Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 2: A Deepness in the Sky

(This review was first published Jan 27, 2013. It has received minor edits for clarity and style.)

Today’s Book: “A Deepness in the Sky” by Vernor Vinge.

The Plot: Two rival groups of humans find intelligent life, and other seemingly impossible things, orbiting a variable star.

Autistic Character(s): Technically, the only autistic character is an alien named Brent Underhill. But before we talk about Brent, we need to talk about some other things.

As mentioned, Vinge’s plot revolves around two groups of humans: the Qeng Ho and the Emergents. The Qeng Ho are merchants; the Emergents are slavers. The Qeng Ho are good guys; the Emergents are bad guys. Both groups have fully staffed interstellar space crews, so between them and the aliens, there are Lots And Lots Of Characters. So I spent the first few chapters kind of checking everyone out. “Could she be autistic? Nah… Not really. Could he be autistic? Maybe, but I don’t think so…”

Then I came across this passage, at a juncture where the Emergents have just killed a lot of Qeng Ho. Ezr Vinh, a Qeng Ho, talks to Anne Reynolt, one of the highest-ranking Emergents:

At first, Ezr thought Reynolt was fighting a proper sense of shame: she hardly ever looked him directly in the eye. But gradually he realized that looking at his face was no more interesting to her than studying a bulkhead. She didn’t see him as a person; she didn’t care a jot for the dead.

Oh, I thought. Okay. There’s my autistic character.

It’s true that most autistic people don’t look others in the eye as much as NTs do. NTs tend to find this very striking. (Some autistic people look others in the eye too much, which NTs find striking in a different way. Either way, it’s one of those social cues we rarely get right.) Eye tracking studies show that, while NTs fixate on other people’s eyes, autistic people tend to look all around the room at everything. Including bulkheads. When we do look at people, we’re more likely to look at their mouths than their eyes. Anne Reynolt (as Vinge says elsewhere) looks more at Ezr’s mouth than his eyes, too. She also has an assortment of other stereotypical autistic traits, which I won’t get into quite yet.

“She didn’t see him as a person” needs some unpacking, of course. This kind of coldness is very typical of fictional Aspies on TV. It results from writers confusing cognitive empathy with affective empathy, as I explain in this post. In real life, when an autistic person doesn’t look you in the eye, it could be for a lot of reasons. Maybe they don’t care about you (this is not as common as it is on TV, but it happens). Maybe they are paying attention, but do not find it useful to look at your eyes. (We often aren’t able to pick up emotional nuances from eye contact the way NTs do.) Maybe they’ve gotten in trouble for staring at people in the past and don’t want to offend you. Maybe they’ve simply forgotten that eye contact is expected of them, or are unaware that they’re making less of it than expected. Or maybe eye contact feels intrusive and overwhelming to them, and they don’t want to. So, “she didn’t see him as a person” is a bit of a jump to conclusions – though, within the story, it happens to be correct.

Anyway. Reading this paragraph, I thought I had this book figured out. Reynolt was autistic and a villain; her autistic traits would be used to accentuate her villainy; end of story.

As it turns out, I was dead wrong.

Before I say more about Anne Reynolt, let me talk a little about Focus. The Emergents, as I mentioned, are slavers, and they keep their slaves in line through a form of virus-based mind control called Focus. When a person is Focused, they become intently, obsessively interested in a topic. Within that topic, which can be anything from repeated database queries to high art or theoretical physics, Focused people will willingly work without stopping. They pay no attention to their personal comfort, social cues, hygiene, people who love them – or even an ongoing medical problem. They are not mindless nor emotionless. They are capable of creativity and nuance in their work, and form strong opinions about it, even getting in physical fights with other Focused who disagree. Preventing them from working makes them anxious and uncontrollable. But everything and everyone outside of their topic is simply irrelevant to them.

Now, what does this description of Focus remind you of? Raise your hand if you said “an autistic person in a fit of excitement about one of their special interests.”

Anybody? No? Is that just me?

To be fair, a lot of the worst parts of being Focused have nothing to do with autism. The Emergents treat most of the Focused badly, but even with the kindest owner, a Focused person is neurologically unstable and must be frequently “retuned” to avoid psychosis. Plus, Focus is more or less permanent. It can be reversed, but that’s a complex procedure with potentially severe side effects. So there’s no chance of, say, being Focused eight hours a day and then having the evening off for self-care and relationships (and getting paid – which I think would actually be a pretty sweet deal. Imagine never being bored or distracted from your work!) Plus, most of the characters who are Focused did not consent to it. Please don’t think I’m trying to argue in favor of Focus or the Emergents. As it’s presented in-universe, Focus sucks.

