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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

Autistic Book Party, Episode 15: Kea’s Flight

(Pay no attention to the five-and-a-half-month hiatus between Book Party posts. We have had some technical brain difficulties but there is TOTALLY still a Book Party going on in here.)

Today’s Book: “Kea’s Flight” by Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker

The Plot: On a future, theocratic Earth, abortion is banned, but nobody wants disabled children – so the unwanted embryos are sent away to be raised in exile on spaceships. As the disabled children grow up, they band together to take control of their own fates.

Autistic Character(s): Karen Irene “Kea” Anderson, the book’s protagonist; Zachary “Draz” Drazil, her best friend and love interest; and a variety of other minor characters. Many characters are non-neurotypical in other ways as well.

So, after “This Alien Shore“, I was intensely curious to see what an autistic author’s vision of a non-neurotypical society would be. So I snapped up Hammerschmidt and Ricker’s book, which does exactly that.

One thing that’s clear right away: “Kea’s Flight” is a dystopia. The disabled children, or “rems”, on the Flying Dustbin – as Kea’s spaceship is informally named – are allowed very little in the way of autonomy or self-determination. Instead, they are cared for by robots and NT workers, who govern everything according to arbitrary, oversimplified, and totalitarian rules. Any questioning of the rules, pointing out inconsistencies in the rules, or reporting of the multiple harms done by their oversimplified nature is met with a condescending lecture at best, or with removal to an isolation room. No distinction is made between critical thought and active disobedience, and no disobedience is permitted.

To people who were raised with certain forms of disability interventions, this will all be very familiar. Indeed, parts of the book may be emotionally difficult to read.

Friedman, in “This Alien Shore”, assumes that non-neurotypical people somehow built a society to their liking, and hand-waves the details. In contrast, Hammerschmidt and Ricker dive right into the oppression and neglect that they know about, and extrapolate it into the future.

Fortunately, Kea is a plucky protagonist who grabs on to agency in any way she can. Early in the book, she devises a secret way of communicating with her friends. And as more friends and co-conspirators are added to Kea’s circle, they quickly find themselves embroiled in issues affecting the whole ship – including mysterious hackers, malfunctions, and eventually questions about the destiny of the Dustbin itself.

The non-neurotypical characters are well-drawn, with an appealing variety of talents, personalities, and challenges. It’s pleasant to watch them working together, complementing each other’s strengths, and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. (There’s also some reasonably good intersectional content; in particular, the characters turn out to be of a variety of sexual orientations, including asexuality.) Some of the NT characters come off as shallower, and I could have done without some of the scenes from the main villain’s point of view, but that’s rightly not where the book puts its focus. And while the plot occasionally wavers, it builds to a genuinely exciting finish.

There are also one or two interesting, neurodiversity-related flaws here – or at least, traits that come off as flaws at first glance.

First, there is the issue of didacticism. A number of reviewers on Amazon mention that the book seems to lecture the reader at times, or to be preachy. What’s really going on here is that Hammerschmidt and Ricker’s characters are eager to share information and opinions on whatever interests them – including autism, and the value of autistic people’s lives. For characters raised in a place like the Flying Dustbin, all such opinions are hard-won and exciting.

At first the frequent discussions of autism, language, and other topics feels like infodumping. Gradually, though, one learns that it’s really much more than that. Sharing information is not a “dump”, but a meaningful activity; it’s how the characters communicate, how they bond, even how they soothe themselves at tense moments. It makes perfect sense for a book full of autistic people to contain such information. So if any reader feels preached at or confused by digressions, I would strongly advise them to stick with the book anyway, and to see what they can learn.

The second, more serious issue is inconsistency with regards to – and I wish I had a better word for this – functioning levels. Hammerschmidt’s characters can all speak aloud (even though one of them frequently forgets certain words) and perform the activities of daily living without assistance. Kea notes several times  that not all the people on the Flying Dustbin can do these things – but she never quite takes the next step into introducing these more-impaired people as characters in any meaningful way, or exploring what their lives are like, or whether it would be worth inviting some of them into her circle of friends. According to the narration, some of the more-impaired people are still frozen as embryos, to be raised when the Dustbin reaches its destination – but others are already alive and exist in the same space as Kea, and are ignored.

Kea and her friends seem to only intermittently remember that these people exist. At one cringe-inducing moment, one of Kea’s friends describes her as “the most autistic geek of all the rems on this ship – besides Draz, and maybe some of the embryos that are still frozen”. Yet only a few paragraphs later, she says, “I’m not severe autism, just Asperger’s.” Huh?!

Later – at the end of the story, when Kea’s friends have taken over the ship – they discuss how to care for their more severely disabled shipmates. Some good ideas are raised – but the idea of ASKING those shipmates about their needs, or of involving them in the decision-making process at all, is somehow not one of them.

I wish I could say this was a small flaw. It is not. It is a very big flaw. If you’re trying to do disability rights, that needs to mean rights for ALL of us – not just the shiny Aspies. (And I say that as a pretty stereotypically shiny Aspie myself!) And in a setting like the Flying Dustbin – in which the whole point is that all sorts of developmentally disabled people are together, and that they’re together precisely because the NTs on Earth didn’t want them – that goes, like, quintuple.

