Autistic Book Party, Episode 62 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Nancy Kress, “End Game” (Asimov’s, 2007; I read it reprinted in the August 2013 issue of Lightspeed)

This story is about a man named Allen who wishes to research drugs to improve his focus, and who ends up accidentally creating a contagious illness that makes people hyperfocus to the point of being unable to think of anything but a single interest.

Autism is not ever mentioned by name in this story, but it’s a presence throughout. Even before Allen begins experimenting to try to artificially induce hyperfocus, he is depicted with stereotypical autistic traits – blunt, inept with manners, emotionally distant and inclined toward monologues. Jeff, the story’s narrator, finds him irritating. His research, as it progresses, only exacerbates these traits – in him, in a test subject named Lucy, and eventually in everyone else.

Kress’s Author Spotlight for this story says: “Allen’s POV would be too hard for me to write, and too hard for readers to identify with. For this sort of story, you want someone who can observe the horror, not be the horror.” And this more or less sums up the problems I encountered while reading the story. Allen’s research begins to focus people to a debilitating degree, but he’s othered from the very beginning. Even his parents as a teenager are frightened of him. Even Jeff’s wife, who is described as warm, empathetic, and interested in eccentricity, finds Allen intolerable once she’s had to sit through a dinner with him. Like Vernor Vinge (who wrote about extreme artificially-induced focus, in a different but related way, in “A Deepness In The Sky”) Kress isn’t at all interested in the experiences and perspectives of autistic people, but only in how their autistic traits might serve as a metaphor for her own questions about focus, distraction, and their appropriate roles in a neurotypical mind.

Moreover, it’s puzzling that Allan – despite having a doctorate and having done a lifetime of research into the mind, and despite being strongly autistic-coded himself – doesn’t seem to have ever heard of autism. If he’s heard of it, he expresses no thoughts about it, even as it pertains to his research. The fact that he’s had intense and unpredictable interests all his life – which is an autistic trait – doesn’t seem to register to him as being relevant to a research program which is entirely about being able to focus on intense interests.

I am by no means an #ownvoices purist – I think non-autistic people can and do write autism well. But this is the kind of story that I think could have been much better and much more interesting if it was, in fact, written by an autistic author. We actually have very nuanced experiences around our special interests and our ability to hyperfocus. There is joy in such experiences that goes beyond merely the joy of being able to tune out distractions (though that’s part of it). There is also struggle, because our interests and their intensity can be socially unacceptable, because we can be subject to coercion around them, and because they can get in the way of self-care and other life activities. If Allan’s perspective had been written in a way that intelligently addressed this, and that thought deeply about the trade-offs inherent in being able to intensify or control a special interest, then this would have been a very different story and I would have liked it much more. It could still be a horror story, as Kress intended – there would still be lots of room for Allan’s process to get out of control and have unintended effects – but it would be a much more complex and empathetic one. [Not Recommended]


Ren Basel, “The Queen of Cups”(self-published, March 2019)

[Autistic author] Theo, a nonbinary youth from a family of sailors, must consult an Oracle before their first journey. For mysterious reasons, the Oracle insists on accompanying them to sea. This is the kind of fantasy story that many readers will find comforting for its matter-of-fact treatment of gender and neurodivergence in a world where discrimination is absent. Theo is never explicitly labeled as non-neurotypical, but their synesthesia and need to stim are a part of their character consistently throughout the story. Theo’s use of a beaded bracelet to relieve stress is a very simple thing, but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen stim toys integrated into a fantasy setting in this way before, matter-of-factly or otherwise. [Recommended-1]


Robin M Eames, “crip mythic” (Cordite Poetry Review, May 2019)

[Autistic author] This is a poem about physical disability, not autism, but autistic readers will relate very hard to lines like “my body is not my body / but a metaphor in someone else’s mouth” and to the poem’s overarching theme – what it’s like to live a life that others see as a horror and a cautionary tale, and to still fiercely value your life and self. [Recommended-2]


Andi C. Buchanan, “Even the Clearest Water” (Fireside, July 2020)

[Autistic author] In this story, Buchanan takes an #ownvoices approach to the issue of autistic people wandering and drowning, and of the idea that autistic children are “drawn to water.” The narrator is a faerie being who lives in a river, and who’s willing to save human visitors from drowning – for a price. They encounter a non-speaking autistic child, and later realize that the child’s mother – also autistic, though able to speak and hold a job – is also someone they saved years earlier. Despite the dark subject matter (the child has to be saved from accidental drowning, and the mother’s first encounter with the narrator was a suicide attempt) the story feels sweet and oddly comforting, as the narrator is drawn, through a playful approach to their own system of prices and debts, into a family-like relationship with both mortals. [Recommended-1]


