Turandot story notes, part 2: Recommended reading

In Part One of these story notes I mentioned that I did a lot of research when I was writing “Variations on a Theme from Turandot“. So here’s where I show my receipts.

I made extensive use of my university library account and the privileges attached to it. I will link to my sources where I can, but many of them will be behind paywalls. I can do nothing about this. Sorry. This post will also be shorter than what I originally intended, because although I still have several of the papers themselves, I appear to have lost my original notes on them.

One of the first things I read was a musicological biography of Puccini whose title has now been lost to the mists of 5 years ago. The specific details of Puccini’s life aren’t necessarily relevant, but I read enough to get an idea of what Puccini’s experiences with women had been and the kind of conflicts that typified them, as well as the role that Turandot had played in (the end of) his professional life.

J.M. Balkin’s 1990 paper, “Turandot’s Victory,” was particularly helpful to me. Balkin’s thesis is that Turandot is not an opera about women, but an opera about how men trying to figure out how to treat women. Calaf does all sorts of things to try to win Turandot’s affection, but none of them succeed until he chooses to tell her his name and surrender. “Turandot’s Victory” helped me to solidify an idea I already halfway had, which is that this moment, and this relinquishing of male power, is the key moment that solves the opera’s problems. Balkin points to several lines from the original libretto, never put to music in the opera’s final score, which underscore this moment’s importance both thematically and to Turandot as a character.

Alexandra Wilson’s “Modernism and the Machine Woman in Puccini’s ‘Turandot'” and “Torrefranca vs Puccini: embodying a decadent Italy” helped me to situate Puccini’s work, and particularly his treatment of women, within the artistic standards and movements that were relevant at the time Turandot was composed. It is an evasion to say that misogynist artists were “products of their time”, but it is useful to be aware of what the prevailing standards of their time actually were.

Speaking of which, Puccini was hardly the only late Romantic opera composer to have killed off his soprano characters left and right; he probably learned it from Verdi, his mentor. Freudian theorists contend that Puccini hated women and wrote tragedies about them because of an Oedipus complex, but this doesn’t quite square with my reading of Puccini’s biography or of his work. Apparently it doesn’t square with many other people either, as I found several writers attempting to rescue Puccini from Freud, and sometimes from accusations of misogyny altogether. The most comprehensive attempt at this task is Iris J. Arnesen’s The Romantic World of Puccini: A New Critical Appraisal of the Operas. I was never quite convinced by Arnesen’s central contention – that the women in Puccini’s operas are consistently strong and powerful, not weak – but I found the book useful reading anyway, if only to help stir me up about the questions that we often find lurking under feminist media today. What is a “strong” woman, anyway? What do we mean by strength?

(I hope that readers of “Variations” will see both Liù and the Princess as strong characters, but in two very different, individual ways.)

Many of the writers I encountered had their own ideas for how to fix the dramaturgical problems with Turandot. One idea I encountered more than once is the idea that Lo-u-Ling, the murdered ancestress Turandot admires, is an evil ghost who has somehow possessed her, and that the real Turandot is a nice person and compliant wife who would never kill anybody. I find this idea disrespectful both to Turandot’s strength and self-possession and to the trauma with which Lo-u-Ling is explicitly linked, though I was very attracted to the idea of making Lo-u-Ling, in some sense, a real entity. An essay I read years ago about the importance of respecting ghosts, in non-Western cultures, helped me avoid the worst temptations here. I am dismayed to discover I can no longer find the link. I think it was by Jaymee Goh. (It was definitely not Rebecca F. Kuang’s “How to Talk to Ghosts,” which is powerful and important, but which didn’t appear until “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” had already been accepted for publication. I might have written the story differently, in yet another way, if I had encountered Kuang’s essay earlier.)

