Autistic Book Party, Episode 45: An Unkindness of Ghosts

Today’s Book: “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon

The Plot: A generation ship has reverted to a state resembling the antebellum Southern U.S., complete with slavery. On the ship, a Black Autistic woman named Aster hunts for clues about her dead mother, who might have discovered a way off the ship, or a way to change everything.

Autistic Character(s): Aster.

“An Unkindness of Ghosts” is a dark, gripping book. It is billed as being about a slave revolt, and definitely there is a slave revolt that happens somewhere in there, but the full book is much more complex, and the main conflicts more personal, than that description would suggest – even as the oppression and abuse of their circumstances weigh heavily throughout the book on Aster and everyone she knows.

Aster is a wonderful character whose autistic traits are written very well. (I’m not sure if the autism in the book is #ownvoices or not. I know Rivers Solomon has described herself as non-neurotypical, but there are a lot of things that go under that umbrella. So it might be #ownvoices, and it might not be. Either way, it’s good enough that I could easily believe that it was.) She speaks very formally and literally, and has trouble working out what people mean when they use figures of speech. She has a great talent for medicine and works as a sort of doctor, doing what she can to help others on her deck who have been injured by the harsh conditions there. She also has some more subtle autistic traits, of the kind that I don’t often see authors remember to include in books. For instance, she has immense difficulty with handwriting. She stims by banging against things as she runs, often without consciously realizing she’s doing it. (I have stims that I don’t do consciously, although not that one in particular, and I don’t often see that aspect of stimming discussed in fiction.)

Although Aster’s society doesn’t seem to have a formal word for autism, Solomon does a good job of showing that people recognize what is going on with Aster. Not just that she is different, but that she is a particular sort of different, with a name:

“I am a healer, like you. Well, not quite like you. You’re a little off, aren’t you?” The woman grabbed Aster’s chin, turning her face so they were forced eye to eye. “You’re one of those who has to tune the world out and focus on one thing at a time. We have a word for that down here, women like you. Insiwa. Inside one. It means you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning.”
Aster had been called worse.

This is neat – I would love to see more far-future SF and secondary-world fantasy that displays its own cultures’ understandings of, and names for, autism.

And while Aster is often baffled by what people are doing and what they mean, she also displays flashes of insight into how people work that remind me of my own hyperempathic autistic friends:

“She’s probably the one who made him sick,” said Vivian, but who knew if she really believed it? Her personality revolved around being the rude one, and she kept up the act to maintain her identity. In the process she’d become a caricature of herself.

And while Aster is the only autistic character, Solomon also takes pains to show that she’s not the only non-neurotypical person on the ship. In fact, the two other most important characters are also non-neurotypical. Aster’s friend and mentor Theo, a closet transwoman who works as a surgeon in the upperdecks, seems to have something like OCD, carrying out religious and cleansing rituals with compulsive fervor.

There’s also Giselle, Aster’s best friend from her deck, who I actually found the most fascinating character of all from a neurodiversity standpoint. I don’t know what diagnosis exactly would be appropriate for Giselle. She’s heavily traumatized, like everyone on the lower decks; unlike most people on the lower decks, she also experiences delusions, self-harms, and has both verbal and physical violent episodes, including violence against Aster. Giselle’s type of mental illness is very heavily stigmatized. I was transfixed by how she was portrayed, worst symptoms at all, and yet still remained matter-of-factly a friend Aster who and her other cabinmates cared about. In particular, even though Giselle often says and believes things that are not true, she’s also clever and figures out some true things before Aster does, including the fact that Aster’s mother wrote her diary in code. This isn’t portrayed with any of the usual obnoxious “oh no, are they crazy, or are they right??” tropes. It just is, the way it would be if any other character figured out something important. I have literally never seen a white or neurotypical author write a character this way. I love Giselle.

(For that very reason, I felt super ambivalent about Giselle’s role in the ending, which was my only real reservation about this book. But it’s nothing to do with autism, and is therefore, for the purposes of this review, neither here nor there.)

I also want to briefly mention “An Unkindness of Ghosts”‘ tone, because that has been the topic of a lot of online discussion. As Bogi Takács points out in eir review, this is quite a dark book in which the characters’ oppressors are very cruel to them. But it’s also a book that is respectful and even softened, in how it shows these things, compared to some of the stuff that actually happened to slaves in the antebellum South. There were parts where I had to step away for a bit and recalibrate, but that happens to me with a lot of books. I certainly didn’t find it as difficult to get through as, say, Mirror Project. 😛 For other white readers in particular I would encourage reading this book with an open mind. Like, read the content warnings in Bogi’s review, and nope out if you have to, but know that those parts of the book are #ownvoices and there for a reason.

Overall, “An Unkindness of Ghosts” is a very well-written book about multiply marginalized non-neurotypical people of color who make their own way through harrowing circumstances in search of hope.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Rivers Solomon. I read her book by buying a copy from 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.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 7: The Damned Busters

(First published Aug 2, 2013. Some comments and examples in the original review have been lost due to improper archiving and the review has been edited to remove incomplete sentences, etc resulting from this. It is not otherwise modified.)

Today’s Book: The “Damned Busters” by Matthew Hughes.

