Autistic Book Party, Episode 40: Mouse

Cover of the book "Mouse" by Richard Ford Burley

Today’s Book: “Mouse”, by Richard Ford Burley

The Plot: An autistic boy discovers he can talk to a ghost, is the reincarnation of Simon Magus (sort of), and needs to save the world.

Autistic Character(s): The title character.

This book is a fun urban fantasy with roots in medieval alchemy and ceremonial magic (not surprising, since Burley is a medievalist). It’s also a book with a pretty badass #ownvoices autistic protagonist from a somewhat under-represented part of the spectrum.

Mouse is a high school student who is “primarily non-verbal” – he can squeak out a word or two in an emergency, usually, if there’s no other option, but he prefers to communicate by writing notes. He is intensely sensitive and overwhelmed by the social information he sees in other people’s faces, which is why he never looks there. He’s taught in an integrated classroom with neurotypical classmates, but he isn’t especially talented at school; he mainly keeps his head down and tries to get through the day.

All these are great things to see in an autistic protagonist, and I liked seeing them. Unfortunately, the book kept making strange and inconsistent choices in how it portrayed them.

I feel really bad critiquing an #ownvoices author’s portrayal of autism, which makes this critique hard to write. It’s possible I’m missing something huge. But I’m just going to soldier on and show some examples of what I’m talking about.

In the beginning of the novel, Mouse is so painfully over-sensitive that he literally never looks at his classmates’ faces, recognizing them instead (in a cute touch) by their shoes. When he is pressed to look a classmate in the eye, the cascade of information there sends him straight into panic:

Ginnie crouches down in front of him. She lifts his bangs to look under and he can’t help it, he can’t close his eyes fast enough. He imagines it’s like being electrocuted; he sees it all in under a second, hears it like a building wall of static in his mind. He sees a dubious look on the surface of the most shining, blinding green eyes; he sees that she’s curious, interested; beyond that, she’s a little worried about breaking social taboos but a little excited by the prospect of it; he sees that she’s often a little bored and seeking a thrill but that she’s generally harmless to herself and others; that she’s the kind of person who smiles a lot but cries easily and that she desperately, desperately wishes life were simple enough to be solved with single, grand gestures rather than the day-in-day-out course corrections that constitute the waking world; and beneath it all he sees something more—an intricate reweaving of times and places, of ordinary days and extraordinary ones, the sadness of the mundane, and a crystalline, blinding hope she places in the new. And below even that he sees something bigger, darker, deeper—
Mouse recoils violently, nearly dropping what’s left of his lunch.

This is a bit of an exaggerated description, but it’s meant to be; it will later be revealed that Mouse is not just autistically sensitive but “a sensitive” in a magic sense. (As a side note, I know a lot of quite hyper-empathic autistic people. The part that I find unrealistic is not the amount of information, per se, but rather the fact that Mouse is able to process the information fast enough to consciously identify what all those different parts of it are before he recoils.)

Also, the description of Mouse’s shutdown immediately following this is just really good:

Even Mouse knows it was the wrong reaction. Everything’s gone quiet and they’re looking at him. The guitar has stopped. Mouse has his knees up to his nose and he can tell, even with his eyes closed tight, that they all have concerned looks. But he can’t move, can’t look. His stomach is a knot twisted to its snapping point, his heart is beating in his throat, he wants to throw up. Like a turtle curled up in its shell, he can’t risk extending his legs even to run away. He imagines for a moment the impossibility of ever moving again, of being frozen like this forever; but he doesn’t have to imagine, only remember the years of small rooms and soft voices, the gradual peeling open of a tulip flower cut too soon for the table.

