Autistic Book Party, Episode 48 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Kerrie Seljak-Byrne (writing as Kerrie McCreadie), “The Knight’s Inn” (The Spectatorial, Issue 5, June 2016)

[Autistic author] A poem about search engines, sexual assault, triggers, and memory. Like the poems in Augur Magazine (which Kerrie edits), this is at heart a realistic psychological poem but with myth and monstrousness constantly flickering in its peripheral vision. If you can handle the subject matter, it’s well-done. [Recommended-2]

*

Raphael Ordoñez, “Salt and Sorcery” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, August 2016)

[Autistic author] A mysterious, not-quite-human girl is marooned when her airship crashes in an unmapped salt flat. This adventure story has a bit of an anime feel to me. The visual descriptions are beautiful and unsettling by turns, and the plot is full of both charming and frightening surprises. .[Recommended-2]

*

A.J. Odasso, “The Devil In Boston” (Barking Sycamores, June 2017)

[Autistic author] Elegant and menacing like a lot of the best poems about devils, Odasso imagines the devil adapting themself to East coast hipster culture. [Recommended-2]

*

A. Merc Rustad, “For Now, Sideways” (Diabolical Plots, August 2017)

[Autistic author] A gritty, bittersweet story about mech-suit soldiers in the aftermath of war. I like the way the characters carefully, hesitantly support each other; like some of Merc’s other stories, the importance of that kind of support is drawn poignantly and in sharp strokes. [Recommended-2]

*

Rose Lemberg, “Pollen” (Mithila Review, September 2017)

[Autistic author] A small, gorgeous poem about flowers and spaceships. [Recommended-2]

*

Yoon Ha Lee, “The Starship and the Temple Cat” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2018)

[Autistic author] The ghost of a cat is called on again to protect her dead space station from an impending attack. Extremely adorable, and terribly sad. [Recommended-2]

*

Bogi Takács, “Four-Point Affective Calibration” (Lightspeed, February 2018)

[Autistic author] A story about using neurological technology to try to communicate with aliens, packed with semi-autobiographical detail. There’s a lot going on in a very short space here, but in part, this is a meditation on the non-universality of thoughts and emotions, and on an autistic character’s fear that their mind on a very basic level will not meet the standards of their own experiment. The ending is happy, though. [Recommended-1]

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 11 and a half: Short Story Spotlight

(First published Dec 5 2013. Minor edits have been made.)

The story: Luna Lindsey, “Touch of Tides”, Crossed Genres, Issue 8 (August 2013)

Lindsey’s protagonist, Dr. Mara Skyberg, has Asperger syndrome, though this isn’t explicitly explained in the story (Lindsey mentions it in her New Author Spotlight interview). She also experiences synesthesia. Both her synesthesia and her autistic traits prove invaluable when she discovers sentient alien life during her job as a scientist on Europa.

The role of the synesthesia will be obvious to any reader, and is cool to see. The role of the autistic traits is subtler. Mara is impatient with the social compromises and power games which slow her NT co-workers down when a crisis happens, and bravely swims out into Europa’s ocean to solve the problem though the rest of them object. Also, her co-workers frequently make incorrect assumptions about her feelings and needs, thinking she will want the same kind of interaction preferred by NTs (which is a very, very common communication problem that happens in real life). Mara has picked up on this, so she is also quick to figure out when the humans have made incorrect assumptions about the aliens’ needs.

It’s really cool to see a situation where an autistic character’s way of thinking becomes an asset to communication. Instead of assuming that the autistic character will always be bad at it and the NTs will always be good.

Also, I wanted to mention this line:
I also hate when he calls them barns. I can’t help but picture the station full of farm animals.
Which is a throwaway line and not important at all, but it made me happy, because I used to respond to a lot of non-literal statements in this way. Autistic people are famous for taking statements literally, but it’s often more complicated than a simple comprehension problem. I used to strongly picture literal meanings even though I knew perfectly well that the speaker didn’t mean them, and it would bother me, especially if the literal meaning was something hyperbolically emotional or violent.

(As a grown-up, I’ve mellowed out about this, but I still hate the “exaggerated negative emotions as humor” trope. My brain focuses on the negative emotions rather than the absurdity of the exaggeration, and it gets very awkward.)

