Likeability: An Exercise

So, my non-writing life has been pretty unbelievable lately, but I Aten’t Dead. And I’m finding myself still fascinated with this topic, despite myself.

During our last discussion, people brought up a wide variety of issues related to character likability, including the impact of a character’s sexual and romantic orientation, and the difference between genre and literary fiction in approaches to characters, plus a whole whack of “Wait, but what does this ‘likeability’ thing actually mean, anyway? Does it mean ANYTHING?'”

Meanwhile, Silvia Moreno-Garcia linked me to this post from Overthinking It. A post doing actual research in likeability, you guys! I highly recommend it, and it’s spurred me to (belatedly) construct some informal research of my own, which covers a few questions that the Overthinking It article may have missed… Although, when I say “informal”, I mean really informal. As in, this would never pass peer-review EVER, ANYWHERE, and the fact that you guys are a biased sample is only the first of its many problems in that regard.

Still, I’m curious.

So!

Ada’s Totally Informal Likeability Exercise

If you’d like to participate, please do this on your own, before looking at anyone else’s answers. No cheating!

For the purpose of this exercise, characters that you “like” are the characters that you get excited to read about. You’re more likely to pick up a book (/movie/whatever) if it has one of these characters, vs. other work by the same author. You enjoy scenes more when these characters have something to do in them. You don’t necessarily have to have any other beliefs about the characters, such as a belief that they are good people (though you can if you want to).

Got that? Let’s begin…

1. Quick! Write down your 3 favorite male characters. (It doesn’t have to be exactly 3; 2 to 5 is a good range. Don’t stress about getting The Very Best Ones Ever, either; just write down the ones that come quickly to mind.)

2. Now! Quick! Write down your 3 favorite female characters, in a similar manner.

3. (If you have favorite genderqueer/nonbinary characters, or characters who don’t otherwise belong on a binary list of “male” and “female” characters, please list them here as well. I’m not making this a strict requirement since there tend to be relatively few such characters, but if you want to list any, please do.)

4. For each character on the lists you just made, write down 3 things about them that make them your favorites. Again, don’t stress; go with what comes to mind first.

5. Look at your lists. Can you see commonalities between all of the characters you just wrote down, or are they all completely different from each other? A commonality could be a specific character trait (they’re clever, funny, vulnerable, tough) or something much more “meta”. Are the things you enjoy about your favorite male characters different from the things you enjoy about your favorite female characters? Do you see any other patterns?

6. If your favorite characters (or favorite male/female characters, etc) all have something in common, can you think of a character who also has that trait, but whom you dislike? Why?

7. Comment and share your answers, and let’s see what we’ve learned!

New Story: The Screech Owl Also Shall Rest There

So now on to happier news!

My friend/collaborator Jacqueline Flay and I have a new story out in the anthology, “The Death God’s Chosen” by Deepwood Publishing. It’s a novelette featuring Mesolithic vampires, polyamory, an unusually large-scale Revenge SVP, and the origin of writing. Among other things.

This story was quite a while in the making. Working with Jacqueline was a new experience for me at the time, but a good one, and she helped push the story into territory I would have normally been too intimidated to venture into. We had to drop out of the market for which we originally wrote it due to a contractual dispute, and I had some moments of despair wondering if ANYONE else but that market would buy this type of story, but of course it was not only snapped up in due time, but by a market which, despite being a very small press, paid more than the original. And has better cover art. So… Yay!

Plus we’re the first story in the whole anthology & the first authors to be named on the cover, which is kind of cool, in a mindless-ego-feeding sort of way.

An excerpt:

“Close your eyes. Sing.”

Tiqu, the new boy, does as he’s told, standing tense in the temple’s centre with Ishka poised in front of him like a lover. He opens his lips on a wordless melody. It doesn’t matter what the song is, only that it distracts him. The comb will hurt worse if he’s thinking about it too hard.

The temple is a monumental thing, carved full of lion-gods, eagle-gods, even beetle-gods. Ishka usually does this under the trees or the stars, wherever her pack happens to be. But the temple was close this time, and she could not resist it. She is old enough to remember when this was pure blasphemy. Imagine gods that stay in one place, not roaming freely like every other creature! There were wars over this temple once. Ishka still smells blasphemy when she visits, and she likes that, even if the humans no longer remember why.

