Autistic Book Party, Episode 54: The Place Inside the Storm

Today’s Book: “The Place Inside the Storm” by Bradley W. Wright.

The Plot: A fourteen-year-old autistic girl named Tara runs away from home, in a corporate-controlled near-future Los Angeles, after her parents’ employers blackmail them into agreeing to “cure” her.

Autistic Character(s): Tara herself, plus a boy named Loki who she meets on the run, and eventually, a whole neurodiversity-affirming community of autistic people. Also the author.

Tara is a teenager who passes as neurotypical, although she has many of the problems that often go with teenage passing: moodiness, exhaustion, overload, and loneliness. She’s skilled at computer programming, but has difficulty keeping up with school. She’s teased and bullied and has few friends, except for one best friend from her old home in PacNW, with whom she keeps in touch online.

Tara doesn’t know what autism is, but she knows that her parents are acting strange and distracted, and that they’ve sent her to a bewildering and uncomfortable medical appointment without an explanation. Left alone in the examination room, she eavesdrops, which is how she finds out that she’s been diagnosed with something and that her parents have already agreed to a surgical cure without her consent. The company they work for not only wants to put an implant in Tara’s brain to encourage “pro-social behavior,” but they’re so insistent about this that they’ve blackmailed her parents into agreeing. The robot cat Tara’s family received as a gift is an unauthorized model, and her father could be prosecuted for keeping it.

(I like the robot cat, by the way, who stays with Tara throughout the book as a helpful companion and guide. I want a robot cat.)

The corporation’s motives feel a bit contrived to me. It’s not that I can’t believe someone would create evil brain implants, either to cure autism or for some other purpose. In history, questionable medical tech has often been tested on the most vulnerable populations – high-support disabled people, racial minorities, etc. – because that’s where it’s easiest to get away with it. Tara isn’t one of these populations, despite technically being disabled. It’s never clear why the corporation is so keen on targeting her specifically – enough to perform complicated blackmail on her parents, and to pay for an expensive manhunt to try to retrieve her – when there are so many easier ways for them to test their technology and take advantage of people.

Although she’ll learn better later in the story, Tara’s early thoughts about the cure technology are realistic for a panicked, passing teenager who’s never heard of autism before. Which means there’s a hefty dose of internalized and intra-disability ableism:

They wanted to control my brain, change how I thought. Reset Xel so he wouldn’t even recognize me. Make me into a zombie with a computer implanted in my head. They wanted me to become a different person. Yes, I had always had trouble socializing. I had trouble caring about the stuff regular kids were into. I liked computer programming and old science fiction books. But my friend Rosie back home was proof that I wasn’t a total loser, wasn’t she? I just needed to meet people who were on my wavelength. I didn’t want to be like the regular kids. I liked who I was, even if I was a little weird.

In any case, Tara runs away and begins a difficult trek through Los Angeles and the wilderness around it, helped by her robot cat, and hoping to find safety, either at her grandmother’s house in PacNW or elsewhere.

The logistics of Tara’s journey – where to go, how to get there, how to properly hide and avoid danger – take up much of the narration of the middle parts of the book, and they’re some of the book’s most interesting passages to me, where the narrative feels most assured. The book wavers a little bit more when describing the human interactions that go into the journey. For instance, animals or strangers unaffiliated with corporations will sometimes chase Tara aggressively for reasons that don’t seem clear.

While Tara struggles at school, she turns out to excel at trekking through unknown territory without the distractions of her everyday Internet tech. Despite high stress and physical exhaustion, she rarely melts down or has sensory/cognitive difficulties that affect her actions. She frequently reflects on how much better she’s doing outside the strictures of the lifestyle that she took for granted before.

Tara also meets a boy named Loki, who is a survivor of the kind of cure surgery she has avoided. Something went wrong during Loki’s surgery: in addition to being made docile and people-pleasing by his implant, he also has frequent, dangerous seizures.

