lives in Red City, a metropolis whose infrastructure is supported by a cyberpunk virtual world called the Mem. Anyone can access the Mem with the right technology, but only Operators can program the quantum computers that underlie it, or fully experience the Mem with all of their senses.
Operators also have marked impairments in sensory processing, language, and motor sequencing – so much so that, without the assistive technology implanted in their brains, most of them would be unable to speak or to care for themselves. In fact, having “verbal-sequential IQ at least three standard deviations below visual-associative IQ” is a defining diagnostic trait of K-Syndrome.
This is a definition that excludes many real-life autistic people (including me, as it happens; my own verbal-sequential IQ is markedly higher than my visual-associative one), and that might fit a number of other real-life disabled people who aren’t autistic, but it’s a profile that many other real-life autistic people do match. And by focusing on developmentally disabled people with lower verbal ability and higher support needs, “Hoshi and the Red City Circuit” fills a gap that has sometimes arisen in existing #ownvoices autistic books, even though the novel’s technology mitigates some of those needs.
The idea that Operators are needed for their specialized abilities echoes many fictional tropes and real-world issues, including magical disabilities, sheltered workshops, and the current trend of software companies looking specifically for autistic people in their most repetitive, detail-oriented jobs. “Hoshi and the Red City Circuit” deals strongly with the potential abuses in that scenario, intensifying them to the point of dystopia.
The world of Red City doesn’t revolve only around Operators, of course, and the way Raymaker writes the city is one of the pleasures of this book. Hoshi adores Red City, considering it a personal friend, tracing the skyline from her apartment window every morning and keeping a mental list of her 200 favorite buildings. Throughout the book, specific places in the city are named and described with such life and precision that I couldn’t help but suspect that Raymaker herself feels the same way. I’m curious if there is a full map of Red City in her notes somewhere, although none appears in the physical book. Not only places and buildings, but social forces within the city such as its various crime families, political movements, and religions also appear with their own crystal-clear characters.
Hoshi Archer works as a private detective, using her pattern-matching and associative abilities to help the Red City Police Department solve crimes. She’s one of the few Operators who has an independent job. Until recently in Red City, most Operators were institutionalized and owned by the state; their programming duties, or whatever else they were assigned to, were literally slave labor. Many Operators continue to live under these conditions. Under Integration Law, an Operator has to prove they can live independently before being granted autonomy over their life. Those who are freed are monitored, and their autonomy can be taken away again if they don’t seem to be caring for themselves correctly.
Integration Law has parallels to institutionalization in the real world, and the threat of having her freedom revoked is one of many threats that keep Hoshi’s narrative in a constant state of tension. Many autistic readers will be able to relate, for example, to Hoshi’s meetings with her social worker, a blandly friendly woman much more interested in testing if Hoshi’s life meets correct parameters than in helping her thrive.
“No problem. You’re doing great. Just remember, I want you to succeed; I work for you. If something’s bothering you, if something bad has happened, you tell me and we’ll work it out. You and I – we’re a team.” Her precisely-painted lips twitched in maybe a smile or maybe a nervous tic.
Yeah. Right. Like I’d ask anyone at the IO for anything. One of the tenets of Integration Law was… don’t show any weakness or it will become a reason to land a body back into slavery. I saw it happen to Ghe Garver in my own first cohort, six months after we were emancipated. He’d confessed to having trouble keeping his apartment tidy and asked his Integration Officer for help. She’d run an inspection and flagged his quarters unsanitary. “Some of you won’t be able to make the transition, that’s just the nature of your disabilities,” she’d told him as she took away half his rights… Of course no one had offered him a housekeeper.
Aside from the social oppression surrounding Operators, the direct experience of Operators is also portrayed in a way that I found very autistically accurate and relatable. The technology in Operators’ heads helps them pass in a neurotypical world, generating spoken language out of the thoughts that they wish to express, modulating their motor impulses into useful motion, displaying facial expressions that neurotypicals can understand, and filtering out excessive sensory stimuli. But, like real technology, this assistive tech is by no means perfect. It has glitches, and does realistic things like slowing down when too much is being processed at once. At one point, there is a wonderful and harrowing chase scene in which Hoshi turns off some of her sensory filters so as to overhear a whispered conversation, is discovered, and forgets to turn them on again before rushing outside – resulting in intense disorientation and burnout just when she needs her abilities most.
“Hoshi and the Red City Circuit” is a great ride, with a mystery that builds and thickens constantly before bringing all its threads together in a conclusion for which the city’s treatment of Operators is central. I really enjoyed its worldbuilding and the varied characters who inhabit its darkest corners, as well as its commentary on neurodiversity and human rights, and I’ll be looking out for much more from this author.
The Verdict: Recommended-1
Disclosure: I have never interacted with Dora M. Raymaker. I got her book as an ARC from the publisher and reviewed it before other ARCs because it won a poll among my Patreon backers.
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