Today’s Book: “The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon
The Plot: When scientists develop an experimental treatment that might cure autism in adults, a group of autistic adults working at a pharmaceutical company is pressured to undergo the treatment to keep their jobs.
Autistic Character(s): Lou Arrendale – the protagonist – along with his co-workers.
This is by far my most-requested review, and I’m embarrassed that it took me until now to get to. Whenever I say, “Hi, I’m Ada Hoffmann and I review speculative fiction with autistic characters,” someone always wants to know, “What did you think of The Speed of Dark?” And then I hem and haw, because I’ve Heard A Lot About It – Both Good And Bad – But Haven’t Read It. Now I’ve read it, so I’m actually qualified to have an opinion of my own. That’s a relief.
This book is, in my tiny corner of disability fandom, A Big Deal. Possibly The Biggest Deal. Some people loathe it. Some people adore it.
It’s also a cure decision story.
So. If you want to know why I don’t like cure decision stories, you should read that link. After reading “The Speed of Dark”, well, I still don’t like cure decision stories. (I’ll also note that some autistic people do want to be cured – I was reminded of this last fall at Can*Con. Not all autistic people have the same opinions as each other! The opinions stated here are, as always, my own.)
But there’s a lot more to say about “The Speed of Dark” besides “it’s a cure decision story”. Some of that is good, and some is bad.
Here’s the good first. “The Speed of Dark” is more nuanced than I was expecting. Specifically, it shows an awareness – which I hadn’t seen before in any other cure narrative – of the complicated power dynamics that go into discussions of cures. Here’s a quote from the first scene:
If they aren’t going to listen, why should I talk?
I know better than to say that out loud. Everything in my life that I value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say…
Dr. Fornum crisp and professional, raises an eyebrow and shakes her head not quite imperceptibly. Autistic persons do not understand these signals; the book sys so. I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand.
What I haven’t figured out yet is the range of things they don’t understand. The normals. The reals. The ones who have the degrees and sit behind the desks in comfortable chairs.
I know some of what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know that I can read. She thinks I’m hyperlexic, just parroting the words. The difference between what she calls parroting and what she does when she reads is imperceptible to me.
From the very beginning, Moon writes Lou as a character who is aware of much more than what “autism professionals” believe he should be aware of; who is aware, and critical, of the ableist attitudes that surround him; and who has learned to make compromises, as real autistic people do, in order to navigate that ableist world and survive.
That ableist world has an impact on the major decisions of the story. Lou and his co-workers are not asked politely if they would like to be cured. They are pushed towards a cure, through most of the book, by a deeply unlikeable, pointy-haired CEO who has decided that he will fire them if they choose to remain autistic – even though the job at which they work is specifically one that takes advantage of their autistic strengths in pattern recognition. (Lou is a patterns thinker, and it’s implied that his co-workers all are as well.) It’s a deeply unjust and rather terrifying situation, and also illegal, as many characters in many scenes point out. Doubly so because the “cure” is an experimental treatment, never tested on humans before. There’s no guarantee it will work. There’s no way to predict exactly how much and in what ways the characters will change if they go through with it.
Lou thinks and talks about the injustice of his situation – as he should. He’s deeply confused by it and unsure of what to do for most of the book, but he’s aware that this is something his company should not be doing, that it’s not fair to make him and his co-workers choose between invasive medical treatment and losing their jobs, that the people involved – regardless of what they might say – do not have his best interests at heart. This makes his ruminations about what to do a good deal more interesting than the ruminations of a typical cure decision story protagonist.
This brings us to one of the things I liked less about the book, which is the bizarre disparity in what kind of actions different characters can take against this injustice. Lou is aware that his situation is unfair; everybody in the situation is aware of this. But the people who get to react against it fully – the people who get to say, holy shit, this is fucked up and dangerous and illegal as hell, this is not okay, Lou, let me get you a lawyer – are not autistic. Invariably, for some reason, they’re Lou’s neurotypical friends.
I want to be careful how I say this. It’s not that Moon thinks neurotypicals are great. There are a lot of bad NTs, like the people who devised this experiment in the first place, and Lou’s boss, and Lou’s stalker (yes, there is a stalker subplot, which if nothing else is a welcome distraction from the cure decision). There are also NTs who mean well but are mostly ineffectual, such as Lou’s immediate supervisor (who frustrates me, and that’s all I’m going to say about that). There are also good NTs. This is fine. The good NTs are, without exception, able to stand up for Lou, to insist that what’s happening to him is wrong, and to offer concrete help. They’re never ableist by accident or oblivious to an ableist issue. They even, mysteriously, know more about neurodiversity issues than Lou does:
“Lou, you’ve been holding out on us. You’re a genius.”
“It may be a splinter skill,” I say. Tom’s expression scares me; if he thinks I am a genius maybe he will not want to let me fence with them.
“Splinter skill, hooey,” Luciea says. She sounds angry; I feel my stomach clenching. “Not you,” she says quickly. “But the whole concept of splinter skills is so… antiquated. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses; everybody fails to generalize many of the skills that they have.”
All of which would also be fine, except that the other autistic people in the story never get to have these traits. The autistic people in the story have a community where they genuinely interact, and they can be confused and upset at what’s happening to them, but that’s about as far as their self-advocacy (or their advocacy for each other) ever goes.
The only autistic person who consistently and emphatically says that she does not want a cure, that a cure is not okay, is a woman named Linda. Lou and Linda don’t particularly like each other. Linda’s beliefs about autistic community are so extreme that she actively discourages Lou from making any friends who aren’t developmentally disabled; he should “be with his own kind”. Linda’s friend Emmy, who is not autistic, but has an unspecified related disability, takes these beliefs even further, and takes to following Lou and harassing him because she heard that he has a crush on an NT woman. (Emmy is not the stalker in the stalker subplot, but it’s implied that she could be. I should note here that I’m sure people with these beliefs exist somewhere, but I’ve never encountered them, and I follow a lot of activist-type people who REALLY hate cures.)
Autistic people in “The Speed of Dark” can’t seem to advocate for themselves unless they are unlikeable extremists – and even then, their advocacy is not particularly effective. Yet several NT characters, even though it’s not clear how they learned anything about neurodiversity before knowing Lou, get to advocate for Lou perfectly.
People talk about White Saviors in fiction who somehow get to be better at solving POC’s problems than the POC themselves are. I’m tempted to call Lou’s friends Neurotypical Saviors, but that might be appropriative. Let’s just say that it does not reflect my experiences with autistic and NT people in real life.
Anyway, apart from having some neurotypical savior friends and wondering what to do about being pressured into a cure, Lou gets to do several other interesting things. He competes in a fencing tournament and does quite well! He deals with his stalker in what ends up being a satisfying manner. He has philosophical thoughts about physics. There’s a lot of material in here that’s actually pleasant to read, and Lou spends a lot of time learning and growing, finding that he can embrace change and do things he hadn’t thought he could do.
So what does the learned and grown Lou end up eventually doing about his cure decision? To talk about that, I’m afraid we will have to go behind the cut, because there are SPOILERS. Big ones. ENDING SPOILERS. Seriously – this is a book about which a LOT of people say, “I liked it except for the ending.” So to talk about what I really think of “The Speed of Dark”, I am going to have to tell you the /entire/ ending. In detail. You’ve been warned.