Autistic Book Party, Episode 56: Ghost in the Machine

Today’s Book: “Ghost in the Machine” by C.E. Kilgore

The Plot: Orynn, a Vesparian – a member of a powerful, secretive race of empaths – falls in love with an android named Ethan, while the two of them are assigned to a diplomatic mission in space.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I’ve been noticing (partly thanks to some intrepid commenters!) that although I have my mainstay favorite autistic SFF authors, most of whom are traditionally published, there’s also a lot going on with autistic SFF in the indie publishing world. And while I’ve read and recommended self-published books before (including “Failure to Communicate,” my first and so-far-only Highly Recommended novel), I’m often only barely aware of what goes on in that side of the industry. Plus I was looking for a happier read, so I decided this time around to branch out into something much less familiar to me – an indie SF romance. I listed several speculative romance options for my Patreon backers, and this was the one that generated the most interest, so I gave it a try.

In “Ghost in the Machine” we meet our heroine, Orynn, who is a complex, multifaceted character and easily my favorite person in the book. Young by Vesparian standards, caring and in many ways unsure of herself, Orynn is bound by a set of strict cultural rules aimed at keeping her people safe, including the requirement that she erase herself from non-Vesparians’ memories after working with them. In some ways, she is fabulously powerful, able to influence and command the minds of everyone around her and to disguise herself effortlessly, taking on an endless series of contrasting cover identities. In other ways, she is very fragile – both emotionally and physically, as she requires hidden assistive technology even to deal with the gravity that humans and other races consider normal.

Most of all, Orynn is afraid of the consequences of her power, which can be used very destructively if she lashes out and loses control, and which can also be a security risk for other Vesparians; part of the reason why they’re so secretive is because they were brutally enslaved and used as weapons in the past. But the requirement that no non-Vesparian should ever remember her weighs heavily on Orynn:

At almost two hundred years of age, Orynn was still considered young by her people’s standards, and so her lapse in emotional control from time to time had to be expected. It wasn’t the real reason Tersai was having second thoughts about taking her on the mission, and Orynn knew it. The largest concern, or rather the largest disappointment, continued to be Orynn’s desire to exist.

Vesparians are so secretive that the word “exist” has a special meaning for them – meaning, roughly, to have a prolonged acknowledged presence in the minds of non-Vesparians, without being disguised as a member of some other race – and is forbidden.

Orynn isn’t an autistic character, but she’s a kind of escapist fantasy that I think will appeal to many autistic women. Many of us can relate to being social chameleons, or to being hyperempathic and very aware of others’ cues, and Orynn has both those abilities to a deliciously exaggerated degree. Her fragility and vulnerability, behind her many public faces, is equally relatable. Many of us know well what it feels like to be afraid of what we’ll do if we melt down, or to worry that in some sense we aren’t real people the way everyone else is. Orynn carries an exaggerated, escapist version of these fears as well, and all in all she feels like a romantic heroine designed for us.

I was less thoroughly won over by Ethan, the android (or Mecha, as they’re called in Kilgore’s universe). He’s all right; he’s intelligent and has a wry sense of humor. Although the back cover copy makes it sound otherwise, Ethan is already capable of a basic range of emotions when the story begins. We see him amused, annoyed, fond of his friends, fearful, even angry; many Mecha are capable of these things, although Ethan is particularly “evolved.” He is also sexually active, having a long string of casual encounters with random women who are sexually curious about Mecha. But he’s never been sexually or emotionally attracted to anyone before, and his feelings for Orynn are so incomprehensible to him that at first he mistakes them for her having somehow empathically tampered with him.

I’m not aromantic, but I know the trope of an android learning to love can be problematic for aro readers, especially if romantic love is somehow privileged or separated from other emotions. Ethan’s arc doesn’t lean very hard (as far as I could tell) into the worst aspects of this trope, but it still is this trope at its heart, and it doesn’t subvert the trope’s potentially acephobic traits, nor does the book ever show self-awareness by pointing out that ace/aro orientations exist in humans or that they are okay ways to be. (It’s also very much not a story arc about demisexuality/demiromanticism, as Ethan’s feelings for Orynn appear very suddenly and at a time when he doesn’t know her well.)

The story’s romantic arc in general feels a bit overwrought to me, piling up every possible reason for the characters to be anguished about themselves and each other at once, and often not addressing or resolving those reasons well. And as soon as the largest of those reasons are at least somewhat resolved, both characters leap quickly into a very extreme level of romantic commitment to each other. I know instant lifelong commitment is a trope some romance readers really enjoy, but it’s one of my least favorites and I wasn’t super happy with it.