I had a bit of an issue with how Loki is written throughout the story and how little agency he is given, especially since he is depicted as being more disabled than Tara. He joins Tara on her quest, not because he wants to, but because his caretaker thinks it’s the best chance for him to get better. He has good survival skills thanks to living on the margins for so long, but he uses them either in emergencies that clearly require them or when someone else asks him to. He doesn’t really seem to start anything or form any goals of his own, and I often didn’t feel I was getting a good sense of him as a person. All this is realistic for someone who has a brain implant specifically making them docile and compliant, but I didn’t really see it problematized with Loki as much as I would have liked. Other characters spend time thinking and talking about how awful it is that this was done to Loki against his will, but they don’t seem to think much about how it affects their interactions with him in the present. They don’t think very hard about whether they’re unwittingly taking advantage of him, and it doesn’t seem to be any impediment to him and Tara starting a romantic relationship.

When Tara, Loki, and Xel do make it to the end of their journey, it’s in a form they didn’t expect at first: a secret commune developed by and for autistic people, where the people in charge are aware of the forcible brain implant problem, and are covertly trying to lead anyone targeted to safety. The people at the commune explain how things got to be this way:

The children at his school were educated to understand why he and other kids like him were different. They were taught to accept difference. But then the country took a turn. New people came to power who did not believe in education and accommodation and diversity. They took away the funding. They put bureaucrats in charge. They turned power over to the corporations, and corporations don’t like difference. They wanted to stamp it out. Good workers and good consumers were predictable. Corporations put a lot of emphasis on culture. Everybody had to fit into the corporate culture, had to be a team player.

This part of the story doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels oversimplified, with “corporations” and “bureaucrats” being blamed for a state of things that in my experience is more pervasive and complicated. It bothers me slightly on a story-logic level that the corporations seem to be equally invested in curing autism and denying that it exists. In real life, dangerous and harmful autism “treatments” already exist – from ABA, which is scientifically grounded but involves an abusive dynamic, to ridiculous quack cures like bleach. Parents opt for these treatments, not because they’re being blackmailed and don’t know what autism is, but because they do know the word “autism” and are taught to be deathly afraid of it. Erasing all awareness of autism seems puzzling and unnecessary in this light, even counterproductive to the corporations’ goals. It feels like a storytelling choice that was made mostly so that beginning-of-the-story Tara could learn everything dramatically all at once.

The commune of autistic people and their families feels oversimplified to me as well. It consists of people at varying places on the spectrum, including some non-speaking people who are briefly introduced, as well as some of their neurotypical parents. All of them grew up in the novel’s wider society, in which ableism exists at levels similar to real life or worse, but once they reach the commune, they don’t seem to have any lingering internalized ableism to unlearn before they can live well with each other. There are some sensory accommodations made, including a quiet room, but by and large, everything just… works, to a utopian degree, without any conflicting access needs or other intracommunity issues.

This is related to the way Tara’s sensory and cognitive issues suddenly get better when she’s no longer at school. There’s a strong anti-corporate and anti-screen-time bent underlying the themes of this book. I’m all for critiques of capitalism, but the critique that the commune in this book offers is a strange and simplistic one, in which, when people’s lives are no longer controlled by corporations and they’re no longer on the Internet all the time, everything else becomes magically fine forever. I feel like this way of resolving things does a disservice to the more nuanced relationships many autistic people have to technology and online community, and is uncomfortably close to some ableist narratives that I’m tired of (“ADHD only exists because computers!,” etc.)

For that matter, I’m not really sure how other disabilities fit into the utopian autistic commune, either. Are other non-neurotypical people not targeted and endangered by the corporations in this book the way autists are? Do they have a whole other set of communes? What about overlapping non-neurotypicalities? I don’t know.

Overall, “The Place Inside the Storm” is a well-intentioned #ownvoices effort that didn’t work for me on a craft or a worldbuilding level. If you really love the idea of a teen running away from home to an autistic commune, and if the elements I’ve described here sound more interesting than annoying to you, then you might enjoy the read more than I did.

The Verdict: YMMV

Disclosure: The only interaction I have had with Bradley W. Wright is when he sent me a review copy of his book, which is how I ended up reading it.

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Nightmare II

My new poem, “Nightmare II,” appears today in the Spring 2019 issue of Kaleidotrope.

This poem is part of a nightmare-themed series, all of which are transcriptions of actual nightmares I’ve had; Nightmare I appears in MONSTERS IN MY MIND. Each poem in the series should, however, be readable on its own.