R.B. Lemberg, “Stone Listening” (Strange Horizons tenth anniversary issue, August 31, 2020)

[Autistic author] This poem is a tribute to a book by Ursula K. LeGuin that I haven’t read, so I am not the person to comment on it at length, but I love it so much. There’s a lot packed in here about survival in a world where very little will survive, about honoring death and grief and hope without forcing them into a narrative larger than themselves – a lot that feels uncomfortably relevant to today’s crises, despite having come from another time and another world. [Recommended-2]


Arula Ratnakar, “Lone Puppeteer of a Sleeping City” (Clarkesworld, September 2020)

[Autistic author] This is a fascinating hard sci-fi story with a lot going on. Thanks to climate change, humans are preparing to go into a hibernation of sorts while robots repair the world’s fragile ecosystems. The narrator, Onyx, is an artificial intelligence preparing simulated worlds for the humans to experience while they’re asleep – but she forms a bond with one young human, Eesha, which will profoundly change her own fate.

I’m not doing the story justice by focusing on just one aspect, but what’s especially fascinating to me, from a neurodiversity perspective, is the way Ratnakar handles different kinds of minds. There are regular humans, and there are human minds uploaded into computer systems, and there are cyborgs called Diasteroms who are born with modified brains, and there is Onyx, who is sufficiently different from all these groups as to have trouble communicating with them. Both the Diasteroms – who we don’t see much of, but who are subject to prejudice and suspicion – and Onyx herself could be seen as loose metaphors for neurodivergent humans. Onyx’s experiences are described this way:

The other children did not want to play with you either—or rather, they did not know that you wanted to play with them. They could not tell what you were feeling, what you were thinking. They knew you as a fascinating entity that they should treat with respect, but they did not consider you one of them.

But Eesha, while a normal human, feels different from the other children. She feels an immediate kinship with Onyx and has a much easier time communicating with her than other humans. It’s hinted, though not spelled out, that Eesha is neurodivergent herself, and the close bond between her and Onyx – something none of the other characters can understand – is what drives this story at its heart. [Recommended-2]

Capclave 2020

This seems like a good time to mention that I will be appearing (in a limited form) at Virtual Capclave 2020! The schedule’s here.

Zoom is actually really difficult for me. I won’t be appearing on panels the way I would at a face-to-face convention, simply because I’m trying to make the event manageable for my spoons. But I’ll be doing a half-hour reading and attending the WSFA Small Press Award ceremony!

Saturday, October 17, 6:00 PM: WSFA SMALL PRESS AWARDS

Both the Small Press Awards and the WSFA’s amateur writer’s contest will have their winners announced at this time. I’m a finalist for the Small Press Award for my novelette, “Fairest of All.

Sunday, October 18, 10:00 AM: AUTHOR READING – ADA HOFFMANN

I’ll be reading from current and/or future work, live over Zoom.

I hope to see a few of you 🙂

Autistic Book Party, Episode 62: The Four Profound Weaves

Cover art of "The Four Profound Weaves." The title is displayed on an illustration of a scroll, with motifs of flying birds and bones.

Today’s Book: “The Four Profound Weaves” by R.B. Lemberg

The Plot: A nameless man and a woman named Uiziya set out in search of Uiziya’s aunt, a master weaver who could weave cloth out of death.

Autistic Character(s): The author!

R.B. Lemberg has been writing stories in the magical setting of Birdverse for many years, but this novella is in many senses their debut – the first work they’ve released as a physical, standalone, single-work book. (Though it’s not their first novella; that would be “A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power,” which was published in installments in the magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies.)

The nameless man – called “nen-sasaïr,” or “son of sandbirds,” for much of the story – and Uiziya are both older protagonists, feeling lost and stuck in their lives until they see some spark in each other that spurs them to act on their dreams. Nen-sasaïr, a trans man who transitioned late in life, wants to rejoin his birth culture – which has extremely strict binary gender roles, to the point of sequestering men completely, and is not particularly trans-accepting. Uiziya, a weaver, wants to rejoin her aunt Benesret, who mentored her at weaving. Benesret could weave wondrous carpets out of all sorts of materials, including death itself, but her powers come with a terrible price.

