Autistic Book Party, Episode 75: Geometries of Belonging

Cover of the book "Geometries of Belonging" by RB Lemberg. The cover art depicts a stylized bird spreading its wings under a crescent moon.

Today’s Book: “Geometries of Belonging,” a short story collection by R.B. Lemberg

Autistic Character(s): The author – and more!

R.B. Lemberg’s Birdverse will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog. It’s an intricate fictional world that Lemberg has developed over many years with autistic fervor. Now there’s a whole collection focused solely on Birdverse short stories, novelettes, and poetry. I’ve given Recommended ratings to quite a few Birdverse stories before, all of which appear in this collection, as follows:

Short stories and Novelettes: The titular short story “Geometries of Belonging”; “The Book of How to Live”; “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar;” “A Splendid Goat Adventure”

Poetry: “I will show you a single treasure” [the title of this poem has been slightly altered as it appears in the collection]

(I have also reviewed the Birdverse novellas The Four Profound Weaves and A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power, and the novel The Unbalancing, which do not appear in the “Geometries” collection; although one poem, “Ranra’s Unabalancing,” describes many of The Unbalancing’s events.)

There are also many more stories and poems which are excellent, but which I simply did not review here. (Many autistic authors are quite prolific and, as a reviewer, my goal is not to comprehensively review all of their short work, even if I like it, but to sample a range of authors and review the short work I have something to say about.)

So it almost goes without saying that I also recommend this collection, which is full of the best Birdverse stories you may already know and a few obscure gems that you probably don’t.

There’s always been a sense of care and empathy in Lemberg’s stories, in which characters (often queer and/or disabled) are exquisitely human, flawed and worth loving; social power dynamics are thoughtfully examined; magic itself is entangled with the need to consider the individuality and consent of all beings. But there’s an aliveness that emerges from the placement of all of these works together which is greater than the sum of its parts. Birdverse isn’t the home of one set of protagonist characters, or one important country whose history progresses through the ages. It’s a rich tapestry in which all sorts of wildly different characters, in wildly different circumstances, interconnect. A magical tapestry is woven, passes through many hands as it makes its way to the greedy ruler who will buy it, and those hands in turn have their own stories, which are less about the tapestry and more about family, gender, and belonging. A nation of refugees flee a disaster, find a new home, make and break magical agreements with the land, and a thousand years later a new set of refugees comes to them on uneasy terms. Magical characters have absurd, light-hearted adventures in the pursuit of their research; magical characters struggle greatly and seriously with the weight of their responsibilities, and save the land from disaster, and have PTSD from their attempts to save the land; meanwhile non-magical characters face discrimination, in the face of one country’s magical snobbery, and agitate for institutional change. There is no one story and that’s the point. Everyone is alive, everyone is connected, and everyone is human.

There are autistic characters in several stories, although it’s not the focus of the collection. The title story in particular is a lovely tale of autism, consent, and healing without curing; you can read more of my thoughts about it at the link above.

Anyway I quite like this book; Birdverse fans would do well to pick it up and complete their collections.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Bolts of Inspiration

A small aside in “Such Stuff as Dreams” made me think of one little thing that always annoys me in spec fic. It’s when an author wants their protagonist to make some important scientific discovery, but they don’t really understand how discovery works.

You might think this is a sci-fi problem, but I often see it even more blatantly in fantasy about pre-modern societies. In sci-fi the science is often a bit silly (and a bit of silliness can be on-brand and forgivable!) But there’s at least an intuitive understanding in sci-fi that doing science involves having a laboratory and trying some experiments or something, and that there needs to be some build-up and explanation, because it’s something that we in the modern real world won’t understand until the characters do.

