Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 1: Blind Lake

(This review was first published on December 12, 2012. It has been given minor edits for clarity and style.)

Today’s Book: “Blind Lake” by Robert Charles Wilson.

The Plot: Scientists are using a super powerful quantum computer to look at aliens on another planet. Then suddenly their town is put under quarantine for reasons that are not explained to them, the aliens begin behaving strangely, and everyone has to figure out what’s going on.

Autistic Character(s): Tess Hauser, an eleven-year-old girl.

Tess isn’t a protagonist (the protagonists are her mother Marguerite and a science journalist named Chris), but she is one of an ensemble of viewpoint characters and plays an important role in the plot. She is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome several years before the story begins, and while there are a number of therapies in her past – including medication – Marguerite has come to accept her autism simply as a personality type.

Marguerite is a realistic portrayal of a well-meaning NT parent. She is long past the point of trying to “fix” Tess, but it is still painfully obvious to her when Tess is less communicative than other children, or when she has trouble making friends. Marguerite and Tess have recently moved to a new city when the story begins, and Marguerite worries a lot about how Tess will do at her new school – at least until the plot throws bigger problems at both of them.

But Marguerite’s view of Tess isn’t the only one we get. We see plenty of scenes through Tess’s eyes, and Tess wastes little time thinking about her differences from other children. Instead, when reading from Tess’s POV, we see how intelligent she is, and how easily she is captivated by weather, nature, and symmetry. Tess is uncommunicative, not because she has no opinions, but because she is constantly lost in thought about things the other characters aren’t thinking about. Wilson shows us these thoughts appealingly and convincingly without ever putting too fine a point on how they differ from the thoughts of the adults. This is a very tricky point, and one that you can’t get right just by looking at the DSM, but Wilson, in my view, gets it right.

We also see Tess through the eyes of other adults who don’t worry about her as much as Marguerite does. Her father doesn’t think about her autism much at all (though he is the villain, and his attitude to Tess is mostly possessive). Meanwhile, Chris befriends Tess and accepts her immediately; in fact, Tess reminds him of his own younger sister.

But there’s one more point about Tess that I need to bring up before giving her the “cluefully written Aspie character” stamp, and that is the fact that Tess sees things other characters don’t believe in. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about this without EXTREMELY MAJOR SPOILERS, so follow me under the cutĀ if you dare!

Oh, good, you made it. So, the other thing about Tess that needs discussion is the fact that she has a Not So Imaginary Friend named Mirror Girl who pesters her with childish questions about the world. What’s actually going on is that Tess is in telepathic contact with the local super powerful quantum computer, which needs contact with someone like her in order to figure out how humans work. But, predictably, everyone spends most of the book convinced that Tess is hallucinating, and Marguerite spends lots of time worrying about what that means.

It’s really important to talk about disabled characters with special powers, and I don’t think this is the last time I’ll talk about it here. There is SO much danger of falling into Magical Cripple territory. Either the disabled character needs to do something magical to “compensate” for their disability (bleah) or a magical character needs to be disabled to “compensate” for the magic (double bleah) or they weren’t “really” disabled because it was just magic with strangely disability-like side effects all along. Or… Well, let’s just say there are a LOT of potential pitfalls, and it makes me nervous.

I’m actually very interested in autistic characters with magical powers if they are done right. If some people in your story are going to have magical powers, it stands to reason that some of those people will also have disabilities (including autism). Just, you know, statistically. And I’m interested in those characters! I’ve even tried to write them myself. It’s just that you have to do it without saying anything insulting either about disability/autism or about magical powers, and that’s a big job.

So imagine my surprise when I read the whole thing and find out that, IMO at least, Wilson hasn’t screwed this up. Tess happens to be autistic; she happens to be the one Mirror Girl chooses to talk to. It’s explicitly stated (twice!) that this could have been anyone, but it had to be someone, and it happened to be Tess. When the plot really starts to thicken, other people start encountering Mirror Girl (and other magical stuff) too; Tess just happens to be the first one. Nobody is Super Inspired or Super Pitying either about Tess’s autism or her magical experiences, and they are not the final word on who she is as a person; they are just part of the story. At the end she survives and goes on with her life just like any of the other characters.

Phew. Okay, so much for that.

While we’re in EXTREMELY MAJOR SPOILER territory, though, I also wanted to mention one thing that did bother me.

Near the end of the story, Tess witnesses her father’s suicide.

And then… Nope. We don’t hear about the emotional consequences. Granted, her father is the villain, and this takes place at a super magical part of the story. Given the context and manner of death, it’s possible he only vanished into another dimension – which is how Tess chooses to interpret it. But STILL. After this point, we don’t get anything from Tess’s point of view. Wilson goes out of his way, in the epilogue, to give us Tess’s final thoughts on Mirror Girl. But as for her feelings about her father, all we get is a couple of lines of dialogue between Marguerite and Chris while Tess isn’t in the room. Like three vaguely reassuring sentences. As someone who was reading for Tess in the first place, I found this seriously disappointing. It’s like Wilson was doing really well, but then he was like “oh crap, I have to wrap this story up really fast” and forgot to pay his normal amount of attention to her.

Aside from that misstep at the end, Wilson seems to have done his homework. He respects Tess as a person and is pretty clueful about her internal experience. She’s not a protagonist, but she gets a lot of screen time, and she felt real to me – which, with autistic characters, is rarer than you might think.

The Verdict: Recommended

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