Today’s Book: “Tone of Voice” by Kaia Sønderby, a sequel to “Failure to Communicate”
The Plot: The Hands and Voices, a species of symbiotic whale- and squid-like beings, want to join the Starsystems Alliance. The only person they’ll negotiate with is Xandri Corelel, an autistic woman who interprets alien behavior for a living. But Xandri’s enemies are about to disrupt the negotiations in a spectacular way.
Autistic Character(s): Xandri.
Yay! Xandri Corelel is back! You might recall from my “Failure to Communicate” review that she is one of my favorite autistic characters ever, and one of the most relatable characters for me personally. Plus now there are WHALES! You really can’t go wrong with this setup, and Sønderby does not, in fact, go wrong with it.
I really like the Hands and Voices. Partly because SPACE WHALES, SPACE SQUID, it is not difficult to appease me with these topics. But they are also just a really nice, sweet-natured bunch of aliens with some very cool underwater technology. I especially love the way they approach the idea of group identity. Each Voice (whale) is paired with a small group of symbiotic Hands (squid) and their language appears to have no singular pronouns, using words that are translated as “we” whether they’re talking about an individual organism, a Voice with their attendant Hands, a whole pod of Hands and Voices, or even larger groups.
Because the Hands and Voices are so nice and cooperative, and because they already trust Xandri, the actual diplomacy in this book is much simpler than in “Failure to Communicate.” We get much less of Xandri’s efforts to puzzle through difficult social situations, because apart from a deliciously tense standoff near the end, most of this book’s social situations are pretty straightforward. A good chunk of the story is positively idyllic, with Xandri and her co-workers enjoying the pleasant beachside environment and swimming around in the ocean while they figure out how they would meet the Hands and Voices’ needs in space. Until, of course, some anti-alien militia show up…
But just because the diplomacy is simple this time, that doesn’t mean we don’t get good, nuanced Autism Content. Xandri has grown as a person since the first book, but much of that growth has been difficult; the ending of that book had her temporarily exiled after taking the fall for a diplomatic upset. She’s become more aware of the awful things doctors used to say about autistic people – and, without an autistic community around her, she spends a lot of time worrying that these things might be true. Even when her actions on the page are clearly selfless and her emotions in the narration are deeply caring – and when other characters make a point to recognize how much she cares – Xandri still worries that maybe she’s heartless because that’s what she’s read about herself. As usual for Xandri, this is very relatable to me!
Xandri is practicing assertiveness, a skill that she first tried at a pivotal moment in “Failure to Communicate.” Thanks to her long study of human behavior, she’s startlingly good at it, able to stare down scary military officers and come out ahead. But it’s an immensely draining skill for her to use, and it leaves her feeling uncomfortable and guilty.
Captain Chui – Xandri’s longtime boss – encourages her at this. She is startled when Xandri also uses her newfound assertiveness to question her own orders. I appreciate the nuance in how this is handled – especially the way Captain Chui does listen to Xandri’s concerns, even if she doesn’t ultimately agree. A worse person might easily have shut her down and told her assertiveness wasn’t appropriate here, but Captain Chui recognizes that assertiveness isn’t real unless a person can use it when they choose to, even against you.
Xandri draws insight from her own autistic experience in softer moments as well:
“Sometimes I wonder,” I said, as we started down the dock.“Hmm?”“If we’re doing the right thing, I mean. Bringing them into the Alliance. They seem so innocent…”That caught her attention. She swiveled to look at me, her brows furrowed. “Because they see the world in a different way than you do? Because they interact with it differently? Because they don’t have the exact same-““Whoa!” I held up my hands in surrender. “Easy, fireball. Didn’t mean it as an insult, I swear. It’s just… well, look at ’em.”“I know.” Xandri sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, mussing her ponytail. “It’s not like the thought never crossed my mind, but… it’s wrong to judge them as too innocent, simply because their expression appears innocent to us. They’re a sapient species, shown to be shrewd in negotiations, as seen by their nebula pearl trade. They’re smart, technological, and they know to be cautious about other sapients; in fact, they learned that lesson quicker than most. This is their choice to make and-and it would be wrong to try to take their choices from them.”She stared straight ahead as she spoke and, not for the first time, I got the feeling her words weren’t just about the Hands and Voices. She spoke like that sometimes, like she was seeing a problem from the inside, like she’d experienced it herself.
She also gets to do one of my new favorite tropes, namely, overly literal autistic banter in an action scene:
“Maybe we should test your theory,” Santino said, raising the gun and pointing it at me.“Hypothesis.”“What?”“I’m enough of a scientist to confess that I don’t have enough evidence to call it a theory just yet.”
