My Muse is a Sorcerer

I love villains. Always have.

So maybe it’s not a surprise that what I started with, when writing THE OUTSIDE, were its villains.

When I was just a lowly undergrad, I ran an online D&D campaign for my friends. Among the player characters in the game, played by a friend I’ll call Virgo, was a Lawful Evil changeling sorcerer named Akavi.

I loved Akavi immediately. He was intelligent, perceptive, stylish, suave, better at problem-solving than everyone else, and utterly ruthless. Akavi was my type.

Online gaming gave lots of opportunity for side plots and general character drama. Many players took advantage of these opportunities, but Akavi did it fastest and very quickly ended up with his own personal plot – a series of complicated schemes that the other characters, for the most part, weren’t aware of.

I started my D&D game with a fairly detailed world, and several sinister groups that could rise to be main villains if the players were interested. A couple of rapacious mining companies were introduced (it was a steampunk game), but their machinations didn’t get much momentum going. Another company showed up mysteriously overrun by Lovecraftian monsters; they’d been messing with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know as a way of speeding up production.

Akavi, being a Lawful fellow, looked into this company’s paperwork in detail. They weren’t wizards themselves, so he wanted to know who they had hired to perform the magic. To answer his questions, I came up with a new villain on the fly – a half-elf wizard named Evianna Talirr.

Ev and a few minions of hers turned up a few more times. But the campaign’s big bad guy turned out to be Akavi himself. My game had fallen in the trap of too many side plots. Akavi had secretly aligned himself with evil planar forces; meanwhile most of the other characters had gotten into a secret plot of their own, which diametrically and actively opposed Akavi’s.

When the truth came out and everybody suddenly but inevitably betrayed each other, Akavi fought back hard. Stopping him became the party’s biggest mission – all the more fervently because they’d trusted him at first.

By the end of the 3-year campaign, Virgo had become my co-Dungeon Master as we worked together to come up with Akavi’s evil plans for the party to foil. He wound up spearheading a planar war, trying to end the world, and dying in the process – twice.

It was pretty epic, and it ended on a high note, with the evil defeated.

But in the following years, I still couldn’t get Akavi out of my head.

I liked him too much. I had a crush that wouldn’t go away. Virgo missed playing him, too. And we still hadn’t worked through a plot I’d been looking forward to – the conflict between Akavi’s evil-but-Lawful forces and Ev’s transcendent cosmic-horror Chaos.

I’d spent enough time on Ev to develop her view of the world a bit, and to give her a take on cosmic horror that wasn’t quite like what I usually saw. But she’d never really threatened the characters directly.

Trying to run a sequel game, just Akavi versus Ev, didn’t quite work. He’d gotten too evil at some point, and playing him without a proper set of heroes in the mix was just depressing.

So I had another idea: I would write an Akavi book.

One problem: Akavi and Ev were both very entrenched in the mythology of their D&D world, and I was way too proud to write D&D fantasy with the serial numbers filed off.

So I asked myself: “Of the genres I’m comfortable writing, which one looks the LEAST like high fantasy?”

I settled on space opera.

With Virgo’s blessing and collaboration, I started playing with ways to translate the things that made Akavi and Ev who they were into science fiction. The D&D gods became soul-eating superintelligent computers; the magic most crucial to the characters was replaced with super gadgets and modern mysticism, and the rest of the D&D magic system was discarded altogether.

Both Akavi and Ev changed as they adjusted to the rules of this world. Akavi became more buttoned-down, less likely to go haring off on some manipulative tangent for the hell of it. Ev became more tragic and more human. A few NPCs also made the transition, with varying levels of change.

I knew I also needed a hero, someone with a strong heart and good intentions who could get caught in the middle of this conflict without losing themselves. Eventually I found that person in THE OUTSIDE’s Yasira Shien, who I had to generate from scratch.

THE OUTSIDE is now garnering praise for its morally complex characters, its suspenseful plot, and its unusual take on cosmic horror tropes. But its first inspiration came from somewhere humble, even a little silly – it came from the crush that I had on my friend’s D&D character.

Never let anyone stop you drawing inspiration from an equally silly, unlikely place.

THE OUTSIDE playlist!

I secretly make a playlist on Spotify for any longer work I write (as well as other things in my life). I don’t write to music the way many people do. Instead, when a song reminds me of the story I’m working on, I add it to the list, and then I fiddle around with the song order until it feels like it cohesively tells the story. Then I listen to that playlist when I need to think about the story or get excited all over again for what’s inside it.