Finally, “Variations on a Theme from Turandot” does not go deeply into the issue of race and Orientalism in Turandot. That issue is very important, but although I was careful to note that the stage China is unlike the real China and that the Asian-American Soprano is unimpressed with it, I did not feel it was my issue to try to dive into and play with as I did with the opera’s sexism. I would love one day to read a Chinese author’s take on it. In the meantime, if you are wondering about that aspect of Turandot, Jindong Cai’s “Turandot in China” might be a reasonable place to start.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 9: A Wizard Alone (New Millennium Edition)

(First published Sep 15, 2013)

Today’s Book: “A Wizard Alone: New Millennium Edition” by Diane Duane.

The Plot: In a contemporary YA fantasy setting, a budding wizard named Darryl has gotten stuck in his Ordeal – a wizards’ initiation. Teenage wizards Nita and Kit are sent to figure out what’s gone wrong.

Autistic Character(s): …Wait, what’s that you say? Does today’s Autistic Book Party look familiar?

It’s true. I’ve reviewed “A Wizard Alone” before, and I didn’t like it very much. But there was one thing I didn’t know when I wrote that review! Diane Duane had already faced criticism from autistic readers about the way she wrote Darryl. And instead of ignoring them or digging in her heels, she had already gotten started on fixing the book.

When the New Millennium Edition came out, Duane was kind enough to send me a free ecopy. I admired her good intentions and willingness to engage, but at first I was pretty skeptical about whether she could have actually fixed all the problems. Going through the book itself, I was quickly proven wrong.

Let’s go through the problems from the old edition, one at a time.

1. In the old edition, as part of the happy ending, Nita and Kit magically cure Darryl’s autism.

In the new edition, Darryl is not cured. The idea of a cure does come up, briefly, near the end; after thinking about it for a minute, Darryl decides to stay autistic. His reasoning is complicated, but interesting, and meshes well with the philosophy of the Young Wizards universe.

I should clarify something here, for anyone who has read my post on cure decision stories. I don’t like stories about autistic people deciding whether or not to be cured, even if they end up deciding not to. But the New Millennium Edition of “A Wizard Alone” is not a cure decision story. The cure decision is unrelated to the story’s major conflict; it comes up in one scene and is dealt with in that scene, and then the characters move on. At that point in the story, the characters are already messing with a kind of magic that can change or rewrite people’s minds. So, as much as I wish it were otherwise, the issue of a cure needs to be addressed there. Because readers are going to think of it even if the characters don’t. Bringing it up briefly, and explaining why the characters don’t do it, was the right decision.

2. The old edition contains lots of incorrect information about autism.

The new edition fixes this. In fact, it pours in a lot of new, correct information. (When one chapter mentioned Kit educating himself by going online to read blogs written by autistic people and their families, I cheered!) At a couple of points, especially near the beginning, this verges on preachiness for me. But for young adult readers who aren’t already familiar with autistic self-advocacy, it’s probably just right.

(A couple of commenters complained last time about a part of the book where Darryl’s mental world is depicted as a desert. In the new edition, the desert and other similar structures are explicitly described as works of art that he created for a specific purpose.)

3. Darryl from the old edition is portrayed in ways that make no sense. For example, he switches back and forth rapidly between very competent theory of mind and a complete ignorance of the fact that other people exist.

In the new edition, this problem doesn’t exist. There are still two different ways in which characters can see Darryl, one of which appears much more competent than the other. This happens for several interesting reasons, including Darryl deliberately changing the way he acts in certain contexts. But it’s no longer a wildly silly, inconsistent method of characterization.

4. The old edition conflates autism with depression, since they both involve a seeming withdrawl from the world.

This problem is – you guessed it – fixed. Kit still develops temporary depressive symptoms when he gets too drawn into Darryl’s mental world. But this is a result of Kit reacting badly to certain properties of that world, not an inherent property of Darryl or of autism. Nita still learns to cope with her grief for her mother, and stops withdrawing, but this is no longer brought about through comparisons between herself and Darryl.