Speaking of romance and tropes, I’m only a casual reader of romance, but I know there are fairly strong expectations in romance about happy endings. I was startled to discover that “Ghost in the Machine” lacks one. It’s the first in a series, and even after Orynn and Ethan romantically commit to each other, the book manages to partially undo that and to end on a very anguished cliffhanger.

There were a few other things I didn’t like, including some moments of casual misogyny and slutshaming that go unchallenged, and a very tropey physically disabled villain who is introduced at the last minute.

Overall, this book didn’t really work for me, but I’m glad I met Orynn. If you like romantic space opera with lots of feels, and you’re not bothered by the tropes I complained about here, then you might try it out.

The Verdict: YMMV

Disclosure: I have never interacted with C.E. Kilgore. I obtained an ecopy of this book by “buying” it from Amazon (in quotes because it was being offered there for free).

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Fairest of All

I have a new novelette, “Fairest of All,” out in the Jubilee 50th issue of the Future Fire.

I originally began to write this back in 2016, with a fairytale-themed anthology in mind, but it quickly ballooned out much too large for that anthology’s requirements. It’s a story that fought me every step of the way and I’ve often outright hated its existence. It’s also one of the most intensely, obnoxiously #ownvoices short stories I’ve ever written. The characters are autistic, they’re polyamorous, they’re abuse survivors; at least two are queer, and one is genderqueer (and also a talking anthropomorphic otter, long story); they make a lot of mistakes but are trying their best to find love and community with each other and to escape the multiple different structures that have hurt them.

This story isn’t based on an existing fairytale, but it plays with many familiar fairytale themes: simple language, kindnesses repaid, arbitrary fairy rules both beneficial and malicious, the importance of a heart’s desire. Changeling folklore, including its more violent aspects, also explicitly plays in to how this story works. (If that’s of interest to you, you might read the story in parallel with my small rant about changelings at the beginning of this review.)

(In case you couldn’t tell from the above descriptions, there is a lot of abuse in this story, both in the form of child abuse and of abusive adult relationships. Proceed with caution if this is triggery for you. The first scene is the worst; if you make it through that one, you’re probably okay.)

As a longer novelette, there aren’t a lot of markets for fiction of this length, and I’m grateful to The Future Fire for taking a chance on this weird, personal, deceptively simple but difficult story.

Disability In Star Wars

I am disabled, and I love Star Wars. It’s a series that’s captivated me since childhood, with its space magic, plucky rebels, massive spaceships, tough-as-nails princesses, and striking costumes. Star Wars left an impression that still influences me as a reader and writer today. But loving something this much is no reason not to analyze it. When I first encountered Star Wars, I was too young to know I was disabled. I didn’t have any particular personal reaction to its disabled characters, because I didn’t think of that content as being about me. Coming back to the series as a disabled adult, my perspective is different.

The Star Wars films have quite a few disabled characters, and what’s most interesting is that the films use disability symbolically in very consistent ways. Different disabilities, and different degrees of disability, are coherently used to imply different things about a character’s moral status.

Unfortunately, when it comes to their implications for disabled viewers, most of these things are not great. Losing limbs in Star Wars makes a character less human; disfigurements can mean that the character is not morally human at all. Functional disabilities can be present in heroic characters – but many of those characters are only there to help the abled heroes, and if their disabilities prevent them from fighting, they can be left to die. Finally, mental illness has a clear presence, but is almost never labeled or discussed. Let’s take a deeper look at each of these.

Darth Vader: More machine than man

I adored Darth Vader as a child. Darth Vader is cool. He’s a space wizard, expert pilot, ex-Chosen One, wielder of a fearsome red lightsaber, and one of the most powerful people in the Empire. His costume – the black mask and flared helmet, the blinking lights, the billowing cloak – makes him one of the most recognizable characters in cinema. Even the sound of his breath is iconic.

Darth Vader is cool – and Darth Vader is severely disabled. He’s a quadruple amputee and burn survivor. The limbs underneath those gloves and boots are prosthetics; the suit with its blinking lights includes a complex life-support system. His breath sounds that way because he needs an air pump to breathe.

In a list of famous disabled characters who are powerful, who are cool-looking, who have agency and aren’t afraid to use it, surely Darth Vader comes in near the top. But Vader’s disability is also intensely problematic. Like a long line of other disabled villains – Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Doctor Strangelove, Dr. No, the Phantom of the Opera – Vader’s disability is used in the films to suggest that he is missing some part of his humanity. His assistive devices make him look frightening, even to officers on his own side. When he isn’t wearing them, the camera lingers on his scarred skin, framing it as shameful and eerie. “He’s more machine now than man, twisted and evil,” Obi-Wan Kenobi laments about Vader in Return of the Jedi; he leaves out that he’s the one who cut off Vader’s limbs and left him for dead on a lava planet in the first place.