The Plot: After a series of unlikely events which involve accidentally making Hell go on strike, mild-mannered comic-loving actuary Chesney Arnsruther becomes a costumed superhero – The Actionary!

Autistic Character(s): Chesney Arnsruther, the aforementioned actuary. AND SUPERHERO.

So, we’ve had autistic viewpoint characters in an ensemble cast before, but this is the first book I’ve reviewed in which an autistic person is the main character. And a main character who gets to dress up, attain super strength and super speed, and fight bad guys, no less. Which is pretty cool.

I have to confess that, aside from the aforementioned coolness, I’m not completely sure how to review comedies. And The Damned Busters is a comedy, in addition to a superhero book. It’s very silly. (In particular, if you try to take Hughes’ theology seriously, you’ll wipe out in the first chapter and never come back.) One of the hallmarks of comedy is that people’s personalities are exaggerated. That makes me leery of reviewing a comedic book from a “how does it represent autistic people” standpoint, because there’s a fine line between exaggeration and stereotyping, and we’re all going to legitimately disagree about where that line is. (I’ve walked into enough vociferous disagreements about The Big Bang Theory to learn how THAT works.)

Anyway. As one might expect, much of the humor (and conflict) comes from Chesney being socially awkward. Super strength, speed, teleportation and other powers are one thing, but he quickly runs into problems which are more complex and socially nuanced than they appear at first glance. To my surprise, Chesney handles these situations in… something pretty close to how an actual autistic actuary might handle them. He’s awkward, but he’s not a walking pile of obliviousness; he can interpret facial expressions and some other fairly sophisticated nonverbal communication by puzzling them out intellectually, comparing them to situations he has seen before, remembering what has and hasn’t worked in the past and what he’s been taught by others. When he’s at a loss, he often scripts appropriate responses from his favourite comic books. Thanks to extensive experience with an overbearing mother, he can even keep his cool and his secrets when questioned by the authorities. Skills like these ones are helpful for Chesney more often than one might think, though not as often as he would like, and it was a lot of fun for me to read him using them.

There are occasional inaccuracies, particularly near the beginning. Even when it’s good, the characterization focuses on Chesney’s social skills and his unusual aptitude for statistics – the things NT media typically focuses on – and neglects things like sensory differences. Also, there is a subplot of “Chesney not knowing how to deal with women” which verges on… I’m not actually sure what it verges on, but it made me feel sorry for the female characters.

Still, when you break Chesney down into his basic parts, you get a grown-up autistic character who is happy being who he is, who is much more aware of what’s going on around him than stereotypes would suggest, and who, in his own idiom, is good-hearted, strong-willed, and brave. Also he makes Hell go on strike, obtains super powers, punches bad guys, foils a plot to end AND take over the world both at once (I told you it’s silly), and gets the girl. His actuarial skills come in handy, too. Some readers won’t like the style of humor or the way the fictional universe is set up. But if you’re looking for a lighthearted romp in which an autistic hero saves the day, you could do a Hell of a lot worse.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

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

Short Story Smorgasbord, Special Edition: Where to Start With Yoon Ha Lee

When I found out Yoon Ha Lee is on the autism spectrum, I’d already been a fan of his writing for many years. I knew I could not go back and review every single short story of his, because there are just so many! (Plus, I feel like that would be creepy somehow.) But I decided that I could, at least, review the ones that had been nominated for major awards. If you’re looking at his dozens of wonderful stories and don’t know where to begin, you may as well start here. 😀

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Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain (Lightspeed, September 2010): Bizarre and poetic fictional weapons are a Yoon Ha Lee staple, and this story centers around one. Arighan’s Flower is a gun that changes the past and erases the target’s entire lineage – an especially horrifying power given that the viewpoint character comes from a culture that worships its ancestors. Time-bending and suspenseful, this was a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial award. [Recommended-2]

Ghostweight (Clarkesworld, January 2011): In this novelette, a rebel fighter and her ghost companion pilot an unreliable, semi-sentient space kite with origami weapons. “Ghostweight” is not set in the world of the Hexarchate, but many of Ninefox Gambit‘s best tropes are reproduced here in minature: a ruthless, conquering empire; a surreal and intricate system of battle; an unreliable collaboration; and a vicious ending twist. Finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and received honors from the Carl Brandon Award. [Recommended-2]

Effigy Nights (Clarkesworld, January 2013): A city that worships writing tries to weaponize its books to defend itself. This is classic Yoon Ha Lee, with clever and cold-hearted space warriors surrounded by a surreal and detailed magic that plays by its own rules. Finalist for the World Fantasy and Locus Awards. [Recommended-2]

Extracurricular Activities (Tor.com, February 2017): Shuos Jedao, many years before the events of Ninefox Gambit, goes on an undercover mission. This story takes place in the hexarchate universe, but calendrical warfare and its bizarre effects are irrelevant to the mission and therefore absent. What remains is a surprisingly accessible sci-fi spy caper with a cute, silly queer flirtation on the side. You don’t need to know Jedao or the hexarchate universe to understand it, but readers who do know them will enjoy themselves. [Recommended-2]

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 4: The Meeting of the Waters

(First published May 13, 2013)

Today’s Book: “The Meeting of the Waters” by Caiseal Mór.