I mentioned in my review of “Failure to Communicate” that there was some setup I hoped would lead to a queer romance. Surprise, it does! Kinda. In the first book, Xandri was attracted to Diver and Kiri, two of her closest friends on the Carpathia. The attraction seemed mutual but nothing quite happened. In this book, there’s a clear romantic slow burn between Xandri and Diver, and they do get into a relationship, though it’s still new and tentative when the book ends. Xandri has past trauma that makes it difficult for her to navigate a relationship’s early stages. Sønderby handles this with a light touch, showing Xandri’s hesitance and discomfort and Diver’s efforts to make space for her, but without getting bogged down in trauma details.
Xandri is still attracted to Kiri as well. The book goes out of its way to remind us that Kiri is polyamorous, and even has a scene of the three of them tiredly cuddling, but Xandri is already overwhelmed by dealing with romantic feelings for one person, let alone two, so the poly aspect of the story doesn’t get very developed here.
In other “Xandri is the most relatable character” news, some of her exchanges with Diver feel like they could have been taken word for word from me and my nesting partner:
“Don’t be acting like this is your fault, fireball.”I lifted my head in surprise.“Four and a half years,” Diver said, tapping the tip of my nose with a finger. “Long time to know a person, even one who hides as much of herself as you do. But you can’t hide from me, Xan. You try, but I see you. Right now I see a woman who’s too exhausted to be placing blame anywhere.”“I can’t help it,” I whispered.“I know. And you know I’m right.”“Also, insufferable.”
Overall, “Tone of Voice” didn’t grab me in the feels as hard as “Failure to Communicate” but it’s still a lovely book that I really enjoyed. Xandri Corelel is one of my favorite autistic characters out of anything ever, and I sincerely hope to see many more books of her adventures.
The Verdict: Recommended
Disclosure: I have briefly interacted with Kaia Sønderby on Twitter. I read her book by buying an e-copy on Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.
This book was chosen by 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.
Good news! In addition to being a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, THE OUTSIDE is a finalist for the 2020 Compton Crook Award. Congrats to all the other nominees!
My story “Across the Ice” is now live on the Strange Horizons website. This is a short, sweet flash story about a queer autistic woman in space, studying ancient aliens, who finds something unexpectedly affirming in the course of her research. Enjoy!
(This post is dedicated to Patreon backer David Lamb, who wanted to hear my thoughts about Internet friendships. At various Patreon tiers, you can commission blog posts, too!)
A perennial pet peeve of mine is when people dismiss Internet friendships as being “not real,” or not a proper way to have friends, in comparison to face-to-face friendships.
Internet friendships are a bit different from friendships in person, though. In my experience, it’s easier to do some things online, and easier to do some things in person.
Some things it’s easier to do in person:
- Physically hug and enjoy the contact
- Watch a person’s face and body language in real time
- Share event-based experiences, like going to a concert or meal together
- Help each other with physical tasks
And some things it’s easier to do online:
- Find friends based on a rare or specialized interest
- Lean on a forum or chat group for support and let whoever has spoons at the time interact with you, rather than bugging a lot of people individually
- Bond over certain kinds of interest-based activities, such as making fanfiction/fanart, or deep essay-style analysis of a topic you both enjoy
There are also things that depend on the person. Some people find it easier to express deep feelings by writing, while others find it easier to express themselves aloud. For people like me who are more articulate with written speech, it’s easier to do that online. Other people’s mileage may vary. (This isn’t “neurotypical vs non-neurotypicals,” by the way; some non-neurotypicals have more trouble with writing than speaking. They’re valid.)
Often when people criticize social media for being shallow or causing low self-esteem, they’re not talking about the whole Internet. Instead, when you really delve into their argument, it seems that they’re talking about a very specific subset of the Internet.
For example, think of a place like Instagram, which:
- Encourages people to post shiny pictures
- Measures attention mostly in “likes” without a lot of in depth interaction
- Makes it easy to find people with shinier pictures than you
- Is mostly sorted by what’s most popular or controversial at a given time
- Makes it easy to count your number of “likes,” compare it to the very popular stuff showing up on your feed, and feel inadequate
- Makes it hard to share personal things in a safe/private way
And compare to a place like Dreamwidth, which:
- Lets people write about themselves, their experiences, or their favorite topic in as much depth as they want
- Lets people comment and converse in as much depth as they want
- Doesn’t try to rank, classify, or compare its users
- Gives users full control over privacy, access, and what shows up on their feed
Obviously these are not the only two ways to do things online, and they are also not black and white. Some people have good experiences with Instagram and some people have bad experiences with Dreamwidth. But it should be plain that many of the criticisms of “social media” are actually criticisms of the most common uses of a small handful of the most popular platforms, and they don’t encompass every online way of relating. Some platforms meet the need for meaningful connection better than others.