(Read more on Substack)

Forward and Backward Chaining

I’ve been reading Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction by Keith Oatley, which is a bit dense but absolutely relevant to my interests and to the topic of this newsletter. Oatley talks about fiction as a kind of dream, a kind of play, a way that we explore ideas by seeing how they might play out, maybe in a world that closely resembles this one or maybe in a world conspicuously different from ours, one that highlights the idea in question by abstracting it into fantastical forms. (Some scientific research into fiction is very anti-genre-fiction, often in knee-jerk, unconsidered ways, and while Oatley seems unimpressed with certain kinds of genre fiction, he also starts right out talking about fantasy classics like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he approvingly discusses the way that the love potion in that play casts old questions about love into a new light by defamiliarizing them – so I would certainly say he is not anti-speculative-fiction across the board.)

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 74: The Luminous Dead

Cover of "The Luminous Dead" by Caitlin Starling. The title appears on yellow letters on a dark blue background, above a picture of a globed hand desperately grabbing at a rock.

Today’s Book: “The Luminous Dead” by Caitlin Starling

The Plot: Gyre is a cave explorer on an alien planet, where cavers have to go to extreme lengths and wear specially modified suits to hide the signs of their biological presence from a monster called the Tunneller. They’re guided by controllers at the surface who can remotely communicate with them and modify the suit’s workings from a distance if necessary. But as Gyre gets deeper and deeper into the cave, her controller, Em, is beginning to seem increasingly untrustworthy…

Autistic Character(s): The author!

When I first read this book a few years ago, Starling wasn’t publicly out as autistic, but she has since begun to discuss it publicly while promoting her second novel, The Death of Jane Lawrence. That’s a book I’m looking forward to reading but haven’t gotten to yet – so in the meantime, I thought I’d tell you all about how I loved The Luminous Dead instead.

This is a very creepy book!! Caving is creepy!! The level of physical control Em has over Gyre, as well as emotional control thanks to Gyre’s sheer isolation – alone in the darkness for weeks on end with only Em to talk to – is also creepy! It’s a sci-fi horror and Starling knows how to milk the creep factor for all it’s worth. You can expect underwater scenes, malfunctioning and missing equipment, injuries sustained when there’s no one to come fix them, involuntary drugging, betrayal, manipulation, and growing uncertainty about what is and isn’t even real down here. As well as the Tunneller itself, a constant ominous lurking presence. I found myself turning the pages compulsively out of a sheer dread-fueled need to see what happened next, finishing the book almost faster than I could help myself.

The heart of the book, though, is the dynamic between Gyre and Em – a sort of constantly shifting, mutually mistrusting trauma-bond that never quite settles into easily digestible shape. It’s also queer. (I remember Starling quipping on social media, somewhere, that this was a book for people who had a crush on GLaDoS.) Em manipulates Gyre in ways that can’t be met with something as simple as forgiveness – especially when Gyre is still down there in the cave, under her control. As her secrets begin to come out, they serve both to humanize her and to underscore the monstrousness of the things she’s done before and is willing to do again. Yet it could just be that, if Gyre wants to survive and Em wants what she’s looking for down in the caves, they might just have to treat themselves as being on the same side – and to find some scrap of empathy for each other, somewhere.

Anyway, if you like creepy books and caves then you should check this one out. That’s all I have to say.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Autistic Book Stats

A mutual on Twitter recently shared an experience they’d had in real life: in a discussion of neurodiversity in SFF, when asked to think of autistic characters who weren’t cis white men, none of the hosts could think of any.

(Read the full post on Substack)

THE OUTSIDE’s query letter

Since I’ve handed in the copy edits to THE INFINITE – and since there’s been talk about the querying process going around on Twitter – I thought I’d share with you a copy of the query letter that got me an agent, and eventually a midsize publisher, for the first book in the series.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Healthy Connections

As you go through your life you will meet people. There will be people and groups who drain your energy to be around, who you grit your teeth and force yourself to be nice to because that’s how Social Interaction is supposed to work. And there will be people and groups who genuinely fill you back up. You’ll sit with them and experience their presence and you’ll glow. You’ll feel better afterwards than you did before. You’ll feel included. You’ll feel seen. You’ll feel fulfilled.