Tiqu’s brow furrows. He repeats his melody, a chant to match the carvings.

Ishka dips her sharpened obsidian comb into the bowl of ash in front of her and looks Tiqu’s nude body up and down.

Then she drives the comb into the flesh of his thigh.

The anthology is ebook-only, but is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

If you like this, you should know this isn’t my only collaboration with Jacqueline Flay; we’re also in the TOC for Michael Matheson’s anthology “Start a Revolution: QUILTBAG Fiction Vying for Change“, which comes out in 2015.

Autism and Likeability: Preliminary Notes

I’ve been dragging my feet on the post I promised Charlotte Ashley I’d write – an analysis, following my theory of character likeability, of why people claim that autistic characters are unlikeable.

I finally noticed the reason I was having trouble talking about this: It’s outside my experience. This has not actually happened to me.

Here are some complaints I’ve been given more than once (in critique groups and by beta readers) about my characters:

  1. They are too generic; we don’t get a sense of who they are as people.
  2. Their relationships are too generic; we don’t get a sense of why they care about their supposed love interests, or (in some cases) if they really do in the first place.
  3. They are too weak, passive, victimized, whiny instead of carrying the story. They just give up at the end.
  4. They come off as immature, selfish, or shallow
  5. They make too many stupid decisions, ignore obvious solutions to their problem, or generally flail around not knowing what to do / not planning properly.

Some of these are relevant to likeability, but none of them are quite the thing Charlotte was talking to me about. And the really tricky part is, I don’t think any of them specifically relate to writing autistic characters. For me they happen just as often, maybe even more often, when I’m trying to write an NT.

You could make an argument that some are related to me being autistic. It’s certainly easy to draw comparisons between 1 and 2 and a lack of cognitive empathy. But I really don’t like this line of thinking. Generic, shallow characters are a problem 90% of newbie authors have, regardless of neurotype. Writing deep and complex people is a skill. It’s learned! I’ve seen other aspiring authors on the spectrum wondering if they should quit before they start, because they’ll never be able to write deep and nuanced characters the way NTs do, and that makes me mad. When NT authors have problems like this, they get told to build their skills and given the tools to start doing that. I’ve improved a lot at writing good characters over the years, though of course I still have a ways to go – so I see no other reason other autistic authors can’t do the same damn thing.

Plus, while these five issues are chronic issues for me, they don’t appear in every story. In fact, I’ve been complimented on some of my characters and their likeability! It just depends what I’m doing, who I’m writing, and how in-tune with the story I am.

I find that, when I have a long time to experiment and play with a character – longer than the short-story medium generally allows – I get to know them much more deeply. So my most popular characters are in RPGs for the most part, which is perhaps not helpful.

As for weak, passive, victimized, whiny, shallow, immature, selfish, or bad at decision-making – I don’t think any of those are inherent traits of autistic people, though some forms of social skills training perhaps attempt to inculcate them into us. (I don’t think I got that kind of training, but there are other reasons why I struggle with character agency, which is the root that ties all of those complaints together.)

So, instead of having some grand and sweeping thing to say about autistic characters, I actually want to open up the floor. If you’ve tried to write autistic characters, or if you’re on the spectrum somewhere and have tried to write any type of character, what problems do you typically run into? What do you typically get told about your characters’ likeability or lack thereof? Have you built your skills at solving some of these problems? Or do they seem insoluble? Or do you feel that they’re problems with reader prejudice (like the problems that can crop up with “unlikeable” female characters), not problems that originate with you?

I’d like to hear a wide variety of viewpoints on this if people are comfortable sharing, and I’d be happy to hear experiences from allistic people, too, especially if you have some other marginalization which affects how you write characters and how your characters are received by readers.

Another thing about passing

Addendum to the “passing” discussion from a month or two ago:

I realized recently that I don’t actually pass as well as I think I do.

What do I mean when I say I have “passing privilege”? I basically mean that, if I’m prepared and understand what’s going on, I can walk into a room full of strangers, perform some expected interaction, and walk out again, in a way that approximates “normal” sufficiently closely that none of the strangers end up squinting at me and saying, “Hey, I bet that girl is disabled.”

