Autistic Book Party, Episode 61: Displacement

Today’s Book: “Displacement” by Richard Ford Burley.

The Plot: Jamie, a teenage punk at an elite prep school, develops a mysterious illness – and wakes up having transformed into a perfect copy of his dead twin sister. As he and his friends try to cope with whatever just happened, the truth about Jamie’s body – and his sister’s – connects to a series of conspiracies far stranger than they ever could have guessed.

Autistic Character(s): The author, as well as a girl in Jamie’s class named Tina – more on her later.

Although I mostly enjoyed Burley’s previous book, “Mouse,” I really had no idea what to expect going in to this one. The “boy wakes up in a female body” trope is one that many trans readers rightly view with suspicion. Fortunately Burley, who is nonbinary himself, approaches the topic with nuance. And while gender is a major part of Jamie’s character arc throughout the book, it quickly transpires that there are far wilder things afoot than a gender transition.

To get the gender aspect out of the way, though – Jamie, who soon takes the more androgynous name Leigh, is realistically confused and upset as he adjusts to a body that causes dysphoria for him. He sticks to he/him pronouns throughout the book, and experiences some of the microaggressions and awkward moments that are realistic for a trans boy at a not-very-progressive upper-class boarding school. These moments are handled with nuance and care, and they don’t take over the story. Meanwhile, as Leigh adjusts to his new social role, he starts to realize that he might not have been fully comfortable as a boy either, and that it might be more accurate to call himself nonbinary.

The big, cosmic, weird shit aspects of the story don’t really begin to come together until halfway through, but they’re worth the wait. Fortunately the time spent waiting for them – as Leigh and a plucky, punky group of school friends hang out together, start a band, play pranks, deal with gender feelings and so on, and as mysterious messages from an ominous entity called “Betza” begin to arrive – is entertaining enough in its own right. I won’t spoil what turns out to be going on, but it involves secret weapons, alternate universes, runaway AI, and nanotechnology… just for starters. Even given the strangeness of the incident that starts out the story, Leigh and his friends are in for a much wilder ride than they know.

Autism isn’t foregrounded in this story, but the group of friends accompanying Leigh on his adventure includes an autistic classmate named Tina. I really like how Tina is written – she might be one of the best examples of an autistic secondary character / sidekick, seen through non-autistic protagonists’ eyes, that I’ve ever read. She’s quiet and mousy, but she loves the same music as the main characters, and she asks to join the band that they’re starting; as soon as the main characters hear how she can play the bass guitar, she’s instantly one of them. She’s clever in a realistically autistic way – noticing small details, at several points, that the others miss – without being turned into a cleverness plot device. The main characters notice her differences, but they’re genuinely happy to have her around.

There’s another minor character who reads as possibly autistic to me – a prickly computer scientist named Faye, who’s happy to spend all of her time alone in a lab developing her pet project instead of bothering dealing with humans. But we don’t see enough of Faye to make me confident saying it for sure.

Overall this is much more a story about gender, otherness, family bonds, and friendship than a story about autism – but it’s a surprisingly fun ride, and well worth picking up.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Autistic Book Party, Episode 60 and three quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Richard Ford Burley, “Hello, World” (The Colored Lens, Summer 2016)
[Autistic author] An AI prototype named Alice has to be raised by human parents before her mind is complete. When her human mother dies unexpectedly, her human father fights to keep custody of a robot daughter he’s grown to love. This story is all from Alice’s point of view, and while it’s not an Autism Story, Alice is written in a way that make the parallels between her and an autistic character very plain. She works hard to learn the meaning of human facial expressions and of questions about preferences and feelings. Alice matures over time in a naturalistic way which resists being read as a story of “healing” or “overcoming” – she’s simply gaining knowledge and skills in a loving environment. [Recommended-2]