Vader’s level of disability directly correlates with his fall to the Dark Side, on a kind of sliding scale of amputations. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin Skywalker – Vader’s former self – is still mostly on the side of good. But he’s behaved recklessly, massacred a group of Sand People, and entered an illicit relationship. He loses an arm in the film’s final battle, and the prosthetic with which he embraces Padmé is visibly mechanical. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin falls fully to the Dark Side, becomes a Sith, murders children (among others), and assaults his wife. His fateful battle with Obi-Wan happens immediately afterwards; at its conclusion, he is horribly injured, loses all ties with the other heroes, and is given his mask and suit. His acquiring a disability and his fall to evil are functionally the same.

Luke Skywalker’s flirtation with the Dark Side follows the same sliding scale. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke rushes recklessly into a trap against his teachers’ orders and learns that Darth Vader is his father. He, too, loses an arm. But Luke’s heart was in the right place, and his prosthetic is visually indistinguishable from a human hand. In The Last Jedi, an older Luke betrays his nephew and retreats to the island world of Ahch-To; in this film, his hand has become visibly mechanical like Anakin’s. The hand is a signal that Luke has fallen further from his ideals than before.

At the other end of the sliding scale is General Grievous, a cyborg even more reliant on machine parts than Vader, with only a few biological organs remaining. Grievous is portrayed as wholly inhuman: simply a monster to defeat, without any of Vader’s potential for redemption.

The characters themselves appear to be aware of this sliding scale. In Return of the Jedi, as Palpatine goads Luke to strike his father down, Luke spends a long moment looking down at his gloved prosthetic hand, and at the smoking wires of Vader’s prosthetic arm. He then tosses his lightsaber aside.

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” says Luke. Sharing a disability with Vader is a part of what helps Luke remember empathy and mercy. But mainly, it serves as a reminder of how close he came to falling like his father.

Palpatine and Snoke: The disfigured face of evil

While Luke, Vader, and Grievous’s bodies represent loss of humanity, a different disability – facial disfigurement – represents a more insidious evil.

When we meet Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, his wrinkled face isn’t necessarily disfigured; it mostly looks like the face of a very old man. But in Revenge of the Sith, we learn that Palpatine’s face changed markedly during his battle with Mace Windu, when his own Force lightning was turned back against him. Like Vader, Palpatine incurs his disability at the precise moment when his evil is revealed to the heroes. Unlike Vader, Palpatine seems to revel in the change, shouting, “Unlimited power!”

In The Force Awakens, we meet Supreme Leader Snoke, a manipulative tyrant who sees himself as Palpatine’s successor. Snoke is significantly more disfigured than Palpatine, his whole head appearing to be misshapen from an old injury. Like Palpatine, but unlike Vader, he seems not to have any other lasting impairments.

The trope of disfigurement as evil is a problem for disfigured people, who are often treated as morally suspect in real life. And there is very little nuance in how Star Wars uses this one. Vader can be redeemed, but Palpatine and Snoke’s appearances mean only that they are rotten in their souls.

Minor facial scars are given to other shady characters: Anakin in the first half of Revenge of the Sith; Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi; Dryden Vos in Solo. These characters are more human than Palpatine or Snoke, but their scars indicate that they aren’t to be trusted. (Luke incurs facial scars after a fight with a Wampa in The Empire Strikes Back, as a result of the actor being injured in real life; but, while evil characters’ scars are emphasized and made clear, Luke’s are visually minimized.) DJ’s stutter in The Last Jedi serves a similar purpose, marking to viewers that something is off about this morally ambiguous character.

Yoda and Chirrut Imwe: Disabled and holy

Star Wars also has disabled characters on the side of good. Yoda, the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, is nine hundred years old; he walks with a cane and occasionally rides a hover chair. Yoda heads the Jedi Council, instructs children, and teaches Luke Skywalker to use the Force. Rogue One’s Chirrut Imwe is blind, and is a member of the Guardians of the Whills, a small order of Force worshipers who don’t have the Jedi’s abilities. Imwe attaches himself to a ragtag group of heroes and forms their spiritual core.

This trope of wise disabled holy men is more flattering than disabled villains. It still places disabled characters firmly into a supporting role, centering their ability to help the abled heroes and not their own concerns. It’s an uncomfortable trope for real-life disabled people who are often expected to prioritize helping or inspiring abled people, to be innocent and childlike, or to have special talents that compensate somehow for their impairments.

In Star Wars, holy disability and evil disability are easily distinguished from each other, because they use two separate classes of disability. Yoda and Imwe aren’t amputees or disfigured: they have whole, organic bodies which happen to have lost some functionality. (Imwe’s eyes are visibly different from other characters’ eyes, but it’s a marker of his blindness rather than a disfigurement for disfigurement’s sake.)

