Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 9.5: Short Story Smorgasbord

(First published Sep 19, 2013)

*

Cat Rambo, “Long Enough and Just So Long” – Lightspeed Magazine, February 2011

Pippi, a sportscaster and the narrator’s best friend, is described as “borderline Aspie”. While this informs her personality, the story isn’t really about autism at all. Pippi isn’t entirely sympathetic, but she reads like a real person with realistic human flaws as well as good points, and with real emotions that she sometimes has difficulty expressing. [Recommended.]

*

Pamela Sargent, “Strawberry Birdies” – Asimov’s, December 2011

The narrator, a little girl, resents her autistic brother Cyril and repeatedly wishes he would go away. Then some people from an alternate universe show up and do take him away. They have better assistive technology in their universe and claim that it’s best for Cyril to go with them because he can never “use his gifts” or have a happy family in the universe were he was born. The narrator goes to a universe where her parents never had an autistic child and are much happier as a result. Then I headdesk a lot at the entire thing. The end. [Not Recommended.]

*

Ken Liu, “The Countable” – Asimov’s, December 2011

I found this story too upsetting to evaluate clearly, but I didn’t notice any egregious autism fail. Fans of Liu’s work who like autistic protagonists (and aren’t triggered by depictions of domestic abuse) will probably enjoy it. [YMMV.]

*

Nino Cipri (writing as Nicole Cipri), “A Silly Love Story” – Daily Science Fiction, September 2012

Jeremy, a “neurodiverse” college student, falls in love with a genderqueer classmate named Merion and also deals with a friendly poltergeist. This is a super cute, quirky story in which both the autistic character and the genderqueer character are well drawn. Jeremy’s troubles in school and anxiety about his future are realistic, but he never becomes an object of pity. [Recommended.]

*

Meda Kahn, “Difference of Opinion” – Strange Horizons, September 2013

I was really dubious about the first scene of this, because I’m not fond of “in the future, oppressed people are even more oppressed” as a plot. But then I read the rest and WOW, this author knows her stuff. (And, as for fictionalized oppression, the gap between what’s going on in the story and what goes on IRL isn’t nearly as big as one might think.) Also, non-speaking characters: This is how you write them. And also, queerness! And autistic people getting together for actual advocacy of each other (even though that doesn’t actually work out too great in the story). Basically why are you even still reading this review and not READING THE STORY. GO DO THAT NOW. [Recommended.]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 47/48: Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun

Today’s Books: Two for the price of one! “Raven Stratagem” and “Revenant Gun,” both sequels to “Ninefox Gambit” by Yoon Ha Lee – also known as the Machineries of Empire series.

The Plot: After the events of “Ninefox Gambit,” the hexarchate – and Cheris and Jedao – have to pick up the pieces. (It’s really hard to write non-spoilery plot hooks for sequels, wheeee.)

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I pounced on these books and devoured them because of a rumor that “Revenant Gun” contained an autistic character. This rumor is not true, sorry! But they are still cracking good space operas with delightful magic space battles and intrigue which are every bit as compelling as the first one.

It’s really hard to say a lot of detailed stuff about these two books without giving spoilers for “Ninefox Gambit,” or for new stuff that happens. Also, I read both books in a bit of a concerned haze because I was trying way too hard to figure out who the autistic character was and couldn’t figure it out. A discussion in Lee’s open thread about “Revenant Gun,” listing other neurodivergent characters, suggests that there was never meant to be one in the first place.

(I did wonder at times about Kel Brezan, who is cranky, fidgety, fixated on small details and seemingly unable to perform the social scripts that go with the powerful role he is given – but overall the evidence isn’t strong enough to suggest that Brezan was meant to be autistic, or any other specific thing. Brezan is, however, a “crashhawk” – someone for whom Kel formation instinct doesn’t function properly – which is arguably an in-universe form of neurodivergence!)

The overall portrayal of neurodiversity in this trilogy was never bad, but I did note a few concerns in my previous review. These concerns are things that improve over the course of the series! In particular, “Ninefox Gambit” gives us several minor characters who appear to be examples of the “sociopathic villain” trope, but the next two books develop these characters further and give them much more nuance which pulls them away from the problematic elements of that trope.

According to the open thread, Shuos Mikodez, one of these characters, was patterned after manic phases which are #ownvoices for the author (although he also pinged as possibly ADHD to me and at least one other reader). He’s shown taking meds, relying on an aide and a double for support, and realistically needing these accommodations while also being brilliant and good at his job. A more monstrous character, Nirai Kujen, is… I don’t know how to talk about it without spoilers, but in “Revenant Gun” we learn much more about how Kujen came to be the way he is, and I found it very compelling because I have absolutely met people who would turn evil in that way if they could. Eeeeep.

