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.

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

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.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 53: Hoshi and the Red City Circuit

Today’s Book: “Hoshi and the Red City Circuit” by Dora M. Raymaker.

The Plot: Hoshi Archer, a private detective with a developmental disability called K-Syndrome, investigates a series of ritual murders that appear to be targeted at people just like her.

Autistic Character(s): …It’s complicated.

Dora M. Raymaker is an autistic author, and the goings-on in her novel revolve around a fictional disability quite a lot like autism. The similarity is so strong that I am hesitating over whether to call the Operators (as people with K-Syndrome are officially called) autistic characters or not. Before I go into that, I need to zoom out and give you a better idea of what is happening in Raymaker’s fantastically detailed science fictional world.

Hoshi Archer lives in Red City, a metropolis whose infrastructure is supported by a cyberpunk virtual world called the Mem. Anyone can access the Mem with the right technology, but only Operators can program the quantum computers that underlie it, or fully experience the Mem with all of their senses.

Operators also have marked impairments in sensory processing, language, and motor sequencing – so much so that, without the assistive technology implanted in their brains, most of them would be unable to speak or to care for themselves. In fact, having “verbal-sequential IQ at least three standard deviations below visual-associative IQ” is a defining diagnostic trait of K-Syndrome.

This is a definition that excludes many real-life autistic people (including me, as it happens; my own verbal-sequential IQ is markedly higher than my visual-associative one), and that might fit a number of other real-life disabled people who aren’t autistic, but it’s a profile that many other real-life autistic people do match. And by focusing on developmentally disabled people with lower verbal ability and higher support needs, “Hoshi and the Red City Circuit” fills a gap that has sometimes arisen in existing #ownvoices autistic books, even though the novel’s technology mitigates some of those needs.

The idea that Operators are needed for their specialized abilities echoes many fictional tropes and real-world issues, including magical disabilities, sheltered workshops, and the current trend of software companies looking specifically for autistic people in their most repetitive, detail-oriented jobs. “Hoshi and the Red City Circuit” deals strongly with the potential abuses in that scenario, intensifying them to the point of dystopia.

The world of Red City doesn’t revolve only around Operators, of course, and the way Raymaker writes the city is one of the pleasures of this book. Hoshi adores Red City, considering it a personal friend, tracing the skyline from her apartment window every morning and keeping a mental list of her 200 favorite buildings. Throughout the book, specific places in the city are named and described with such life and precision that I couldn’t help but suspect that Raymaker herself feels the same way. I’m curious if there is a full map of Red City in her notes somewhere, although none appears in the physical book. Not only places and buildings, but social forces within the city such as its various crime families, political movements, and religions also appear with their own crystal-clear characters.

Hoshi Archer works as a private detective, using her pattern-matching and associative abilities to help the Red City Police Department solve crimes. She’s one of the few Operators who has an independent job. Until recently in Red City, most Operators were institutionalized and owned by the state; their programming duties, or whatever else they were assigned to, were literally slave labor. Many Operators continue to live under these conditions. Under Integration Law, an Operator has to prove they can live independently before being granted autonomy over their life. Those who are freed are monitored, and their autonomy can be taken away again if they don’t seem to be caring for themselves correctly.

Integration Law has parallels to institutionalization in the real world, and the threat of having her freedom revoked is one of many threats that keep Hoshi’s narrative in a constant state of tension. Many autistic readers will be able to relate, for example, to Hoshi’s meetings with her social worker, a blandly friendly woman much more interested in testing if Hoshi’s life meets correct parameters than in helping her thrive.

“No problem. You’re doing great. Just remember, I want you to succeed; I work for you. If something’s bothering you, if something bad has happened, you tell me and we’ll work it out. You and I – we’re a team.” Her precisely-painted lips twitched in maybe a smile or maybe a nervous tic.

Yeah. Right. Like I’d ask anyone at the IO for anything. One of the tenets of Integration Law was… don’t show any weakness or it will become a reason to land a body back into slavery. I saw it happen to Ghe Garver in my own first cohort, six months after we were emancipated. He’d confessed to having trouble keeping his apartment tidy and asked his Integration Officer for help. She’d run an inspection and flagged his quarters unsanitary. “Some of you won’t be able to make the transition, that’s just the nature of your disabilities,” she’d told him as she took away half his rights… Of course no one had offered him a housekeeper.

Aside from the social oppression surrounding Operators, the direct experience of Operators is also portrayed in a way that I found very autistically accurate and relatable. The technology in Operators’ heads helps them pass in a neurotypical world, generating spoken language out of the thoughts that they wish to express, modulating their motor impulses into useful motion, displaying facial expressions that neurotypicals can understand, and filtering out excessive sensory stimuli. But, like real technology, this assistive tech is by no means perfect. It has glitches, and does realistic things like slowing down when too much is being processed at once. At one point, there is a wonderful and harrowing chase scene in which Hoshi turns off some of her sensory filters so as to overhear a whispered conversation, is discovered, and forgets to turn them on again before rushing outside – resulting in intense disorientation and burnout just when she needs her abilities most.