This loss of functionality doesn’t stop them from participating in space battles. Imwe fights with a staff and bow, unerringly precise at sensing his opponents’ position. He has the unrealistically excellent hearing of many blind warriors in film, and although he is not a Jedi, he says things about the feel of the Force that suggest he may be Force sensitive. It’s not always clear what is his hearing and what is the Force, but in any case, Imwe’s blindness imposes no real limits on his fighting ability.

Yoda can also fight well. He performs incredible acrobatics in his fights with Count Dooku and Palpatine, flinging himself around the room like a rubber ball. Afterwards, he is exhausted, and his movement becomes effortful again. Although the wild leaping around can look comical, Yoda’s abilities are in some ways less unrealistic than Imwe’s. Like many real disabled people, he can use an emergency burst of energy – augmented by the Force – for physical tasks. But he can’t safely sustain that energy all the time.

Speaking of fighting ability, the other characters we’ve discussed so far have that, too. Despite the extent of Vader’s disability, he has a range of motion similar to that of most abled people; in areas where his motion is slightly limited, he’s adjusted his fighting style to compensate. Once he and Luke have their prosthetics attached, they can sword-fight and do stunts just fine. And it’s lucky for them that they can, because for characters in Star Wars who can’t, the outlook is grim.

Rogue One: Run or die

In our first introduction to Rogue One’s Cassian Andor, he meets a contact named Tivik with an injured arm. They are interrupted by two stormtroopers. Cassian shoots the troopers – raising an alarm – and then shoots Tivik, who cannot climb to safety, before making his escape. This is especially egregious because Tivik had already protested that he was about to leave. It was Cassian who made him stay in the alley where he could not quickly escape. So the first act we see from one of our heroes is to force a disabled ally to remain in an unsafe place, then to kill him because of how unsafe it is.

This is not to suggest that Rogue One’s writers think shooting disabled people is good. Cassian is portrayed as someone morally gray who does terrible things for his cause, and his face suggests that he feels guilty about the shooting. But in the end, he’s meant to be a sympathetic character. Shooting disabled allies is portrayed as unethical, but as the kind of unethical thing that just happens in a war, when warriors are under pressure. It’s also an action apparently without consequence, as no one ever mentions or asks after Tivik again.

The same logic comes into play for Saw Gerrera. Gerrera is a guerrilla leader who shares ideals with the Rebel Alliance, but is more violent in his methods. He is so ruthless and paranoid that his own fears of betrayal nearly end the heroes’ efforts before they begin. On the sliding scale of amputations, Gerrera is somewhere between Luke and Vader. His face is visible, but he has robotic legs and an awkward gait, walking with a heavy cane. He speaks in a wheezing voice and occasionally uses an oxygen mask. While interrogating Bodhi Rook, he reaches for his mask – and takes two breaths that, for a moment, exactly resemble Darth Vader’s. (When he uses the mask in front of Jyn Erso, on friendlier terms, it makes a different sound.) The symbolism is clumsy but clear: Gerrera is both physically and morally compromised, well on his way to becoming the thing he has fought.

Throughout his time onscreen, Gerrera seems willing to stop at nothing to defend his own cause and his Partisans. But when the Death Star is about to destroy Gerrera’s base, he suddenly declares, “I will run no longer.” There is no good reason why a character with Gerrera’s keen and ruthless concern for security would choose not to run from certain death – except, of course, that his legs make running difficult. “Save the Rebellion!” Gerrera calls to the heroes. “Save the dream!” Saving mobility disabled Black men is, apparently, optional.

Obviously, Rogue One is a movie where everyone dies. It’s famous for that. But most of the able-bodied characters – and Imwe, who can fight like one – die heroically, in the final third, fighting a desperate battle to beam the Death Star’s plans to the Rebels. Gerrera and Tivik are discarded as dead weight long before that battle begins.

Mental health: Hidden in plain sight

All the disabilities I’ve mentioned so far are physical. Without robot arms or other obvious visuals, mental illnesses in Star Wars are more difficult to discern. It doesn’t help that no one in this galaxy seems to have a useful vocabulary for mental illness – or, if they do, they don’t use it on-screen.

The least ambiguous depiction of mental illness in Star Wars is a sympathetic one – Rogue One’s Bodhi Rook. Rook encounters a telepathic tentacle creature called a Bor Gullet which, he’s warned, can cause victims to lose their minds. Afterwards, he experiences catatonia and depersonalization and has to be reminded who he is. Rook consistently appears anxious, before and after this incident: wide-eyed, twitchy, stammering. It’s not clear how much of this is an after-effect of the Bor Gullet, how much is an anxiety disorder Rook may have already had, and how much is a normal reaction to how stressful his life has become. Either way, Rook struggles with anxiety while remaining a sympathetic character capable of great courage and cleverness.