I mean, this is a form of passing, and it is a form that some people can’t do. It is not a thing to take for granted, and I didn’t always have it (although the time when I didn’t have it was really only a couple of very bad years in my early teens).

In anything more complicated than the “room full of strangers” scenario, though? At work, or in a friendship, or – heaven forbid – in a romantic or family relationship? No, I don’t pass. People might not sit up straight and say “she’s autistic”, but with sufficient IRL interaction, everybody starts to notice something’s up, even if they can’t put their finger on it.

People who get this level of interaction generally fall into 3 groups.

1. People who get mad or dismissive or grossed out because I am weird. I don’t get as many of these as I used to in junior high school; partly because I really am doing better, and partly because I’ve learned to just freeze and be super quiet and not noticed instead of doing things that might elicit this reaction. I do occasionally still get them, though, especially if they are in a position of authority and are wondering why I’m not following their instructions properly.

2. People who like the weird, and who mention it as one of the reasons they like me. (Being in this category is kinda a prerequisite for dating me, BTW.) Nobody ever says to me, “You’re not weird,” except in one very specific context that I’ll maybe talk about later. But a lot of people say, “Hey yes, you’re weird in mostly good ways, and I like that about you.” Often these are people who are pretty weird or non-neurotypical in some way themselves.

(As a side note, this is why I’m not wild about the classification of the word “crazy” as a slur. Because a lot of the people in this precious second group use the word “crazy” to describe the things they like about me. It can be used in a dehumanizing way, but not always. “You’re crazy” can mean “Yes, I see you. I see the things that are different and sometimes-difficult about you, and it’s okay, you are cool in a way that includes these things.” It can mean other non-dehumanizing things, too. This is seriously ALL about context. I’ve been on the receiving end of all of these usages regularly, and the insulting ones suck, but I really do not want the non-insulting usages to be taken away from me. Replacing them with some random neurological or mental health diagnostic term doesn’t always make any sense.)

People in this group don’t pretend that my neurotype is all cute quirks and rainbows. They see that I struggle with certain things and that it’s hard sometimes. But they see that there are some really good things about being me, too, and overall they like me and like spending time with me. This is WAY better than people who pretend that my weirdness doesn’t exist.

3. People who treat me as though I have a chronic physical illness. This especially happens in professional contexts, when I am trying very hard to act normal and polite. I can cover up the “weird” and “crazy” behaviors if I try, but when I am simply overwhelmed and can’t function, there’s no covering that.

I had a friend in a church choir, for instance, who was always motherly and nice and never breathed a word about me being “weird” or “crazy”. But every few weeks I would get the You’re So Pale All Of A Sudden, Go Sit Down And Put Your Head Between Your Knees, You Should Eat A Lot Of Chicken Soup, Get Better Soon talk. Then she would drive me home and I would get home and be out of the overwhelming church environment and be just fine, thank you. No actual sickness here!

She never quite worked that one out.

This is a form of passing, but it’s not the same as being mistaken for someone whose physical/sensory endurance and emotional reactions work normally.

I think sometimes I over-emphasize my own passing privilege. It is a thing that I’ve worked for, and it certainly makes my life easier than it was in junior high school. But often when I get up and say “But Obviously I Have All The Passing Privilege,” it’s not about acknowledging the work that I’ve done to fit in, or about acknowledging honestly that some lives are harder than mine (which they are). It’s, perversely, a kind of a brag. Look At Me. Look How High Functioning I Am, even if I know better than to actually use that term. Look How Socially Approved All My Behavior Is.

Except not only is that insulting to other autistic people who don’t fit that metric, but it’s not true. All The Passing Privilege (as opposed to Some Of The Passing Privilege, Plus Getting Away With Things ‘Cause I’m Smart Or Cute) has never really been my life, anyway.

(Same goes for the other common refrain of high-functioning folks, “But I Get Through Life Without Too Many Accomodations”… Which, just like this one, is kinda-sorta-true-ish but not, and is a way of measuring oneself on entirely the wrong axis. What’s “too many” accomodations, anyway? Who decides?)

So, tl;dr, I need to stop talking about myself this way.