This also means my playlists are pretty specifically quirked to my (profoundly unsubtle) musical tastes and personal associations that may not make sense to other folks. But I’m happy to share them anyway. Here’s the music that will forever make me think of THE OUTSIDE:

(Mild spoilers below.)

  1. Within Temptation – “Why Not Me” [prologue; Nemesis]
  2. Amaranthe – “Afterlife” [angels and the setting in general]
  3. Nine Inch Nails – “Right Where It Belongs” [Yasira; or maybe Ev, at the corner of the frame, addressing her]
  4. Tarot – “Ashes to the Stars” [Akavi and angels generally]
  5. The Scarlet Pimpernel soundtrack – “Falcon in the Dive” [Akavi, tasked with finding Ev]
  6. Vangelis – “Mythodea”, movement 3 [~*~flying out of the galaxyyyy~*~]
  7. Rihanna – “Russian Roulette” [Yasira]
  8. Nine Inch Nails – “The Hand That Feeds” [Ev; I’m also really fond of the transition between tracks 7 and 8]
  9. Visions of Atlantis – “Passing Dead End” [Ev’s official theme song]
  10. Nine Inch Nails – “The Great Destroyer” [Yasira]
  11. Evanescence – “Whisper” [Yasira, in very dire straits]
  12. Christina Aguilera – “Army of Me” [Yasira, improbably]
  13. Avantasia – “Lost In Space” [Yasira again]
  14. Amaranthe – “Electroheart” [Akavi and Elu]

You can listen to the whole thing below:

Autistic Book Party, Episode 55 and three quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Polenth Blake, “Hello, World!” (Patreon original, 2017; I read it reprinted in Transcendent 3)

[Non-neurotypical author] This quite adorable story is about an AI sent on an uncrewed mission to Mars, caring for a breeding population of guppies. As it gains awareness and independence, the AI becomes attached to the guppies and decides to prioritize their safety and wellbeing over the original mission objectives. I really love the careful, conflicted way the AI communicates with mission control, complying with the chirpy and deferential style of speech that its programmers expect while diverging more and more from their dehumanizing (de-guppifying?) goals. Many autistic readers will be able to relate. [Recommended-2]


R.B. Lemberg, “A Splendid Goat Adventure” (Patreon original, 2017)

[Autistic author] This humorous epistolary story is set in Lemberg’s Birdverse universe. Marvushi e Garazd, an irrepressibly impulsive pupil of the Old Royal (who we first saw in A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power), sets out on a journey to research a rumor about magical goats. What they eventually find is… not quite goats, but it is a delight, as is Marvushi’s narration throughout. [Recommended-2]


Andi C. Buchanan, “Girls Who Do Not Drown” (Apex Magazine, Issue 115, December 2018)

[Autistic author] A powerful story about an isolated island and the seemingly limited possibilities for girls and queer youth who grow up there. Every girl in Buchanan’s story has to one day go into the sea – metaphorically or literally – and risk drowning, sometimes at the hands of a glashtyn. When a closeted trans teenage girl sees a glashtyn, her own struggles and worries about the future come into full focus. There is suicidal ideation in this story, but the ending is a hefty punch of hope. [Recommended-2]


Sunyi Dean, “-Good.” (Flash Fiction Online, July 2018)

[Autistic author] A tense, careful piece of flash fiction about an abusive relationship and a cloning technology which could make the abuser immortal. The way the narrator has been worn down, trained not to resist or object, is depicted with unusual clarity and sympathy; in its context, the hesitant ways in which she does resist have the feeling of heroics. The title, once its meaning becomes clear at the end of the story, is a master stroke. [Recommended-2]


Robin M. Eames, “the body argonautica” (Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction!, September 2018)

[Autistic author] I was extremely remiss in not including Eames’ poem in my previous DPDSF post, as I somehow failed to notice that they were autistic. “the body argonautica” is an absolutely kaleidoscopic, nearly hallucinatory love poem between two disabled people and it definitely deserved to be mentioned in that prior post, sorry. [Recommended-2]


Julian K. Jarboe, “Estranged Children of Storybook Houses” (Hypocrite Reader, December 2018)

I’ve mentioned before how changeling folklore has modern echoes in much of our current rhetoric about autism. This fabulist tale, set in a universe where fairies are considered a scientific fact, illustrates my point perfectly – and draws it to a very satisfying conclusion. Be mindful that violence against children is portrayed. [Recommended-1]