The Plot: In ancient Ireland, the squabbling Danaan and Fir-Bolg tribes must band together to defend themselves from the invading Milesians.

Autistic Character(s): The author! Yay!

This is going to be a new kind of Autistic Book Party post. There won’t be any “how to write autistic characters” advice, because nobody in this book is autistic. In fact, Caiseal Mór published this book (and 13 others!) while passing as NT. It’s only with his 2007 autobiography that his autism became public knowledge.

It’s important for me to highlight good books by autistic authors, even if they don’t have autistic characters. Why?

First, because representation means paying attention to authors AND characters. If you want to combat sexism in spec fic, I sure hope you’re looking at women authors as well as female characters. With autism or any other group, it’s the same. Nothing about us without us.

Second, because autistic people are often told we can’t write good stories because we don’t have enough imagination, or enough empathy, or whatever. If a straight white NT dude has trouble writing convincing characters, he gets told to go to a writing workshop and build his skills. If an Aspie has trouble doing it, she is contractually obligated to question whether this is an “Aspie thing”, and whether Aspies are capable of writing good fiction at all.

(Side note: Some autistic people have trouble with “pretend play” as children. They do not see the point of acting out a situation that everyone knows isn’t real. But this isn’t the case for all autistic people. An awful lot of us are known to retreat into imagination as a coping mechanism. Others – or the same ones – construct elaborate imaginary worlds as a special interest.)

So I’ve been itching to give you some examples of good speculative fiction by autistic people, and Caiseal Mór – a bestselling Irish-Australian fantasy author – looks like a good place to start.

“The Meeting of the Waters” is an epic fantasy with a large scope and many viewpoint characters. Yet the usual epic fantasy tropes – Chosen Ones, hordes of throwaway villains, long journeys and quests for a MacGuffin – are pleasantly absent. That’s because Mór isn’t using other epic fantasy as his model. He’s gone back to primary sources and to a lifelong fascination with Celtic mythology.

Mór’s take on this mythology may surprise some readers. In “The Meeting of the Waters”, the Tuatha De Danaan have not yet become the immortal, capricious creatures of most modern fantasy. When we meet them, they are ordinary mortals. Here the Danaans, the Fir-Bolg, and the Milesians (ancestors of today’s Irish people) are three human tribes descended from a common ancestor, each with rich musical and magical traditions, a cattle-based economy, and a carefully codified set of rules for war and justice. But each tribe’s choices, as the story progresses, will set them onto radically different paths.

Mór takes a bird’s-eye view of these choices. (Sometimes literally. Parts of the book are narrated by a man who has been turned into a raven.) He moves from character to character as he wishes in order to show us a larger picture. No single character carries the fate of all of Ireland on their shoulders, and no single character is always expected to garner readers’ sympathy. Instead, what changes the course of history is a set of interlocking decisions from many characters. The major players are each interesting and distinct from each other, but none is immune from making terrible choices when pushed. Similarly, no one is entirely unsympathetic, though some characters (especially the Fir-Bolg king and queen) seem to be, for a while. Even the story’s villains – a pair of manipulative Fomorians set on causing discord between the other three tribes – come off as clever and likeable at times, especially early in the story, before we’ve seen the worst consequences of their meddling.

The result is an overall voice which can be somewhat detached, but also very human and forgiving. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But in a genre overrun by NT authors who think the whole moral and physical universe revolves around their Chosen One, I think Mór’s balanced approach is the better one for teaching us empathy.

The Verdict: Recommended

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

Autistic Book Party, Episode 44: Failure to Communicate

Today’s Book: “Failure to Communicate” by Kaia Sønderby

The Plot: Xandri Corelel interprets alien behavior for a living. But her latest mission, to help with diplomatic negotiations on the planet Anmerilli, will test her skills to the limit.

Autistic Character(s): Xandri, the protagonist.

I like the trope of autistic people learning to communicate with aliens, and this is the first time I’ve seen the trope addressed at novel length. I was excited to see what would be done with it, and I wasn’t disappointed. There’s a refreshing nuance and subtlety to the way Sønderby handles her topic. Xandri’s skill at finding patterns in alien body language is partly due to good autistic pattern recognition – but mostly due to hard work and skill developed over many years because it was necessary for her survival. She’s genuinely good at it, one of the best in the Alliance – but that doesn’t make her automatically good at all the other skills that go with negotiation, nor at deciphering types of deception among humans to which autistic people are frequently vulnerable. And much of the conflict of the book comes, not from trying to puzzle out what the Anmerilli are thinking, but from these high-level, all-too-human interactions.

Although the novel has many fast-paced and action-y parts, and doesn’t dive needlessly into introspection, nuance is the name of the game when it comes to its characters and worldbuilding. Autistic people are rare in Xandri’s time, thanks to genetic modification, and individuals vary widely in how they treat her. Some are genuine friends, which Xandri treasures as a rarity; some are ableist and dismissive; some are manipulative; some are well-intentioned but clueless.  Xandri’s alien friends (and the ship’s AI she’s befriended) are often more accepting than most humans, but the aliens are not a monolith either, and in particular, the Anmerilli have many political factions and different opinions. It’s hard to write a story about ableism with this kind of nuance and individuality; even #ownvoices stories often have a slightly cartoonish feel in their more ableist characters. But the variety of attitudes taken by different characters in “Failure to Communicate” really helps the setting feel real and lived-in.