Still, there’s something strange about the rhetoric others use to describe the Focused. They’re “zombies”. They’re “dead inside”. They’re “less than animals, like – like machine parts”. And while the most hurtful name-calling comes from Emergents, the Qeng Ho say this stuff too. (The Wikipedia plot summary refers to Focused people as “brilliant appliances”, so I guess readers are responding that way, too.) And this is strange to me, because the Focused are not zombies or machines – they are conscious and clever and still capable of experiencing some very strong feelings. It’s just that their meaningful experience is restricted to one topic.

On top of this, Vinge seems to go out of his way to give Focused people autistic traits even when those traits have nothing to do with narrow/specialized interests. They’re brusque and literal! They miss sarcasm! They don’t make eye contact! Vinge won’t shut up about eye contact, seriously.

And while Vinge never uses the word “autism”, witness this bit of dialogue:

“But you know about really creative people, the artists who end up in your history books? As often as not, they’re some poor dweeb who doesn’t have a life. He or she is just totally fixated on learning everything about some single topic. A sane person couldn’t justify losing friends and family to concentrate so hard. Of course, the payoff is that the dweeb may find things or make things that are totally unexpected. See, in that way a little of Focus has always been part of the human race.”

This comes out of an Emergent character’s mouth, so words like “dweeb” shouldn’t be taken as reflections of Vinge’s opinion. But it’s clear that the resemblance to autism isn’t accidental. I’m not reading autism into a place where it wasn’t intended. Vinge didn’t stumble onto these traits by accident (which might be plausible for an author in 1999, when autism wasn’t on All The TV Shows yet). He knows that Focus is an exaggeration and distortion of the traits of real people.

So much for Focus. Now, back to Anne Reynolt. As it turns out, Reynolt isn’t autistic! Instead, she herself is Focused. Normally, it’s impossible to Focus someone on leadership. But Reynolt is special, and while she lacks traditional social skills, she’s the best there is at managing other Focused people.

Now for Brent Underhill. Brent is an alien, the son of a brilliant scientist named Sherkaner Underhill. Sherkaner is eccentric (I might classify him as close to the spectrum, like many scientists) and cheerfully indifferent to people’s expectations. To the shock of many other aliens, he and his wife have children “out of phase”.

It would take a while to explain what “out of phase” means and why the aliens find it shocking. But, among other things, the aliens believe that out-of-phase children are likely to be disabled. (Cue a montage of ableism in which aliens wring their hands about Sherkaner’s children being “monstrous”, “deformed”, etc.) Conveniently for Sherkaner, though, only one of his children is disabled. (Cue some wince-inducing dialogue, which boils down to, “See, I didn’t have that many disabled children! And they’re not that disabled!”)

Brent’s disability isn’t named, but it resembles autism so strongly that I’m comfortable calling it that even though he’s an alien. Brent, like Sherkaner’s other children, is highly intelligent, but he is so quiet that most people don’t realize this. He’s language-delayed as a small child; he’s awkward and shy; he takes social rules literally; he speaks in a monotone, and asks questions that might come off as rude, though he doesn’t mean them that way. He is fascinated by strings, knots, and patterns. His senses are slightly enhanced; Vinge doesn’t talk about eye contact with Brent, because the alien visual system is, well, very alien. But Brent spends a lot of time standing in corners, looking inattentive, while actually quite aware of what is going on.

Brent is a pretty peripheral character, but when he does appear, he kicks autistic alien butt. When Sherkaner’s children are kidnapped, Brent is the most effective at fighting back against their kidnappers. Part of this comes from his fascination with string, which just happens to be useful – but most of it is sheer courage, smarts, and observational skill.

Brent is also present, very peripherally, as part of an important team of aliens once he grows up. I like Brent, and I selfishly wish we saw more of him. But in an epic novel with All The Characters, there’s only so much you can do, and I really can’t find fault with the way Vinge writes him.

So this leaves me at a reviewing impasse. Vinge is clearly capable of writing autism well – so why does he pile so many bad autistic stereotypes onto the Focused?

It wasn’t until the end of the story that the reasons behind Vinge’s narrative decisions became clear. Here, have some BIG ENDING SPOILERS, under the cut.

At the end of the book, the Qeng Ho defeat the Emergents, free all the Focused people, make friends with the aliens, and set out to do other interesting things. Our hero Ezr Vinh is especially interested in freeing the Focused people, because his love interest, Trixia Bonsol, has been Focused. In fact, she is one of the most important and best-treated of the Focused: her job is high-level translation of the aliens’ language, and it involves wit, empathy, and imagination, even if she still approaches it with Focused intensity.