As soon as the plot really gets going, though, Mouse seems to become less and less impaired for no discernible reason. We meet one magical character who is able to put up shields that make it more comfortable for Mouse to look at him; and we see Mouse practicing basic magical skills, like moving energy around to boil water. But we don’t see him practicing how to manage the onslaught of information that he sees when he looks at anything. Yet, the depictions of this onslaught of information, which were so effectively done at the beginning of the book, seem to just fade away as if the author forgot about them. First he’s no longer identifying anybody by their shoes. Then he is able, carefully, to look his love interest in the eye. Then all of a sudden we are reading scenes like this one:

The rest of the day passes in montage, and the following night, and the rest of the week. Sitting at his desk, exchanging glances with Bliss or Anna in the batcave, zoning out during dinner. He tosses and turns at night, wondering when the next attack will come.

Suddenly eye contact is a totally fine thing that we’re doing all the time, and I really do feel like I missed something.

We see some flash-forwards (this book has a couple of cool, timey-wimey twists) to an older Mouse in a dystopian world, who has somehow become calm and strong and commanding. He still doesn’t talk, but all the other impairments seem to have either gone away, or become un-noticed by the people around him. It’s hard to say, since nothing in those flash-forwards is actually from Mouse’s point of view.

We also have the problem that Mouse is a reincarnation of Simon Magus – or, not a reincarnation exactly, but a fragment of Magus’s consciousness that was passed forward in time. But the original Simon Magus wasn’t autistic, and has no problem talking. In emergencies, Mouse finds himself instinctively drawing on the original Simon Magus – which means he suddenly becomes a confident person who can conveniently talk and shout out verbal spell incantations at these emergency moments, including in the book’s climactic scene. This is a somewhat frustrating choice to me; I would much rather have seen Mouse figuring out ways to deal with magical emergencies without speaking.

Furthermore, since the original Simon Magus wasn’t autistic, Mouse is convinced that there must be a reason that he is autistic in his current life. Toward the end of the book, the reason is revealed:

Simon, that is, Simon Magus, he was a master strategist, he could see the way everything was going to go and planned ahead every time. But this time he couldn’t make the equations work—there wasn’t enough data. So he made Mouse to be the opposite of him—he can’t see, but he can feel. He can sense a pattern in the chaos and act right away. His intuition is exactly the opposite kind of knowledge to Simon’s.

Which, you know, sure – and I like the connection between autistic patterns thinking and magical intuition. Except I’m not sure how “he can act right away” jibes with his shutting down in the face of information earlier in the book. And the whole thing feels awfully close to two really problematic tropes – one being the person who seems to be disabled but it’s actually just magic, and the other being the autistic person whose character development consists of becoming less autistic as the story goes on.

This is all sort of nitpicky stuff; at the end of the day, we are still looking at an #ownvoices autistic hero who gets to be at the center of his own story, who has wonderful friends, family, and allies, and who saves the world. It’s well-written on a craft level, and it deals with its subject matter respectfully. If you’re not too bothered by the kinds of complaints I’m making here, and you’re up for a fun urban fantasy romp with medieval mages and mind-bending twists, then “Mouse” is for you. For me, it didn’t all quite work; but I’ll certainly be looking out for more from this author.

The Verdict: YMMV

Ethics Statement: I think I have vaguely interacted with Richard Ford Burley on Twitter once or twice, but that’s all. I read his book by reading an e-copy that the publisher emailed to me in hopes of a review. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are 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.

Faves from 2017, part 3: Stories and poems!

Here’s the part of my faves list that IS all award-eligible (as far as I know; I may have messed something up somewhere).

Hugo and Nebula nominations aren’t open yet, and by the time they are, I’ll have read even more stuff from 2017 thanks to other people’s rec lists and whatever else happens across my desk. But if I was nominating for all the awards tonight, here’s what I’d choose:

Novelettes

Short Stories

Honorable mentions:

Long Poetry

Honorable mention:

Short Poetry

Honorable mentions:

Other Categories

I don’t feel like I watch enough movies to vote for a Best Dramatic Presentation, but I adored The Last Jedi, and I thought Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok were pretty frickin’ awesome, too. I’ve heard really good things about quite a few of 2017’s other movies. It’s going to be a tough category this year.

I’ll be tempted to nominate Charles Payseur for Best Fan Writer. I do not know how that guy eats or sleeps with the number of thoughtful and enthusiastic short fiction reviews he puts out. Bogi Takács is another tireless and intelligent reviewer who’s eligible in this category.