My own experience with online friendships have included many positive and meaningful things:
- Connections with friends who shared interests with me and were weird in the same ways I was
- Connections with fellow writers who understand and share the difficulties of a writing career
- Connections with fellow autistic people which have taught me a huge amount about myself
- Opportunities to share critiques and work on the craft of writing, including the skill of writing inclusively and sensitively, with people whose lives are very different from mine
- Opportunities to network and build an audience as a writer in meaningful ways with people who are often very geographically distant from me
I have also experienced negative things online. People can be abusive online and non-abusive people can get into petty fights online just as easily as in real life. However, all these positive things I’ve experienced are real and have been easier for me to find online than in person – which doesn’t mean I don’t treasure them when I also find them in person.
Simply clicking “like” on someone’s post is not a very deep interaction, but sometimes it’s okay for interactions not to be deep.
- People have shallow face-to-face interactions all the time
- Like by nodding to each other when they pass in the street
- Or by exchanging a perfunctory “How are you?” “Fine, thanks.”
- These parts of human interaction are not worthless; they are rituals we have for a reason.
- What does become a problem is when we have way more of these shallow interactions than the amount we want or need, and not enough deep or meaningful interactions.
- Places on the Internet that strongly emphasize shallow interactions can make it easy for this problem to happen.
When people have needs that their online interactions are not meeting, and when there’s a good chance they could meet those needs in the face-to-face world, it can be good to encourage them to put their screens down and interact face-to-face more.
But doing it by shaming people, or by invalidating their online friendships, is a bad idea:
- It hurts people who have less access to face-to-face friendships due to structural inequality (queer people in a small conservative town, for example, or housebound disabled people) and are doing the best they can with the tools available
- It hurts people who have found validation and support in online spaces that they were unable to find in person for whatever other reason
- It hurts people who have an easier time writing than speaking and who are inherently more able to be “real,” in the sense of fully expressing themselves, online
- It removes support for people who have gone through a difficult online experience, like losing a close online friend, and are struggling with real feelings of grief.
Dismissing online social interactions as “not real” also helps enable some very specific bad behaviors:
- Internet trolls often feel more emboldened to harass people online than in real life, because online interactions don’t “feel” real to them; but the people at the other end of the interaction are still real people who can be hurt by what they do
- Harassment and bullying have always been around, but social media allows these things to occur in novel ways
- For example, harassers on social media can start pile-ons in which thousands of people around the world join in the harassment
- Preventing & dealing with online harassment is a difficult problem that requires deep thought about our social media platforms, who uses them for what purpose, and why
- It also requires careful thinking about some thorny philosophical issues (for example: what’s the difference between a harassment campaign and a call-out?)
- No one who believes that the Internet is inherently fake and silly is going to do this careful thinking.
The people who do bad things, or are affected by bad things online, are real. And the same goes for people who treat each other well online.
Online and face-to-face interaction are different in some important ways; but we do better by each other when we take them both seriously, and this includes the idea that online friendships are valid and real.
THE OUTSIDE is a nominee for the 2020 Philip K. Dick Award!
Chosen by a panel of five judges and sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the Philip K. Dick Award is given to distinguished science fiction published in paperback form in the US. The winner, along with any special citations, will be announced on April 10, 2019 at Norwescon.
I am so thrilled and flattered for THE OUTSIDE to have been recognized in this manner. Thank you, PSFS and congratulations to the other nominees!
Meanwhile, I’m ringing in the new year by having a new poem up in Uncanny Magazine.
This is one of those pieces that I have trouble describing except by just making an incoherent noise and pointing to the words in the piece itself. I suppose it’s about identity and myth. It’s short and free to read, though, so you might enjoy trying to interpret it for yourself. 🙂
I started 2019 in a state of severe autistic burnout. After a 2018 in which I sold my debut novel, finished my PhD, started a new job, and moved across the province and in with a partner for the first time, I was just completely out of every kind of energy. Over the last month or two of 2018, I had made some adjustments to my living situation and a tentative recovery plan, but I was still so overwhelmed by life generally that I couldn’t even handle household noises or watch television. That made for a very precarious start to the year.
I’m happy to say I’m doing a lot better now. There wasn’t a clearly defined end to the burnout so much as a gradual readjustment. I still struggle on and off with my energy levels and with sensory overload but, let’s be real, I’m autistic, I’ve always struggled with that and always will.