Anyway, that’s a tangent, but Lindsey is a cool autistic author who’s written a cool autistic story, and you should check it out. I’m certainly adding her other stories to my TBR list.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Autism News, 2018/08/10

A nice light news cycle this month (or maybe I was just paying less attention – lots of big stuff happened for me this month, including moving in with a SO for the first time!) So we won’t bother with as much categorization as usual. Still some good autism stuff that came out, though:

And some good pan-disability stuff:

  • Captain Awkward explains why we don’t diagnose real people with mental disorders based on a secondhand account of their behavior – and where the temptation to do so comes from. (This is not at all specific to autism; I include it because it’s the best and most thorough explanation I’ve seen of a disability issue that I often struggle to articulate. For bonus points, the part that mentions autism describes EXACTLY the reaction that I have in that situation, lol.) 
  • J.R. Jackson on special minority-focused issues of magazines
  • Henry Claypool on accessibility and self-driving cars 

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 11: The Empress of Mars

(First published Nov 20, 2013. Minor edits have been made.)

Today’s Book: “The Empress of Mars” by Kage Baker

The Plot: A group of colorful misfits in a half-abandoned Martian colony find diamonds in the Martian soil. Hijinks ensue.

Autistic Character(s): Perrik Cochevelou, the brilliant son of a local PanCelt clan chieftain.

I’ve talked about the difficulty of reviewing comedies before. A book like “The Empress of Mars” is inherently full of characters with exaggerated personalities who bounce off of each other (and the setting, and the general situation) in absurd ways. Perrik is as exaggerated as anyone else. He is in some ways a simple autistic stock character. A designer of wonderful robots, but a social recluse, Perrik stays in his room for most of the story (until he runs away, fakes his own death, and constructs a very comfortable bachelor apartment for himself in a cave somewhere while living off the profits of his inventions), refusing to see most visitors and only barely tolerating his own father. Yet the way Baker writes Perrik reveals that she’s on his side, and that she understands more about his needs than one might assume.

Take these exchanges in Perrik’s first scene:

Mary stood still, knowing that if she advanced on him he’d shrink away. She held up her empty glass and examined it ostentatiously, wondering if he’d come any closer. He did, sidling along until he stood within reach.
“I’m glad it’s you,” he said. To her great delight, he reached forward and took her hand, Perrik who could hardly bear to be touched by anyone. “I was going to show my dad the new biis. But I’d like you to see them too. Come have a look. Please?”…

There was a door’s hiss and a growl from the chamber beyond, and a moment later Cochevelou came in. “Mary? What’s this?”
“Perrik was only showing me a new bii he’s designed,” said Mary. Cochevelou gaped at the blue lights a moment, and then grinned wide.
“That’s my brilliant boy!” he roared. He came at Perrik as though to embrace him. Perrik flinched away and looked at the floor. Cochevelou dropped his arms, coloring, and cleared his throat. “Well! Er. What a fine thing, now! You see, Mary, what a genius I’ve raised?”
“You don’t even know what it does,” muttered Perrik.

Mary (our protagonist, who is awesome for a whole lot of reasons besides this one) respects Perrik’s personal space, takes care not to startle or crowd him, asks intelligent questions about the things that he shows her, and remembers what he has told her about them before. She is rewarded with Perrik’s friendship. Perrik’s father, though he means well, does none of these things, and is treated accordingly. Baker doesn’t hit readers over the head with it, but it’s clear she actually values Perrik’s boundaries, which is a rare thing.

And while Perrik is a stereotypical autistic science genius, he’s also much more practical than most people give him credit for. Here’s part of what happens when Perrik runs away:

“With only his dear psuit and mask gone,” said Lulu, brushing away tears. “The poor little unworldly darling didn’t take so much as a crust nor a thermos bottle with him, and he’s nowhere within the clan holdings, and chief is certain he’s got frightened and run off Outside! His only child!” she added, with a resentful glance at Alice’s baby bulge.
“Perrik’s not a child. So you’re all searching the bounds,” said Mary patiently…

But of course Perrik did not run away into the Martian wilderness with only his psuit and mask, and when Mary examines the evidence and follows him to his cave, she finds him quite comfortable, having already used his biis to construct a liveable and self-sustaining environment. He is already working on patents for the biis and on some legal matters related to his running away, and explains quite calmly why he doesn’t want to go back. Mary is distressed at the thought of what his father and the rest of the clan will say, but respects his wishes.