Autism News, 2014/05/08

(This particular news post lacks content warnings, I’m having trouble figuring out how to do them fairly this week. Content should be fairly obvious from the names of the links and from my short descriptions, but I’m not sure. Meh.)

Here is some FDA news. There was recently an FDA hearing on the use of aversives (including randomly administered electric shocks) for the treatment of autism at the Judge Rotenberg Centre; the panel recommended that the shock devices be banned. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should super urgently read this.

Ari Ne’eman and some other people live-tweeted parts of the hearing. This was really interesting to me and I wanted to Storify it but forgot that there is a time limit on when you can Storify people’s tweets, so there is no Storify here, sorry.

Very soon afterwards there was a hearing by a Congressional subcomittee on law enforcement treatment of adults with disabilities, following the death of Ethan Saylor, who had Down’s syndrome and suffocated while being restrained by police because of an unpaid movie ticket. I didn’t Storify this in time either. (Autistic people are subject to this kind of thing too, especially young autistic men who have a meltdown or other uncontrollable behavior when cornered by police.) Here is a (very short) article.

Other posts on law and professional care issues:

  • The FDA has a friendly reminder about bogus and dangerous autism treatments
  • The Combating Autism Act is still apparently up for renewal; here is a #StopCombatingMe PSA by ASAN
  • Star Ford on specificity, and on how professionals who are supposed to provide autism support often aren’t giving the kinds of support that we need most

April 30, the last day of Autism Acceptance Month, was designated Autism Positivity Day and there was a flash blog. Yay! This one comes with a bunch of poetry, too!

Intersectionality section:

Misc:

Meanwhile, in the Sad Things section, we have Robert Robinson, a 16-year-old Canadian boy murdered in a murder-suicide by his mother last month. Once again, mainstream news coverage mostly blames this on “lack of services”.

Autism and Appropriation

This is a partial response to Jim Hines’ post “Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other“. Jim’s post makes a lot of good general points that have been made before a lot of times (and he rightly links to some of the more marginalized people who have made those points before). He also says:

Another facet of the conversation: when talking about autism in fiction, the titles I see people recommending again and again are often written by neurotypical authors. I wouldn’t say that automatically means these authors are appropriating the stories of people with autism. Some of those stories are very thoughtful and well-researched. But it troubles me to see whose voices are being promoted, and whose are being ignored. And while some of those stories may be well-researched, others are not. They portray a shallow understanding of autism, reinforcing myths and cliches for the entertainment and consumption of neurotypical readers.

While I don’t actually disagree at all with this point, I think it would be useful for me to clarify some aspects of how appropriation works, in the disability community, which Jim and other abled readers might not be aware of.

Disability can be considered a cultural identity sometimes (as in “Deaf culture” or “Autistic culture”) but it’s not generally a cultural identity which is passed down in the same way as racial or ethnic identities. Even when two autistic people get married and have babies, there’s no guarantee that the babies will all be autistic, since the genetic components of autism are complicated and not well-understood. So for most autistic people, there is a stage when the person (or their parents, or teachers, or doctors) are starting to think that they might be autistic, but they are not sure yet.

There are also a lot of autistic people who have no idea yet that they could be autistic. And there are a lot of autistic people who know perfectly well that they are autistic, but who have chosen not to disclose this to the public, even when they are talking about autism-related issues.

Many other disabilities also work in this way. There is legitimate uncertainty, and also legitimate hiding.

So when we get very worked up about the idea of appropriation, and the idea that only disabled people should do certain disability-related things, we risk making a couple of mistakes which can be more harmful to disabled people than actual appropriation. First, when people are in a stage where they’re not sure yet, we can inadvertently give them the idea that it’s not okay for them to talk or think about themselves in disability terms, because they’re not a “real” disabled person and they’re being appropriative. Second, any time we start talking about “real” disabled people we are at risk of a form of identity policing which silences invisibly disabled people, disabled people who choose to pass as non-disabled, or anyone who happens not to fit our stereotype of what disability should look like, for whatever reason.

No one should have to prove they’re disabled enough to tell their own stories. This is a type of gatekeeping that DOES happen – sometimes in the name of avoiding appropriation, and sometimes for more obviously ableist reasons. (Like when people say insulting things about autism, and autistic people complain, and the people who said the insulting things do a dance of “But you’re too high-functioning to know what this is really like!”) It’s sometimes meant well, but it is always insulting and intrusive.