The story is also really fun. I cheered in some places and cried in others, and sometimes had to step away when a plot moment hit too close to home. I love Sønderby’s aliens, especially the parrot-like Psitticans and the furry, taciturn Ongkoarrat. I love Xandri’s friendships with the people on her team who “get” her and are looking out for her (and there’s some setup that I’m hoping will lead to a queer romance, in a sequel 😀 ). There’s a definite found-family vibe to the Carpathia‘s crew, even though not everyone in the crew is equally accepting.

I especially like the way Xandri’s touch sensitivity is handled – like other aspects of “Failure to Communicate,” it isn’t black and white, but presents differently in different circumstance, and doesn’t desexualize her. Xandri’s autistic traits in general are present consistently and depicted through all the little details of her social environment, from the ship’s AI making sure there are satin patches she can stim with on her clothes, to her bodyguards having to remind her to eat, to the meltdowns she experiences several times at stressful points without losing her agency.

Xandri just feels relatable to me in ways that kept surprising me. Not every autistic protagonist – not even every well-written autistic protagonist – is the same, which is to be expected, since real people on the spectrum are so different. I often appreciate the way a character is depicted without identifying with them especially closely. But for whatever reason, Xandri as a character just kept on making me go, “Yep, that’s what I’d probably do. That’s how I’d react to that. …Yep.” This was an unfamiliar feeling.

I’m struggling to talk about the story’s plot instead of just listing all the mess of details that felt wonderful and accepting and real.

One other thing that I loved about it is even harder to talk about, and it also involves a PLOT TWIST, so I’m putting it behind a spoiler cut.

Continue reading “Autistic Book Party, Episode 44: Failure to Communicate”

Short Story Smorgasbord: Special Rhysling Nominees Edition!

Last year I listed the autistic speculative poets who were nominees for the 2017 Rhysling award. This year it’s almost time for the 2018 nominees to be announced! But before that happens, I want to take you on a retrospective of Rhysling (and Dwarf Stars) nominations from before 2017. Because some of the most accomplished speculative poets of our time are autistic, and that’s awesome.

This is an incomplete list, mostly for reasons of convenience. For instance, AJ Odasso has many more nominations than this, but I don’t have easy access to a print or electronic copy of many of them right now. Similarly, all three of these poets have large back catalogs of poetry, and I couldn’t possibly review every single poem they have published. Hopefully picking the award-nominated ones is as good as way as any to deliver a suitable highlight reel.

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Rose Lemberg, “Odysseus on the War Train” (Abyss & Apex, July 2008). A subversive take on the Greek myth of Odysseus, and on the damage warriors do both to those they fight and to those they leave behind. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “Burns at Both Ends” (Star*Line, January 2009). This poem is also the opening poem of “Marginalia to Stone Bird”; it is a paean to intensity, and to using the poet’s talents as they prefer and see fit, not as any concerned people would have them be used. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “Godfather Death” (Goblin Fruit, Fall 2009). A poem about a boy who becomes Death’s godson, and a doctor. Intertextual, slyly silly, and genuinely poignant. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “Walrus” (Trapeze magazine, August 2010). A… dancing walrus?! This is short and cute, and it was nominated for the Dwarf Stars award. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “Twin-Born” (Goblin Fruit, Fall 2010). A myth of birds and blood, grief and flawed creation and desire. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “In the Third Cycle” (Strange Horizons, September 2011). A complex love triangle unfolding over multiple lifetimes, and a part of the Journeymaker Cycle. This poem is not only a Rhysling nominee, but also won the Rannu competition. [Recommended-2]

AJ Odasso, “Parallax” (Stone Telling, March 2012). A poem about gender euphoria! Also about constellations and the liminality of never quite belonging to any accepted category. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “Between the Mountain and the Moon” (Strange Horizons, July 2012). A lyrical love myth involving cats, moon goddesses, ritual dance, and a volcano. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “I will show you a single treasure from the treasures of Shah Niyaz” (Goblin Fruit, Summer 2013). The story of all the different forms of labor from all sorts of different people that went into the making and acquisition of a beautiful tapestry. While a single wealthy ruler locks the tapestry away, the poorer people who created such beauty continue with their lives. This one was not only nominated for the Rhysling, but won third place in the long category. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “The Journeymaker, Climbing” (Goblin Fruit, Winter 2013). A small (this one’s a Dwarf Star nominee) poem of a journey up a mountain, with mink and crows and trees and beautiful language throughout. [Recommended-2]

AJ Odasso, “Queen of Cups” (inkscrawl, March 2014). A short poem of uncertainty and longing, of the desire to travel and the struggle to believe that you’ll find what you travel for. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “Landwork” (Goblin Fruit, Spring 2014). A gorgeously written tale of a person who stitches broken land back together, quietly doing their healer’s work though that very quietness causes other mages to scoff at them. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “Dualities” (Mythic Delirium, October 2014). I mentioned the theme of doubling in my review of Lemberg’s collection, “Marginalia to Stone Bird”. This poem is a prime example, describing the resonance of two people in two different universes who are somehow aware of each other, and whose lives follow inexplicable parallels. [Recommended-2]