“…This is so much better! He won’t have to worry about me.”
“He’s your father, of course he’s going to worry about you!”
“Then you explain to him. I’ve always respected you as a sensible woman. You never acted-” His tic spasmed briefly. “-as though there was something wrong with me.”

Perrik’s not a huge part of the story, but the role he does play is pivotal, and whenever he appears, there’s a subversive little thread going through the narrative in this manner. He’s played for laughs because everyone in this book is played for laughs, but Baker never loses sight of the fact that he’s a real human whose feelings matter. The characters who do lose sight of this are far more laughable than he is, and Baker knows it.

If you’re going to write a comedy with a token autistic genius in it, then this is how it’s done.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

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

Vintage Autistic Party, Episode 10: Pilgrennon’s Beacon

(First published Oct 12, 2013)

Today’s Book: “Pilgrennon’s Beacon” by Manda Benson.

The Plot: Dana, an autistic girl in foster care who can communicate with computers, is kidnapped and becomes a pawn in a power struggle between two mad scientists, both of whom have a connection to Dana’s mysterious past.

Autistic Character(s): Dana, of course, and also Jananin Blake, the scientist who kidnaps her. A few other autistic children appear as minor characters. The author is also on the spectrum herself.

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a book with an autistic author AND an autistic protagonist. So I really wanted to like it, and I’m feeling torn now. It has some basic, good things going for it which I should not overlook. There is an autistic protagonist who actually does things, and is quite brave at doing the increasingly dangerous things the plot requires of her. Also, there is Jananin (more about Jananin in a second). And while Dana’s school life is as terrible as one would expect, there are some good scenes late in the book of her connecting with Jananin and being encouraged about who she is.

But “Pilgrennon’s Beacon” also has some big problems, and the biggest one is named Ivor Pilgrennon.

Pilgrennon is Jananin Blake’s opposite number, and is initially framed (by Jananin) as a villain, though the whose-side-is-which question quickly becomes murky. I am having a hard time summing up everything that is wrong with Ivor Pilgrennon in a paragraph, so let me explain him to you in a series of handy bullet points.

When he was young, he had an undiagnosed autistic sister who was abused by their parents and killed herself. As a result, he devoted himself to the study of autism.

As an autism researcher, he decided that all autistic children have a natural affinity for computers, and started researching better interfaces between autistic people and computers, ostensibly for good reasons such as allowing autistic children to use computers to improve their lives and protect themselves. This led to him attempting to breed a perfect autistic genius, through strategies like switching donated eggs and sperm at fertility clinics with the eggs and sperm of autistic people without the knowledge of the people at the fertility clinics. Also, unauthorized brain surgery on children and fetuses, which in at least one case went wrong and led to severe brain damage.

But he feels really bad about that now!

He now lives in hiding on a remote island with two of the children affected by his experiments. They have a horrible dirty living space made out of an abandoned military base, with only the most basic food and amenities. He is cavalier about their medication, and mostly steals it. At one point he explains that both of the children living with him could be helped if he went home and had access to real doctors/surgeons, but of course he can’t do that until he can figure out how to erase his criminal convictions from a police database so that he won’t be arrested while the doctors do their helping thing.

For most of the book it’s hard to tell if he and the two children are very attached to each other or not, since most of their interactions seem to consists of him telling the one with ADHD to sit still and be quiet.

But this is all okay, because even though he refuses to consider actually turning himself in and facing the legal consequences for what he’s been doing, he feels really bad, you guys.

The other side of the power struggle is Jananin Blake. Jananin is a Nobel Prize-winning science professor and inventor who wears a trenchcoat and wields a samurai sword. She is open and matter-of-fact about having Asperger’s Sydrome; she even puts her own autistic spin on typical combat-scene dialogue. (“This is a sword. It is self-explanatory.”) Basically, Jananin is all the kinds of awesome that Ivor Pilgrennon isn’t.