This is true for everyone, but as autistic people we can forget that it is true for us.

(See the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 73: The Timematician

Cover of the book "The Timematician" by Steven Bereznai. A pink skinned robot woman and a man in a face-concealing leather hood pose together above a stylized graphic of a watch.

Today’s Book: “The Timematician: A Gen M Novel” by Steven Bereznai

The Plot: Doctor BetterThan, a genius supervillain who can manipulate time, uses his powers to wipe out all life on earth. Then he has to deal with the consequences – including a mysterious robot woman who seems determined to undo his work.

Autistic Character(s): Doctor BetterThan himself – and the author.

I find that I struggle to review comedies. I’ve done it before (see, for example, “The Damned Busters“) but it always throws me off my game. Normally we don’t want autistic traits to be exaggerated and played for laughs. So what happens in a genre where everything is exaggerated and played for laughs? You have to just suspend your disbelief and go with it.

“The Timematician” is not only a comedy about an autistic person – it’s about an autistic villain, who’s not only played for laughs but is also manifestly a terrible person. Obviously I don’t mind autistic villains or unlikeable characters – I’ve written them myself – but as a reviewer it introduces an additional level of wow-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-this-book.

What I’m saying is that I picked up “The Timematician” feeling curious, but very dubious and unsure if it would ever win me over.

To my surprise, it mostly did.

It helps that Bereznai’s narrative voice is really engaging. Picture the most gleefully cheesy supervillain monologue you’ve ever heard, and that’s your narrator. Everything feels brightly-colored, vivid and quick-moving in the best comic book tradition.

Doctor BetterThan’s autism informs his character deeply (he also has a physical disability). It influences the devices he’s created, including a “social-ometer” that helps him to decode neurotypical characters’ intentions. It also, even more interestingly, affects his style of villainy:

Growing up, I thought that throwing in bits of fancy talk would give me a rougish quality my classmates would ooh and aah over. As with the application of many skills in the spheres of adolescent sociability, I miscalculated. No one understood me or even tried – which prepared me well for adulthood.
“The fools of this world had no use for me,” I say aloud, “well, the feeling is mutual.”
Genetrix bleeps in a womp-womp way.
“Genetrix,” I chide, “sarcasm is the refuge of the inferior.”
I know she’s being sarcastic – a deplorable and cruel form of irony that’s somehow crept into her code – because an inverted question mark pluses on her face. Genetrix bleeps in response.
“Well, people should like know-it-alls,” I answer, “because we know it all.”

The genius villain who feels that no one appreciates their genius is not a new trope; it’s a staple of superhero fiction, and it’s probably always autistic-coded (or at least non-neurotypical-coded) to a degree. But Bereznai brings that connection to the foreground and, by doing so, arguably makes it more interesting. There were a lot of points in the book where I had to stop and think – not because autism changes any of the ethical considerations of being a supervillain, but simply because I recognized the type of person Doctor BetterThan is. We’ve all known autistic people, men in particular, who respond to the pain of ableist social ostracization by retreating into a fragile, narcissistic self-concept – into the idea that because of their intelligence alone, they’re superior to the people who have hurt them.

By foregrounding autism and slotting it into the familiar structure of a supervillain’s grandiosity, Bereznai accomplishes several things. He shows how absurd and unhelpful this kind of superiority complex really is, how instantly familiar it feels even in the absurd, exaggerated setting of a supervillain comedy, how fragile it is and how it’s always on the verge of falling apart – but also how real and visceral and familiar the pain is that lurks underneath it.

In men, this type of complex often comes with a helping of misogyny and a feeling of entitlement to female attention – and that’s a part of Doctor BetterThan’s character, too. I’m not always quite sure what I think of the dynamic between him and his rival supervillain, Mairī Lin. There’s a trope of misogynist man gets redeemed because a cute girl paid attention to him which I’m not super-fond of, and “The Timematician” sometimes veers a little too close to that for my liking. But there’s also an ambiguity about whether that’s what’s really going on, even at the end; and the super-powered back-and-forth between the characters – full of flirting one moment and double-crossing the next, quick-growing crystals, and armies of color-coded, squabbling robots – was enjoyable enough to keep me engaged.