So when we get rid of those problems, what’s left?

Darryl is left. Brave, cheerful, clever, wonderful Darryl. And this time there isn’t a mountain of fail holding him down.

The Verdict: Recommended

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

Turandot story notes, part 1

“Variations on a Theme from Turandot” is a story that took an unusually long and winding path to publication, and I’d like to share some of that story with you here. (If you haven’t read it yet, and want to, maybe go do that before reading the rest of this. Or not; I’m not the boss of you.)

The seed for this story came in 2010, when I was just beginning to get serious about writing for publication. It’s also when I first saw Turandot in its entirety, broadcast into movie theatres from the Metropolitan Opera in New York (which, for those of you who are interested in watching operas relatively cheaply, does that sort of thing with delightful frequency).

I had watched the first two acts on a borrowed DVD, a year or two earlier, and had enjoyed the mythic setting and the riddles, but had somehow wandered off or something at the second intermission and forgot to come back. I was rather dismayed to discover what actually happened in Act Three. So I did what any excited beginning author would do: I decided I was going to write a fix-it fic.

The problem was, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to go about this. I wanted Liù to have some actual agency and also magic and to use the latter to solve the rest of the opera’s problems, but I only had a vague notion how it would go. A partner I had at the time suggested that Liù and Turandot should secretly switch places, Prince-and-the-Pauper-style, but that didn’t quite feel right to me somehow. I did some vague research and read some Chinese folk tales, but none of it especially helped, and eventually the Turandot story went onto the back burner.

A year or two later – 2012, maybe? – the story idea came back to bug me some more. I was on a road trip with my mother and younger sister, and I played highlights of my recording of Turandot for them while explaining the plot. To my dismay, they both thought that the opera was stupid and the characters were stupid, and that Turandot herself was an awful person whose motivations made no sense. Turandot’s motivations had always made perfect sense to me – she was concerned about male violence against women, and didn’t want men up in her business, thank you very fucking much – but apparently this wasn’t coming across to anyone else.

I’m not saying everything Turandot does in the opera is excellent, but she had always struck me as an example of a classic villain whose motives are perfectly comprehensible and who simply takes them too far. The only thing about her that didn’t make sense to me was the gross, forced, sudden declaration, at the end, that she actually did love Calaf after all.

So the Turandot fix-it fix project came back to haunt me, and this time it wasn’t only about giving Liù some cool magic and a happy ending; it was also about creating sympathy, and more explanation, for Turandot herself. An unlikely alliance between the two women began to emerge in my head, even though, in the actual opera, one of them has the other mercilessly tortured and killed.

I scribbled a bunch of ideas in a notebook on that road trip while the rest of my family was off doing other things, or sleeping. I don’t remember quite how, but this is the part where the story became something nonlinear and meta in my head. The more I considered different solutions for Liù’s problems, the more it became apparent to me that one of her chief problems is the fact that she’s in an opera, and to solve this problem with agency, she would first have to become aware of it. An inspiration at this point was David Ives’ “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” which I remembered having read in high school. I toyed with the idea of Liù physically or symbolically dying in literally every scene. I eventually deviated from that somewhat; but Liù’s overly romanticized death, and her attempts to escape it, still forms the core of the story from which all other variations emerge.

I noodled around with these ideas for a bit longer before finally, in the summer of 2013, feeling ready to push ahead and commit them to paper. I first spent two weeks doing more research at a level which I basically never do for short stories. This time I was more intelligent about it, and instead of trying to write down random facts about China, I instead read about Puccini himself and about different musicological and literary viewpoints on Turandot. I’ll go into more detail about what I read, and how it influenced me, in part 2.

Once I had finished with that, the ideas behind the story had been percolating for so long that they all fell out into a word processing document very easily, very poetically, and with what felt like a minimum of effort.

A first draft, however, is never actually a completed story – even if it has lived in your head for three years and is shiny enough to feel that way.