However, as the plot progresses, Jananin exhibits some psychopathic traits of her own. Not ony does she kidnap Dana in order to use her as a pawn against Pilgrennon, but she does things like torturing Pilgrennon with a fireplace poker, and also shooting at him while he is using Dana as a human shield. (YES, PILGRENNON DOES THAT, though it is not described that way in so many words. HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I DO NOT LIKE PILGRENNON.) At one point she blames this on her Asperger’s and lack of empathy, although in context it may be her attempt at a joke. I’m really not sure.

So, Jananin is a character who forces me to ask: What are my first principles here? Do I think autistic characters should always be portrayed as good people? Heck no. NTs get to be badass and morally ambiguous antiheroes, so autistic people should too. (I have some characters like that in mind myself, though I am having trouble navigating all the complexities of how to write them without completely falling on my face.) And placed in that role, Jananin mostly delivers.

The real trouble is with where the plot ends up going. I was hoping that either Dana and Jananin would band together and bring Pilgrennon to justice, or Dana would get thoroughly sick of both of them and find her own way out of the conflict. Instead, Dana stumbles her way into an even larger conflict, and all three of the characters must work together to solve it. In the process, their differences (including the torture scene?) are somehow forgotten, and she ends up getting really attached to them both.

This is a plot that can work in some stories, and might have worked in this one if the characters and situation were even a little bit different. But it doesn’t work for me, because I just really, really, hate Ivor Pilgrennon. It makes me uncomfortable to see him redeemed into some sort of heroic father figure, because it has the effect of implicitly normalizing ridiculous abuses of autistic people by autism researchers.

There are still some readers who may enjoy the book. If all my complaints about Ivor Pilgrennon haven’t fazed you, and you like the idea of a morally ambiguous YA-ish science fiction adventure written by an Aspie woman in which autistic characters have most of the major plot roles, then this is clearly a thing you should read. But my experience with the book was not positive, and I suspect that most of my regular readers will feel the same way.

The Verdict: YMMV

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

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 9.5: Short Story Smorgasbord

(First published Sep 19, 2013)

*

Cat Rambo, “Long Enough and Just So Long” – Lightspeed Magazine, February 2011

Pippi, a sportscaster and the narrator’s best friend, is described as “borderline Aspie”. While this informs her personality, the story isn’t really about autism at all. Pippi isn’t entirely sympathetic, but she reads like a real person with realistic human flaws as well as good points, and with real emotions that she sometimes has difficulty expressing. [Recommended.]

*

Pamela Sargent, “Strawberry Birdies” – Asimov’s, December 2011

The narrator, a little girl, resents her autistic brother Cyril and repeatedly wishes he would go away. Then some people from an alternate universe show up and do take him away. They have better assistive technology in their universe and claim that it’s best for Cyril to go with them because he can never “use his gifts” or have a happy family in the universe were he was born. The narrator goes to a universe where her parents never had an autistic child and are much happier as a result. Then I headdesk a lot at the entire thing. The end. [Not Recommended.]

*

Ken Liu, “The Countable” – Asimov’s, December 2011

I found this story too upsetting to evaluate clearly, but I didn’t notice any egregious autism fail. Fans of Liu’s work who like autistic protagonists (and aren’t triggered by depictions of domestic abuse) will probably enjoy it. [YMMV.]

*

Nino Cipri (writing as Nicole Cipri), “A Silly Love Story” – Daily Science Fiction, September 2012

Jeremy, a “neurodiverse” college student, falls in love with a genderqueer classmate named Merion and also deals with a friendly poltergeist. This is a super cute, quirky story in which both the autistic character and the genderqueer character are well drawn. Jeremy’s troubles in school and anxiety about his future are realistic, but he never becomes an object of pity. [Recommended.]

*

Meda Kahn, “Difference of Opinion” – Strange Horizons, September 2013

I was really dubious about the first scene of this, because I’m not fond of “in the future, oppressed people are even more oppressed” as a plot. But then I read the rest and WOW, this author knows her stuff. (And, as for fictionalized oppression, the gap between what’s going on in the story and what goes on IRL isn’t nearly as big as one might think.) Also, non-speaking characters: This is how you write them. And also, queerness! And autistic people getting together for actual advocacy of each other (even though that doesn’t actually work out too great in the story). Basically why are you even still reading this review and not READING THE STORY. GO DO THAT NOW. [Recommended.]