Bogi Takács, “You are Here / Was: Blue Line to Memorial Park” (Strange Horizons, November 2014). This poem is a fantastic technical achievement – when a reader clicks “PROCEED”, the words individually rearrange themselves into a completely different but equally intelligible version. Both versions together tell an eerie and evocative story about a war memorial inside a hollow planetoid. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “Archival Testimony Fragments/Minersong” (Uncanny, January 2015). One of Lemberg’s rare forays into science fiction, this is a creepy and beautiful poem about an ancient sentient spaceship crushed under rock where miners are poised to rediscover it. [Recommended-2]

Bogi Takács, “The Iterative Nature of the Magical Discovery Process” (Through the Gate, March 2015). This is a seemingly cute poem about a lesbian couple experimenting with magic to make them fly. It does much more than it appears to at first glance, treating magic very naturalistically as a scientific process, complete with false starts and partial solutions. There’s some gorgeous description of food, a beautiful supportive relationship between the protagonists, and even sneaky math re-inscribed as magical incantations. [Recommended-2]

Rose Lemberg, “Long Shadow” (Strange Horizons, March 2015). OOF. This poem is a LOT – it’s long, and epic, and deals with the aftermath of war and trauma in a way that defies easy answers, or even the idea of answers at all. It’s also an instalment in the epic Journeymaker Cycle; it can stand on its own, but there are parts that will mean more if you have “Marginalia to Stone Bird” and can devour all the Journeymaker poems at once. This is one of my favorite speculative poems ever. [Recommended-2]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 43: Leia: Princess of Alderaan

Note: This review contains minor spoilers for “The Last Jedi,” though I’ve tried to keep all references to the movie’s events vague.

Today’s Book: “Leia: Princess of Alderaan,” a Star Wars tie-in novel by Claudia Gray.

The Plot: A teenage Princess Leia learns that her parents are a part of the Rebel Alliance – and, against their wishes, joins them.

Autistic Character(s): Amilyn Holdo, a girl Leia’s age who joins her on some of her adventures.

Ever since seeing “The Force Awakens,” I have been on a bit of a Star Wars kick. It’s not a thing I’ve mentioned in public much, but it’s been a thing. When I asked for Star Wars books for Christmas, I was expecting them to be escapist fun and to let me spend a little more time in the galaxy far, far away with my favorite characters. I wasn’t expecting to need to make an Autistic Book Party episode about it.

But “Leia: Princess of Alderaan” portrays a younger version of Amilyn Holdo, a sympathetic character from The Last Jedi, as very clearly non-neurotypical.

(Yes, we are talking about Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo, played by Laura Dern, although obviously, she doesn’t have that rank in this book. I’ve been told that other viewers noticed something non-neurotypical-looking about her in the film itself, but that went right over my head, so the book was a surprise.)

Amilyn Holdo in “Leia: Princess of Alderaan” has the following characteristics:

  • Atypical facial expressions, especially a habitually “glazed” look
  • Dresses and does her hair very eccentrically
  • Speaks in an “airy monotone”
  • Stares off into space
  • Cheerfully goes for the snacks at an important diplomatic function instead of networking or playing politics as the characters are supposed to
  • Has unusual interests at intense levels: for example, memorizing the astrological systems of various planets, in a universe where most people don’t believe in astrology
  • Has unusual emotional reactions, including being cheerful and enthusiastic about “mortal peril”
  • Is quite clever, and often figures things out before the other characters do, but is also too “guileless” to know important unspoken things, like why you shouldn’t say critical things about the Empire in the Empire’s apprentice legislature sessions
  • Habitually has communication difficulties, sometimes to do with being literal, but more often to do with using some odd metaphor or allusion that she thinks makes her thoughts perfectly clear, while everyone else scratches their head and wonders what she is talking about. This includes times when she is talking about one of the things that she’s figured out before everyone else – but nobody realizes she’s figured it out until later, often after she’s put the plan that she thought she explained into action. Towards the end of the book, Leia reflects that she is learning to “speak Amilyn” and is doing a better job than before of figuring out what Holdo means when she talks.

Holdo is from a planet called Gatalenta which has some strange cultural traditions, including using aerial acrobatics to meditate. While one might initially chalk up some of Holdo’s strangeness to being from Gatalenta, it is eventually revealed that her choice of clothing and other habits are very atypical for that planet, and that she doesn’t fit in there, either.

It’s not one hundred percent clear that Holdo’s neurotype is autistic; sometimes she veers into more generic, Luna Lovegood-esque kookiness. But she is definitely not neurotypical, and when you list her traits like I just did, they resemble autism – particularly the “female”* presentation of autism – more than any other condition I’m aware of.

(*In scare quotes because people with this presentation can have varying genders, but that is largely irrelevant to this post.)