One of the joys of Birdverse is how interconnected everything is. Like many autistic authors who fixate on worldbuilding, Lemberg has put immense thought, detail, and love into this fictional world, and many of its stories draw on characters or ideas from other stories. Longtime Birdverse readers will note that nen-sasaïr is a character from the novelette “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” who transitioned at the end of that story, and that one of Benesret’s carpets is the same carpet described in the poem “I will show you a single treasure from the treasures of Shah Niyaz.” That Shah himself appears as the story’s antagonist, as the meeting with Benesret balloons into a larger quest. However, to readers who are new to Birdverse, this story explains itself well enough to stand on its own.

Kimi, an autistic child from “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” also has a cameo in this book – they’re twelve now, and it’s delightful to see them happy and building their skills, including having made a magic carpet of their own.

Both Uiziya and nen-sasaïr are trans characters, but with very different life experiences. Nen-sasaïr struggles with a cissexist birth culture and with prior relationships that didn’t accept him, but gender transition is commonplace in Uizia’s culture, and she transitioned in a magical ritual when she was very young. While Uiziya treats gender matter-of-factly, nen-sasaïr has more difficult experiences as he tries to imagine himself in the cultural role that he always longed for. Lemberg describes these experiences with remarkable nuance:

I would be among men.

Among scholars.

I had dreamt of this day so many times, ever since I was little. I dreamt of running through one of these gates unnoticed, as a child, sneaking in before my grandmothers could stop me. I would hide among the narrow streets of men, unseen until I learned how to better pass among them. I would sneak into the holy rooms where boys my age learned the writ. I would become a ghost, learning the writ in secret while the boys slept.

Later, after Benesret’s promise, returning from the desert with the small cloth of winds in my hands, I began to fantasize about entering the gate not as a ghost, but as a man who had a right to be there. And that was when my mind would hiccup and withdraw, for how would I prove— how would I fit— even having the right body, but not the lifetime of learning, how would I fit on the men’s side?

The quest that leads Uiziya and nen-sasaïr into the heart of a cruel empire is an uplifting one, despite its dark themes – how to respond in the face of tyranny, how to honor the dead, how to attempt to right wrongs that can never be fully undone. Hope and death, two of the four profound weaves of the title, are inextricably intertwined.

Aside from Kimi’s cameo, there isn’t much direct autism rep in this book, but it’s a wonderful book.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

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

WSFA Small Press Award

My novelette “Fairest of All” is a finalist for the WSFA Small Press Award! “Fairest of All” was first published in the Jubilee issue of The Future Fire in 2019, and it is one of the most personal short stories I’ve ever written. It’s an #ownvoices fairy tale in which a triad of non-neurotypical characters – two of them changelings,all of them ill-suited to either the human or the faerie realms – find each other and help each other escape abuse.

The winner of the award will be announced at Capclave in October. In the meantime, if you haven’t yet read “Fairest of All,” it’s available for free online in The Future Fire’s archives.

(Trigger warning, though, because I really mean it about the “abuse” part.)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 61: Displacement

Today’s Book: “Displacement” by Richard Ford Burley.

The Plot: Jamie, a teenage punk at an elite prep school, develops a mysterious illness – and wakes up having transformed into a perfect copy of his dead twin sister. As he and his friends try to cope with whatever just happened, the truth about Jamie’s body – and his sister’s – connects to a series of conspiracies far stranger than they ever could have guessed.

Autistic Character(s): The author, as well as a girl in Jamie’s class named Tina – more on her later.

Although I mostly enjoyed Burley’s previous book, “Mouse,” I really had no idea what to expect going in to this one. The “boy wakes up in a female body” trope is one that many trans readers rightly view with suspicion. Fortunately Burley, who is nonbinary himself, approaches the topic with nuance. And while gender is a major part of Jamie’s character arc throughout the book, it quickly transpires that there are far wilder things afoot than a gender transition.

To get the gender aspect out of the way, though – Jamie, who soon takes the more androgynous name Leigh, is realistically confused and upset as he adjusts to a body that causes dysphoria for him. He sticks to he/him pronouns throughout the book, and experiences some of the microaggressions and awkward moments that are realistic for a trans boy at a not-very-progressive upper-class boarding school. These moments are handled with nuance and care, and they don’t take over the story. Meanwhile, as Leigh adjusts to his new social role, he starts to realize that he might not have been fully comfortable as a boy either, and that it might be more accurate to call himself nonbinary.