*

Robin M Eames, “The moon under water” (overland, 233 summer 2018)
[Autistic author] This is an intertextual meditation on the role of disability (and the origins of ableism) in human myth and fantasy. There’s a character who uses a wheelchair and is also described as “tapping her fingertips… in anxious patterns” in a way that might or might not be meant to evoke autistic stimming. But this character’s exact possible diagnoses are not the point – the point is the poetic and incisive way that Eames weaves the different narratives together, changing their details here and there to expose what is normally left out, and it’s really well done. [Recommended-2]

*

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of You” (Nightmare, Issue 84, September 2019)
[Autistic author] A nicely creepy horror story about a VR game called “Vore,” which is what it says on the can. The game fulfils a fantasy that seems strange, but harmless at first – until its aftereffects settle into the players’ brains in ways they can’t undo, and the question arises of where this game came from, exactly. Fans of creepypasta and non-linear narratives will enjoy this one. [Recommended-2]

*

Amber Bird, “who i am” (Fireside, November 2019)
[Autistic author] A short, sweet love poem in which the narrator compares zirself to a river. I really like this one. [Recommended-2]

*

RB Lemberg, “To Balance the Weight of Khalem” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue #300, March 26, 2020)
[Autistic author] The tale of a genderqueer refugee student, a manta ray shapeshifter, a spherical city that hangs in the air, and a magical onion. This isn’t Birdverse, but its lushly detailed descriptions have a similar feel. The descriptions of food in particular will make readers hungry. [Recommended-2]

*

Ashley Deng, “D├ęgustation” (Nightmare, Issue 94 – July 2020)
[Autistic author] The protagonist in this one isn’t technically an autistic person – she’s a member of a family of fungus people disguised as humans – but the ways she is treated by normal humans, and the careful, painful way she works to figure out what they expect of her, map so precisely onto common autistic experiences that I can’t help but call it an #ownvoices autism story. It’s also a subversion of the “secret aliens/monsters among us” trope – they are among us, but they’re just regular people trying to fit in. In the end, the protagonist learns to savor her unusual gifts for their own sake, instead of waiting for an ableist human’s approval. [Recommended-1]

THE FALLEN cover reveal

Look at this amazing cover for THE FALLEN! This is the much-anticipated sequel to THE OUTSIDE, and it’s forthcoming in July 2021.

For more about THE FALLEN, check out the official cover reveal on Tor.com here.

Broken Eye Books Kickstarter!

You might remember that, in the spring, my short story “Back Room” was published on the Broken Eye Books Patreon. Broken Eye uses a Patreon-first publishing model, in which Patreon backers get to see the stories first, and they’re later collected into anthologies.

“Back Room” was for an anthology called “Cooties Shot Required” – themed around Weird stories, written for grown-ups, but with children as the central characters. My take on that theme involved two non-neurotypical sisters getting lost in an overwhelming store at the mall – which turns out to be much bigger, and much stranger, than they supposed.

Broken Eye Books is now kickstarting their ninth anthology, “Whether Change, The Revolution Will Be Weird.” And “Cooties Shot Required” is involved with this Kickstarter in several ways:

  • By pledging US $12 or more, you can get both “Whether Change” and “Cooties Shot Required” as a kickstarter reward – to my knowledge, this is the first time the full “Cooties Shot Required” anthology has ever been available for purchase. $40 will get you both anthologies in paperback, and $70 will get them to you in hardcover.
  • Plus, if the Kickstarter reaches its $15,000 stretch goal, both anthologies will open to unsolicited submissions. You could be TOC-mates with me! (Not to mention the other wonderful names who’ve already written “Cooties Shot Required” stories – including Brandon O’Brien, Sheree Thomas, and Damien Angelica Walters.)

I’ve worked with Broken Eye Books before, in their “Ride the Star Wind” anthology (which contains a short story set in THE OUTSIDE’s universe) and really enjoyed the experience.

So if Weird short fiction, children, and revolutions are your thing (and, honestly, who can say in times like these that revolution isn’t their thing?) and you have budget to spare, then definitely check the Kickstarter out.