Anyway, most of the book isn’t about this stuff, but about MAGIC SPACE BATTLES and revolutions and divided loyalties and cute robots, and it is really excellent. Machineries of Empire is one of my favorite sci-fi series, not just by autistic authors, but out of all the sci-fi series I have read ever. Go read it 😀

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics Statement: Yoon Ha Lee and I have had one very brief correspondence, which is described in the “Ninefox Gambit” review. We haven’t otherwise interacted.

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.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 46: Graveyard Sparrow

[ETA: At Kay Bashe’s request, I have added this note to mention that they are a non-neurotypical author. Kay is not autistic but has ADHD, anxiety, and nonverbal learning disability.]

[TW: One of the book excerpts quoted in this review contains a graphic description of violence.]

Today’s Book: “Graveyard Sparrow” by Kayla Bashe

The Plot: In a Regency setting, a non-neurotypical lady detective stumbles onto a string of serial murders – and falls in love with the witch who is helping her manage the side effects of her abilities.

Autistic Character(s): Katriona Sparrow, the aforementioned lady detective.

So, the “brilliant non-neurotypical detective” trope is… like… a thing. And I might have gone in with the wrong expectations based on the cover blurb, because I was intrigued anticipating what a queer disability activist like Bashe would do with a female version of, like, Bones or Sherlock or something. Instead:

“This is how: in a rain- and blood-slicked alleyway, last breath a gasp. I was so scared. He begins to cut off my arms while I am still alive. It is my punishment for not fighting back. I was not good enough. At last he lets me die. He then finishes cutting off my arms and removes my head and legs, and he sings while he works. Now I am dead and fabric-wrapped. This is his art.”

The stark impression of that final word stabbed into Katriona like shards of glass. Her hand felt burnt—a pure horrible heat that traveled up her arm and into her head—and as she sprang to her feet she cried out like a wounded animal.  Her head had been bad before, but now it was worse. The entire thought-babble of the city flooded into her, and she was caught and pulled apart in the vortex of a thousand minds.

So, Katriona isn’t a Sherlock who deduces things with logic; she’s a Will Graham who solves crimes with magic hyperempathy. This is, like, fine – they are both non-neurotypical detective tropes that deserve an intersectional feminist exploration – it just startled me a bit.

In fact, Katriona is pretty much literally Will Graham. Despite the gender flip and the Regency setting, once this book gets going it’s very obviously a “Hannibal” fix-it fic – right down to details like the artful food arrangements and the dogs. (Bashe doesn’t even try to keep it a secret who the Hannibal Lecter-equivalent character, and therefore the killer, is. That’s clear from the end of the first chapter, and the suspense comes mainly from worrying about what will happen in the interactions between him and Katriona. Which, to be fair, is still a lot of suspense.)

Anyway, Katriona is a well-written autistic character with agency, feelings, and interests. She has a believable, and believably impairing, range of autistic traits:

“I was the oddest child ever born. Sometimes I would start crying for no reason at all. I’d have tantrums that lasted hours, or I’d ignore people entirely. Even then, I could feel everything. It’s easier for me when I’m with small groups of people, and it got easier after I met Doctor Fuellore. He told my parents that it was all right for me to play by myself in the corner at parties and work with a tutor instead of going to school, and he made sure there were things in the house I could touch to calm myself down, like flowers and soft fabric and strings of beads.”

But her autistic traits are also depicted with nuance:

As much as Katriona hated large crowds in social settings, she was very good at holding court when it came to her work. All she had to do was look at a space just past everyone and talk about what she knew best. She was especially interested in death, and could therefore discuss it with anyone at any time.

In particular, one of my favorite details is how “Graveyard Sparrow” shows Katriona making a stereotypical autistic mistake – blurting things out bluntly and insensitively, in a way that hurts people – while also clearly showing that this isn’t due to Katriona being internally insensitive, or failing to care.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but…” He was gazing at her with impatience, with impassive judgment, and everything she had intended to say slipped out of her head, as if her mind was a bucket that someone had kicked a hole through. “She’s dead,” she blurted out. Tears pushed at her voice, and she smoothed her sleeves compulsively. “In an alleyway dressed up like the Mona Lisa. With a wig on.”

His expression turned bitter. “I’ve heard about you; pampered little brat. And even in this moment, you couldn’t show an ounce of sensitivity, could you? You have no place here.”

He was right. She wasn’t good with people. The more nervous she got, the more awkward she became, and when she was awkward it seemed like rudeness.

Anthea, Katriona’s love interest, is a witch who figures out that Katriona is experiencing debilitating symptoms because of sensory overload resulting mainly from her hyperempathy, and who takes on the role of a healer to teach her magical techniques for managing and being selective about her sensory input. That makes this the third story I’ve reviewed in which a magical mind-healer interacts with an autistic person without trying to cure their autism. It seems that this is a trope that interests authors, and apparently it’s also a trope I enjoy. Compared to Geometries of Belonging or A Rational Arrangement, the idea of a cure is touched on relatively lightly – which is fine, because in this context, it doesn’t need more than that. But it is touched on:

Katriona tried to smile, but ended up just examining her slippers and rubbing her arms. “You’re not going to make me exactly the same as everyone else, are you? I would hate that.”