“Hoshi and the Red City Circuit” is a great ride, with a mystery that builds and thickens constantly before bringing all its threads together in a conclusion for which the city’s treatment of Operators is central. I really enjoyed its worldbuilding and the varied characters who inhabit its darkest corners, as well as its commentary on neurodiversity and human rights, and I’ll be looking out for much more from this author.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Disclosure: I have never interacted with Dora M. Raymaker. I got her book as an ARC from the publisher and reviewed it before other ARCs because it won a poll among my Patreon backers.

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND second printing & interview

Behind the scenes, the folks at Autonomous Press have been secretly redesigning MONSTERS IN MY MIND for another printing. The new version will feature a bigger typeface for more accessible reading, plus corrected formatting for the poetry, which was missing some stanza breaks in the original printing.

If that sounds fun or like the solution to one of your problems, you can find the new MONSTERS IN MY MIND in the AutPress store or at your favorite online book retailer.

Azzia Walker was also kind enough to do a short interview with me on the AutPress blog, so you can check that out.

New poem & BSFA news

My poem “Thule,” a Patreon original, is available to the public now. (Backers get Patreon original poems a full month before everyone else.)

In other news, although it didn’t make it to the shortlist, “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” – a novelette I co-wrote with A. Merc Rustad – appeared on the longlist for the 2018 BSFA Awards. This marks the second time I’ve found short work of mine on the BSFA longlist – the first time was 2013’s “You Have to Follow the Rules.”

THE OUTSIDE on NetGalley

Picture of several physical copies of a book piled up together.

At last! Proofs are in, and print ARCs of THE OUTSIDE are printed. Look at these beautiful book babies!

If you like to review books, you can request one for yourself on NetGalley right here: https://www.netgalley.com/catalog/book/157282

Autistic Book Party, Episode 52: Dzur

Today’s Book: “Dzur” by Steven Brust.

The Plot: Vlad Taltos, a general-purpose assassin/witch/organized criminal, investigates some organized crime doings which are putting his ex-wife Cawti in danger.

Autistic Character(s): Daymar, a Hawklord and powerful psychic who helps Vlad.

Yes, Daymar is back! I have previously written reviews involving Daymar for the books Dragon and Hawk (and the short story The Desecrator), so you should probably go and read those ones first before cutting back to this one.

I didn’t exactly intend to spend another whole review on Daymar, because honestly, his role in this book is pretty similar to his role in the other two. Vlad needs something, Daymar shows up to help him, Vlad is annoyed by him as a person but makes use of his help.

Despite Daymar’s limited role in Dzur, though, I ended up liking it more than his role in Hawk. There are a couple of nuances to Daymar’s lines here that I don’t recall seeing in the other two books. For instance, he seems aware of Vlad’s annoyance with him, and able to take advantage of that annoyance to make jokes at Vlad’s expense (much as Vlad is constantly making jokes at Daymar’s):

He nodded. “A psychic location means finding the story, and where on the story a particular mind is.”
I considered. “Do you know, I think I understood some of that.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll try again.”
“No, no. Go on.”
“I know, Vlad. That was a joke.”
“Oh. I didn’t think you did that.”

He’s also shown more actively trying to process Vlad’s emotions, and successfully pressing for more information about them where needed:

“Vlad, are you angry?”
“No, I’m overwhelmed with joy and love for all humanity, but I’m working very hard to conceal it.”
“That was sarcasm, right?”
“Right.”
“Okay. Are you angry with me?”
I sighed. “Yes, but I shouldn’t be. I should just be angry in general. I’ll work on that. In the meantime-“

And despite his general annoyance with Daymar, Vlad is also more consciously grateful for his assistance than in Hawk, offering to buy him a drink for his troubles.

So this book is definitely better at depicting Daymar than Hawk was, but there are two sides to that improvement, because, as it happens, I’m reading the books all out of order for no real reason and Dzur was actually published eight years before Hawk. For an author I generally enjoy, it’s a little bit sad that Brust seems to have gotten worse about this over time instead of better.

Daymar is also only present in a couple of chapters, so even if you are a big Daymar fan, it’s not necessarily worthwhile to get the book just for him.

The Verdict: Marginal

Disclosure: I have never interacted with Steven Brust. I read his book because I got it as a birthday present.

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Things I Am Nominating For Awards This Year

The necessary companion to my award eligibility post!

I’m eligible to vote for both the Hugos and Nebulas this year. I seem to vaguely recall that some awards let you nominate five things, and some let you nominate six. I’m gonna make lists of six things in no particular order (I don’t want to single out any of these amazing authors as being #6!)

I’m focusing on short work because honestly, I am shitty at reading whole books in the year they come out. This was my PhD thesis year, so I was even shittier at it than I normally am. I did adore Catherynne M. Valente’s SPACE OPERA, though, and will be nominating it for All The Things. I also loved Yoon Ha Lee’s REVENANT GUN.

Short Stories

Here are my six favorite short stories of 2018:

Poetry

I’m not eligible to vote for any poetry awards this year, but just for the principle of the thing, here are my six favorite speculative poems as well.

Yes, half of them are from Twisted Moon. I’m trash.

Fan Writing

Finally, as I did last year, I’m planning to nominate Bogi Takács (Bogi Reads the World) and Charles Payseur (Quick Sip Reviews) for Best Fan Writer.