Here is an example from Tumblr recently, in which a person gets yelled at for wanting to use autism communication badges at a potentially non-autistic event. The person who invented the badges then shows up with a very interesting explanation of why communication badges (and many other accessibility technologies) are actually good for everyone to use!

Here is my personal policy: If you write an insulting or inaccurate story about autism, I’m going to call you out. If you write a good, accurate, and insightful story about autism, I’m going to point that out too. If you’re openly autistic and it’s relevant to the story, I’ll mention that. If you’re openly autistic and folks are asking me for a list of SFF books by openly autistic people, I’m going to mention your SFF book. But if you are not openly autistic and feel you can write something accurate and insightful about autism, please DO. I am NOT going to call you appropriative for doing that, regardless of how you identify. We do need more stories by openly autistic people, but we also need more stories BY ANYONE, point blank, in which we are written intelligently and respectfully and treated as actual humans.

We need those stories WAY MORE than we need more identity police.

It is fine if your personal policy is not the same as mine. But please think very, very carefully before you accuse an apparently-not-disabled person of appropriating something from the disability community. It can hurt much more than it helps.

Goblin Love Song

I’ve got a spooky little poem up in the latest issue of The Literary Hatchet.

It’s free! And I love how they illustrated the page. This one’s possibly NSFW, though, especially if you read out loud. 🙂

Lip Service to Diversity?

I had a very busy weekend and it may be a few more days before my online presence is up and running again. But for now, here is a link to a cool article by Bogi Takács. Bogi talks about white, cis, able-bodied American men who get signal boosted for talking about diversity, and then links to a bunch of other people you can signal boost instead. I’m flattered e picked Autistic Book Party as one of the 5 + 1 diverse blogs e enjoys reading! The others on the list are cool, too.

A post on what the heck happened with that “Long Hidden” review

So the Innsmouth Free Press has an author listserv, where one of the things that happens is that Silvia announces when people offer her review copies, and people who want to write a review of whatever-it-is can claim them. “Long Hidden” came up on that list, and I snapped it up, largely because it had been on my wish list anyway and who doesn’t like getting free review copies of things on their wish list?

Then the following sequence of events happened.

1. I read the anthology, and for the most part quite liked it. However, by the time I found myself getting to the actual “write a review” part on my todo list, I was exhausted from Ad Astra and had less to say than I had anticipated. But I did have a deadline, and I knew I’d done this (for Amanda C. Davis and Megan Engelhardt’s “Wolves and Witches”) before. I wrote up what I could think of to say anyway, which was about 450 words – quite paltry compared to what usually happens on Autistic book Party – and apologetically sent it in.

2. In response, Silvia sent me a reply consisting solely of the words, “No, thank you.”

I assumed that this meant the review was not up to her standards in some irreparable way and would therefore not be published. I mean, that’s usually what it means when a publisher says that, right?

I was, like any author facing a form rejection for a more-or-less solicited work, rather upset at first, but the more I thought about it the more I understood her point. It wasn’t up to my usual standards as a review. It was barely long enough to meet IFP’s standards. It was condescending, and it gave too much credence to the viewpoints of people who think such anthologies should not be published in the first place. It barely even mentioned the interesting literary qualities of individual stories. Where did I get off talking about it the way that I did, even supportively? What right did I have to make the negative comments that I made (though the review was overall positive) about stories concerning groups that I did not belong to?

When I had stopped freaking out and thought about it for a while, I even felt glad that the review had been rejected. It was no wonder it had been rejected, with so many problems. I was relieved that no one but poor, beleaguered Silvia had had to look at the results of my terrible attempt at reviewing things I didn’t understand.

3. Totally unknown to me at the time, Silvia hadn’t intended to form reject the review. She had made a small filing error of some sort, and sent me the “No, thank you.” email while putting the review into a “to publish” folder. According to what I have now seen from Silvia on Twitter, both of these were mistakes; she had meant to put the review into an “it’s not bad, but ask some clarifying questions first” folder.

