Autistic Book Party, Episode 30: This Other World

Today’s Book: “This Other World” by A.C. Buchanan

Autistic Character(s): Vonika, a human woman living in an alien country.

I have decided that, while novelettes can go under Short Story Smorgasbord, novellas deserve a full Autistic Book Party episode. “This Other World” was first published in the anthology Winter Well, but has since then been self-published as a standalone. On many platforms (I used Kobo), the self-published version is available for free.

Vonika is the protagonist of “This Other World”. She’s a human living among the aliens of the city-state Temia. Like many real-life autistic humans who move to another country, Vonika finds that in some ways, she is more accepted among aliens: her strange behaviors are thought of as a foreigner’s quirks instead of being pathologized. Her autism isn’t her only reason for feeling at home on Temia. Vonika excels in a career (architectural engineering) that is needed on Temia, and has a warm, stable romantic relationship with a Temian woman.

As a menopausal woman, Vonika will soon undergo a Temian rite of passage called Ha-Ran, in which older adults become telepathically connected to each other and enter a more communal life. But Vonika’s transition may not be going according to plan. She’s beginning to experience bursts of telepathic perception, even though she hasn’t yet ingested the drugs that cause Ha-Ran to occur. And war is breaking out between Temia and one of its neighboring countries – a war Temia is likely to lose.

“This Other World” is not “about” autism, but Vonika’s autism is well-drawn, consistently coloring her reactions to people, events, and her surroundings without becoming a replacement for agency. Vonika has an aversion to crowds, bright colors, and shallow social pleasantries; a factual, detail-oriented thinking style; and a phenomenal memory for architectural detail. Her way of thinking is described matter-of-factly through most of the story, with a light touch and an occasional hint of dry humor:

She tells half-truths of loyalty and determination. Says she needs to show faith in her new home. That she doesn’t give up when things get tough. There are, of course, elements of truth in all of these, but telling the whole story would make her sound ridiculous, unbalanced even. I don’t like change is not generally considered a strong reason for staying in a war zone.

In the hands of a clumsy NT author, the temptation to make Vonika’s autism the major conflict in a story like this would be irresistible. The story would end up being all about the supposed contrast between autism and telepathy, and the inner conflict that this causes for the character. Happily, Buchanan avoids this trope. Ha-Ran, even if it works for humans, won’t fundamentally alter who Vonika is. While she does feel some minor reluctance, it’s only because does not like change, and is relatively easily dealt with. Meanwhile, she gets a plot full of other interesting things to do, a war to survive, and a mystery to solve – because she is not the only one experiencing early Ha-Ran, and as the war progresses, the number of cases is increasing.

Spoiling the solution to this mystery would be unfair, but I found the solution one of the most satisfying parts of the novella. It’s something that sheds an interesting light on human ideas about empathy and belonging, and about empathy as the primary cause of morality – ideas which are often used to paint autistic people as inherently inferior – and about what those ideas can, and can’t, actually solve.