“No, of course not. Well be working on mitigating the agoraphobia and anxiety caused by your inability to set up a psychic shield, not on whatever it is that makes you you. I wouldn’t want anyone to erase parts of my personality either.”

The fact that this is a romance between a healer and their patient means there is a potentially unethical power imbalance that has to be dealt with, and “Graveyard Sparrow” does touch on that issue, although not particularly deeply; I would have liked to see it a bit more developed in places.

“Graveyard Sparrow” is marketed as fighting back against the “beautiful dead girl” trope, and it does do that. Of course, people have been objecting to that trope for a long time, but it’s still a trope that shows up uncritically all over our media, so stories that fight it are still worthwhile, even when they’re not saying anything especially new. And in places, Bashe’s implicit critique is delightfully pointed:

“They had names.” She leaned in toward him. He didn’t flinch. “Laura. Jenny. Helena.”

A thin-lipped smile. “You shouldn’t criticize my art, Katriona. If you criticize art, it means that you merely do not understand it. I wish to help you understand, Little Bird. We must break you of this inclination toward censorship.”

What I found more novel and more compelling, though, was the way that this book subverts tropes on a disability axis. Where “Graveyard Sparrow” really departs from its source material is in the amount of care that Katriona receives. Will Graham is often treated as a magic crime solving device, and struggles alone. So are many other usefully psychic characters in spec fic, for that matter. Katriona gets a friend who understands what she is going through and why, who knows what kind of accommodations will help her to manage her unusual senses without erasing them, and who helps because she values Katriona’s well-being, not because she wants Katriona to do something for her. Katriona gets an arc where she moves from being controlled and sheltered “for her own good” by people who want to use her, to being given useful accommodations so that she can explore life as she wishes. This is the part of the book that really felt huge, subversive, and refreshing to me.

If you like Regency romance and aren’t scared off by the grisly serial killing, and if you don’t mind the sometimes rather blatant parallels to its source material, then “Graveyard Sparrow” is a book that is very much for you.

The Verdict: Recommended

Ethics Statement: I run into Kay Bashe on Twitter every once in a while, but I don’t think we’ve significantly interacted. I read their 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 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 8: Triggers

(First published Aug 10, 2013)

Today’s Book: “Triggers” by Robert J. Sawyer

The Plot: A PTSD therapy experiment goes haywire and causes people in Washington D.C., including the President, to share each other’s memories.

Autistic Character(s): Ivan Tarasov, a hospital security guard.

This isn’t the book I thought I would be reviewing after “The Damned Busters”, but it was in my Aurora Award voter packet, plus I have recently seen it on several other lists of autism-relevant books, because of Tarasov.

Ivan Tarasov is an adult Aspie man who has a job he likes (even though he would rather have gone into science, and might have been able to, had more supports been available for him in school) and also a wife and daughter. Yay! There’s no egregious autism fail in how he is written. There is a bit about picture thinking which seems to exaggerate the effects of this thinking style slightly, and which fails to point out that only some autistic people think in pictures, not everyone. (I don’t think in pictures, for instance.) But that’s forgiveable. Overall he’s as solid as Sawyer’s other characters.

The problem is that there are 51 (short) chapters in this book. Ivan Tarasov appears only in four of them, and never even for the whole chapter. He’s a very minor character. He has a small subplot which causes him to do a dramatic thing that affects other characters, and then he sort of stops being part of the story. So, if you’re looking for a book in which autistic people have lots of screen time, this isn’t it. On the other hand, if you want to see a book which strives to include the experiences of a large number of diverse people who happened to be in the same place at the same time, and in which neurodiversity is one small part of that diversity, then that’s exactly what Sawyer is doing. (The characters are also culturally and religiously diverse, among other things.) So, yay.

So, I’m not sure how to talk about this. I don’t want to imply that a book is bad just because the only autistic person in the book is a minor character. I mean, we exist, so we should logically be major characters in some stories and minor characters in others. It’s just that, if I am making a recommended reading list for people who are interested in autistic authors and characters, “Triggers” isn’t really very relevant.

(There are other things about the book that I liked, and other things about the book that I disliked. But I don’t want to get into that now.)

So I don’t know what to call this one. It isn’t, “Recommended”, it isn’t “Not Recommended”, it isn’t even “YMMV” – Tarasov gets the same amount of screen time no matter who’s reading. Can I call it “Irrelevant”? Except it isn’t completely irrelevant, it’s just not relevant enough. Or something. Suggestions are welcome.

(ETA: After a suggestion from David Lamb, I invented the verdict of Marginal for this book, and have since used the Marginal rating for several others as well.)

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

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. 😀

*

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]