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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict: Recommended-1

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

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

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

MONSTERS IN MY MIND second printing & interview

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

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

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

New poem & BSFA news

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

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

THE OUTSIDE on NetGalley

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

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

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

Autistic Book Party, Episode 52: Dzur

Today’s Book: “Dzur” by Steven Brust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict: Marginal

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

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

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

Things I Am Nominating For Awards This Year

The necessary companion to my award eligibility post!

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

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

Short Stories

Here are my six favorite short stories of 2018:

Poetry

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

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

Fan Writing

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

My Award Eligibility For 2018

It’s late for this – nominating for some awards is already almost over – but better late than never!

My very best work this year

If you want to nominate me for something, but only want one work per category, here’s what I would recommend.

Novelette: I Sing Against the Silent Sun, co-written by me and A. Merc Rustad, came out in Lightspeed this year. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve had the privilege of working on, and it’s already garnered a mention on the BSFA Shorter Fiction Award longlist (thank you!)

Short Story: Variations on a Theme from Turandot appeared in Strange Horizons. It’s the most ambitious short story I’ve ever written, and still one of my favorites. I would be honored if, in your nominations, you’d consider this one too.

I also published two bits of flash fiction this year which some people have enjoyed:

Poetry

There are fewer poetry awards floating around than short fiction ones, but in case you are voting for one, here’s the poetry I published this year.

I also published several original poems on Patreon:

Fan Writing

I’m eligible for Best Fan Writer on account of Autistic Book Party, which posted a review (or a Smorgasbord) every month this year.

I also wrote the essay Everything Is True: A Non-Neurotypical Experience With Fiction, as part of Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction! A number of non-neurotypical readers have told me that this essay spoke to them on a deep level.

I’ve also been keeping track of my favorite fiction and poetry that I encountered from other authors this year. Hopefully I’ll have time to post that list before long, but until then, you can also see my recs throughout the year in my “Cool Story Bro” posts.

Thanks!

Autistic Book Party, Episode 51: Every Mountain Made Low

Today’s Book: “Every Mountain Made Low” by Alex White.

The Plot: Loxley Fiddleback, a disabled woman in a strange dystopian pit of a city who has the ability to see ghosts, sets out to avenge her only friend’s murder.

Autistic Character(s): Loxley, our protagonist.

I want to talk about Loxley first, before I talk about anything else. Loxley is a fascinating character. She also illustrates one of the problems I have with how autistic characters are marketed (or not marketed) to the public. The back cover of “Every Mountain Made Low” says:

Loxley isn’t equipped to solve a murder: she lives near the bottom of a cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis known as “The Hole,” suffers from crippling anxiety and doesn’t cotton to strangers.

“Crippling anxiety” is such an inaccurate description on the publisher’s part that I’m still mad about it. There are some autistic people who could forgivably be mistaken for anxious NTs. People who mostly pass, but are afraid to leave their house or socialize because they don’t know how it works, etc. It is very apparent even from the early pages of the book that Loxley is not one of these people.

Indeed, while nobody in this book seems to know the word “autism,” Loxley doesn’t pass at all. Her movements, speech, and thinking are visibly different from those of the people around her, in ways that result in other characters calling her slurs (including the R-word) with depressing frequency. Under stress, she often stops understanding speech altogether. Loxley is not a “low-functioning” stereotype – she works three jobs! – but all of those jobs would be impossible without informal accommodations made by pitying NTs, and the pitying NTs aren’t usually nice about it. Sensory overload makes functioning in many everyday environments impossible for her, and even carrying on a conversation in the expected way is difficult, let alone making friends.

(At some point a character also calls Loxley a “mongoloid,” which suggests that she might have both Down syndrome and autism; or maybe that character is just an extra special bigot. It’s not clear.)

I’m not even sure I would classify Loxley as having anxiety (in the sense of an anxiety disorder) at all. She is fearful when she encounters new things, overloading things, ghosts who she believes will literally kill her if they get too close (although the reality turns out to be more complex), and things that contradict her worldview. She experiences sensory overload very intensely, but overload and fear are not the same emotion. Otherwise, much of her behavior in the book is actually quite bold.

Loxley’s narrative voice consistently does a thing that I really enjoy. A lot of books from the POV of autistic characters focus on trying to explain to NT readers why the autistic character behaves the way they do. This can be bad (an othering Autism Voice) or good (as in the case of books like On the Edge of Gone, which humanize their narrators by explaining exactly what about a given situation is so stressful for them).

“Every Mountain Made Low” seems to gleefully do the opposite. Loxley’s thought processes are shown the way any narrator’s would be, and there is certainly an internal logic to them, but it is a logic that doesn’t seem to care at all if NT readers will find it logical:

She kept her hands close together, humming and picking at the plastic as quickly as she could. She had to get that tape off. No one should tape stuff to themselves, because now, instead of skin, she had tape there. She had to get her skin back. She wanted to explain, but all that came out were jumbled noises, probably because of the tape.

This kind of thinking feels real and familiar to me, especially from times when I am more overwhelmed, but it’s something I rarely see narrated in this way and I love it.

The Hole where Loxley lives is more or less literally a hellhole, arranged in nine concentric circles of increasing squalor and misery. The misery comes from unfettered capitalism and social inequality, not from any divine source, but the Hole also holds many secrets, and ghosts are not the only supernatural thing Loxley will encounter before the book is done.