Ezr waits intently for Trixia to be deFocused, and everything seems to go swimmingly. Trixia greets him eagerly. After many years of Focus, she is finally able to have a normal human conversation again, talking about her feelings, her relationship with Ezr, and other things that seemed irrelevant while she was Focused. But Trixia drops a bombshell: She doesn’t want to return to her life with Ezr. She loves the aliens, loves her work, and wants to stay on the alien planet to continue translating.

At this point, even though he just told Trixia that he’s happy to live in whatever way she prefers, Ezr blows up. He runs to one of our other heroes and complains that they lied about Trixia’s recovery. She’s still Focused.

This is very confusingly handled. Please note that Vinge is fond of having his characters make incorrect inferences and leaving readers to sort it out. (In fact, some characters reach conclusions elsewhere in the book that readers won’t realize are incorrect unless they’ve read “A Fire Upon the Deep”!) Ezr has been wrong about Trixia before. Trixia was a linguist before she was Focused, and apart from wanting to continue her work, she shows absolutely no signs of impairment now. So I read this scene and decided that Ezr had gone totally off the deep end. But nope! It turns out he’s right. Trixia has only been partway deFocused – because she refused to let anyone carry out the rest of the procedure. Our other hero, Pham, explains:

“But a Focused person is still a human being, not too different from certain rare types that have always existed. If they can live on their own, if they can clearly express their wishes–well at that point, you have to listen… Understanding the Spiders is the center of her life, and she wants it to stay that way.”

(I might quibble with this paragraph too – I know some autistic people who need help with life skills and shouldn’t live on their own, but who can still express themselves and deserve to be listened to. But that’s really not the point of this scene.)

Ezr reflects:

The most terrible thing was Pham might not be lying. He might not even be rationalizing. Maybe they were just talking about one of life’s tragedies.

I don’t know what to make of this line, because again, it’s Ezr, and Ezr has quite the bee in his bonnet. I suspect that Vinge’s real opinion is closer to Pham’s than to Ezr’s. Still, read it over again. Consider it in the context of “cure” narratives. Trixia has a case of the Evil Mind Control That Just Happens To Resemble Autism. Like many protagonists in “cure” narratives, Trixia has significant social impairments, but also unusual gifts. If she is “cured”, she may lose the gifts along with the impairments. Fortunately for Trixia, she’s found a way to remove the impairments while leaving the gifts largely intact. So she goes for that option. Best of both worlds! Problem freakin’ solved. (Note that I’m oversimplifying: in a hypothetical IRL “cure” situation there would be lots of other aspects to consider, and it’s not always easy to sort out what’s an impairment and what’s not, and there are other reasons to be uncomfortable with “cure” narratives in general. But in Trixia’s specific context, her choice seems like a pretty good one, and it’s hers.)

But to Ezr, because she has chosen not to divest herself completely of every aspect of Focus, this is a tragedy.

Anyway, after this line no one talks about Trixia anymore. Instead, Pham takes the conversation in a new and illuminating direction. He tells Ezr that Ezr’s own behaviour is analogous to Focus – because he has been obsessed for years with saving Trixia and defeating the Emergents. Because of his obsession with this goal, he has missed other options that are right in front of him… Like a convenient replacement love interest who has never been Focused.


This pulls us to an epilogue in which Vinge draws the thematic strings tighter. Ezr’s not the only one who has to detach from his habitual beliefs to see what’s around him. Throughout the book, in parts that I haven’t mentioned because they have nothing to do with autism, both humans and Spiders have discovered things that they thought were impossible. Focus is compared to humans’ (and aliens’) tendency to ignore what doesn’t fit their preconceptions. But the triumph of the human mission, and of Sherkaner Underhill’s wildly inventive research, is to push past this metaphorical Focus and regain a sense of surprise and wonder. (“So many things to know,” the book concludes.)

So finally, at the ending, it’s clear what Vinge has been trying to do. Focus is a metaphor for the mental limitations and “blinders” of NTs. Brent is a good character because he’s Sherkaner Underhill’s son. Sherkaner went beyond traditional social conventions in raising Brent, taking off his own social blinders: so Brent’s well-roundedness is a vindication of what Sherkaner represents. But Vinge is interested in his metaphor, not in autism per se, so he’s just as happy to use exaggerated autistic traits to exoticise and demonize the characters who represent the opposite.

More power to Vinge in getting his point across, I guess. But if you go into this book looking for genuine representation, you’re going to end up as frustrated as I was.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

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