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.