Rook’s encounter with the Bor Gullet is the only time when a Star Wars character clearly marks the possibility of mental illness with words. Other mental illnesses are strongly suggested among both heroes and villains, but to analyze them requires headcanon and conjecture.

Here are some of my conjectures: Saw Gerrera, terrified of betrayal even when presented with considerable evidence it isn’t there, is fairly clearly experiencing mental health symptoms. In The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Finn’s abusive upbringing with the First Order leaves him with great fear and learned helplessness that affect his ability to help the Resistance. Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable outbursts strongly resemble the signs of a mental illness, which neither the heroes nor other villains know what to do with. Luke in The Last Jedi, sulking on Ach-To and waiting to die, seems unambiguously depressed. It’s commonly speculated in fandom that the fussy droid C3PO has an anxiety disorder, and that Obi-Wan has PTSD from the Clone Wars; certainly the Clone Wars series is grim enough to support the latter. Tie-in books indicate that The Last Jedi’s Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo is not neurotypical. I also read Padmé as having a suicidal breakdown at the end of Revenge of the Sith. She has “lost the will to live” as a result of immense and sudden emotional trauma, augmented by post-partum depression – a condition that totally baffles the medical droids, despite its prevalence in real life.

The lack of in-universe vocabulary makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the state of mental illness in Star Wars. It remains a state that isn’t clearly marked, and therefore a state that can be inferred or denied at viewers’ will. Whether you agree with my specific examples or not, mental illness in Star Wars is visible implicitly – hidden in plain sight.

That hiddenness even seems to contribute to some of the problems that Star Wars’ characters encounter. One wonders, for example, what would have happened if the Jedi Order of the prequels had a concept of mental illness or its treatment. Jedi are told to avoid strong emotions, but are never given healthy techniques for processing or regulating these emotions – leaving Force users in mental distress, including Anakin and Kylo, to struggle on their own.

Conclusions

Having to fit this into one essay means I’m only scratching the surface. Star Wars’ animated shows, tie-in books, and Legends canon have their own disabled characters, some of whom subvert the movies’ tropes. (Leia: Princess of Alderaan, for example, has Leia’s very sympathetic adoptive mother using assistive tech to breathe.) But the movies are Star Wars’ core, and are the only portrayal that most casual fans will ever see.

Star Wars gave us one of the most memorable disabled characters ever. But it also consistently uses disability in ways that cause problems. Missing limbs and prosthetics are a shorthand for moral dissolution; disfigurement is a sign of evil. Mental illness is ignored and left untreated. And disabled people on the side of good, if they can’t act able-bodied in an emergency, are left behind to die.

Star Wars can do better. The sequel trilogy and its spinoffs have already greatly improved the movies’ treatment of gender and race. Star Wars can and should improve on a disability axis, too. Its fans are already diverse and often disabled. By including disabled characters whose disabilities aren’t a moral shorthand, future movies could make these fans feel more welcome in this galaxy far, far away.

Cool Story, Bro: My Favorite Short Work of May and June

(Yes, May and June. I’m running a little behind.)

Maya Chhabra, “Swansong: a theory of poetry” (Through the Gate, May 8)

A beautiful, wistful fairytale metaphor for the creative process.

*

Vanessa Fogg, “The Message” (The Future Fire, Issue 2019.48)

This is a story of two queer teenagers who might or might not fully return each other’s love, an alien message that humanity might or might not ever be able to decipher, and a background global situation that might or might not be getting inescapably worse, all the time. My favorite thing about it might be the way it depicts fandom and Internet friendships, the complex things that the characters’ shared fannish interest means to them and to their relationship. The longing and uncertainty, throughout the story, is poignantly palpable.

*

Brit E.B. Hvide, “A Catalog of Love at First Sight” (Uncanny, Issue Twenty-Eight)

This is climate fiction that walks a tightrope between the extremes of our current ecological anxieties, giving in neither to utopianism nor despair. What holds it together is, as the title suggests, love – not merely a romantic relationship, although there’s a nice queer romance in here, but a whole mess of loves and longings and complicated attachments that serve to ground the narrator through every upheaval. If we can’t save ourselves, maybe we can still save each other.