Yoon Ha Lee, “The Chameleon’s Gloves” (Cosmic Powers, 2017; I read it reprinted in Transcendent 3)

[Autistic author] An art heist story which, as one might expect with Lee, swerves into something bigger, darker, and military. It becomes apparent partway through this story that it takes place in the same universe as the Machineries of Empire series, though much earlier; the hexarchate has not yet arisen, and the Kel, rather than being one of several factions working together to control a society, are some sort of autonomous spacefaring mercenary group. This doesn’t make them any less interesting or less deadly, though, as they bring the protagonist’s past back to haunt them. [Recommended-2]


A. Merc Rustad, “This Is A Picture Book” (Sub-Q, November 2017)

[Autistic author] A piece of interactive metafiction that will make you go WTF DID I JUST READ?! – but in a good way – and rethink what is actually going on behind the pages of books. [Recommended-2]


Rivers Solomon, “St. Juju” (The Verge, Jan 2019)

[Non-neurotypical author] A quiet hopepunk story in which fungi are slowly reprocessing the trash of human civilization. Two queer women living in a small enclave, where an understanding of ethics is required for legal adulthood, must choose if they will stay in their enclave’s relative safety or strike out on their own. I really like the way Juju, the protagonist in this story, struggles with the state of the world – things are clearly better than they were, yet the oppression of the past and the ways it is replicated in the present still weigh on her. Juju might be autistic or might have some other related non-neurotypicality, but her uncomfortable ruminations and insecurity about the way she communicates are familiar to me from some my autistic friends, and I really like the way her lover accepts her as she is. [Recommended-1]


Bogi Takács, “On Good Friday the Raven Washes its Young” (Fireside, April 2018)

[Autistic author] A dark and heartfelt piece of flash about deep-sea aliens and street violence. The narrator is (probably) not autistic, but their body moves atypically and they are visibly intersex, which leads to awful treatment from the bigoted inhabitants of their colony. (It should be noted – as Bogi does carefully, in eir story notes – that all of this awful treatment is #ownvoices.) The narrator not only survives, but finds a delightful (if ominous) ending by using their own skills and agency. [Recommended-2]


Xan West, “Nine of Swords, Reversed” (self-published novelette, December 2018)

[Autistic author] An established-relationship BDSM romance between two genderfluid disabled witches, one of whom is autistic. Both partners have multiple disabilities, and they face an impasse in their relationship caused by a complex interaction of these disabilities as well as trauma, gender, and magical issues. The moments of non-sexual, service-based intimacy in the story are very sweet, and I really liked the scenes of Dev (the autistic partner) using visual colors and patterns to calm xyrself. Once Dev and Noam are pushed to address their relationship issues, they talk everything out so carefully and correctly that it almost feels unrealistic to me. But this remains an #ownvoices story written from a place of deep caring, addressing the kind of nuances in relationships between disabled people that an able-bodied author would never be able to fathom. A lot of autistic romance fans will enjoy it very much. [Recommended-1]

THE OUTSIDE release day!!

THE OUTSIDE, my debut space opera novel with queer autistic characters and cosmic horrors, releases TODAY!

You can get it immediately from your online or in-person bookstore of choice. Here’s a blurb:

Super-intelligent AI Gods rule the galaxy. Their algorithms determine the rewards you reap before and after death. But the Gods give and the Gods take away. And Yasira has never been good at Gods…

Autistic scientist Yasira Shien has developed a radical new energy drive on board the Pride of Jai that could change the future of humanity. But when she activates it, reality warps, destroying the space station and everyone left inside.

The Gods declare her work heretical, and Yasira is abducted by their agents. Instead of simply executing her, they offer mercy – if she’ll help them hunt down a bigger target: her own mysterious, vanished mentor.

With her homeworld’s fate in the balance, Yasira must choose who to trust: the Gods and their ruthless post-human angels, or the rebel scientist whose unorthodox mathematics could turn her world, literally, inside out. 

Advance praise for THE OUTSIDE has been plentiful and effusive. Here’s some. And here’s a list of purchase links. Happy reading!