(Admittedly, I’m more willing to have patience with tropes like these from an author who, like Bereznai, is openly queer. And there’s a queer undertone to Doctor BetterThan despite the m/f romance; his most treasured childhood memory, for instance, is an opera aria that he once performed in drag.)

Anyway, this whole book is really goofy and also a surprisingly fun ride. If you have dreamed of grandiose autistic villainy in a brightly colored comic book world, then you should check it out.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

There Is No Single Story That Will Do The Work

Sometimes when writer social media starts going back and forth about what kind of stories are best – dark edgy ones, or hopeful gentle ones; stories that sound the alarm about a social problem, stories that offer a solution, or stories that help us to forget our problems entirely – I start wondering if we’ve forgotten Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s classic talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 72: Submergence

Today’s Book: “Submergence,” a novella by Arula Ratnakar, available in Clarkesworld

The Plot: When a marine biologist named Noor dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, a woman named Nithya volunteers to play back and experience her memories. What Nithya uncovers will not only illuminate the circumstances of Noor’s death, but a revelation about the bizarre organisms Noor was studying and a much larger conspiracy.

Autistic Character(s): The author!

“Submergence” is a work I can’t say too much about, since so much depends on watching events unfold and unravelling the mystery, but it’s a fascinating work of near-future hard science fiction that combines cutting-edge biology, neuroscience, alternative communication, and a sweetly odd queer romance – or possibly two.

At the heart of the mystery is an unusual species of sponge, P. meyeri, that can be used to create tailor-made cures to a variety of diseases – but that also reacts strongly and negatively to any intrusion. P. meyeri is even more special than it appears, and the most memorable part of the novella is the sheer sense of detail and wonder as Noor explores it in its natural habitat:

An intricate, coordinated display of flashing light is taking place throughout the chamber, in a beautiful recursive pattern revolving around one of the sponges, far more complex than any temple carving, any rose window, any generative design she’s seen. The sponge releases its larvae, and then a different beautiful light display centering on another sponge begins as that sponge starts to release its larvae. Using the scanner, Noor finds more of those microscopic shrimp fused to the exteriors of the sponges, somehow being controlled. She steels her churning stomach and holds back her revulsion regarding what she’s about to do.

 

The neuroscience of what Nithya is doing is explored in as much detail as the marine biology. Immersively experiencing someone else’s memories has an effect on her sense of identity, as she begins to absorb Noor’s beliefs, attachments, and feelings and integrate them into her own. Nithya and other characters do a lot of introspection about what this means, whether it’s okay, but Nithya is a protagonist who’s refreshingly excited and curious about the process; horror at losing herself isn’t a primary emotion for her.

“Submergence” also does intriguing things with the nameless youth movement that Noor’s daughter belongs to. Reminiscent of today’s youth protests against climate change, but more extreme, children who have joined the movement refuse to speak or show facial expressions until their climate demands have been met. They still go to school, go about their days, and communicate using text, but it is all done silently and expressionlessly.

From an autistic author, a youth movement like this feels like an especially clever invention. You can turn over any rock and find autism parents talking in tones of horror about how awful it is to have a child who won’t speak or won’t smile at them. Why not weaponize that horror for the greater good? (Ratnakar shows a range of parent responses to this movement, but she doesn’t show any children being very badly mistreated, and Noor is supportive of her daughter’s choices despite some misgivings.)

The ending feels a little bit rushed to me, with all sorts of grave difficulties and complex dilemmas just suddenly working out in the protagonists’ favor. But it’s a happy ending; and “Submergence” is worth the price of admission even just for its beginning and middle, where we slowly explore the intricate scientific puzzle that Ratnakar has laid out, and the beautiful, intriguing mystery of P. meyeri.

The Verdict: Recommended-2