Some of the thing that helped me recover include:
- Demanding my own space in my house. I’m a sensory avoidant morning person living with sensory seeking night owls! I love them but it’s tough. Having my own room where I can work and sleep and be quiet is a godsend. Having my own room also improved the quality of my sleep, which immediately improved a half dozen mental symptoms that I didn’t even know were sleep-related.
- Shamelessly indulging in special interests. At the beginning of the year I did a series of Star Wars livetweets and they were literally the only thing in my life I felt happy about. I feel happy about more things now but I’ve continued to make space for the things that bring me joy and keep me going (including but not limited to Star Wars). I’ve tried to banish any thought of needing to “earn” them, any more than I earn my meals or sleep.
- Getting better at using accommodations. There is something in me that doesn’t WANT to use noise-canceling headphones, or stim with stress balls, or do any of the dozen other little things that help relieve sensory stress. Why not? I don’t know. Internalized ableism or whatever. But when I work on quieting that voice, my life gets better.
- Keeping my schedule simple and flexible.
- Delegating! There are some things that I’m not so good at handling but that my partner can do, like going to the store. There are some things that are no sweat for me, like putting away dishes and folding laundry, but that my partner hates to do. We’re a team! And now I hardly ever have to go to the store anymore.
- Making time for face-to-face social events, but on my own terms. Isolating myself makes everything worse, but socializing is very costly in time and energy. Some events are worth it because of the joy that they bring. I focus on those and let myself pare the rest down.
- Above all, being patient with myself.
Publishing and academia are both a bit slow, so 2019 was the year when my novel came out and when I got to go to my PhD graduation ceremony – even though almost all of the work for those things had been done in 2018. Sometimes that felt strange and I wondered if I was actually doing anything useful in the current year. Apparently this is a normal author brainweasel, though.
MY DEBUT NOVEL! In case you missed it! Is THE OUTSIDE! It is an autistic space opera with cosmic horrors, AI Gods, and cyborg angels! It is eligible for 2019 awards, in case you are reading the year in review for that purpose. This includes the Aurora Award (because I’m Canadian) and awards to do with queer SFF (the protagonist is a lesbian whose girlfriend doesn’t die; other characters are queer and genderfluid; I am also queer and genderfluid, hi).
Meanwhile, here are the other things I published in 2019:
- “Fairest of All,” a novelette in The Future Fire, is the only short prose fiction I published this year. It’s a dark fairy tale with a happy ending; it plays with changeling folklore and its attendant disability and abuse themes, as well as being queer and polyamorous as heck. This was hard to write and hard to find a home for, and it’s not for everyone, but I’ve had autistic readers tell me it’s their favorite of all the things I’ve ever written. It also has a Locus recommendation, yay!
- “Culvert Kelpie” was published in The Temz Review, a Canadian online literary magazine. This is the most structurally ambitious / experimental poem I’ve ever written; it actually appeared to me in my head during a meltdown, which makes it stealth autism literature as well.
- “Nightmare II,” a poem involving lava and frightened awakenings (and the brief, reassuring appearance of a kitty!), was published in Kaleidotrope.
- “Thule” (tricksters and northern exploration), “Looking Down” (a case of survivor guilt / sad news overload), “The Evil Eye” (domestic abuse and magical folklore), and “The Bright Wind” (elemental forces and romantic longing) went up as seasonal Patreon rewards, and are now free to read.
All six of these poems are eligible for speculative poetry awards, including the Aurora (which has a Best Poem/Song category) and the Rhysling.
Non-Fiction and Fan Writing
I wrote several essays and articles online as promotion for THE OUTSIDE, including:
- “Theology in AI Fiction,” an essay for the Uncanny blog, about the way we use AI and aliens in science fiction to explore much older theological tropes that ask questions about morality and human nature.
- “My Muse is a Sorcerer,” a post up here on my own blog, about how THE OUTSIDE was inspired by a villain character from an RPG, and how the world and story of the book evolved around him. (There’s been so much discourse online this year about whether and in what ways it’s okay to have crushes on fictional villains! The post doesn’t go into that side of things, but I am staunchly on Team Go Ahead And Have Crushes On Whoever You Want To, for the record.)
- “Towards a Neurodiverse Future: Writing an Autistic Heroine,” an essay for Tor.com, about why I was scared to give THE OUTSIDE an autistic protagonist, and how Dr. Yasira Shien (and her shady former teacher, Dr. Evianna Talirr) shaped themselves into the wonderful autistic characters they are despite me.
Meanwhile, if you want all my Star Wars opinions:
- “Disability In Star Wars” is one of my most popular blog posts! This is where you can read what I think about Darth Vader (problematic fave), limb loss, disfigurement, mental health, whatever the heck was going on in Rogue One, and the strangely consistent ways that the Skywalker Saga uses different forms of disability to denote different moral and spiritual states.