Autistic Book Party, Episode 55 and a half: Algorithmic Shapeshifting

Bogi Takács asked me to blurb eir poetry collection, “Algorithmic Shapeshifting,” which is out this month from Aqueduct Press. Here’s what I wrote:

Bogi Takács’s poetry is gleefully and unabashedly itself, pulling the reader through surreal worlds of visceral magic, body modification, political wit, and interpersonal devotion. Whether looking back into Talmudic history, forward into a science fictional psychic war, or sinking into the earth and growing flowers from its own eye sockets, “Algorithmic Shapeshifting” presents a voice that is consistently fresh, startling, and sincere.

When I blurbed “Nantais,” I expanded the blurb into a full review: I had other things to say about the book that didn’t fit into a blurb space and that included some criticisms. With “Algorithmic Shapeshifting,” though, I think my 1-paragraph blurb encapsulates my thoughts perfectly. I have nothing else substantive to add.

Rather than trying to stretch it out into a longer review, I’m just putting up this blurb as a bonus post which doesn’t take a full review’s time slot in my schedule, and indexing it as though it was full-length.

The verdict on “Algorithmic Shapeshifting,” as you might guess, is Recommended-2.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 55: The Prince and Her Dreamer

Today’s Book: “The Prince and Her Dreamer” by Ennis Bashe.

The Plot: A retelling of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker,” in which the Nutcracker Prince is a nonbinary lesbian and Clara, her love interest, is autistic.

Autistic Character(s): Clara.

Most of us know the story of The Nutcracker, so I won’t spend a lot of time explaining the plot or characters. Bashe adheres fairly closely to the source material, but they do go deeper into some of its implications than many versions. Particularly into what it’s like for the Nutcracker character, Mathilde – also called the Red Prince – to lead a war at a young age and be frozen in doll form while the war continues without her.

Clara is a seventeen-year-old girl who has fallen in love with Mathilde through the stories her Uncle Drosselmeyer tells, not realizing that Mathilde is a real person. Clara is caring and gentle, fascinated by books and stories and determined to do good in the world; she reads as very feminine to me, despite her unwillingness to marry and her discomfort with some other gendered expectations. She wants to devote her life to charity, an unusual but respectable life path for women in her society:

Except now her mother kept talking about how perhaps she’d meet some nice boy at the party. She stroked Clara’s hair, which was just as long and blonde as her own. “I can’t understand this not wanting to marry. Won’t you be lonely, sweetheart?” 

She means well, Clara reminded herself. She just wants me to be happy. “I want to be a district visitor. I’ll go around asking if the poor people need anything, and then raise funds so they can have proper food and medicine, and write to different tradesmen to help them find work. Or I’ll make sure all the women in the Royal Society for the Protection of Ladies’ houses have warm petticoats while they’re in training—or organize amusements at the children’s hospitals, so they have something cheery to motivate them to take their medicine. Or I’d love to be a baby superintendent at the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.” She beamed at her own reflection, cornflower blue eyes meeting their match.

Clara’s incredibly sweet personality is balanced by her awkwardness around other people and by her consuming interest in books, which only Uncle Drosselmeyer takes seriously. She has trouble putting her favorite book down to attend a party. Like many fans, she not only reads the book over and over, but excitedly analyzes and identifies where it draws influence from other stories:

“Yes. You see, the Red Prince is like Joan of Arc, if God had been sensible and made her English. But she’s also like Britomart from the Faerie Queen, except with a motivation other than courtly love. And she’s a metaphor for how Jesus fought Satan during the Harrowing of Hell, because in the Middle Ages the unicorn represents Jesus,” Clara said eagerly, twisting her hands in excitement as she spoke.

“Oh, Clara, I’m sure he doesn’t want a lecture,” her mother began, but Uncle Drosselmeyer shook his head.

“No, go on, this is all quite fascinating.”

Clara beamed at his encouragement. “Besides that, the fact she’s dressed all in one color means that she’s like the Green Knight from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who asked Gawain to chop off his head on Christmas Eve and then walks away without a scratch on him. Furthermore, the fact that she was slain in battle, but was spirited away by a wizard to lie in a deathless sleep and will one day return to free her county? That’s just like the legend of King Arthur, and how Merlin—or was it the Lady of the Lake?—spirited him away to Avalon, which in turn references the resurrection of Christ.” She sat back, breathless and proud.

It’s very common in real life for autistic people to have a strong need for justice and fairness, and to become involved in charity or activism as a result. But it’s a trait I don’t often see represented in fiction, perhaps because it conflicts with NT ideas about all autistic people having low empathy. I don’t see many autistic characters with sweet, gentle personalities like Clara’s, so that’s nice to read. To a lesser extent, even a special interest in fiction – one of the most common special interests for autistic women – is less represented in fiction than in reality. Clara displays all these traits very well and is likable for them.