*

Nibedita Sen, “We Sang You as Ours” (The Dark, Issue 49)

A coming-of-age story involving a family of siren-like creatures, who need to lure humans into the deeps to feed to a monstrous, chthonic father figure… or do they? There’s a real aquatic grace to the way this one is written, despite the grisly subject matter. It seems obvious where the ending will go, right up until the point where it doesn’t; the actual ending is beautiful, tenuous, hopeful.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 55 and four fifths: Short Story Smorgasbord

Corinne Duyvis, “Eight” (Strange Horizons, 14 November 2011)

[Autistic author] A time travel story in which a soldier’s future self comes back in time to prevent a disastrous war, but her advice doesn’t exactly prevent it – which means the military has to deal with a succession of different versions of her, each with their own experiences and agenda. The best thing about this story to me is the complicated friendship between the protagonist’s different selves. It’s a story that has a lot to say about regret, hidden agendas, uncertainty, and “what if”s, and it may be accidentally even more resonant now, in the proverbial Darkest Timeline, than when it was written. When do we stop trying to go back and fix things, and start holding on to what we have? [Recommended-2]

*

Bogi Takács, “Changing Body Templates” (Strange Bedfellows, 2014; reprinted as a free Patreon reward)

[Autistic author] A political allegory (Bogi’s story notes about Soviet research in Hungary are very interesting!) about scientists trying to reverse-engineer a shapeshifting machine. The protagonist has plans to use the machine as a tool of resistance, but finds that things are a little more complicated than that. There’s no autism here, but the stressed-out scientists and their frustrating political environment are well drawn. [Recommended-2]

*

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “What The Fires Burn” (PodCastle, August 2017)

[Autistic author] A steampunk horror story that dives gleefully into the Industrial Revolution’s sooty, gritty underbelly – but with magic! – and stands firmly against the idea that some lives don’t matter. Starving characters in Crapsack Worlds are not really my thing, but the story is well-written and drives its point home. [Recommended-2]

*

Rivers Solomon, “Feed” (Patreon original, 2017; I read it reprinted in Transcendent 3)

[Non-neurotypical author] A near-future SF story about a teen with ADHD who constantly streams their life onto the Internet-like “Feed”, and who finds evidence of something alien in the woods that might just help their family. This is a story with a dark twist and without any answers; the Feed is genuinely helpful as an assistive technology for Zee, even when their family doesn’t understand, but it’s also easily used for surveillance and control. Non-neurotypical people often face a similar dilemma about the tech we use today. [Recommended-2]

*

Andi C. Buchanan, “Blaze” (Vulture Bones, Issue 2, August 2018)

[Autistic author] A story about teenagers in a tourist town centered around a lake of fire. The families that live in the town have passed down magic through the generations that lets them sail or swim in the fire, though not effortlessly. Buchanan captures the trapped, exploited feeling of young people who have been taught to perform their heritage for other people’s entertainment – but also the power that lies with them as they discover something about their lake which opens up many more possibilities for their future. [Recommended-2]

My Muse is a Sorcerer

I love villains. Always have.

So maybe it’s not a surprise that what I started with, when writing THE OUTSIDE, were its villains.

When I was just a lowly undergrad, I ran an online D&D campaign for my friends. Among the player characters in the game, played by a friend I’ll call Virgo, was a Lawful Evil changeling sorcerer named Akavi.

I loved Akavi immediately. He was intelligent, perceptive, stylish, suave, better at problem-solving than everyone else, and utterly ruthless. Akavi was my type.

Online gaming gave lots of opportunity for side plots and general character drama. Many players took advantage of these opportunities, but Akavi did it fastest and very quickly ended up with his own personal plot – a series of complicated schemes that the other characters, for the most part, weren’t aware of.

I started my D&D game with a fairly detailed world, and several sinister groups that could rise to be main villains if the players were interested. A couple of rapacious mining companies were introduced (it was a steampunk game), but their machinations didn’t get much momentum going. Another company showed up mysteriously overrun by Lovecraftian monsters; they’d been messing with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know as a way of speeding up production.

Akavi, being a Lawful fellow, looked into this company’s paperwork in detail. They weren’t wizards themselves, so he wanted to know who they had hired to perform the magic. To answer his questions, I came up with a new villain on the fly – a half-elf wizard named Evianna Talirr.

Ev and a few minions of hers turned up a few more times. But the campaign’s big bad guy turned out to be Akavi himself. My game had fallen in the trap of too many side plots. Akavi had secretly aligned himself with evil planar forces; meanwhile most of the other characters had gotten into a secret plot of their own, which diametrically and actively opposed Akavi’s.

When the truth came out and everybody suddenly but inevitably betrayed each other, Akavi fought back hard. Stopping him became the party’s biggest mission – all the more fervently because they’d trusted him at first.

By the end of the 3-year campaign, Virgo had become my co-Dungeon Master as we worked together to come up with Akavi’s evil plans for the party to foil. He wound up spearheading a planar war, trying to end the world, and dying in the process – twice.

It was pretty epic, and it ended on a high note, with the evil defeated.

But in the following years, I still couldn’t get Akavi out of my head.

I liked him too much. I had a crush that wouldn’t go away. Virgo missed playing him, too. And we still hadn’t worked through a plot I’d been looking forward to – the conflict between Akavi’s evil-but-Lawful forces and Ev’s transcendent cosmic-horror Chaos.