4. This, however, pales next to the error that I found out, a few days later, that I’d made. In addition to all the nebulous problems above, I was going back through things I’d read in 2014 so I could put them on the Queer Spec Fic List if applicable, and I realized that, when writing my 1 sentence of critique of how queer issues were presented in “Long Hidden”, I’d completely forgotten about a very good queer story from the anthology that went against the trend I was complaining about, and really should have been mentioned there.

What a mess. I was now not just relieved, but SUPER relieved, that Silvia had the good sense to turn down my review. The only question in my mind was how I could ever dare to show my face to her in an editorial capacity again.

5. …But of course, since it was in her “to publish” folder, Silvia published the review (with some very minor edits) on April 22.

Since I don’t actually follow the Innsmouth Free Press blog, and since Silvia didn’t specifically inform me it was up, I didn’t hear about this until this afternoon, when some “Long Hidden” authors mentioned me on Twitter.

To my extremely large surprise, not only had they read the review, but they (at least the ones who mentioned me by my Twitter handle) were HAPPY about having read the review. They liked it! Sabrina Vourvoulias was flattered! No one, including Silvia, seemed to think it was actually the piece of condescending crap that I’d convinced myself I’d written.

My head then exploded into tiny pieces.

Was I in a parallel universe? No, I logged into my professional Gmail account and looked back at the review I had sent Silvia, and the reply was still “No, thank you.”

After a bit of confused flailing on Twitter, we figured out that 3 had happened, and I posted a comment to the review apologizing for & correcting the error in 4.

And that, I suppose was that, though I’m still twitching slightly waiting to see if something else happens.

TL;DR TAKEAWAY POINTS

1. I am apparently neurotic as fuck

2. Authors and indie editors are both groups of people with day jobs and other things going on. We sometimes get busy or tired or flustered. We make mistakes sometimes, we figure it out and fix them, it’s ok. (I will certainly be displeased if anyone uses this post as an excuse to be hard on Silvia. She’s running an entire publishing company in her spare time, and I fucked up a lot harder than she did.)

3. If the review as posted appears to have issues, that’s because it does.

4. However, if after all this you would still like to see the review, it (with my posted correction in the comments section) is here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 14: This Alien Shore

(Has it really been two months since I last reviewed a book here? UGH. Also, happy Easter, to those of you who celebrate the day.)

Today’s Book: “This Alien Shore” by C.S. Friedman.

The Plot: In a far-future space opera universe, two parallel plots unfold: one involves a runaway teenage girl named Jamisia with mysterious secrets, the other, a mysterious and deadly computer virus.

Autistic Character(s): Kio Masada, the world’s foremost computer security expert, who is summoned to assist in hunting down the mysterious virus.

First statement: This book is complicated. So, <i>so</i> complicated that I’m going to break my usual reviewing rule and talk about all kinds of different things, not just the autistic character. You’ll see why in a minute. But first, an assessment of Kio Masada.

Masada is from the planet Guera. I bring this up because all the humans in “This Alien Shore” are sharply divided by their planetary affiliation. Humanity’s first effort at interstellar travel, the Hausman drive, produced colonies on several extrasolar planets, but had severe side effects resulting in drastic mutations in all of the colonists (for some reason, a different type of mutation characterizes each planet). Horrified by this, the humans of Terra stopped using the drive and left the colonies to fend for themselves. Eventually, the humans of Guera – the first and most powerful Hausman colony – discovered a new means of interstellar travel, one that relies on an extradimensional space called the “ainniq”. The ainniq doesn’t cause mutations, but it is incredibly dangerous to navigate, and only the Gueran Outspace Guild knows the secret of doing so. As a result, the Guild now controls basically everything.

Guera is unique among colony worlds, not only in its enormous political power, but by the fact that Guerans are not physically different from Terrans. Instead, every Gueran has one or more conditions that humans today would classify as a mental disorder. Guerans classify themselves by these conditions, calling them “kaja” and naming each one after an animal. Each Gueran also wears special facepaint identifying their kaja.

I should note that the kaja system is not anything like a caste system. We don’t see much of everyday Gueran life, because apart from Masada, all the Guerans we see are high ranking Guildmasters who are very busy with high-level intrigues of various kinds. However, the Guildmasters have a variety of different kaja, which suggests that on Guera, people really are promoted according to their talents and interests, and not according to preconceived notions about what someone with that kaja can and can’t do.

