Autistic Book Party, Episode 62 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Nancy Kress, “End Game” (Asimov’s, 2007; I read it reprinted in the August 2013 issue of Lightspeed)

This story is about a man named Allen who wishes to research drugs to improve his focus, and who ends up accidentally creating a contagious illness that makes people hyperfocus to the point of being unable to think of anything but a single interest.

Autism is not ever mentioned by name in this story, but it’s a presence throughout. Even before Allen begins experimenting to try to artificially induce hyperfocus, he is depicted with stereotypical autistic traits – blunt, inept with manners, emotionally distant and inclined toward monologues. Jeff, the story’s narrator, finds him irritating. His research, as it progresses, only exacerbates these traits – in him, in a test subject named Lucy, and eventually in everyone else.

Kress’s Author Spotlight for this story says: “Allen’s POV would be too hard for me to write, and too hard for readers to identify with. For this sort of story, you want someone who can observe the horror, not be the horror.” And this more or less sums up the problems I encountered while reading the story. Allen’s research begins to focus people to a debilitating degree, but he’s othered from the very beginning. Even his parents as a teenager are frightened of him. Even Jeff’s wife, who is described as warm, empathetic, and interested in eccentricity, finds Allen intolerable once she’s had to sit through a dinner with him. Like Vernor Vinge (who wrote about extreme artificially-induced focus, in a different but related way, in “A Deepness In The Sky”) Kress isn’t at all interested in the experiences and perspectives of autistic people, but only in how their autistic traits might serve as a metaphor for her own questions about focus, distraction, and their appropriate roles in a neurotypical mind.

Moreover, it’s puzzling that Allan – despite having a doctorate and having done a lifetime of research into the mind, and despite being strongly autistic-coded himself – doesn’t seem to have ever heard of autism. If he’s heard of it, he expresses no thoughts about it, even as it pertains to his research. The fact that he’s had intense and unpredictable interests all his life – which is an autistic trait – doesn’t seem to register to him as being relevant to a research program which is entirely about being able to focus on intense interests.

I am by no means an #ownvoices purist – I think non-autistic people can and do write autism well. But this is the kind of story that I think could have been much better and much more interesting if it was, in fact, written by an autistic author. We actually have very nuanced experiences around our special interests and our ability to hyperfocus. There is joy in such experiences that goes beyond merely the joy of being able to tune out distractions (though that’s part of it). There is also struggle, because our interests and their intensity can be socially unacceptable, because we can be subject to coercion around them, and because they can get in the way of self-care and other life activities. If Allan’s perspective had been written in a way that intelligently addressed this, and that thought deeply about the trade-offs inherent in being able to intensify or control a special interest, then this would have been a very different story and I would have liked it much more. It could still be a horror story, as Kress intended – there would still be lots of room for Allan’s process to get out of control and have unintended effects – but it would be a much more complex and empathetic one. [Not Recommended]

*

Ren Basel, “The Queen of Cups”(self-published, March 2019)

[Autistic author] Theo, a nonbinary youth from a family of sailors, must consult an Oracle before their first journey. For mysterious reasons, the Oracle insists on accompanying them to sea. This is the kind of fantasy story that many readers will find comforting for its matter-of-fact treatment of gender and neurodivergence in a world where discrimination is absent. Theo is never explicitly labeled as non-neurotypical, but their synesthesia and need to stim are a part of their character consistently throughout the story. Theo’s use of a beaded bracelet to relieve stress is a very simple thing, but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen stim toys integrated into a fantasy setting in this way before, matter-of-factly or otherwise. [Recommended-1]

*

Robin M Eames, “crip mythic” (Cordite Poetry Review, May 2019)

[Autistic author] This is a poem about physical disability, not autism, but autistic readers will relate very hard to lines like “my body is not my body / but a metaphor in someone else’s mouth” and to the poem’s overarching theme – what it’s like to live a life that others see as a horror and a cautionary tale, and to still fiercely value your life and self. [Recommended-2]

*

Andi C. Buchanan, “Even the Clearest Water” (Fireside, July 2020)

[Autistic author] In this story, Buchanan takes an #ownvoices approach to the issue of autistic people wandering and drowning, and of the idea that autistic children are “drawn to water.” The narrator is a faerie being who lives in a river, and who’s willing to save human visitors from drowning – for a price. They encounter a non-speaking autistic child, and later realize that the child’s mother – also autistic, though able to speak and hold a job – is also someone they saved years earlier. Despite the dark subject matter (the child has to be saved from accidental drowning, and the mother’s first encounter with the narrator was a suicide attempt) the story feels sweet and oddly comforting, as the narrator is drawn, through a playful approach to their own system of prices and debts, into a family-like relationship with both mortals. [Recommended-1]

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R.B. Lemberg, “Stone Listening” (Strange Horizons tenth anniversary issue, August 31, 2020)

[Autistic author] This poem is a tribute to a book by Ursula K. LeGuin that I haven’t read, so I am not the person to comment on it at length, but I love it so much. There’s a lot packed in here about survival in a world where very little will survive, about honoring death and grief and hope without forcing them into a narrative larger than themselves – a lot that feels uncomfortably relevant to today’s crises, despite having come from another time and another world. [Recommended-2]

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Arula Ratnakar, “Lone Puppeteer of a Sleeping City” (Clarkesworld, September 2020)

[Autistic author] This is a fascinating hard sci-fi story with a lot going on. Thanks to climate change, humans are preparing to go into a hibernation of sorts while robots repair the world’s fragile ecosystems. The narrator, Onyx, is an artificial intelligence preparing simulated worlds for the humans to experience while they’re asleep – but she forms a bond with one young human, Eesha, which will profoundly change her own fate.

I’m not doing the story justice by focusing on just one aspect, but what’s especially fascinating to me, from a neurodiversity perspective, is the way Ratnakar handles different kinds of minds. There are regular humans, and there are human minds uploaded into computer systems, and there are cyborgs called Diasteroms who are born with modified brains, and there is Onyx, who is sufficiently different from all these groups as to have trouble communicating with them. Both the Diasteroms – who we don’t see much of, but who are subject to prejudice and suspicion – and Onyx herself could be seen as loose metaphors for neurodivergent humans. Onyx’s experiences are described this way:

The other children did not want to play with you either—or rather, they did not know that you wanted to play with them. They could not tell what you were feeling, what you were thinking. They knew you as a fascinating entity that they should treat with respect, but they did not consider you one of them.

But Eesha, while a normal human, feels different from the other children. She feels an immediate kinship with Onyx and has a much easier time communicating with her than other humans. It’s hinted, though not spelled out, that Eesha is neurodivergent herself, and the close bond between her and Onyx – something none of the other characters can understand – is what drives this story at its heart. [Recommended-2]