Today’s Book: “Power to Yield,” a novella by Bogi Takács, published in Clarkesworld
The Plot: A young woman named Oyārun develops a fascination with a man named Aramīn – a controversial political figure who helped found her world in its current form, and who puts volunteers through agonizing magical transformations in order to keep that world safe.
Autistic Character(s): Oyārun, plus almost everyone else on her planet, because we’re back in the Ereni universe, yay!
Those of you who’ve been around for a little while will know how much I like the Ereni universe, in which there is a whole planet of autistic people with magical powers who have developed a culture of their own. “Power to Yield” shows us a corner of that universe that might not be what we expected. Other stories have mentioned the System, a magical shared consciousness that helps manage daily life on Eren; “Power to Yield” shows us how the System is made and maintained, why it is necessary, and what the price is. Ereni volunteers contribute to the System by merging their consciousness with the System for a period of time, through a process that Aramīn invented – but it is difficult for human minds to process so much magical information at once, even with preparation. The process of doing so is intensely painful, yet strangely compelling and even addictive.
This is a premise that incorporates many of Takács’ favorite themes – magical power and how to control it, neurodivergence, transformations, and non-sexual BDSM – but it might just go deeper into them than any story I’ve seen from Takács before.
“Power to Yield” is also set earlier in the timeline than much of Takács’ other work, when both Ereni society and the System are still new. The System, or something like it, is necessary because of the extremely high level of magic on Eren – without something in place to control it at a large scale, the planet would spawn monsters and other dangerous effects that would make it almost impossible to live there.
Aramīn is a neurodivergent character both by Ereni standards and by our own. He’s not autistic; instead, he is referred to with the slang term “Falconer.” In context, he seems to have something like ASPD. He has much less affective empathy than other people (though not none), and he has to set strict rules for himself in order to conform to the moral standards of the society he’s in. Even though Aramīn was a pivotal figure in the Ereni independence movement, people on Eren fear and distrust him because of his neurotype – except those who have worked with him in the System, who speak of him very highly indeed.
This ambiguity is a part of what draws Oyārun to Aramīn; after researching him for a school assignment, she becomes so fascinated with him that he becomes her new special interest. I love how the idea of special interests is worked into Ereni culture in this story. There is a word for them (“abuwen”) in the Ereni language, and there are robust online communities where Ereni discuss their special interests with others who share them; there are even intriguing hints of a sort of abuwen hierarchy, with abuwen being considered differently based on whether they are actively helpful, harmless (as with Oyārun’s previous abuwen, artistic paper folding), or potentially harmful. Unfortunately a special interest in a real, living person falls into that latter category – it’s not unheard of, but it can become a problem very fast.
I don’t know if the timing was a coincidence, but shortly after this story was released, I saw some discourse floating around on Twitter, saying that fixations on other people shouldn’t be considered special interests, because they are harmful. To classify a harmful thing as an autistic trait, according to this argument, would either be to condone the harmful thing (because the poor little autistic people who have the fixation can’t help it) or to imply that autism is inherently harmful. I disagree with this discourse, actually. I think it’s worthwhile to note that some autistic traits – and traits of many other forms of neurodivergence – can cause harm if they are not handled properly. I think it’s worthwhile for us to sit with that.
In any case, Takács sits with it in this story, and e resists the urge to tie the situation up with a tidy lesson. Oyārun worries that her abuwen will be harmful, and tries to suppress it – but that doesn’t stop her from eventually stalking Aramīn until he discovers her. Aramīn isn’t especially upset, but he in turn worries that, if he accepts Oyārun’s offer to work with him in the System, he’ll be taking advantage of her. From one point of view, her abuwen makes her vulnerable in a way other volunteers aren’t. Yet the System is desperately short on volunteers, and if she’s willing to do the work, then he needs her.
The results of this collaboration – successful on its face – remain emotionally ambiguous to the end. Is Oyārun’s work with the System a noble self-sacrifice? Is it somehow wrong? Is it necessary? Maybe, the story suggests, it’s all of those things. And maybe everyone on the planet Eren – Oyārun and Aramīn most of all – is just going to have to live with it.
The Verdict: Recommended-1