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

Autistic Book Party, Episode 29 And Three Quarters: Short Story Smorgasbord

Lesley L. Smith, “Bologna and Vanilla” (Daily Science Fiction, December 2014)
[Autistic author] A first contact flash story in which lexical-gustatory synesthesia helps the protagonist understand alien speech. I thought that the synesthesia was a bit simplistically handled, compared to Luna Lindsey’s “Touch of Tides”, which has a similar premise. But we can always use more stories in which thinking or sensing differently from other people is the key to success. [YMMV, but I liked it]
A.C. Buchanan, “Invisible City” (self-published, February 2015)
[Autistic author] A novelette about a man traumatized by his experiences in a country which, because of magic, no longer exists. There are no autistic characters here, but it’s a very good story about memory, dictatorship, rebellion, and the human tendency to pretend that terrible things never happened. This makes it, strangely, more timely now than it was at the time of its release. [Recommended]
An Owomoyela, “Unauthorized Access” (Lightspeed, September 2016)
A young woman named Aedo is let out of jail for hacking – and immediately gets sucked into another, even more dangerous hacking project. It’s subtle at first, but I definitely read Aedo as an Aspie due to repeated mentions of her social awkwardness, dislike of eye contact, preference for expressing herself by typing, etc. I really like that the story centers someone who can talk, but has an easier time writing, and that it shows how difficult that is to explain to other people without implying that it is therefore somehow bad or wrong. I also enjoyed the subversively realistic portrayal of hacker culture, and the way the tension ratchets up as Aedo realizes she’s being used. [Recommended]
Bogi Takács, “Good People in a Small Space” (free Patreon reward, December 2016)
[Autistic author] A very short, very cute story set in the same universe as Bogi’s Iwunen Interstellar Investigations web serial. Several people from Eren, a planet of autistic people, feature prominently in the story. The viewpoint character, while not autistic, does a good job respectfully adjusting their behavior to make their interactions more comfortable for the Ereni. There are also some adorably polite negotiations around pain, and some ARTISINAL LOGIC PUZZLES. [Recommended]
Merc Rustad, “Monster Girls Don’t Cry” (Uncanny, January 2017)
[Autistic author] A horror story about monsters and the people who try to make them “normal”, with and without their consent. There are no autistic characters, but autistic readers (among others) will relate very hard to the themes of social pressure, closeting, and forced normalization. Please take the content warning at the top of the story seriously – and considering the number of autistic readers who have trauma related to this, there should also be a content warning for non-consensual medical treatment / surgery. It’s all sensitively handled, though, and there is a well-earned happy ending. [Recommended]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 15 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Adrienne J. Odasso, “Letters to Lost Friends & Imaginary Lovers” (Strong Verse, November 2012)

[Autistic author.] A poem. Not about autism, but about connections and the loss of the same. Given that we are so often accused of being unable to form or desire connections in the first place, this is important. It is also very pretty, and very sharp with its evocation of specific emotions. [Recommended]


Alex Dally MacFarlane, “Thin Slats of Metal, Painted” (Crossed Genres, Issue #1, January 2013)

Jess is a young girl with a strong interest in measuring things, who interacts with paintings as though they have feelings and agency. I read her as autistic, though I don’t know if that was the author’s intent. I’m not entirely happy with the way her imaginary life is handled, for reasons that are somewhat idiosyncratic to me and have very little to do with autism per se. But MacFarlane does an excellent job of showing that Jess is highly imaginative and empathic despite her solitary existence. As a result, the story rings true. [YMMV]


A.C. Buchanan (writing as Anna Caro), “Built in a Day” (Luna Station Quarterly Issue 013, 2013)

[Autistic author.] This story involves a strange planet, a time loop, and a person whose past and future selves work together to build a city but cannot directly interact. The ending has the protagonist learning to end her isolation, and I am conflicted about this: part of me wants to say, “Why can’t one of us stay alone and be happy that way, for once?” But even I do not really want to be alone forever, and there is nothing ableist or condescending about the way Caro drives the story to its conclusion. I think my discomfort here is a sign that the author is engaging effectively with themes that are highly emotional for many autistic people, including myself. This makes it, in turn, an important story. [Recommended]


Meda Kahn, “That’s Entertainment” (Strange Horizons, November 2014)

[Autistic author.] A story about disability being used as exploitative entertainment and exploitative entertainment being used as activism. This one didn’t drop-kick me in the feels quite as hard as “Difference of Opinion”, but it’s very smart, very on-point and very sad. [Recommended]


Luna Lindsey, “Meltdown in Freezer Three” (The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, December 2014)

[Autistic author.] Like Macfarlane’s story, but to an even greater extent, “Meltdown” deals with the persistent animism experienced by some autistic people. Unfortunately the whole thing is a little too cartoony for my tastes, and the plot doesn’t entirely hold together. (Why are a pair of small children suddenly trying to violently destroy an ice cream truck? Who is supervising all of these children? And where does Corrine get off saying she “doesn’t believe in magic” when there are already tiny “faeliens” living in one of her ice cream freezers?) Still, Lindsey gets props for writing a protagonist who is more visibly developmentally disabled than most, and for an ending which validates Corinne’s atypical thinking style as few endings can. [YMMV+]