There are a few aspects of Clara’s characterization that didn’t work for me quite as well, mainly because they feel like unsupported statements. Mathilde gushes in the second half of the story over Clara’s courage, after Clara turns the tide of battle by throwing a shoe at the Rat King. But the actual dramatic shoe-throwing is the sole courageous act in a scene that Clara mostly spends cowering at the sidelines. It is realistic for a person with Clara’s personality and background to freeze up in a battle, and it does take real courage to overcome that response and throw a shoe. But overall, I’m not convinced that Clara is any braver than Mathilde or the other soldiers in that battle scene, so the repeated glowing references to her courage feel oversold.

Similarly, we’re told that only “an act of pure unselfishness” can revive Mathilde from her doll form; Clara unknowingly performs this act by caring for the doll after an upsetting event. She creates a sling for the doll’s broken arm, carefully brushes its hair, and knits it a tiny scarf. Certainly, Clara is a sweet and unselfish person. But actions like brushing the doll’s hair and knitting have two purposes. They’re acts of kindness, but they also are soothing, repetitive sensory acts, exactly the type of thing Clara would realistically need to do to calm herself down, especially since the doll of Mathilde also ties in to her special interest. Selling these actions as uniquely, purely unselfish doesn’t quite sit right with me, because it erases the sensory benefit that they have for Clara and the very real usefulness that such activities have for many autistic people’s self-regulation in real life.

This may be partly a matter of differing definitions of unselfishness, though. I’ve encountered people who say that nothing is ever actually unselfish and I don’t actually want to have that philosophical argument right now. I just wish that the sensory benefits of brushing and knitting were addressed a bit more in the text.

In addition to using the original story as source material, “The Prince and Her Dreamer” also draws heavily from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. The second half of that ballet contains a lot of short dances by different candy-themed characters and not a lot of plot. Bashe nods to the structure of this section while using it in a more interesting way – showing the psychological effect that it has on Mathilde to come home to her kingdom after so much time away, and the ambivalent responses from some of her subjects after such a long period of absence and war.

I was not super fond of another interlude near the end, in which Drosselmeyer – previously an ally to Clara – tries to convince her that what she saw in Mathilde’s kingdom was not real. He does it as a test to see if she is worthy of Mathilde. I’m not sure how I feel about vulnerability to gaslighting as a sign of worthiness or lack thereof, especially when Clara already convinced everyone of her selflessness and courage (and especially when autistic people ARE more vulnerable to this form of abuse than others, since we’ll take statements by a trusted person at their literal face value). But Clara passes the test, and Mathilde rightly is angry with Drosselmeyer when she finds out what happened.

Overall, I wasn’t as thoroughly won over by “The Prince and Her Dreamer” as I was by “Graveyard Sparrow,” the other book of Bashe’s that I’ve reviewed here. But it’s a sweet-natured queer romance with a very soft, gentle autistic heroine of a type that we don’t see often enough in fiction, and I think many of my readers will enjoy the result.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

Disclosure: Ennis Bashe and I are friends on Twitter. I reviewed their book because they offered me a review copy.

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

Cool Story, Bro: Favorite Stories and Poems, Jan-April 2019

A.D. Harper, “Unknown Search Terms” (Strange Horizons, Jan 21)

I love this apt, quirky take on the different kinds of visitors that a website receives, told using the metaphor of visitors to a house. What strange online worlds we inhabit, indeed.


Mina Florea, “Remember” (Strange Horizons, Jan 28)

I am a sucker for shapeshifter tales. This poem tells the poignant story of two Romanian orphans, one a shifter and the other apparently normal, navigating the difficult political shifts within their country as they grow.


Sabrina Vourvoulias, “Teeth” (Fireside, January)

Fireside’s new poetry section is starting with a bang. I love this swift, fierce, fast-moving poem that marries real-world political protest to monster folklore, complete with Spanish rally chants. None of its punches are pulled and none are even a little undeserved. (If you don’t speak Spanish – as I don’t – then running the chants through Google Translate when you get to them is recommended. They’re great.)