I’d spent enough time on Ev to develop her view of the world a bit, and to give her a take on cosmic horror that wasn’t quite like what I usually saw. But she’d never really threatened the characters directly.

Trying to run a sequel game, just Akavi versus Ev, didn’t quite work. He’d gotten too evil at some point, and playing him without a proper set of heroes in the mix was just depressing.

So I had another idea: I would write an Akavi book.

One problem: Akavi and Ev were both very entrenched in the mythology of their D&D world, and I was way too proud to write D&D fantasy with the serial numbers filed off.

So I asked myself: “Of the genres I’m comfortable writing, which one looks the LEAST like high fantasy?”

I settled on space opera.

With Virgo’s blessing and collaboration, I started playing with ways to translate the things that made Akavi and Ev who they were into science fiction. The D&D gods became soul-eating superintelligent computers; the magic most crucial to the characters was replaced with super gadgets and modern mysticism, and the rest of the D&D magic system was discarded altogether.

Both Akavi and Ev changed as they adjusted to the rules of this world. Akavi became more buttoned-down, less likely to go haring off on some manipulative tangent for the hell of it. Ev became more tragic and more human. A few NPCs also made the transition, with varying levels of change.

I knew I also needed a hero, someone with a strong heart and good intentions who could get caught in the middle of this conflict without losing themselves. Eventually I found that person in THE OUTSIDE’s Yasira Shien, who I had to generate from scratch.

THE OUTSIDE is now garnering praise for its morally complex characters, its suspenseful plot, and its unusual take on cosmic horror tropes. But its first inspiration came from somewhere humble, even a little silly – it came from the crush that I had on my friend’s D&D character.

Never let anyone stop you drawing inspiration from an equally silly, unlikely place.

THE OUTSIDE playlist!

I secretly make a playlist on Spotify for any longer work I write (as well as other things in my life). I don’t write to music the way many people do. Instead, when a song reminds me of the story I’m working on, I add it to the list, and then I fiddle around with the song order until it feels like it cohesively tells the story. Then I listen to that playlist when I need to think about the story or get excited all over again for what’s inside it.

This also means my playlists are pretty specifically quirked to my (profoundly unsubtle) musical tastes and personal associations that may not make sense to other folks. But I’m happy to share them anyway. Here’s the music that will forever make me think of THE OUTSIDE:

(Mild spoilers below.)

  1. Within Temptation – “Why Not Me” [prologue; Nemesis]
  2. Amaranthe – “Afterlife” [angels and the setting in general]
  3. Nine Inch Nails – “Right Where It Belongs” [Yasira; or maybe Ev, at the corner of the frame, addressing her]
  4. Tarot – “Ashes to the Stars” [Akavi and angels generally]
  5. The Scarlet Pimpernel soundtrack – “Falcon in the Dive” [Akavi, tasked with finding Ev]
  6. Vangelis – “Mythodea”, movement 3 [~*~flying out of the galaxyyyy~*~]
  7. Rihanna – “Russian Roulette” [Yasira]
  8. Nine Inch Nails – “The Hand That Feeds” [Ev; I’m also really fond of the transition between tracks 7 and 8]
  9. Visions of Atlantis – “Passing Dead End” [Ev’s official theme song]
  10. Nine Inch Nails – “The Great Destroyer” [Yasira]
  11. Evanescence – “Whisper” [Yasira, in very dire straits]
  12. Christina Aguilera – “Army of Me” [Yasira, improbably]
  13. Avantasia – “Lost In Space” [Yasira again]
  14. Amaranthe – “Electroheart” [Akavi and Elu]

You can listen to the whole thing below:

Autistic Book Party, Episode 55 and three quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Polenth Blake, “Hello, World!” (Patreon original, 2017; I read it reprinted in Transcendent 3)

[Non-neurotypical author] This quite adorable story is about an AI sent on an uncrewed mission to Mars, caring for a breeding population of guppies. As it gains awareness and independence, the AI becomes attached to the guppies and decides to prioritize their safety and wellbeing over the original mission objectives. I really love the careful, conflicted way the AI communicates with mission control, complying with the chirpy and deferential style of speech that its programmers expect while diverging more and more from their dehumanizing (de-guppifying?) goals. Many autistic readers will be able to relate. [Recommended-2]

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R.B. Lemberg, “A Splendid Goat Adventure” (Patreon original, 2017)

[Autistic author] This humorous epistolary story is set in Lemberg’s Birdverse universe. Marvushi e Garazd, an irrepressibly impulsive pupil of the Old Royal (who we first saw in A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power), sets out on a journey to research a rumor about magical goats. What they eventually find is… not quite goats, but it is a delight, as is Marvushi’s narration throughout. [Recommended-2]