The sheer dystopianness of “Every Mountain Made Low” can make it a difficult read, especially in the first few chapters, in which Loxley goes about her daily life and terrible things keep on happening to her – including an attempted sexual assault. The assault at first felt gratuitous to me, but I realized later in the book that it is actually a pivotal moment in Loxley’s character arc. Her mother, long dead when the story begins, gave Loxley many rules about what was and wasn’t safe; when Loxley is assaulted by someone her mother told her to trust, she begins to realize that what her mother told her is not always true. While Loxley has realistic trauma from the assault, it’s also a moment she returns to as she grows: while her previous life crumbles around her, she learns to discard the rules she was taught and make her own. It’s a difficult but important arc to see for an autistic character, when in real life we’re so often given oversimplified social rules that don’t actually keep us safe.

The setting never stops being dystopian as heck, but it begins to feel less oppressive after the first 1/3 or so, as Loxley becomes are more active character who navigates the Hole as she wishes and determines her own destiny.

In fact, it can be startling how active a character Loxley becomes once her friend Nora dies, and once she sets herself to avenging Nora’s murder. In one of the first such moments, trapped in a car with the head villain and his henchmen, Loxley calmly informs the head villain that she is going to kill him. It isn’t bluster, nor even a threat in the usual sense; in Loxley’s mind, it is a fact, and there is no reason not to state facts when asked.

These moments continue throughout the rest of the book. Loxley has an assertiveness, once her mind is set on a course of action, that is entirely and wonderfully autistic; and she has the capacity for violence, when cornered, to back it up. If I refer to her actions as startling, it’s because of how rarely a character like Loxley in fiction is allowed to be violent and assertive. If Loxley were a neurotypical man mourning the death of a woman, her actions would be entirely within the bounds of what action/thriller stories of this type allow. But for someone like Loxley to take on the role of the vengeful, punishing action hero is entirely unexpected and wonderful. It’s an approach that doesn’t win Loxley many friends, but one that ultimately leads to her victory.

Another ability Loxley has is that, as she interacts more with certain ghosts, she starts to have flashes of memory from their point of view, and to be able to call up some of their skills when needed – including social skills. For example, she calls up Nora’s insight in order to ask a favor from her employer more effectively:

She sounded just like Nora. She wasn’t Nora, but she could conjure all the turns of phrase and speech of the dead woman. She could hold her body in such a way as to make it more appealing. It wasn’t as though she could draw forth the ghost’s memories, but she could sense its subtle influence on her mind. She could look at Don’s face without trying to puzzle through the multitude of muscles that created his expression.

It can be dangerous to give autistic characters skills like this – magical abilities that can make them less autistic when the plot requires it. (I previously complained about the use of such an ability in “Mouse.“) Here I think it works a bit better than it did in “Mouse,” for a couple of reasons. Loxley doesn’t overrely on her ability; it’s one tool in her inventory, and one that comes with a heavy, exhausting cost. It also has longer-lasting, subtler consequences. Loxley sometimes behaves, under the ghosts’ influence, in ways that she didn’t expect to. Rather than clarifying everything, the ghosts’ perspective often leaves her with difficult questions about the world that she inhabits and the people she thought she knew in life.

There is one major flaw with this book, however, and it’s to do with the treatment of race.

One of the beliefs Loxley was taught by her mother, and has to eventually discard, is that black people are untrustworthy. Early on in the book she refuses a black man’s help for precisely this reason. Just as with her mother’s other erroneous teachings, she eventually learns better, even ending up with a black friend and a black love interest who are two of the most sympathetic characters in the book. But this doesn’t happen until much later, by which time many readers of color will already have been thrown out of the narrative.

When she does get the chance to interact with a group of black people, Loxley unthinkingly parrots several of her mother’s statements about them. The only pushback she gets is a mild, “Your mother was kind of a racist, wasn’t she?” Loxley learns that her beliefs about black people were incorrect, but she doesn’t learn that they were wrong in any ethical sense, nor does it seem to be important to any of the black characters that she learn this. At another point in the book, Loxley is startled and distressed when she learns that Nora had unspoken ableist attitudes, but she never makes the inference that her racist thoughts, spoken or unspoken, might have been equally distressing to her black friends. Nor, for that matter, does it present any obstacle to her romantic relationship with a black woman who says her own set of casually ableist things.

Even though several black characters in the latter half of the story are quite sympathetic, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that the “good” black people are portrayed as being people who don’t challenge Loxley about her racist statements – and who, incidentally, both end up making immense personal sacrifices for Loxley’s sake.

Loxley’s racism doesn’t feel necessary to the story. It doesn’t seem to be an inherent part of the setting, at least not to the degree that Loxley experiences it (a scene from Nora’s perspective merely neutrally notes that “people of all colors” are present in a room, while Loxley at the beginning of the story appears to be entirely unfamiliar with interacting with black people). And while it serves as an example of an incorrect belief of her mother’s that Loxley needs to unlearn, there are plenty of other examples that already do that job in the narrative.

Readers who like the sound of “Every Mountain Made Low,” but want a better book where race is concerned, might instead try the equally gritty “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon.

Despite these missteps, my overall impression of “Every Mountain Made Low” was positive. It’s a memorable book with a tense and compelling plot which was hard for me to put down once it got going, and it features a strong autistic protagonist of a type I’ve never seen before. The world of autistic SFF characters is richer for having Loxley Fiddleback in it. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Alex White’s books.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

Disclosure: I have briefly corresponded with Alex White online.

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.