Jamie Wahls, “Truth Plus” (Strange Horizons, March 18)

Heartbreaking and thought-provoking, this apocalyptic science fiction story asks deep questions about the value of hope and mercy in a world where humans are, realistically, one hundred percent doomed. Instead of giving in to nihilism, Wahls presents a more nuanced, ambiguous picture of what it means for there to be meaning in a hopeless situation, and what other ethical rules we might break in order to find it.


Hester J. Rook, “All The Fishes Singing” (PodCastle, March 19)

Hester’s writing is so vivid and sensual in this dreamy story about merrows, queer women, and the sea. I cannot get enough of it.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 54: The Place Inside the Storm

Today’s Book: “The Place Inside the Storm” by Bradley W. Wright.

The Plot: A fourteen-year-old autistic girl named Tara runs away from home, in a corporate-controlled near-future Los Angeles, after her parents’ employers blackmail them into agreeing to “cure” her.

Autistic Character(s): Tara herself, plus a boy named Loki who she meets on the run, and eventually, a whole neurodiversity-affirming community of autistic people. Also the author.

Tara is a teenager who passes as neurotypical, although she has many of the problems that often go with teenage passing: moodiness, exhaustion, overload, and loneliness. She’s skilled at computer programming, but has difficulty keeping up with school. She’s teased and bullied and has few friends, except for one best friend from her old home in PacNW, with whom she keeps in touch online.

Tara doesn’t know what autism is, but she knows that her parents are acting strange and distracted, and that they’ve sent her to a bewildering and uncomfortable medical appointment without an explanation. Left alone in the examination room, she eavesdrops, which is how she finds out that she’s been diagnosed with something and that her parents have already agreed to a surgical cure without her consent. The company they work for not only wants to put an implant in Tara’s brain to encourage “pro-social behavior,” but they’re so insistent about this that they’ve blackmailed her parents into agreeing. The robot cat Tara’s family received as a gift is an unauthorized model, and her father could be prosecuted for keeping it.

(I like the robot cat, by the way, who stays with Tara throughout the book as a helpful companion and guide. I want a robot cat.)

The corporation’s motives feel a bit contrived to me. It’s not that I can’t believe someone would create evil brain implants, either to cure autism or for some other purpose. In history, questionable medical tech has often been tested on the most vulnerable populations – high-support disabled people, racial minorities, etc. – because that’s where it’s easiest to get away with it. Tara isn’t one of these populations, despite technically being disabled. It’s never clear why the corporation is so keen on targeting her specifically – enough to perform complicated blackmail on her parents, and to pay for an expensive manhunt to try to retrieve her – when there are so many easier ways for them to test their technology and take advantage of people.

Although she’ll learn better later in the story, Tara’s early thoughts about the cure technology are realistic for a panicked, passing teenager who’s never heard of autism before. Which means there’s a hefty dose of internalized and intra-disability ableism:

They wanted to control my brain, change how I thought. Reset Xel so he wouldn’t even recognize me. Make me into a zombie with a computer implanted in my head. They wanted me to become a different person. Yes, I had always had trouble socializing. I had trouble caring about the stuff regular kids were into. I liked computer programming and old science fiction books. But my friend Rosie back home was proof that I wasn’t a total loser, wasn’t she? I just needed to meet people who were on my wavelength. I didn’t want to be like the regular kids. I liked who I was, even if I was a little weird.

In any case, Tara runs away and begins a difficult trek through Los Angeles and the wilderness around it, helped by her robot cat, and hoping to find safety, either at her grandmother’s house in PacNW or elsewhere.

The logistics of Tara’s journey – where to go, how to get there, how to properly hide and avoid danger – take up much of the narration of the middle parts of the book, and they’re some of the book’s most interesting passages to me, where the narrative feels most assured. The book wavers a little bit more when describing the human interactions that go into the journey. For instance, animals or strangers unaffiliated with corporations will sometimes chase Tara aggressively for reasons that don’t seem clear.

While Tara struggles at school, she turns out to excel at trekking through unknown territory without the distractions of her everyday Internet tech. Despite high stress and physical exhaustion, she rarely melts down or has sensory/cognitive difficulties that affect her actions. She frequently reflects on how much better she’s doing outside the strictures of the lifestyle that she took for granted before.

Tara also meets a boy named Loki, who is a survivor of the kind of cure surgery she has avoided. Something went wrong during Loki’s surgery: in addition to being made docile and people-pleasing by his implant, he also has frequent, dangerous seizures.