Uncanny and Strange Horizons have both put out huge amounts of really solid work this year, and I hope to see them both on the Best Semiprozine ballot.

Faves from 2017, part 2: Novellas!

Like the previous faves post, this isn’t going to be limited to works published in 2017. Just ones that I read in 2017 and adored.

Andi C. Buchanan, “This Other World.” Full review here.

T. Kingfisher, “Summer in Orcus.” I love Ursula Vernon / T. Kingfisher’s short work, but hadn’t read a whole book of it before. This one was wonderful; she certainly didn’t seem to have trouble expanding her trademark wit, invention, and common-sense trope subversions to full length. When I realized just why this particular protagonist was the chosen one, I might have cried.

Rose Lemberg, “A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power.” Full review here.

Bogi Takács, “Iwunen Interstellar Investigations, Prologue Season: Glory as Birthright.” Full review here.

Isabel Yap, “Hurricane Heels.” I walked into this expecting a fluffy bit of Sailor Moon nostalgia, but to call it that would be to vastly underestimate what the author is up to. It’s written from a place of love for magical girl anime tropes, but it’s also a huge deconstruction of those tropes, as well as a celebration of fierce girls with fiercer friendships, and of surviving through trauma. Aiko is my favorite. I cried at this one, too.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND: story notes, part 20, 23, 30, 37, and 47

20. Taylan

She expected me to dance with her. Innocently, like we had when we were two little girls in the fourth grade.

“Taylan” is a micro-story – under 200 words – that I wrote as an experiment, for a microfiction magazine called Leodegraunce. The theme of the issue was “Elegance”. I managed to write a quasi-love triangle (one of the loves being, probably, platonic) in that length and make it work, and Leodegraunce bought it.

This led to a short burst of wanting to write ALL OF THE MICROFICTION, as you can see below.

23. Feasting Alone

The chewing, smacking sounds. The smell. Someone had taken pity on the man and given him a program to conjure up the virtual ghost of food. He squatted on the floor, guzzling obscenities: salt pork, chocolate, rigatoni, grapes.

“Feasting Alone” was written for the Leodegraunce theme, “Seven Deadly Sins”. I noticed that, out of the seven, people didn’t usually have much to say about Gluttony, and that when they did, it was usually facile fat-shaming. Or, occasionally, a critique of modern food corporations; but that wasn’t where I wanted to go with the story, either. I wanted to write about food, and an excess of food, and why characters might be disturbed by this, in a way that had nothing to do with anybody’s body shape or supposed health.

I ended up with a tale of a virtual world in which people couldn’t remember the appeal of food anymore, or why anyone had bothered to put up with the chewing sounds and other potentially overloading byproducts of eating in the past. (Yes, I have been overloaded by people’s chewing sounds before. And scrapey cutlery sounds, UGGGH. It is one of the things that is usually under control when I take my meds, but it is a thing.) Despite all this, learning to live with food again might be the only way to understand a lonely and overwhelmed stranger. (Comfort eating, for me, is very much also a thing.)

It wasn’t a very good story at 200 words, and Leodegraunce didn’t want it. On the advice of a beta reader, I expended it to about 700. It worked much better at a more typical flash length, and it sold to AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

30. Ribbons

When they put Marnie in solitary she started to pick at her fingertips.

At some point, Leodegraunce announced that they were making an anthology, and that I could submit up to TEN microfics! I proceeded to go wild and write so many microfics that Krista D. Ball asked if I was on drugs.

Most of the microfics were not very good, but “Ribbons” stood out from the pack. “Ribbons” was, in its first incarnation, less than 100 words long (I later expanded it to exactly 100) and TERRIFYING.

It didn’t sell, either to Leodegraunce or other venues (and the anthology ended up folding before it was printed), but Krista still says it’s the scariest thing she’s ever read, and whenever I look at it now, I smile and think of her.

37. Space Pops

Once they notice real limitlessness, all they can do is grow to match it.