- And the aforementioned Star Wars livetweets are here, by episode:    [Rogue One]    [Solo]  . A Rise of Skywalker livetweet will have to wait until it’s out on Disney+, of course.
And the books I reviewed for Autistic Book Party:
- January: “Every Mountain Made Low” by Alex White
- February: “Dzur” by Stephen Brust
- March: “Hoshi and the Red City Circuit” by Dora M. Raymaker
- April: “The Place Inside the Storm” by Bradley W. Wright
- May: “The Prince And Her Dreamer” by Ennis Bashe and “Algorithmic Shapeshifting” by Bogi Takács
- August: “Ghost in the Machine” by C.E. Kilgore
- October: “No Child Left Behind” by Claudia Casser
- November: “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” by Bogi Takács
I’m eligible for Best Fan Writer, although to be honest I think many other authors have done more and better fan writing.
I didn’t read as much in 2019 as I wanted to, but if you want to know my favorite stories of the year by other people, you can look back at my Cool Story, Bro posts: from January-April, May-June, July-August, and September-October.
Meanwhile, here are my top ten tweets of 2019.
In between all the writing and recovery work, this year, I also taught three university courses and dealt with a household situation that continued to change. In particular, my primary partner lost his job, took another more precarious one, then had his own burnout in the early fall. He’s no longer able to work full-time. Due to the nature of his disabilities we always knew this would happen eventually, but it’s still startling when it does happen. I’m now the primary breadwinner in my house; what my adjuncting and writing income doesn’t cover is being supplemented by Ontario’s social safety net and by some contributions from my family.
There were a lot of times when I got distracted by drama or bad feelings, fell behind on the things that I felt I was supposed to be doing, and felt generally that this year was getting away from me. But honestly, looking back, it didn’t really. I did what I needed to do to take care of myself. I did my paying work, and I’m progressing with the sequel to THE OUTSIDE at a rate my agent is happy with. Sometimes this is what moving forward looks like, even if it feels like keeping barely afloat.
2020 looks like it’s shaping up to be another big, difficult year. I hope it’s a year we take care of each other. I hope it’s a year when we’re able to create the kinds of beautiful things we need most.
Last month’s Patreon original – a poem of sun, moon, mountain, longing – is now free to read for everyone. If you didn’t have access in November, now’s the time.
Today’s Book: “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation,” a short story collection by Bogi Takács.
Autistic Character(s): The author, among others!
This is a generally excellent collection. As is often the case with a single-author collection from an author I know, many of the stories were not new to me, and they won’t be new to long-time Autistic Book Party readers either (see the Reviews Index). Much of the joy of such a collection is in seeing the stories arranged next to each other, seeing more strongly how themes recur and patterns emerge.
“The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” ranges from historical fantasy to modern-day political allegories to far-future space opera, but there is a remarkable unity to the themes throughout. The writing is accessible and clear, but there is a very strong Bogi Takács aesthetic, which is hard to describe until you’ve seen it. It’s to do with powerful magic-users at risk from those who want to abuse them as weapons; matter-of-fact acceptance of states which in another author’s hands would be body horror; sensory seeking; Jewish mysticism; and non-sexual BDSM. Eir worlds are diverse and complex, with multiple cultures mingling and clashing, even within very short works. When political and other large organizations enter the stories, it’s with a wry awareness of those organizations’ flaws, ranging from the well-meaning but inefficient to the horrific; but it’s never without a sense of hope, if only in the sense of ordinary people making the effort to help each other. Those octopi from the title also appear here and there (though, sadly, not in the exact manner the title implies; there is no literal religious congregation of transgender space octopi).
The word “autism” is never used, but non-neurotypical characters abound in this book. The Ereni – citizens of a magical planet of autistic people – appear in several stories, though their universe is large, and they are mainly seen in minor roles here, through the eyes of other sorts of people. In works set elsewhere, characters stim, perseverate, have motor coordination issues, and generally behave in such a way that it’s easy to read autism in if you want to. Queer and trans characters also abound, as the title implies, often in the form of casual but clearly spelled-out nonbinary rep.
I’m not sure I have much else to say about Bogi’s writing that I haven’t already said in prior reviews, but “The Trans Space Octopus Congregation” showcases the author at eir best. If you’re a fan of the writing of eirs that you’ve seen online, you should definitely check this one out.
The Verdict: Recommended
Disclosure: Bogi Takács is someone I consider a personal friend. I received a free electronic review copy of this book.
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.