“ads if privacy row”

I have a new poem up on my Patreon today! This one is an experiment – one of my backers asked me for a poem in which I started with some of the output of my poetry generator that I made at school, and then modified it by hand. Instead of trying to make the output more humanlike, I decided to go the other route and mess up the text even more. We’ll see if it works.

$5+ backers can see the poem right away – the rest of you will be able to see it next month. Enjoy!

Autistic Book Party, Episode 47/48: Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun

Today’s Books: Two for the price of one! “Raven Stratagem” and “Revenant Gun,” both sequels to “Ninefox Gambit” by Yoon Ha Lee – also known as the Machineries of Empire series.

The Plot: After the events of “Ninefox Gambit,” the hexarchate – and Cheris and Jedao – have to pick up the pieces. (It’s really hard to write non-spoilery plot hooks for sequels, wheeee.)

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I pounced on these books and devoured them because of a rumor that “Revenant Gun” contained an autistic character. This rumor is not true, sorry! But they are still cracking good space operas with delightful magic space battles and intrigue which are every bit as compelling as the first one.

It’s really hard to say a lot of detailed stuff about these two books without giving spoilers for “Ninefox Gambit,” or for new stuff that happens. Also, I read both books in a bit of a concerned haze because I was trying way too hard to figure out who the autistic character was and couldn’t figure it out. A discussion in Lee’s open thread about “Revenant Gun,” listing other neurodivergent characters, suggests that there was never meant to be one in the first place.

(I did wonder at times about Kel Brezan, who is cranky, fidgety, fixated on small details and seemingly unable to perform the social scripts that go with the powerful role he is given – but overall the evidence isn’t strong enough to suggest that Brezan was meant to be autistic, or any other specific thing. Brezan is, however, a “crashhawk” – someone for whom Kel formation instinct doesn’t function properly – which is arguably an in-universe form of neurodivergence!)

The overall portrayal of neurodiversity in this trilogy was never bad, but I did note a few concerns in my previous review. These concerns are things that improve over the course of the series! In particular, “Ninefox Gambit” gives us several minor characters who appear to be examples of the “sociopathic villain” trope, but the next two books develop these characters further and give them much more nuance which pulls them away from the problematic elements of that trope.

According to the open thread, Shuos Mikodez, one of these characters, was patterned after manic phases which are #ownvoices for the author (although he also pinged as possibly ADHD to me and at least one other reader). He’s shown taking meds, relying on an aide and a double for support, and realistically needing these accommodations while also being brilliant and good at his job. A more monstrous character, Nirai Kujen, is… I don’t know how to talk about it without spoilers, but in “Revenant Gun” we learn much more about how Kujen came to be the way he is, and I found it very compelling because I have absolutely met people who would turn evil in that way if they could. Eeeeep.

Anyway, most of the book isn’t about this stuff, but about MAGIC SPACE BATTLES and revolutions and divided loyalties and cute robots, and it is really excellent. Machineries of Empire is one of my favorite sci-fi series, not just by autistic authors, but out of all the sci-fi series I have read ever. Go read it 😀

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: Yoon Ha Lee and I have had one very brief correspondence, which is described in the “Ninefox Gambit” review. We haven’t otherwise interacted.

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

Announcing THE OUTSIDE!

Hello, blog readers!

I’ve been very scarce because of (good, but intense) stuff going on in my life – I moved into a new home (with a longterm partner of mine) on Monday and am still settling in.

But I could not fail to announce this one thing that I have been keeping under wraps for months!

THE OUTSIDE, my debut science fiction novel, is coming out in the summer of 2019 from Angry Robot Books.

THE OUTSIDE features an autistic lesbian protagonist, supercomputer Gods and cyborg angels, a touch of Lovecraftian horror, and a heap of what the publisher is calling “mind-bending Big Idea science fiction.”

Read the full announcement here! I’m SO EXCITED!!

Autism News, 2018/07/12

Posts about useful activities:

Posts about comorbid conditions:

Posts about people being treated badly: