Autistic Book Party, Episode 46: Graveyard Sparrow

[TW: One of the book excerpts quoted in this review contains a graphic description of violence.]

Today’s Book: “Graveyard Sparrow” by Kayla Bashe

The Plot: In a Regency setting, a non-neurotypical lady detective stumbles onto a string of serial murders – and falls in love with the witch who is helping her manage the side effects of her abilities.

Autistic Character(s): Katriona Sparrow, the aforementioned lady detective.

So, the “brilliant non-neurotypical detective” trope is… like… a thing. And I might have gone in with the wrong expectations based on the cover blurb, because I was intrigued anticipating what a queer disability activist like Bashe would do with a female version of, like, Bones or Sherlock or something. Instead:

“This is how: in a rain- and blood-slicked alleyway, last breath a gasp. I was so scared. He begins to cut off my arms while I am still alive. It is my punishment for not fighting back. I was not good enough. At last he lets me die. He then finishes cutting off my arms and removes my head and legs, and he sings while he works. Now I am dead and fabric-wrapped. This is his art.”

The stark impression of that final word stabbed into Katriona like shards of glass. Her hand felt burnt—a pure horrible heat that traveled up her arm and into her head—and as she sprang to her feet she cried out like a wounded animal.  Her head had been bad before, but now it was worse. The entire thought-babble of the city flooded into her, and she was caught and pulled apart in the vortex of a thousand minds.

So, Katriona isn’t a Sherlock who deduces things with logic; she’s a Will Graham who solves crimes with magic hyperempathy. This is, like, fine – they are both non-neurotypical detective tropes that deserve an intersectional feminist exploration – it just startled me a bit.

In fact, Katriona is pretty much literally Will Graham. Despite the gender flip and the Regency setting, once this book gets going it’s very obviously a “Hannibal” fix-it fic – right down to details like the artful food arrangements and the dogs. (Bashe doesn’t even try to keep it a secret who the Hannibal Lecter-equivalent character, and therefore the killer, is. That’s clear from the end of the first chapter, and the suspense comes mainly from worrying about what will happen in the interactions between him and Katriona. Which, to be fair, is still a lot of suspense.)

Anyway, Katriona is a well-written autistic character with agency, feelings, and interests. She has a believable, and believably impairing, range of autistic traits:

“I was the oddest child ever born. Sometimes I would start crying for no reason at all. I’d have tantrums that lasted hours, or I’d ignore people entirely. Even then, I could feel everything. It’s easier for me when I’m with small groups of people, and it got easier after I met Doctor Fuellore. He told my parents that it was all right for me to play by myself in the corner at parties and work with a tutor instead of going to school, and he made sure there were things in the house I could touch to calm myself down, like flowers and soft fabric and strings of beads.”

But her autistic traits are also depicted with nuance:

As much as Katriona hated large crowds in social settings, she was very good at holding court when it came to her work. All she had to do was look at a space just past everyone and talk about what she knew best. She was especially interested in death, and could therefore discuss it with anyone at any time.

In particular, one of my favorite details is how “Graveyard Sparrow” shows Katriona making a stereotypical autistic mistake – blurting things out bluntly and insensitively, in a way that hurts people – while also clearly showing that this isn’t due to Katriona being internally insensitive, or failing to care.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but…” He was gazing at her with impatience, with impassive judgment, and everything she had intended to say slipped out of her head, as if her mind was a bucket that someone had kicked a hole through. “She’s dead,” she blurted out. Tears pushed at her voice, and she smoothed her sleeves compulsively. “In an alleyway dressed up like the Mona Lisa. With a wig on.”

His expression turned bitter. “I’ve heard about you; pampered little brat. And even in this moment, you couldn’t show an ounce of sensitivity, could you? You have no place here.”

He was right. She wasn’t good with people. The more nervous she got, the more awkward she became, and when she was awkward it seemed like rudeness.

Anthea, Katriona’s love interest, is a witch who figures out that Katriona is experiencing debilitating symptoms because of sensory overload resulting mainly from her hyperempathy, and who takes on the role of a healer to teach her magical techniques for managing and being selective about her sensory input. That makes this the third story I’ve reviewed in which a magical mind-healer interacts with an autistic person without trying to cure their autism. It seems that this is a trope that interests authors, and apparently it’s also a trope I enjoy. Compared to Geometries of Belonging or A Rational Arrangement, the idea of a cure is touched on relatively lightly – which is fine, because in this context, it doesn’t need more than that. But it is touched on:

Katriona tried to smile, but ended up just examining her slippers and rubbing her arms. “You’re not going to make me exactly the same as everyone else, are you? I would hate that.”

“No, of course not. Well be working on mitigating the agoraphobia and anxiety caused by your inability to set up a psychic shield, not on whatever it is that makes you you. I wouldn’t want anyone to erase parts of my personality either.”

The fact that this is a romance between a healer and their patient means there is a potentially unethical power imbalance that has to be dealt with, and “Graveyard Sparrow” does touch on that issue, although not particularly deeply; I would have liked to see it a bit more developed in places.

“Graveyard Sparrow” is marketed as fighting back against the “beautiful dead girl” trope, and it does do that. Of course, people have been objecting to that trope for a long time, but it’s still a trope that shows up uncritically all over our media, so stories that fight it are still worthwhile, even when they’re not saying anything especially new. And in places, Bashe’s implicit critique is delightfully pointed:

“They had names.” She leaned in toward him. He didn’t flinch. “Laura. Jenny. Helena.”

A thin-lipped smile. “You shouldn’t criticize my art, Katriona. If you criticize art, it means that you merely do not understand it. I wish to help you understand, Little Bird. We must break you of this inclination toward censorship.”

What I found more novel and more compelling, though, was the way that this book subverts tropes on a disability axis. Where “Graveyard Sparrow” really departs from its source material is in the amount of care that Katriona receives. Will Graham is often treated as a magic crime solving device, and struggles alone. So are many other usefully psychic characters in spec fic, for that matter. Katriona gets a friend who understands what she is going through and why, who knows what kind of accommodations will help her to manage her unusual senses without erasing them, and who helps because she values Katriona’s well-being, not because she wants Katriona to do something for her. Katriona gets an arc where she moves from being controlled and sheltered “for her own good” by people who want to use her, to being given useful accommodations so that she can explore life as she wishes. This is the part of the book that really felt huge, subversive, and refreshing to me.

If you like Regency romance and aren’t scared off by the grisly serial killing, and if you don’t mind the sometimes rather blatant parallels to its source material, then “Graveyard Sparrow” is a book that is very much for you.

The Verdict: Recommended

Ethics Statement: I run into Kay Bashe on Twitter every once in a while, but I don’t think we’ve significantly interacted. I read their book by buying an e-copy for my Kindle app. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by 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.

Autism News: 2018/06/09

Media and Reviews:

Research and Science:

Other stuff about autistic women!

Politics:

  • The White House joined the Light It Up Blue campaign this year, despite widespread criticism from self-advocates. Here is an ASAN statement about it.
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are considering barring immigrants with disabilities:
  • ADAPT has been protesting to get other advocacy organizations to join with them in support of the Disability Integration Act, which prevents officials and insurance companies from denying community-based services to disabled people. The AARP called the police on them, but no arrests were made.
  • Doug Ford, the recently elected premier of Ontario, has a lot of problems. The insulting comments he made about a group home for autistic people, including saying that autistic children and teens in such a home should not be allowed outside and that their presence ruined the community, are just one.

Posts about social masking and its costs:

Posts about parenting and child care:

Misc:

Special Sad Things Section on the Judge Rotenberg Center and #StopTheShock:

Special Sad Things Section with a TW for Nazis:

Other Sad Things:

New Story: “I Sing Against the Silent Sun”

I am SO EXCITED to announce that my novelette-sized fiction/poetry collaboration with A. Merc Rustad, “I Sing Against the Silent Sun,” is out today in Lightspeed!