“Space Pops” was written, not for Leodegraunce, but for the AE Micro 2012 contest, which happily published it. It features deep space and people cheerfully exploding. I think it is tied with “Ribbons” for my favorite microfic, but the tone is very different.

47. The Wives of Miu Fum

We found a cave in the side of the mountain and built Miu Fum a death-house as large and well-furnished as any living man’s.

The only other one from the large batch of Leodegraunce-inspired microfiction that I still like. “The Wives of Miu Fum” is the tale of a funeral. I ran out of markets for it, so I published it on my Livejournal in 2013 as an experiment.

Pro tip: don’t ever publish work you care about on Livejournal (or Dreamwidth, or WordPress, or whatever). You will feverishly wonder for the rest of your days if it is Terrible, if No One Likes It, if you are a Terrible Presumptuous Author publishing Bullshit in your journal and expecting people to care about it, or if anyone even read it at all. Send things to editors and get paid, and you might still wonder those things, but at least you’ll have money and one person’s approval. Oh well. It was an experiment and I learned things.

I’m pretty sure I put this one in the collection out of sheer cussedness. Enjoy!

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.

Faves from 2017, part 1: Books!

I suck at reading books in the year they come out, so although a couple of books on this list are award-eligible, this isn’t an award recommendation post. This is just a list of the speculative book-length works I read in 2017 and absolutely loved.

Lois McMaster Bujold, “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.” Some of my queer friends had problems with this book, so YMMV, but I was just like: ANOTHER CORDELIA BOOK THANK YOU! Older protagonists having a proper, Bujold-style romance! CANON POLYAMORY ASTFGHJKKL and bisexual characters getting to be bisexual (even if only in flashbacks, sigh). The whole thing was (to me) a delight.

Gemma Files, “Experimental Film.” Full review here.

N.K. Jemisin, “The Killing Moon.” Gorgeous, sensuous, and menacing, like everything I’ve seen N.K. Jemisin do. Has a very cool magic system that I want to see more of. Deals with some potentially uncomfortable topics (two of the POV characters are basically assassins who are taught that what they do is “merciful”) in a nuanced and multifaceted way that stays true to the characters above all. Fortunately, there is another one in the series after this one!

Yoon Ha Lee, “Ninefox Gambit.” I… might be doing a full review of this one later. Watch this space.

Rose Lemberg, “Marginalia to Stone Bird.” Full review here.

A. Merc Rustad, “So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories.” Full review here.

Catherynne M. Valente, “Radiance.” I wasn’t sure at first if the old-timey silent film themes would win me over, but I love the glamour, I love the metafiction and found-footage structure, I love the retro planets, I love the callowhales and their timey-wimey secrets, I just love everything about this.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND: story notes, part 18 and 19

18. The Dragon-Ship

Half-alive, prow cruelly pointed, undulant through the slow currents of spacetime: these were the ships that slipped like sea-snakes into galaxies no chemical thruster could reach.

A science fiction prose poem, never before published. This one is what it says on the can.

19. The Screech Owl Also Shall Rest There

Your love is mine, even if you don’t know it yet. Your life is mine. And, darling, new darling, I take what is mine.

This story was my first collaboration with my friend Jacqueline Flay. We’ve since collaborated on two other stories – one that is set to come out in Persistent Visions next year, and another that is still out on submission.

The nice thing about working with Jacqueline is that she nudges me to take more risks, and to explore territory I wouldn’t necessarily have built a story around on my own. “Screech Owl” is a sexy, kinky, violent, angry story about a Neolithic vampire and her loyal pack of humans. The gradual development of cities poses problems for her and her way of life. How do you cope with a change so massive, when it happens so slowly that a mortal might not notice it happening?

I did some research for this one, but probably less than the topic deserves. The initial impulse to write a Neolithic story came from a chapter of Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years,” which I read on a whim. The temple that features prominently in the story is inspired by this one.

