(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.