Holdo is a sympathetic character with a lot to offer. Her cleverness, resourcefulness, and enthusiasm come in handy on many occasions. Two instances stand out to me, because they are helpful things of types that I very rarely get to see autistic characters doing. First, Holdo is a source of emotional support for Leia – helping her process her feelings about her family and the Rebellion by teaching her Gatalentan meditation techniques. Second, although Holdo is sometimes guileless about social dangers, she is sometimes able to solve them in her own way. In a wonderful scene toward the end, Leia and Holdo return from a dangerous mission and are intercepted by an Imperial officer who is suspicious about where they came from. Holdo uses her knowledge of astrology to come up with a plausible alibi, but she also socially misdirects the officer in a very striking way – deliberately staring into space, looking even more glazed than usual, and beginning to monologue enthusiastically about the astrological aspects of her travels until the officer gets embarrassed and waves her on through.

Other characters, including Leia, are also able to help Holdo when she needs it – bailing her out when she veers close to saying dangerous things in the apprentice legislature; being patient and learning to figure out her way of speaking, instead of demanding that she change it; giving her a space to talk out her own problems, such as her urge to rebel from Gatalentan culture. Leia and Holdo’s friendship – and, likely, the friendships between Holdo and other characters – is mutual and genuine.

The older Holdo in The Last Jedi is not as visibly weird as the younger one in this novel. In my opinion, this isn’t an inconsistency; it’s a change that could very plausibly have happened as the teenage Holdo got older and learned more skills, including the skills of military command.

Holdo being autistic also casts a very interesting new light on her actions in The Last Jedi. It’s not a light that I’m going to talk about here at any length; to do that, I’d need to re-watch the movie with the book in mind and give it its own, separate review. But it’s worth noting that the older Vice-Admiral Holdo’s conflict with Poe Dameron revolves, in large part, around her ability (or inability, or refusal) to explain her plans for the Resistance in a way that Poe will accept. If she has a pre-existing communication disability – even one that she’s worked on, over the years – then this adds a significant new layer to that conflict.

In short, Amilyn Holdo in “Leia: Princess of Alderaan” is a well-rounded and respectfully portrayed autistic character. Not at all what I expected to find in a Star Wars book – but something I was delighted to discover.

The Verdict: Recommended

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Claudia Gray. I read her book because I got a copy for Christmas. All opinions expressed here are my own.

Many of my reviews are chosen by my Patreon backers. This one was not. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the works. If these reviews are 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.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 41: Nantais

Cover of the book "Nantais" by Verity Reynolds. Contains a spaceship flying over a planet, and the word "Nantais" at the top.

Today’s Book: “Nantais”, by Verity Reynolds

The Plot: A ship’s crew are stranded after a computer virus infects their spaceship, and the more they try to find repairs for their ship and retrieve their missing comrades, the more complex the web of conspiracy around them seems to become.

Autistic Characters: Two crew members, named David and Hayek, and also, the author.

“Nantais” is a space opera in which all the usual fun space opera things come into play – cool aliens, interplanetary governments, space pirates, sentient ship’s computers, and so on. It contains some autistic humans, as well as some cool aliens that autistic readers will be able to relate to.

I don’t have much to say about the autistic humans, which is unusual for me. “Nantais” is being marketed in a way that makes a lot of noise about how the whole book is “very autistic” without ever mentioning the word “autism”, and how this is a radical authorial choice. I’m not sure I would describe either David or Hayek as “very autistic”. They both have autistic traits, but these traits are described in a very blink-and-you-miss-it way; in fact, I ended the book still unsure if Hayek was meant to be on the autism spectrum or not. Hayek is a fairly standard “go out of the spaceship and shoot guns” character, and the only autistic trait that I noticed from him is the use of a weighted vest.

There is nothing WRONG with having characters like this. Nor in refusing to other them or navel-gaze about their disability. In fact, a character like Hayek is nice to see since we don’t usually picture autistic people in that role. I’m just not convinced it’s an especially radical way of writing, with or without the word “autism”, especially since neither character seems to require the type of accommodations that necessitate societal change.

 

The aliens are good, though. “Nantais” is at its most interesting when Reynolds uses alien forms of communication to lightly upend common wisdom about communication in humans. Different species use different body language, including flapping and otherwise gesturing with the hands. Niralans appear to have no body language at all, and seem eerily emotionless to humans. But their nonverbal communication is actually some of the richest and most intense in the galaxy, for the few who have a sufficiently close physical connection to read it. Autistic readers and others whose emotions are misperceived by those around them will be delighted to spend time with the Niralan characters.

(As a side note, this might be another reason why I wasn’t super impressed with Hayek as an autistic character; he has an initial reaction to the main Niralan character’s lack of body language which more or less exactly mirrors the way NT ableists in real life respond to autistic people whose body language they can’t read. Not only did this make me subjectively annoyed with him, but it seemed like an odd and not-quite-realistic choice if he is meant to be autistic himself.)

Truth be told, I was a little underwhelmed with “Nantais” overall. The pacing is a little jumpy, and the way events progress doesn’t always feel coherent or satisfying. There is a cool subplot with a sentient ship’s computer that is trying to fight off its virus. The computer functions very differently from an Earth computer, in ways that are often interesting, but it irritated me that the term “computational linguistics” in this universe appears to mean something completely divorced from what it means in real life.