What followed was the most protracted set of revisions I have ever done on a single short story.

I did employ beta readers, of course, but I wasn’t wise enough to fully address all of their concerns at first. Instead, I optimistically sent the story flying out to all my favorite markets. It spent fifteen months in the slush pile at Tor.com, after which I received a very helpful and detailed personal rejection. I did revise as a result of this rejection. In particular, I introduced the character of the Other Soprano, and gave her a small arc of her own and a role in the story’s last scene, which had previously featured the Soprano alone.

After a couple of other attempts, the revised story then ended up at Strange Horizons, where I received not one, but a series of three rewrite requests. The content of these requests was varied, but they addressed even more issues that I somehow hadn’t thought of while writing. There were long gaps between the different requests, in part because it sometimes took me a long time to puzzle out how to do the revisions, and in part because of periods of time in which Strange Horizons was closed.

The biggest such issue, and the one that was most difficult for me, was in regards to Calaf, the Stranger/Prince. It is such an obvious omission that it embarrasses me to say it now, but my initial drafts for this story had almost nothing about Calaf in them. There was a scene giving some backstory between him and Liù, because “you smiled at me” is not a believable basis for a romance unless it can be unpacked a lot, but aside from his role in motivating Liù and Turandot’s actions, Calaf barely appeared in early versions of this story at all.

I hadn’t written about Calaf because I didn’t want to write about Calaf. Turandot and Liù’s motivations felt complex and good to get into. But it was extremely mentally and emotionally challenging for me to find a proper explanation for Calaf’s actions, other than, “He is a toxically masculine jerk.” But in a story where the main viewpoint character is in love with him, and where a (sort of) romantic union with him is her reward, I couldn’t quite lean on that as my explanation and have the story still work.

I’m still not sure that my explanation for Calaf works as well as it could, honestly. I’ve seen people point to it as a thing they like about the story, tying in as it does with ideas of story and authorship and free will. It still does feel, partially, that my solution to Calaf was to handwave and blame someone else.

The Strange Horizons editors also had a lot of concerns about the ending. The scene in which Liù goes back in time and kills Puccini had always been there – but it was originally, for some reason, from Puccini’s point of view. I think it was a case of an author wanting to show the receipts for all the homework they did; I’d developed a working theory of what was going on in Puccini’s head based on what I’d read about him and his work, which went against some of the prevailing scholarly theories about his attitudes towards women. But about 90% of that theory was utterly irrelevant to the story, so it had to be cut. I also had a lot of work to do unpacking and clarifying what even happens in the subsequent scenes, which are full of weird magic that made sense in my head but was hard to explain to a reader – and how those scenes connect to the literal and metaphorical “death of the author” theme.

Eventually, I got all of it done to Catherine Krahe and Lila Garrot’s satisfaction. The story was accepted for publication in January 2018, and now it is published. And there you have it: an eight-year road from the initial idea to publication. But well worth the journey, I think.

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 8: Triggers

(First published Aug 10, 2013)

Today’s Book: “Triggers” by Robert J. Sawyer

The Plot: A PTSD therapy experiment goes haywire and causes people in Washington D.C., including the President, to share each other’s memories.

Autistic Character(s): Ivan Tarasov, a hospital security guard.

This isn’t the book I thought I would be reviewing after “The Damned Busters”, but it was in my Aurora Award voter packet, plus I have recently seen it on several other lists of autism-relevant books, because of Tarasov.

Ivan Tarasov is an adult Aspie man who has a job he likes (even though he would rather have gone into science, and might have been able to, had more supports been available for him in school) and also a wife and daughter. Yay! There’s no egregious autism fail in how he is written. There is a bit about picture thinking which seems to exaggerate the effects of this thinking style slightly, and which fails to point out that only some autistic people think in pictures, not everyone. (I don’t think in pictures, for instance.) But that’s forgiveable. Overall he’s as solid as Sawyer’s other characters.