“I Sing Against the Silent Sun” takes place in Merc’s Principality Suns universe, and features the character Li Sin, who has appeared in previous Principality stories. It also was the inspiration for some WICKED AWESOME issue cover art by Reiko Murakami.

Like all the Principality Suns stories, “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” is a dystopia which contains some disturbing scenes / violence. Assuming you are okay with that, read away – I am really delighted to share this one with the world.

Turandot story notes, part 2: Recommended reading

In Part One of these story notes I mentioned that I did a lot of research when I was writing “Variations on a Theme from Turandot“. So here’s where I show my receipts.

I made extensive use of my university library account and the privileges attached to it. I will link to my sources where I can, but many of them will be behind paywalls. I can do nothing about this. Sorry. This post will also be shorter than what I originally intended, because although I still have several of the papers themselves, I appear to have lost my original notes on them.

One of the first things I read was a musicological biography of Puccini whose title has now been lost to the mists of 5 years ago. The specific details of Puccini’s life aren’t necessarily relevant, but I read enough to get an idea of what Puccini’s experiences with women had been and the kind of conflicts that typified them, as well as the role that Turandot had played in (the end of) his professional life.

J.M. Balkin’s 1990 paper, “Turandot’s Victory,” was particularly helpful to me. Balkin’s thesis is that Turandot is not an opera about women, but an opera about how men trying to figure out how to treat women. Calaf does all sorts of things to try to win Turandot’s affection, but none of them succeed until he chooses to tell her his name and surrender. “Turandot’s Victory” helped me to solidify an idea I already halfway had, which is that this moment, and this relinquishing of male power, is the key moment that solves the opera’s problems. Balkin points to several lines from the original libretto, never put to music in the opera’s final score, which underscore this moment’s importance both thematically and to Turandot as a character.

Alexandra Wilson’s “Modernism and the Machine Woman in Puccini’s ‘Turandot'” and “Torrefranca vs Puccini: embodying a decadent Italy” helped me to situate Puccini’s work, and particularly his treatment of women, within the artistic standards and movements that were relevant at the time Turandot was composed. It is an evasion to say that misogynist artists were “products of their time”, but it is useful to be aware of what the prevailing standards of their time actually were.

Speaking of which, Puccini was hardly the only late Romantic opera composer to have killed off his soprano characters left and right; he probably learned it from Verdi, his mentor. Freudian theorists contend that Puccini hated women and wrote tragedies about them because of an Oedipus complex, but this doesn’t quite square with my reading of Puccini’s biography or of his work. Apparently it doesn’t square with many other people either, as I found several writers attempting to rescue Puccini from Freud, and sometimes from accusations of misogyny altogether. The most comprehensive attempt at this task is Iris J. Arnesen’s The Romantic World of Puccini: A New Critical Appraisal of the Operas. I was never quite convinced by Arnesen’s central contention – that the women in Puccini’s operas are consistently strong and powerful, not weak – but I found the book useful reading anyway, if only to help stir me up about the questions that we often find lurking under feminist media today. What is a “strong” woman, anyway? What do we mean by strength?

(I hope that readers of “Variations” will see both Liù and the Princess as strong characters, but in two very different, individual ways.)

Many of the writers I encountered had their own ideas for how to fix the dramaturgical problems with Turandot. One idea I encountered more than once is the idea that Lo-u-Ling, the murdered ancestress Turandot admires, is an evil ghost who has somehow possessed her, and that the real Turandot is a nice person and compliant wife who would never kill anybody. I find this idea disrespectful both to Turandot’s strength and self-possession and to the trauma with which Lo-u-Ling is explicitly linked, though I was very attracted to the idea of making Lo-u-Ling, in some sense, a real entity. An essay I read years ago about the importance of respecting ghosts, in non-Western cultures, helped me avoid the worst temptations here. I am dismayed to discover I can no longer find the link. I think it was by Jaymee Goh. (It was definitely not Rebecca F. Kuang’s “How to Talk to Ghosts,” which is powerful and important, but which didn’t appear until “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” had already been accepted for publication. I might have written the story differently, in yet another way, if I had encountered Kuang’s essay earlier.)