Masada is an iru, a kaja that strongly resembles Asperger syndrome. He hyperfocuses on his work, forgets to eat or care for himself while absorbed in an interesting problem, dislikes disorder, speaks bluntly, and misses or ignores the subtle social rituals of the other Guerans, without ever actually veering into rudeness. The other Gueran characters take Masada’s iru nature into account when interacting with him – for example, they don’t expect him to participate in subtle social rituals, and they accept blunt communication from him even when other kaja would be expected to use more tact – but their primary attitude towards Masada is, consistently, respect. Masada is first and foremost a world-renowned computer security expert, and is treated accordingly. He is never, ever portrayed as “the disabled one”; this would be highly illogical if it did occur, since all the other Guerans are non-neurotypical in other ways.

So far, so great. (I should note that, while “computer scientist” is a very stereotypical Aspie profession, Friedman is careful to note that there is a range of different professions and interests among iru. Masada’s late wife, for example, was an iru musician. Unfortunately, since she is dead when the story begins, she never actually gets any screen time. Nor does any other iru besides Masada. Boo.)

Masada does lack sensory sensitivities, which is mildly disappointing. Unlike many authors, Friedman doesn’t simply ignore this aspect of autism. Instead, she provides a logical-seeming reason why Masada doesn’t have any:

[Masada] understood the periodic distortions in sensory perception that affected [his wife]’s interactive skills; she understood that for the sake of his work he had programmed his brainware to compensate for such distortions, and thus had sacrificed a portion of his natural essence.

So, a couple of things to unpack here, just in this one sentence:

  1. “Cure” technology actually exists in this universe, at least for certain aspects of certain disorders (which is fairly logical, since in the far-future setting Friedman has designed, everybody has brainware in their head that can make all sorts of other changes, including a “wellseeker” that can regulate heart rate and other emotional symptoms if the user wishes)
  2. This technology apparently exists – at least on Guera – without the kinds of social baggage and pressure that would accompany it if it existed today; Guerans can freely choose how and whether to use it based on their own goals and values
  3. The technology is reversible
  4. Partially “curing” oneself, or removing certain cognitive or sensory distortions that happen to cause inconvenience in one’s life, is considered a sacrifice of a part of one’s identity.

#4 on this list is huge. Guerans – not just iru, but seemingly all Guerans – are proud of who they are, and show a strong cultural interest throughout the book in retaining their non-neurotypical identities. Yet at the same time, many Guerans use cybernetic technology to regulate the more inconvenient aspects of the way their brains work. The result is a fascinating neurological balancing act. It’s important to note that this balancing act is not solely the province of iru; everyone does it, often in surprisingly nuanced ways. For instance, here’s part of a scene from the point of view of a Guildmaster with a kaja resembling Tourette’s:

[Varsav’s underlings] knew him well enough to worry when the frenzied motion of his restless body eased, for it signaled that his brain had found something to focus on so closely that it couldn’t be bothered with extraneous motion. They knew that when his language flowed smoothly and easily it was because there were no inappropriate phrases being edited out by his brainware, the usual case. And they knew that he only found such focus in danger…

This is really interesting. It would be more interesting if, as I mentioned, we were given more of a window on everyday Gueran life. Guerans have technology to change their brains if they wish, and are accepted for who they are by other Guerans. These traits are immensely important, and a huge improvement on what we have today. But are they really, by themselves, enough to produce a society in which everyone of every kaja can flourish? What bothers me about Guera, when I look at Guera closely, is that there is no mention of structural accomodations. What does Gueran life look like on the ground? What about its institutions and infrastructure has been changed in order to allow people of every kaja to function at their peak potential without being pressured to change their brains? Friedman never even begins to touch on these questions – partly because her plot is, rightly, focused elsewhere. But I also have a sneaking suspicion that they are questions which did not, at least not in these terms, occur to her.

