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

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