Finally, “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” does not go deeply into the issue of race and Orientalism in Turandot. That issue is very important, but although I was careful to note that the stage China is unlike the real China and that the Asian-American Soprano is unimpressed with it, I did not feel it was my issue to try to dive into and play with as I did with the opera’s sexism. I would love one day to read a Chinese author’s take on it. In the meantime, if you are wondering about that aspect of Turandot, Jindong Cai’s “Turandot in China” might be a reasonable place to start.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 9: A Wizard Alone (New Millennium Edition)

(First published Sep 15, 2013)

Today’s Book: “A Wizard Alone: New Millennium Edition” by Diane Duane.

The Plot: In a contemporary YA fantasy setting, a budding wizard named Darryl has gotten stuck in his Ordeal – a wizards’ initiation. Teenage wizards Nita and Kit are sent to figure out what’s gone wrong.

Autistic Character(s): …Wait, what’s that you say? Does today’s Autistic Book Party look familiar?

It’s true. I’ve reviewed “A Wizard Alone” before, and I didn’t like it very much. But there was one thing I didn’t know when I wrote that review! Diane Duane had already faced criticism from autistic readers about the way she wrote Darryl. And instead of ignoring them or digging in her heels, she had already gotten started on fixing the book.

When the New Millennium Edition came out, Duane was kind enough to send me a free ecopy. I admired her good intentions and willingness to engage, but at first I was pretty skeptical about whether she could have actually fixed all the problems. Going through the book itself, I was quickly proven wrong.

Let’s go through the problems from the old edition, one at a time.

1. In the old edition, as part of the happy ending, Nita and Kit magically cure Darryl’s autism.

In the new edition, Darryl is not cured. The idea of a cure does come up, briefly, near the end; after thinking about it for a minute, Darryl decides to stay autistic. His reasoning is complicated, but interesting, and meshes well with the philosophy of the Young Wizards universe.

I should clarify something here, for anyone who has read my post on cure decision stories. I don’t like stories about autistic people deciding whether or not to be cured, even if they end up deciding not to. But the New Millennium Edition of “A Wizard Alone” is not a cure decision story. The cure decision is unrelated to the story’s major conflict; it comes up in one scene and is dealt with in that scene, and then the characters move on. At that point in the story, the characters are already messing with a kind of magic that can change or rewrite people’s minds. So, as much as I wish it were otherwise, the issue of a cure needs to be addressed there. Because readers are going to think of it even if the characters don’t. Bringing it up briefly, and explaining why the characters don’t do it, was the right decision.

2. The old edition contains lots of incorrect information about autism.

The new edition fixes this. In fact, it pours in a lot of new, correct information. (When one chapter mentioned Kit educating himself by going online to read blogs written by autistic people and their families, I cheered!) At a couple of points, especially near the beginning, this verges on preachiness for me. But for young adult readers who aren’t already familiar with autistic self-advocacy, it’s probably just right.

(A couple of commenters complained last time about a part of the book where Darryl’s mental world is depicted as a desert. In the new edition, the desert and other similar structures are explicitly described as works of art that he created for a specific purpose.)

3. Darryl from the old edition is portrayed in ways that make no sense. For example, he switches back and forth rapidly between very competent theory of mind and a complete ignorance of the fact that other people exist.

In the new edition, this problem doesn’t exist. There are still two different ways in which characters can see Darryl, one of which appears much more competent than the other. This happens for several interesting reasons, including Darryl deliberately changing the way he acts in certain contexts. But it’s no longer a wildly silly, inconsistent method of characterization.