This brings me, somewhat clumsily, to a second point. While Guera and other colonies are relatively accepting of difference, ableism is a huge point of contention in the universe at large. The point is perhaps best illustrated by this line, spoken aloud by Masada:

“Must I remind you how the Terrans feel about my kaja? The very cognitive style which makes me so valuable on Guera is considered ‘abnormal’ among those people. They did everything they could to eradicate it from their gene pool, and if by some unlucky chance it surfaces now despite those efforts, they use drugs or DNA therapy to ‘correct’ it. Even if the price of that correction is the crippling of a mind, the death of a unique human soul. These are the people you want me to work among? The Terrans are more alien to me than any Hausman Variants ever could be. And you know they dominate the outworlds.”

The problem actually goes much deeper than Terrans happening to hate autism. In Friedman’s history, after the disaster with the Hausman drive, Terrans became paranoid and obsessed with eugenics. There are few or no congenitally disabled people on Terra at all anymore. Autism Speaks, and its science-fictional equivalents, won that war.

Moreover, the tension between Terrans and Variants (a collective word for Guerans and other, more physically exotic descendants of the Hausman colonies) remains one of the major sources of large-scale conflict in Friedman’s present. Terrans hate Variants for their mutations, and for controlling (through the Guild) interstellar travel; Variants hate Terrans because Terrans hate them, and because of their historical abandonment in their colonies hundreds of years ago. There are terrorist organizations on both sides of this divide, and even ordinary everyday Variants and Terrans are shown to be highly distrustful of each other.

I’ve never seen a successful science fiction universe constructed entirely out of disability issues before. I kind of like it. There are, however, a few false notes in the depiction of these tensions, particularly from the Variant side. We see, for example, a propaganda leaflet from the Hausman League (an extremist group of Variants). Yet even while declaring themselves superior to Terrans, the authors of the pamphlet refer to themselves as “damned” and “malformed”. Huh? That’s… not how actual disability activists communicate.

The Hausman Leage may be using deliberately loaded language in order to express great bitterness towards the Terran attitudes that gave them those labels. But even stable, comfortable, politically neutral Guerans like Masada occasionally come out with something that makes my jaw drop:

Had he loved her? Gueran science wasn’t sure if an iru could love. The chemicals were there for it. Sometimes they even combined properly. Wellseekers couldn’t tell the difference.
But subjective experience? No one was certain. No iru understood the language of love well enough to confirm or deny it.
He missed her terribly.

Yeah, no. (And yet, at the same time as Friedman writes this, watch how she deliberately undercuts what she’s saying. Masada’s emotional reactions suggest that he does love his wife, even while he experiences confusion about whether he is capable of doing so, and I think Friedman is on his side there. What bothers me is the fact that this confusion would occur to him when he grew up in a supposedly non-ableist society, and that “Gueran science” is apparently confused about it, too.)

And, as if this review wasn’t long enough already, I now need to talk about our other protagonist, Jamisia. Jamisia is a teenage Terran girl who, due to various plot shenanigans, has acquired mental differences she doesn’t understand. She also has about fifty zillion corporate Terran agents chasing her.

[….AND THEN I wrote a 1000-word rant about Jamisia and about the ending, and why certain aspects of the ending REALLY didn’t work for me, and tried to put it under a spoilertag and did it wrong and WordPress ate that part of the post. SORRY. I really don’t feel like trying to write it all out again. You will JUST HAVE TO WONDER what was upsetting me. :P]

I just…

You can’t look at the book too closely in some of these respects, or it starts to unravel at the seams.

I should note that, if I sound very angry or very emotionally involved in these small setting/plot holes, it’s simply a case of Worst Puppy Ever. Because this is a book that gets a heck of a lot right. By my usual standards – have an autistic character who actually does stuff, portray them accurately and respectfully, etc – it passes just as handily as anything else I’ve reviewed. But it’s also the first book I’ve ever reviewed that tried (and didn’t immediately, horribly fail) to do more with the theme of disability than just having a character here and there. It is, from that perspective, very ambitious, and it accomplishes a great deal of what it sets out to do. I don’t know if a perfect book, which engages with these themes this deeply and fails to leave anything out or offend anyone, is even theoretically possible. I think C.S. Friedman should be proud of having written the book, and I think y’all who have been following my recommendations in this series should read it.

And yet when I look back on this book, I think part of me is always going to think, “Yes, THAT book… With THOSE PROBLEMS in it.” And twitch a little.

Because this was the book that made me dare to hope for more.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.