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Andi C. Buchanan, “Girls Who Do Not Drown” (Apex Magazine, Issue 115, December 2018)

[Autistic author] A powerful story about an isolated island and the seemingly limited possibilities for girls and queer youth who grow up there. Every girl in Buchanan’s story has to one day go into the sea – metaphorically or literally – and risk drowning, sometimes at the hands of a glashtyn. When a closeted trans teenage girl sees a glashtyn, her own struggles and worries about the future come into full focus. There is suicidal ideation in this story, but the ending is a hefty punch of hope. [Recommended-2]

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Sunyi Dean, “-Good.” (Flash Fiction Online, July 2018)

[Autistic author] A tense, careful piece of flash fiction about an abusive relationship and a cloning technology which could make the abuser immortal. The way the narrator has been worn down, trained not to resist or object, is depicted with unusual clarity and sympathy; in its context, the hesitant ways in which she does resist have the feeling of heroics. The title, once its meaning becomes clear at the end of the story, is a master stroke. [Recommended-2]

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Robin M. Eames, “the body argonautica” (Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction!, September 2018)

[Autistic author] I was extremely remiss in not including Eames’ poem in my previous DPDSF post, as I somehow failed to notice that they were autistic. “the body argonautica” is an absolutely kaleidoscopic, nearly hallucinatory love poem between two disabled people and it definitely deserved to be mentioned in that prior post, sorry. [Recommended-2]

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Julian K. Jarboe, “Estranged Children of Storybook Houses” (Hypocrite Reader, December 2018)

I’ve mentioned before how changeling folklore has modern echoes in much of our current rhetoric about autism. This fabulist tale, set in a universe where fairies are considered a scientific fact, illustrates my point perfectly – and draws it to a very satisfying conclusion. Be mindful that violence against children is portrayed. [Recommended-1]

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Yoon Ha Lee, “The Chameleon’s Gloves” (Cosmic Powers, 2017; I read it reprinted in Transcendent 3)

[Autistic author] An art heist story which, as one might expect with Lee, swerves into something bigger, darker, and military. It becomes apparent partway through this story that it takes place in the same universe as the Machineries of Empire series, though much earlier; the hexarchate has not yet arisen, and the Kel, rather than being one of several factions working together to control a society, are some sort of autonomous spacefaring mercenary group. This doesn’t make them any less interesting or less deadly, though, as they bring the protagonist’s past back to haunt them. [Recommended-2]

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A. Merc Rustad, “This Is A Picture Book” (Sub-Q, November 2017)

[Autistic author] A piece of interactive metafiction that will make you go WTF DID I JUST READ?! – but in a good way – and rethink what is actually going on behind the pages of books. [Recommended-2]

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Rivers Solomon, “St. Juju” (The Verge, Jan 2019)

[Non-neurotypical author] A quiet hopepunk story in which fungi are slowly reprocessing the trash of human civilization. Two queer women living in a small enclave, where an understanding of ethics is required for legal adulthood, must choose if they will stay in their enclave’s relative safety or strike out on their own. I really like the way Juju, the protagonist in this story, struggles with the state of the world – things are clearly better than they were, yet the oppression of the past and the ways it is replicated in the present still weigh on her. Juju might be autistic or might have some other related non-neurotypicality, but her uncomfortable ruminations and insecurity about the way she communicates are familiar to me from some my autistic friends, and I really like the way her lover accepts her as she is. [Recommended-1]

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Bogi Takács, “On Good Friday the Raven Washes its Young” (Fireside, April 2018)

[Autistic author] A dark and heartfelt piece of flash about deep-sea aliens and street violence. The narrator is (probably) not autistic, but their body moves atypically and they are visibly intersex, which leads to awful treatment from the bigoted inhabitants of their colony. (It should be noted – as Bogi does carefully, in eir story notes – that all of this awful treatment is #ownvoices.) The narrator not only survives, but finds a delightful (if ominous) ending by using their own skills and agency. [Recommended-2]

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Xan West, “Nine of Swords, Reversed” (self-published novelette, December 2018)

[Autistic author] An established-relationship BDSM romance between two genderfluid disabled witches, one of whom is autistic. Both partners have multiple disabilities, and they face an impasse in their relationship caused by a complex interaction of these disabilities as well as trauma, gender, and magical issues. The moments of non-sexual, service-based intimacy in the story are very sweet, and I really liked the scenes of Dev (the autistic partner) using visual colors and patterns to calm xyrself. Once Dev and Noam are pushed to address their relationship issues, they talk everything out so carefully and correctly that it almost feels unrealistic to me. But this remains an #ownvoices story written from a place of deep caring, addressing the kind of nuances in relationships between disabled people that an able-bodied author would never be able to fathom. A lot of autistic romance fans will enjoy it very much. [Recommended-1]