4. The old edition conflates autism with depression, since they both involve a seeming withdrawl from the world.

This problem is – you guessed it – fixed. Kit still develops temporary depressive symptoms when he gets too drawn into Darryl’s mental world. But this is a result of Kit reacting badly to certain properties of that world, not an inherent property of Darryl or of autism. Nita still learns to cope with her grief for her mother, and stops withdrawing, but this is no longer brought about through comparisons between herself and Darryl.

So when we get rid of those problems, what’s left?

Darryl is left. Brave, cheerful, clever, wonderful Darryl. And this time there isn’t a mountain of fail holding him down.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Turandot story notes, part 1

“Variations on a Theme from Turandot” is a story that took an unusually long and winding path to publication, and I’d like to share some of that story with you here. (If you haven’t read it yet, and want to, maybe go do that before reading the rest of this. Or not; I’m not the boss of you.)

The seed for this story came in 2010, when I was just beginning to get serious about writing for publication. It’s also when I first saw Turandot in its entirety, broadcast into movie theatres from the Metropolitan Opera in New York (which, for those of you who are interested in watching operas relatively cheaply, does that sort of thing with delightful frequency).

I had watched the first two acts on a borrowed DVD, a year or two earlier, and had enjoyed the mythic setting and the riddles, but had somehow wandered off or something at the second intermission and forgot to come back. I was rather dismayed to discover what actually happened in Act Three. So I did what any excited beginning author would do: I decided I was going to write a fix-it fic.

The problem was, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to go about this. I wanted Liù to have some actual agency and also magic and to use the latter to solve the rest of the opera’s problems, but I only had a vague notion how it would go. A partner I had at the time suggested that Liù and Turandot should secretly switch places, Prince-and-the-Pauper-style, but that didn’t quite feel right to me somehow. I did some vague research and read some Chinese folk tales, but none of it especially helped, and eventually the Turandot story went onto the back burner.

A year or two later – 2012, maybe? – the story idea came back to bug me some more. I was on a road trip with my mother and younger sister, and I played highlights of my recording of Turandot for them while explaining the plot. To my dismay, they both thought that the opera was stupid and the characters were stupid, and that Turandot herself was an awful person whose motivations made no sense. Turandot’s motivations had always made perfect sense to me – she was concerned about male violence against women, and didn’t want men up in her business, thank you very fucking much – but apparently this wasn’t coming across to anyone else.

I’m not saying everything Turandot does in the opera is excellent, but she had always struck me as an example of a classic villain whose motives are perfectly comprehensible and who simply takes them too far. The only thing about her that didn’t make sense to me was the gross, forced, sudden declaration, at the end, that she actually did love Calaf after all.

So the Turandot fix-it fix project came back to haunt me, and this time it wasn’t only about giving Liù some cool magic and a happy ending; it was also about creating sympathy, and more explanation, for Turandot herself. An unlikely alliance between the two women began to emerge in my head, even though, in the actual opera, one of them has the other mercilessly tortured and killed.

I scribbled a bunch of ideas in a notebook on that road trip while the rest of my family was off doing other things, or sleeping. I don’t remember quite how, but this is the part where the story became something nonlinear and meta in my head. The more I considered different solutions for Liù’s problems, the more it became apparent to me that one of her chief problems is the fact that she’s in an opera, and to solve this problem with agency, she would first have to become aware of it. An inspiration at this point was David Ives’ “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” which I remembered having read in high school. I toyed with the idea of Liù physically or symbolically dying in literally every scene. I eventually deviated from that somewhat; but Liù’s overly romanticized death, and her attempts to escape it, still forms the core of the story from which all other variations emerge.

I noodled around with these ideas for a bit longer before finally, in the summer of 2013, feeling ready to push ahead and commit them to paper. I first spent two weeks doing more research at a level which I basically never do for short stories. This time I was more intelligent about it, and instead of trying to write down random facts about China, I instead read about Puccini himself and about different musicological and literary viewpoints on Turandot. I’ll go into more detail about what I read, and how it influenced me, in part 2.

Once I had finished with that, the ideas behind the story had been percolating for so long that they all fell out into a word processing document very easily, very poetically, and with what felt like a minimum of effort.