The big, cosmic, weird shit aspects of the story don’t really begin to come together until halfway through, but they’re worth the wait. Fortunately the time spent waiting for them – as Leigh and a plucky, punky group of school friends hang out together, start a band, play pranks, deal with gender feelings and so on, and as mysterious messages from an ominous entity called “Betza” begin to arrive – is entertaining enough in its own right. I won’t spoil what turns out to be going on, but it involves secret weapons, alternate universes, runaway AI, and nanotechnology… just for starters. Even given the strangeness of the incident that starts out the story, Leigh and his friends are in for a much wilder ride than they know.

Autism isn’t foregrounded in this story, but the group of friends accompanying Leigh on his adventure includes an autistic classmate named Tina. I really like how Tina is written – she might be one of the best examples of an autistic secondary character / sidekick, seen through non-autistic protagonists’ eyes, that I’ve ever read. She’s quiet and mousy, but she loves the same music as the main characters, and she asks to join the band that they’re starting; as soon as the main characters hear how she can play the bass guitar, she’s instantly one of them. She’s clever in a realistically autistic way – noticing small details, at several points, that the others miss – without being turned into a cleverness plot device. The main characters notice her differences, but they’re genuinely happy to have her around.

There’s another minor character who reads as possibly autistic to me – a prickly computer scientist named Faye, who’s happy to spend all of her time alone in a lab developing her pet project instead of bothering dealing with humans. But we don’t see enough of Faye to make me confident saying it for sure.

Overall this is much more a story about gender, otherness, family bonds, and friendship than a story about autism – but it’s a surprisingly fun ride, and well worth picking up.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Autistic Book Party, Episode 60 and three quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Richard Ford Burley, “Hello, World” (The Colored Lens, Summer 2016)
[Autistic author] An AI prototype named Alice has to be raised by human parents before her mind is complete. When her human mother dies unexpectedly, her human father fights to keep custody of a robot daughter he’s grown to love. This story is all from Alice’s point of view, and while it’s not an Autism Story, Alice is written in a way that make the parallels between her and an autistic character very plain. She works hard to learn the meaning of human facial expressions and of questions about preferences and feelings. Alice matures over time in a naturalistic way which resists being read as a story of “healing” or “overcoming” – she’s simply gaining knowledge and skills in a loving environment. [Recommended-2]


Robin M Eames, “The moon under water” (overland, 233 summer 2018)
[Autistic author] This is an intertextual meditation on the role of disability (and the origins of ableism) in human myth and fantasy. There’s a character who uses a wheelchair and is also described as “tapping her fingertips… in anxious patterns” in a way that might or might not be meant to evoke autistic stimming. But this character’s exact possible diagnoses are not the point – the point is the poetic and incisive way that Eames weaves the different narratives together, changing their details here and there to expose what is normally left out, and it’s really well done. [Recommended-2]


Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of You” (Nightmare, Issue 84, September 2019)
[Autistic author] A nicely creepy horror story about a VR game called “Vore,” which is what it says on the can. The game fulfils a fantasy that seems strange, but harmless at first – until its aftereffects settle into the players’ brains in ways they can’t undo, and the question arises of where this game came from, exactly. Fans of creepypasta and non-linear narratives will enjoy this one. [Recommended-2]


Amber Bird, “who i am” (Fireside, November 2019)
[Autistic author] A short, sweet love poem in which the narrator compares zirself to a river. I really like this one. [Recommended-2]


RB Lemberg, “To Balance the Weight of Khalem” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue #300, March 26, 2020)
[Autistic author] The tale of a genderqueer refugee student, a manta ray shapeshifter, a spherical city that hangs in the air, and a magical onion. This isn’t Birdverse, but its lushly detailed descriptions have a similar feel. The descriptions of food in particular will make readers hungry. [Recommended-2]


Ashley Deng, “Dégustation” (Nightmare, Issue 94 – July 2020)
[Autistic author] The protagonist in this one isn’t technically an autistic person – she’s a member of a family of fungus people disguised as humans – but the ways she is treated by normal humans, and the careful, painful way she works to figure out what they expect of her, map so precisely onto common autistic experiences that I can’t help but call it an #ownvoices autism story. It’s also a subversion of the “secret aliens/monsters among us” trope – they are among us, but they’re just regular people trying to fit in. In the end, the protagonist learns to savor her unusual gifts for their own sake, instead of waiting for an ableist human’s approval. [Recommended-1]

THE FALLEN cover reveal

Look at this amazing cover for THE FALLEN! This is the much-anticipated sequel to THE OUTSIDE, and it’s forthcoming in July 2021.

For more about THE FALLEN, check out the official cover reveal on here.

Broken Eye Books Kickstarter!