I think this is the most “meh” review I’ve ever written. There is nothing really wrong with the representation in “Nantais”; it didn’t click for me on a craft level, but there is nothing truly horrible about the book on that level, either. I did quite like the aliens, but the rest of it didn’t do a lot for me.

The Verdict: YMMV

Ethics Statement: Verity Reynolds and I have had quite a few business interactions; she beta read my still-unpublished novel and was a developmental/acquisitions editor for MONSTERS IN MY MIND. MONSTERS and NANTAIS were both published by the same press. I read her book because she emailed me a copy asking me for a blurb. I did, in fact, provide a blurb, which is an excerpt from this review. All opinions expressed either here or in the shortened blurb are my own.

This book was not chosen by my Patreon backers; I simply reviewed it because I decided that, having already read and blurbed it, a review would not be much extra labor. Reviews chosen by my backers are still in the works. If these reviews are 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.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 40: Mouse

Cover of the book "Mouse" by Richard Ford Burley

Today’s Book: “Mouse”, by Richard Ford Burley

The Plot: An autistic boy discovers he can talk to a ghost, is the reincarnation of Simon Magus (sort of), and needs to save the world.

Autistic Character(s): The title character.

This book is a fun urban fantasy with roots in medieval alchemy and ceremonial magic (not surprising, since Burley is a medievalist). It’s also a book with a pretty badass #ownvoices autistic protagonist from a somewhat under-represented part of the spectrum.

Mouse is a high school student who is “primarily non-verbal” – he can squeak out a word or two in an emergency, usually, if there’s no other option, but he prefers to communicate by writing notes. He is intensely sensitive and overwhelmed by the social information he sees in other people’s faces, which is why he never looks there. He’s taught in an integrated classroom with neurotypical classmates, but he isn’t especially talented at school; he mainly keeps his head down and tries to get through the day.

All these are great things to see in an autistic protagonist, and I liked seeing them. Unfortunately, the book kept making strange and inconsistent choices in how it portrayed them.

I feel really bad critiquing an #ownvoices author’s portrayal of autism, which makes this critique hard to write. It’s possible I’m missing something huge. But I’m just going to soldier on and show some examples of what I’m talking about.

In the beginning of the novel, Mouse is so painfully over-sensitive that he literally never looks at his classmates’ faces, recognizing them instead (in a cute touch) by their shoes. When he is pressed to look a classmate in the eye, the cascade of information there sends him straight into panic:

Ginnie crouches down in front of him. She lifts his bangs to look under and he can’t help it, he can’t close his eyes fast enough. He imagines it’s like being electrocuted; he sees it all in under a second, hears it like a building wall of static in his mind. He sees a dubious look on the surface of the most shining, blinding green eyes; he sees that she’s curious, interested; beyond that, she’s a little worried about breaking social taboos but a little excited by the prospect of it; he sees that she’s often a little bored and seeking a thrill but that she’s generally harmless to herself and others; that she’s the kind of person who smiles a lot but cries easily and that she desperately, desperately wishes life were simple enough to be solved with single, grand gestures rather than the day-in-day-out course corrections that constitute the waking world; and beneath it all he sees something more—an intricate reweaving of times and places, of ordinary days and extraordinary ones, the sadness of the mundane, and a crystalline, blinding hope she places in the new. And below even that he sees something bigger, darker, deeper—
Mouse recoils violently, nearly dropping what’s left of his lunch.

This is a bit of an exaggerated description, but it’s meant to be; it will later be revealed that Mouse is not just autistically sensitive but “a sensitive” in a magic sense. (As a side note, I know a lot of quite hyper-empathic autistic people. The part that I find unrealistic is not the amount of information, per se, but rather the fact that Mouse is able to process the information fast enough to consciously identify what all those different parts of it are before he recoils.)

Also, the description of Mouse’s shutdown immediately following this is just really good:

Even Mouse knows it was the wrong reaction. Everything’s gone quiet and they’re looking at him. The guitar has stopped. Mouse has his knees up to his nose and he can tell, even with his eyes closed tight, that they all have concerned looks. But he can’t move, can’t look. His stomach is a knot twisted to its snapping point, his heart is beating in his throat, he wants to throw up. Like a turtle curled up in its shell, he can’t risk extending his legs even to run away. He imagines for a moment the impossibility of ever moving again, of being frozen like this forever; but he doesn’t have to imagine, only remember the years of small rooms and soft voices, the gradual peeling open of a tulip flower cut too soon for the table.

As soon as the plot really gets going, though, Mouse seems to become less and less impaired for no discernible reason. We meet one magical character who is able to put up shields that make it more comfortable for Mouse to look at him; and we see Mouse practicing basic magical skills, like moving energy around to boil water. But we don’t see him practicing how to manage the onslaught of information that he sees when he looks at anything. Yet, the depictions of this onslaught of information, which were so effectively done at the beginning of the book, seem to just fade away as if the author forgot about them. First he’s no longer identifying anybody by their shoes. Then he is able, carefully, to look his love interest in the eye. Then all of a sudden we are reading scenes like this one:

The rest of the day passes in montage, and the following night, and the rest of the week. Sitting at his desk, exchanging glances with Bliss or Anna in the batcave, zoning out during dinner. He tosses and turns at night, wondering when the next attack will come.