A first draft, however, is never actually a completed story – even if it has lived in your head for three years and is shiny enough to feel that way.

What followed was the most protracted set of revisions I have ever done on a single short story.

I did employ beta readers, of course, but I wasn’t wise enough to fully address all of their concerns at first. Instead, I optimistically sent the story flying out to all my favorite markets. It spent fifteen months in the slush pile at Tor.com, after which I received a very helpful and detailed personal rejection. I did revise as a result of this rejection. In particular, I introduced the character of the Other Soprano, and gave her a small arc of her own and a role in the story’s last scene, which had previously featured the Soprano alone.

After a couple of other attempts, the revised story then ended up at Strange Horizons, where I received not one, but a series of three rewrite requests. The content of these requests was varied, but they addressed even more issues that I somehow hadn’t thought of while writing. There were long gaps between the different requests, in part because it sometimes took me a long time to puzzle out how to do the revisions, and in part because of periods of time in which Strange Horizons was closed.

The biggest such issue, and the one that was most difficult for me, was in regards to Calaf, the Stranger/Prince. It is such an obvious omission that it embarrasses me to say it now, but my initial drafts for this story had almost nothing about Calaf in them. There was a scene giving some backstory between him and Liù, because “you smiled at me” is not a believable basis for a romance unless it can be unpacked a lot, but aside from his role in motivating Liù and Turandot’s actions, Calaf barely appeared in early versions of this story at all.

I hadn’t written about Calaf because I didn’t want to write about Calaf. Turandot and Liù’s motivations felt complex and good to get into. But it was extremely mentally and emotionally challenging for me to find a proper explanation for Calaf’s actions, other than, “He is a toxically masculine jerk.” But in a story where the main viewpoint character is in love with him, and where a (sort of) romantic union with him is her reward, I couldn’t quite lean on that as my explanation and have the story still work.

I’m still not sure that my explanation for Calaf works as well as it could, honestly. I’ve seen people point to it as a thing they like about the story, tying in as it does with ideas of story and authorship and free will. It still does feel, partially, that my solution to Calaf was to handwave and blame someone else.

The Strange Horizons editors also had a lot of concerns about the ending. The scene in which Liù goes back in time and kills Puccini had always been there – but it was originally, for some reason, from Puccini’s point of view. I think it was a case of an author wanting to show the receipts for all the homework they did; I’d developed a working theory of what was going on in Puccini’s head based on what I’d read about him and his work, which went against some of the prevailing scholarly theories about his attitudes towards women. But about 90% of that theory was utterly irrelevant to the story, so it had to be cut. I also had a lot of work to do unpacking and clarifying what even happens in the subsequent scenes, which are full of weird magic that made sense in my head but was hard to explain to a reader – and how those scenes connect to the literal and metaphorical “death of the author” theme.

Eventually, I got all of it done to Catherine Krahe and Lila Garrot’s satisfaction. The story was accepted for publication in January 2018, and now it is published. And there you have it: an eight-year road from the initial idea to publication. But well worth the journey, I think.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 8: Triggers

(First published Aug 10, 2013)

Today’s Book: “Triggers” by Robert J. Sawyer

The Plot: A PTSD therapy experiment goes haywire and causes people in Washington D.C., including the President, to share each other’s memories.

Autistic Character(s): Ivan Tarasov, a hospital security guard.

This isn’t the book I thought I would be reviewing after “The Damned Busters”, but it was in my Aurora Award voter packet, plus I have recently seen it on several other lists of autism-relevant books, because of Tarasov.

Ivan Tarasov is an adult Aspie man who has a job he likes (even though he would rather have gone into science, and might have been able to, had more supports been available for him in school) and also a wife and daughter. Yay! There’s no egregious autism fail in how he is written. There is a bit about picture thinking which seems to exaggerate the effects of this thinking style slightly, and which fails to point out that only some autistic people think in pictures, not everyone. (I don’t think in pictures, for instance.) But that’s forgiveable. Overall he’s as solid as Sawyer’s other characters.