“The Screech Owl Also Shall Rest There” was intended for a small-press anthology about vampires and tattoos, but Jacqueline and I had a contractual dispute with that publisher and the story was dropped. (In retrospect, I… still think it wasn’t a good contract, but I could have handled the situation much more tactfully than I did.) It eventually made its way into a different anthology by an equally small press, “The Death God’s Chosen”.

There are no owls in the story; the title is an obscure Bible reference that probably makes sense only to me.

Song Pairing: Jacqueline says the theme song for this one is In This Moment’s “Bloody Creature Poster Girl”. Who am I to disagree with Jacqueline?

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.

Cool Stories I Read in November and December

Jess Barber and Sara Saab, “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics” (Clarkesworld, September). I love so much about this. The setting is a beautiful, careful, solarpunk. But what I really like most is the polyamory in the story. The way that the relationships are given space to be difficult, to be complicated, not because they’re poly or because anyone is behaving badly, but because life itself is complicated. The way the characters get something approaching a happy ending, even though the complications, for them, will never go away. This was what I needed to read, relationship-wise, in November.

Melissa Moorer, “end at the skin” (Strange Horizons, October 23). Um. Wow. This is WEIRD – delightfully weird. It’s cosmic in scale and disorienting in a way that reminds me of Lovecraft, but it’s really not Lovecraftian fiction at all – not even horror. Just a very, very weird extended science fiction prose poem from a very, very tripped out perspective. I love it!

Carlie St. George, “Three May Keep a Secret” (Strange Horizons, November 20). A genuinely scary, emotionally gutting YA ghost story, with teenage characters who feel realistically confused and angry and sweet. This one, like many good ghost stories, is about what it means to be haunted, and how natural and supernatural hauntings can mimic each other. (Take the Content Warning seriously, please.)

Hayley Stone, “Caesura” (Fireside, November). I mean, my job description is literally “teaches computers to write poetry”, so I am all over this. The AI in this story is a tropey SFnal AI, not a realistic one. But it’s a super cute and sweet tale of overcoming grief with the help of a poetic AI friend, and is well told. (Although I wish that the award-winning poem at the end had been shown on the page! 😀 )

Shannon Connor Winward, “Archaeology” (Abyss and Apex, Issue 64). This one goes on the list mostly because I keep hearing that you can’t tell a proper story with a villanelle; but Winward’s is told quite neatly.

John Wiswell, “The First Stop Is Always The Last” (Flash Fiction Online, November). I mean, we’ve all read time-loop stories before, but the connection between time loops and anxiety here is so neatly made. The kind of thing that seems so obvious in retrospect, but that I’d never thought of.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND: story notes, part 15 and 17

15. Turning to Stone

Time flees,
and when the sound begins, you’ve run too far
ahead to hear.

A poem about an actual real-life autistic meltdown/catatonia thing that happened. Nor is it the only time I have had catatonia. Catatonia is a Thing.

I went through an unusual number of drafts with this poem. Folks on the poetry forum I was using at the time didn’t seem to get it no matter what I did. (Was it a drug trip? A lot of people seemed very intent on the idea that I was writing about a drug trip.) But they did have many useful suggestions, and they made the poem a stronger beast.

Putting the verses of the poem into first person was a very late development; earlier drafts were more distancing. The refrains in parentheses are also very altered from what they were in the early drafts. I wanted the people around the “stone woman” to be ironically admiring, expecting there to be something magical and powerful about her when in reality it’s just that she can’t move or talk right now. But that version of the lines didn’t connect with anyone. Adding some more realistically harsh external comments made them more powerful. It was also surprisingly painful to do.

The poem’s rhythm, which I rather like, was with it from the beginning.

I eventually worked up the nerve to stop posting drafts on the poetry forum and send it to Stone Telling, where Rose Lemberg and Shweta Narayan had yet more suggestions for edits (mostly about the enjambment). The published version is up here. Rose has told me that it’s still one of their favorite Stone Telling poems.

17. The Self-Rescuing Princess

Did you expect this: matted hair,
dress in the unsexy kind of tatters,
holes at the elbows and filth in the seams,
fingernails black, face scarred?