Suddenly eye contact is a totally fine thing that we’re doing all the time, and I really do feel like I missed something.

We see some flash-forwards (this book has a couple of cool, timey-wimey twists) to an older Mouse in a dystopian world, who has somehow become calm and strong and commanding. He still doesn’t talk, but all the other impairments seem to have either gone away, or become un-noticed by the people around him. It’s hard to say, since nothing in those flash-forwards is actually from Mouse’s point of view.

We also have the problem that Mouse is a reincarnation of Simon Magus – or, not a reincarnation exactly, but a fragment of Magus’s consciousness that was passed forward in time. But the original Simon Magus wasn’t autistic, and has no problem talking. In emergencies, Mouse finds himself instinctively drawing on the original Simon Magus – which means he suddenly becomes a confident person who can conveniently talk and shout out verbal spell incantations at these emergency moments, including in the book’s climactic scene. This is a somewhat frustrating choice to me; I would much rather have seen Mouse figuring out ways to deal with magical emergencies without speaking.

Furthermore, since the original Simon Magus wasn’t autistic, Mouse is convinced that there must be a reason that he is autistic in his current life. Toward the end of the book, the reason is revealed:

Simon, that is, Simon Magus, he was a master strategist, he could see the way everything was going to go and planned ahead every time. But this time he couldn’t make the equations work—there wasn’t enough data. So he made Mouse to be the opposite of him—he can’t see, but he can feel. He can sense a pattern in the chaos and act right away. His intuition is exactly the opposite kind of knowledge to Simon’s.

Which, you know, sure – and I like the connection between autistic patterns thinking and magical intuition. Except I’m not sure how “he can act right away” jibes with his shutting down in the face of information earlier in the book. And the whole thing feels awfully close to two really problematic tropes – one being the person who seems to be disabled but it’s actually just magic, and the other being the autistic person whose character development consists of becoming less autistic as the story goes on.

This is all sort of nitpicky stuff; at the end of the day, we are still looking at an #ownvoices autistic hero who gets to be at the center of his own story, who has wonderful friends, family, and allies, and who saves the world. It’s well-written on a craft level, and it deals with its subject matter respectfully. If you’re not too bothered by the kinds of complaints I’m making here, and you’re up for a fun urban fantasy romp with medieval mages and mind-bending twists, then “Mouse” is for you. For me, it didn’t all quite work; but I’ll certainly be looking out for more from this author.

The Verdict: YMMV

Ethics Statement: I think I have vaguely interacted with Richard Ford Burley on Twitter once or twice, but that’s all. I read his book by reading an e-copy that the publisher emailed to me in hopes of a review. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are 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.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 39: Citadel of the Sky

Today’s Book: “Citadel of the Sky” by Chrysoula Tzavelas

The Plot: In a fantasy kingdom, a series of magical murders heralds the arrival of something even more sinister.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

“Citadel of the Sky” is set in a nation ruled by the Blood, a powerful magical family. The Blood are the kingdom’s mystical protectors, with magical powers that differ significantly from those of ordinary wizards.

One of those powers is the ability to enter the “phantasmagory” – a psychic realm which is like a collective unconsciousness made physical. Stray thoughts and emotions in the phantasmagory take surreal physical forms, and so do more important magical things. But a member of the Blood who enters the phantasmagory is completely oblivious to the outside world, and can’t leave again until they genuinely desire to. Older members of the royal family often develop a kind of dementia, spending more and more time in the phantasmagory, and becoming more and more confused when out of it.

This linking of royal blood to disability leads to some interesting worldbuilding, including a system in which each member of the Blood has their own “Regent” – a sworn servant who helps them with everyday tasks. (Right now I am all about the idea of caretaking as a service, rather than a form of authority, so I really liked the Regents.) It also means that, aside from magical threats, many everyday affairs of state are carried out by a different group of nobles – a group which is happy, overtly or covertly, to seize power from the inattentive Blood.

As well as the fictional disability of the phantasmagory, both of “Citadel of the Sky”‘s viewpoint characters are non-neurotypical in ways that more closely parallel the real world. Princess Tiana is young, scattered, impulsive, and likely has a form of attention deficit. Kiar, her bastard cousin, is more focused and serious – but also has intense social anxiety.

The challenge of writing a protagonist like Tiana is that the plot has to stay focused and forward-moving, even when the protagonist isn’t. Tzavelas doesn’t always rise perfectly to this challenge. Although many exciting things happen, the pacing often feels slightly off, as if the characters are making scattershot and separate responses to each event rather than having their own throughline.

I should also warn, for readers who are allergic to such things, that “Citadel of the Sky” is the first in a five-book series, and its ending resolves very little.

Still, at its best, “Citadel of the Sky” is a fun and surreal epic fantasy in which non-neurotypical women get to be princesses and chosen ones. That is a kind of story that we definitely need more of!

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Chrysoula Tzavelas. I read her book by buying an e-copy for my Kindle app. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If these reviews are 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.