The problem is that there are 51 (short) chapters in this book. Ivan Tarasov appears only in four of them, and never even for the whole chapter. He’s a very minor character. He has a small subplot which causes him to do a dramatic thing that affects other characters, and then he sort of stops being part of the story. So, if you’re looking for a book in which autistic people have lots of screen time, this isn’t it. On the other hand, if you want to see a book which strives to include the experiences of a large number of diverse people who happened to be in the same place at the same time, and in which neurodiversity is one small part of that diversity, then that’s exactly what Sawyer is doing. (The characters are also culturally and religiously diverse, among other things.) So, yay.

So, I’m not sure how to talk about this. I don’t want to imply that a book is bad just because the only autistic person in the book is a minor character. I mean, we exist, so we should logically be major characters in some stories and minor characters in others. It’s just that, if I am making a recommended reading list for people who are interested in autistic authors and characters, “Triggers” isn’t really very relevant.

(There are other things about the book that I liked, and other things about the book that I disliked. But I don’t want to get into that now.)

So I don’t know what to call this one. It isn’t, “Recommended”, it isn’t “Not Recommended”, it isn’t even “YMMV” – Tarasov gets the same amount of screen time no matter who’s reading. Can I call it “Irrelevant”? Except it isn’t completely irrelevant, it’s just not relevant enough. Or something. Suggestions are welcome.

(ETA: After a suggestion from David Lamb, I invented the verdict of Marginal for this book, and have since used the Marginal rating for several others as well.)

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 45: An Unkindness of Ghosts

Today’s Book: “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon

The Plot: A generation ship has reverted to a state resembling the antebellum Southern U.S., complete with slavery. On the ship, a Black Autistic woman named Aster hunts for clues about her dead mother, who might have discovered a way off the ship, or a way to change everything.

Autistic Character(s): Aster.

“An Unkindness of Ghosts” is a dark, gripping book. It is billed as being about a slave revolt, and definitely there is a slave revolt that happens somewhere in there, but the full book is much more complex, and the main conflicts more personal, than that description would suggest – even as the oppression and abuse of their circumstances weigh heavily throughout the book on Aster and everyone she knows.

Aster is a wonderful character whose autistic traits are written very well. (I’m not sure if the autism in the book is #ownvoices or not. I know Rivers Solomon has described herself as non-neurotypical, but there are a lot of things that go under that umbrella. So it might be #ownvoices, and it might not be. Either way, it’s good enough that I could easily believe that it was.) She speaks very formally and literally, and has trouble working out what people mean when they use figures of speech. She has a great talent for medicine and works as a sort of doctor, doing what she can to help others on her deck who have been injured by the harsh conditions there. She also has some more subtle autistic traits, of the kind that I don’t often see authors remember to include in books. For instance, she has immense difficulty with handwriting. She stims by banging against things as she runs, often without consciously realizing she’s doing it. (I have stims that I don’t do consciously, although not that one in particular, and I don’t often see that aspect of stimming discussed in fiction.)

Although Aster’s society doesn’t seem to have a formal word for autism, Solomon does a good job of showing that people recognize what is going on with Aster. Not just that she is different, but that she is a particular sort of different, with a name:

“I am a healer, like you. Well, not quite like you. You’re a little off, aren’t you?” The woman grabbed Aster’s chin, turning her face so they were forced eye to eye. “You’re one of those who has to tune the world out and focus on one thing at a time. We have a word for that down here, women like you. Insiwa. Inside one. It means you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning.”
Aster had been called worse.

This is neat – I would love to see more far-future SF and secondary-world fantasy that displays its own cultures’ understandings of, and names for, autism.

And while Aster is often baffled by what people are doing and what they mean, she also displays flashes of insight into how people work that remind me of my own hyperempathic autistic friends:

“She’s probably the one who made him sick,” said Vivian, but who knew if she really believed it? Her personality revolved around being the rude one, and she kept up the act to maintain her identity. In the process she’d become a caricature of herself.