In 2013, and in the thick of processing some of my own traumas, I decided that the phrase “self-rescuing princess” made my hackles rise. It’s a common term of fan approval for female characters who don’t wilt around waiting for A Man to rescue them. It made me think thoughts about what it is to be rescued, to be in need of rescue, to have the need for rescue be presupposed but the idea of who is responsible for it to be in question. About the idea that, whatever horror might enter into a person’s life, a Good Person must remain self-sufficient in dealing with it and its aftereffects. (A relative of this idea is that the idea that these horrors are “for a therapist to deal with” and must never under any circumstances become an inconvenience to one’s actual friends.)

The resulting poem says a lot of things that I’m not sure I entirely agree with. Clearly, some part of me did at the time. (One thing I would certainly do differently if I was writing it again is the line that references Wonder Woman. I don’t think I really understood what that character was about at the time.) It’s still a fun rant, though – good enough for the editor of Lakeside Circus in 2014, though, and now good enough for MONSTERS IN MY MIND.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.

Small bits of 2017 wrap-up

I wasn’t the best at updating this journal in the second half of 2017. Here are some little bits of news that never quite got shared:

  • Xan West was kind enough to include me in this large (and good) Storify: What we love about being neuroatypical.
  • The Scrape of Tooth and Bone” was named as a Notable Story (i.e. an honorable mention) in John Joseph Adams and Charles Yu’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017. (Yes, even though it is Canadian. Apparently “American” means both Canada and the U.S. now.)
  • I was named as one of the authors who’ve agreed to have work featured in Augur Magazine as part of their Kickstarter. Look for more on that in 2018.
  • Autistic Book Party also earned an honorable mention for the first annual D. Franklin Defying Doomsday Award for promoting disability representation in speculative fiction. The winner was the very worthy Disability in Kidlit.
  • Interviews with me appeared on Alyx Dellamonica’s Heroine Question blog (where I talk about my favorite astronauts) and on the AutPress website (where I talk about authors who inspire me) – the first parts of a small Monsters In My Mind blog tour that I hope to make bigger in mid/late January.

MOSTERS IN MY MIND: story notes, part 13 and 14

13. Evianna Talirr Builds a Portal On Commission

Here’s the thing. Atoms lie.

First published in the 2014 HWA Poetry Showcase, this is the first official appearance of a character of mine who’s bounced around through a number of different settings and plots, including my out-on-spec novel. She’s one of two characters whom I built the novel around, and who existed before the rest of that setting did.

Here, you can find her luring an unnamed character into a portal to another universe in which he (?) will immediately cease to exist because the laws of physics no longer support his molecular structure. As one does.

14. The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library

“Foolishness,” said the whales again, and they swam back to the upper worlds, eating two of her bodies on the way without even saying thank you.

I wrote this as a birthday present for Bogi Takács; it’s the first and only story I’ve ever successfully written as a present. (Unless you count the rambling, badly spelled tale I once free-wrote for A. Merc Rustad, in which Elric of Melniboné meets Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid and Lovecraftian sea-witch hijinks ensue.)

Bogi was kind enough to make the process easy by listing story tropes that e liked: these included cephalopods and hive minds, especially if the hive minds were not presented as a bad thing. I ended up with a strange, almost fairy-tale-like flash story about a hive mind of squid. (At least one beta reader mistook it for a children’s story, which… Please don’t do that. There is flaying. A child who likes death and creepy stuff would probably enjoy it, but otherwise… don’t.)

After I showed the story to Bogi, I submitted it to the Friends of the Merrill Collection Contest (which it won) and then to various magazines, including Strange Horizons, which published it in December 2013. It’s free to read there. Out of all the stories I have ever written since then, this is still the one with my favorite title.

Song Pairing: Even aside from the fact that the literal voice of a literal whale is important in the story, there is no better accompaniment for this weird little undersea story than George Crumb’s beautifully weird piece of undersea chamber music, Voice of the Whale.

MONSTERS IN MY MIND is available for purchase on AmazonKobo, Indigo,  Barnes and Noble, and in Autonomous Press’s Shopify store.