I had a bit of an issue with how Loki is written throughout the story and how little agency he is given, especially since he is depicted as being more disabled than Tara. He joins Tara on her quest, not because he wants to, but because his caretaker thinks it’s the best chance for him to get better. He has good survival skills thanks to living on the margins for so long, but he uses them either in emergencies that clearly require them or when someone else asks him to. He doesn’t really seem to start anything or form any goals of his own, and I often didn’t feel I was getting a good sense of him as a person. All this is realistic for someone who has a brain implant specifically making them docile and compliant, but I didn’t really see it problematized with Loki as much as I would have liked. Other characters spend time thinking and talking about how awful it is that this was done to Loki against his will, but they don’t seem to think much about how it affects their interactions with him in the present. They don’t think very hard about whether they’re unwittingly taking advantage of him, and it doesn’t seem to be any impediment to him and Tara starting a romantic relationship.

When Tara, Loki, and Xel do make it to the end of their journey, it’s in a form they didn’t expect at first: a secret commune developed by and for autistic people, where the people in charge are aware of the forcible brain implant problem, and are covertly trying to lead anyone targeted to safety. The people at the commune explain how things got to be this way:

The children at his school were educated to understand why he and other kids like him were different. They were taught to accept difference. But then the country took a turn. New people came to power who did not believe in education and accommodation and diversity. They took away the funding. They put bureaucrats in charge. They turned power over to the corporations, and corporations don’t like difference. They wanted to stamp it out. Good workers and good consumers were predictable. Corporations put a lot of emphasis on culture. Everybody had to fit into the corporate culture, had to be a team player.

This part of the story doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels oversimplified, with “corporations” and “bureaucrats” being blamed for a state of things that in my experience is more pervasive and complicated. It bothers me slightly on a story-logic level that the corporations seem to be equally invested in curing autism and denying that it exists. In real life, dangerous and harmful autism “treatments” already exist – from ABA, which is scientifically grounded but involves an abusive dynamic, to ridiculous quack cures like bleach. Parents opt for these treatments, not because they’re being blackmailed and don’t know what autism is, but because they do know the word “autism” and are taught to be deathly afraid of it. Erasing all awareness of autism seems puzzling and unnecessary in this light, even counterproductive to the corporations’ goals. It feels like a storytelling choice that was made mostly so that beginning-of-the-story Tara could learn everything dramatically all at once.

The commune of autistic people and their families feels oversimplified to me as well. It consists of people at varying places on the spectrum, including some non-speaking people who are briefly introduced, as well as some of their neurotypical parents. All of them grew up in the novel’s wider society, in which ableism exists at levels similar to real life or worse, but once they reach the commune, they don’t seem to have any lingering internalized ableism to unlearn before they can live well with each other. There are some sensory accommodations made, including a quiet room, but by and large, everything just… works, to a utopian degree, without any conflicting access needs or other intracommunity issues.

This is related to the way Tara’s sensory and cognitive issues suddenly get better when she’s no longer at school. There’s a strong anti-corporate and anti-screen-time bent underlying the themes of this book. I’m all for critiques of capitalism, but the critique that the commune in this book offers is a strange and simplistic one, in which, when people’s lives are no longer controlled by corporations and they’re no longer on the Internet all the time, everything else becomes magically fine forever. I feel like this way of resolving things does a disservice to the more nuanced relationships many autistic people have to technology and online community, and is uncomfortably close to some ableist narratives that I’m tired of (“ADHD only exists because computers!,” etc.)

For that matter, I’m not really sure how other disabilities fit into the utopian autistic commune, either. Are other non-neurotypical people not targeted and endangered by the corporations in this book the way autists are? Do they have a whole other set of communes? What about overlapping non-neurotypicalities? I don’t know.

Overall, “The Place Inside the Storm” is a well-intentioned #ownvoices effort that didn’t work for me on a craft or a worldbuilding level. If you really love the idea of a teen running away from home to an autistic commune, and if the elements I’ve described here sound more interesting than annoying to you, then you might enjoy the read more than I did.

The Verdict: YMMV

Disclosure: The only interaction I have had with Bradley W. Wright is when he sent me a review copy of his book, which is how I ended up reading it.

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Nightmare II

My new poem, “Nightmare II,” appears today in the Spring 2019 issue of Kaleidotrope.

This poem is part of a nightmare-themed series, all of which are transcriptions of actual nightmares I’ve had; Nightmare I appears in MONSTERS IN MY MIND. Each poem in the series should, however, be readable on its own.