(And then I start to wonder how the story would have gone if it had been written by Meda Kahn…)

(But, then, we can’t all be Meda.)

Still, when talking about herself and her own experiences, Kea’s observations are often poignant and insightful:

Their rationale for treating us like children was that we acted like children. Of course we did— what choice did we have? Were there any responsible, adult activities to do in this garbage can? Go to work and pay bills? Not applicable. Care for those younger than us? There weren’t any. Marriage and sex? Forbidden. We acted like children because we were treated like children. We acted like children because the role of children was the only role available to us.

And when it comes to putting all sorts of disabled people together and centering their everyday experience, Hammerschmidt and Ricker are the first SF authors I’ve come across who even tried. That’s valuable, and much of the way in which they do it is valuable, even if there is a big, problematic hole in the middle.

Furthermore, by the standards I usually use in reviewing these books, “Kea’s Flight” passes handily. There are autistic characters. They get stuff to do. They’re treated as real people, portrayed with nuance and sensitivity, not reduced to their differences or comically exaggerated. They get to be protagonists, they talk to each other, they form strong and devoted friendships, and in the end they work together to save the day. This is good and worthy stuff, and it’s good stuff that comes authentically out of real-life neurodivergent experience.

So, yeah, in spite of everything, I’m gonna say “go read it”.

The Verdict: Recommended

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

Autistic Book Party, Episode 14: This Alien Shore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just…

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

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

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

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

The Verdict: Recommended

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

Short Story Spotlight: “Twelve Seconds”

The Story: Tina Gower, “Twelve Seconds”, Writers of the Future 2013 (read in this year’s Campbellian anthology, which is free until Hugo voting closes)

Like “Touch of Tides,” this is a short story that I need to go on at length about in order to explain why it’s cool. It’s a clever subversion of the cure decision story, though one doesn’t find that out until a good ways in.

(Yes, there are going to be moderate spoilers here; I can’t figure out how to avoid it. I will try to avoid spoiling the ending.)

Before I read “Twelve Seconds,” I didn’t think the cure decision story could be subverted. Whether or not the protagonist decides to be cured, a cure decision story still revolves around handwringing over whether or not autistic people should be allowed to exist. How do you subvert all the problems with that, short of avoiding it altogether?

“Twelve Seconds” has an autistic protagonist, an older man named Howard working at a police station, who is conflicted about his autism sometimes wishes he could be NT. Meanwhile, some doctors elsewhere in the storyworld are working on a cure for autism which will soon be available.

However, the story does not revolve around Howard deciding whether or not to be cured. The cure isn’t even mentioned until partway through the story, when Howard is already working on some apparently-unrelated problems; so when someone mentions it to him, he brushes them off and goes back to what he was doing. Even though Howard fits the “typical cure decision story protagonist” profile, he does not find the idea of a cure interesting, and does not spend nearly as much time thinking about it as the NTs in his life seem to think.
This in itself is an important subversion, but there is more.

The cure doctors do, of course, become relevant to the plot – but not in the usual way. Howard’s main problem, throughout the story, is to investigate a problem with some of the data he has received in his job at the police station. The more Howard finds out about this problem, the more closely these doctors appear to be embroiled in it. They’re relevant, not because Howard is autistic and needs them, but because they’re part of the plot.

The cure in question doesn’t only work for autism. It involves radical neurological rewriting, so it is also touted as a cure for several other conditions – including PTSD. It is a traumatized co-worker, not Howard, who is most interested in these doctors and in being cured. (Which is understandable to me; I’m fairly sure that, unlike autism, most people with PTSD would like to be cured.)

Also, the cure technology is situated within a larger landscape of interventions available to people like Howard. These interventions have benefits and drawbacks, just as therapies for autistic people can have benefits and drawbacks in real life. Howard, for example, uses Augmented Reality goggles to mediate his sensory input. These goggles help with overload and prevent meltdowns, but they also provide intrusive commentary on Howard’s actions, shaming him for harmless behaviours which happen not to be what NTs expect, and they dampen the pattern-matching abilities which make Howard so good at his job in the first place. Moreover, Howard’s use of the goggles is sometimes coerced; wearing them in certain situations, for instance, is a condition of his employment.

Gower is not Meda Kahn, and her story is not polemic. She does not spell out how the problems with Howard’s goggles relate to ableism and social power. However, she shows the problems quite clearly, shows us how Howard’s insecurities develop around them, and allows us to draw our own conclusions. The result is a story which is sometimes uncomfortable to read, especially when one doesn’t know if it will turn out all right in the end, but worth reading.

And I said I wouldn’t spoil the ending, but just so we’re clear: in the end, Howard is not cured. The doctors with the cures are very definitely not good guys, and they don’t win. And the brief characterization given to the doctors, though they do not get much direct screen time, will have many autistic readers wincing and nodding in recognition.

The Verdict: Recommended