You might remember that, in the spring, my short story “Back Room” was published on the Broken Eye Books Patreon. Broken Eye uses a Patreon-first publishing model, in which Patreon backers get to see the stories first, and they’re later collected into anthologies.

“Back Room” was for an anthology called “Cooties Shot Required” – themed around Weird stories, written for grown-ups, but with children as the central characters. My take on that theme involved two non-neurotypical sisters getting lost in an overwhelming store at the mall – which turns out to be much bigger, and much stranger, than they supposed.

Broken Eye Books is now kickstarting their ninth anthology, “Whether Change, The Revolution Will Be Weird.” And “Cooties Shot Required” is involved with this Kickstarter in several ways:

  • By pledging US $12 or more, you can get both “Whether Change” and “Cooties Shot Required” as a kickstarter reward – to my knowledge, this is the first time the full “Cooties Shot Required” anthology has ever been available for purchase. $40 will get you both anthologies in paperback, and $70 will get them to you in hardcover.
  • Plus, if the Kickstarter reaches its $15,000 stretch goal, both anthologies will open to unsolicited submissions. You could be TOC-mates with me! (Not to mention the other wonderful names who’ve already written “Cooties Shot Required” stories – including Brandon O’Brien, Sheree Thomas, and Damien Angelica Walters.)

I’ve worked with Broken Eye Books before, in their “Ride the Star Wind” anthology (which contains a short story set in THE OUTSIDE’s universe) and really enjoyed the experience.

So if Weird short fiction, children, and revolutions are your thing (and, honestly, who can say in times like these that revolution isn’t their thing?) and you have budget to spare, then definitely check the Kickstarter out.

NEW STORY: Melting Like Metal

Melting Like Metal is out in this month’s issue of Lightspeed. This is a new short story in THE OUTSIDE’s universe, from Enga Afonbataw Konum’s point of view.

If you ever wanted more of Enga’s own feelings about her abilities & disabilities, about Akavi and Elu, about Nemesis and the missions she goes on for the Gods, and even a hint of her backstory, it’s all here – including some twists.

If you haven’t read THE OUTSIDE and don’t know who Enga is, this story should still be newcomer-friendly for you. Prepare for Evil Space Opera starring a non-speaking autistic badass cyborg who’s ready to wreck some heretics – along with maybe other things.

(Content warning for a lot of stuff about meltdowns, restraint/seclusion, and ableism generally)

Cool Story, Bro: favorite spec fic from January – April

In January and February I was exhausting myself with work-related reading and didn’t have a lot left over for enjoying speculative fiction. But in the two months since, I’ve found myself drawn to stories about identity and self-discovery. Here are a few good ones:


John Wiswell, “Gender and Other Faulty Software” (Fireside, April)

This is a story about a genderqueer space explorer and a spaceship with gender dysphoria and it is completely freakin’ hilarious.


Brendan Williams-Childs, “The Wedding After the Bomb” (Glitter & Ashes anthology; I read it in Catapult)

For those of us who want stories of hope, in the form of imperfect, organic, adaptable carrying-on in the face of apocalyptic events, this story hits the spot. It tells the story of a genderqueer person who braves the Canadian wilderness to travel on foot, on a route that skirts the edge of a nuclear explosion, to their lesbian friends’ wedding. The depictions of queer community and its complexities in this one are just really good, and what the protagonist learns about themself and their place in the world is very satisfying.


Maria Romasco-Moore, “The Moon Room” (Kaleidotrope, Spring 2020)

This is the story of Sasha, a strange amorphous being disguised as a human, who doesn’t remember her own origins and is obsessed with uncovering them. There’s also a lot of fun stuff about analog photography and drag shows. Sasha’s quest to understand herself is an obvious metaphor for being trans, and the story works really well on that level, but it’s also written vividly enough to work on a surface level – or to serve as a metaphor for other, less obvious hidden identities. The last line is utter perfection.


Millie Ho, “Hungry Ghost” (Uncanny, Issue Thirty-Three)

I have tried and failed several times now to put into words what I feel about this poem. It’s good? It’s about death and letting go, but it’s much more than that.


C.S.E. Cooney, “For Mrs. Q” (Fireside, December 2019)

This is top-tier sapphic love poetry, passionate and specific, drawing a sharp portrait not only of the charismatic woman who is loved, and of the effect she has on the narrator, but of where that love fits into so many other things. It bursts out like the bright red cardinal from its own first line. I’ve liked Cooney’s poetry for a long time, but she’s outdone herself with this one.