And while Aster is the only autistic character, Solomon also takes pains to show that she’s not the only non-neurotypical person on the ship. In fact, the two other most important characters are also non-neurotypical. Aster’s friend and mentor Theo, a closet transwoman who works as a surgeon in the upperdecks, seems to have something like OCD, carrying out religious and cleansing rituals with compulsive fervor.

There’s also Giselle, Aster’s best friend from her deck, who I actually found the most fascinating character of all from a neurodiversity standpoint. I don’t know what diagnosis exactly would be appropriate for Giselle. She’s heavily traumatized, like everyone on the lower decks; unlike most people on the lower decks, she also experiences delusions, self-harms, and has both verbal and physical violent episodes, including violence against Aster. Giselle’s type of mental illness is very heavily stigmatized. I was transfixed by how she was portrayed, worst symptoms at all, and yet still remained matter-of-factly a friend Aster who and her other cabinmates cared about. In particular, even though Giselle often says and believes things that are not true, she’s also clever and figures out some true things before Aster does, including the fact that Aster’s mother wrote her diary in code. This isn’t portrayed with any of the usual obnoxious “oh no, are they crazy, or are they right??” tropes. It just is, the way it would be if any other character figured out something important. I have literally never seen a white or neurotypical author write a character this way. I love Giselle.

(For that very reason, I felt super ambivalent about Giselle’s role in the ending, which was my only real reservation about this book. But it’s nothing to do with autism, and is therefore, for the purposes of this review, neither here nor there.)

I also want to briefly mention “An Unkindness of Ghosts”‘ tone, because that has been the topic of a lot of online discussion. As Bogi Takács points out in eir review, this is quite a dark book in which the characters’ oppressors are very cruel to them. But it’s also a book that is respectful and even softened, in how it shows these things, compared to some of the stuff that actually happened to slaves in the antebellum South. There were parts where I had to step away for a bit and recalibrate, but that happens to me with a lot of books. I certainly didn’t find it as difficult to get through as, say, Mirror Project. 😛 For other white readers in particular I would encourage reading this book with an open mind. Like, read the content warnings in Bogi’s review, and nope out if you have to, but know that those parts of the book are #ownvoices and there for a reason.

Overall, “An Unkindness of Ghosts” is a very well-written book about multiply marginalized non-neurotypical people of color who make their own way through harrowing circumstances in search of hope.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Rivers Solomon. I read her book by buying a copy from Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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New Story: Variations on a Theme from Turandot

A new story is out today, “Variations on a Theme from Turandot,” in the May 14 issue of Strange Horizons.

This is a story with an unusually long story behind it. I first started wanting to write something like it in 2010. What started as a vague “I want to write a fix-it fic” urge became exponentially more complicated and strange the more I thought about it, and then the various beta reads, personal rejections, and rewrite requests I received only complicated it even more.

Turandot is an absurd, racist, sexist, Orientalist, rape-culture-endorsing, absolutely-no-sense-making opera that Puccini never actually finished writing. It is also my favorite opera. I am a complicated person.

As I have time (which is unfortunately in short supply right now, because grad school) I will hopefully be able to post some story notes, talking about the research and rewrites that went into this story. For now, you can simply read and enjoy. But do take care to check the content warnings first, please, because shit gets dark in Turandot and my feeble attempts to grapple with that subject matter have only made it darker.

Limestone Genre Expo

For those of you in the area of Kingston, Ontario, I’ll be making an appearance and panelling at this year’s Limestone Genre Expo. Here’s my panel schedule:

May 26, 11:00 am: Fairytales, Fables & Folklore: Old Tales for a New Audience. (Bellevue Room South)

May 26, 3:00 pm: Mental Health Representation in Fiction: More than Villains (Bellevue Room South)

May 26, 4:00 pm: Poetry & Spoken Word (Bellevue Room North)

May 27, 4:00 pm: Women of Science Fiction (Bellevue Room North)

If you are in attendance, please say hi!