The problem is that there are 51 (short) chapters in this book. Ivan Tarasov appears only in four of them, and never even for the whole chapter. He’s a very minor character. He has a small subplot which causes him to do a dramatic thing that affects other characters, and then he sort of stops being part of the story. So, if you’re looking for a book in which autistic people have lots of screen time, this isn’t it. On the other hand, if you want to see a book which strives to include the experiences of a large number of diverse people who happened to be in the same place at the same time, and in which neurodiversity is one small part of that diversity, then that’s exactly what Sawyer is doing. (The characters are also culturally and religiously diverse, among other things.) So, yay.

So, I’m not sure how to talk about this. I don’t want to imply that a book is bad just because the only autistic person in the book is a minor character. I mean, we exist, so we should logically be major characters in some stories and minor characters in others. It’s just that, if I am making a recommended reading list for people who are interested in autistic authors and characters, “Triggers” isn’t really very relevant.

(There are other things about the book that I liked, and other things about the book that I disliked. But I don’t want to get into that now.)

So I don’t know what to call this one. It isn’t, “Recommended”, it isn’t “Not Recommended”, it isn’t even “YMMV” – Tarasov gets the same amount of screen time no matter who’s reading. Can I call it “Irrelevant”? Except it isn’t completely irrelevant, it’s just not relevant enough. Or something. Suggestions are welcome.

(ETA: After a suggestion from David Lamb, I invented the verdict of Marginal for this book, and have since used the Marginal rating for several others as well.)

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

Autistic Book Party, Episode 45: An Unkindness of Ghosts

Today’s Book: “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon

The Plot: A generation ship has reverted to a state resembling the antebellum Southern U.S., complete with slavery. On the ship, a Black Autistic woman named Aster hunts for clues about her dead mother, who might have discovered a way off the ship, or a way to change everything.

Autistic Character(s): Aster.

“An Unkindness of Ghosts” is a dark, gripping book. It is billed as being about a slave revolt, and definitely there is a slave revolt that happens somewhere in there, but the full book is much more complex, and the main conflicts more personal, than that description would suggest – even as the oppression and abuse of their circumstances weigh heavily throughout the book on Aster and everyone she knows.

Aster is a wonderful character whose autistic traits are written very well. (I’m not sure if the autism in the book is #ownvoices or not. I know Rivers Solomon has described herself as non-neurotypical, but there are a lot of things that go under that umbrella. So it might be #ownvoices, and it might not be. Either way, it’s good enough that I could easily believe that it was.) She speaks very formally and literally, and has trouble working out what people mean when they use figures of speech. She has a great talent for medicine and works as a sort of doctor, doing what she can to help others on her deck who have been injured by the harsh conditions there. She also has some more subtle autistic traits, of the kind that I don’t often see authors remember to include in books. For instance, she has immense difficulty with handwriting. She stims by banging against things as she runs, often without consciously realizing she’s doing it. (I have stims that I don’t do consciously, although not that one in particular, and I don’t often see that aspect of stimming discussed in fiction.)

Although Aster’s society doesn’t seem to have a formal word for autism, Solomon does a good job of showing that people recognize what is going on with Aster. Not just that she is different, but that she is a particular sort of different, with a name:

“I am a healer, like you. Well, not quite like you. You’re a little off, aren’t you?” The woman grabbed Aster’s chin, turning her face so they were forced eye to eye. “You’re one of those who has to tune the world out and focus on one thing at a time. We have a word for that down here, women like you. Insiwa. Inside one. It means you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning.”
Aster had been called worse.

This is neat – I would love to see more far-future SF and secondary-world fantasy that displays its own cultures’ understandings of, and names for, autism.

And while Aster is often baffled by what people are doing and what they mean, she also displays flashes of insight into how people work that remind me of my own hyperempathic autistic friends:

“She’s probably the one who made him sick,” said Vivian, but who knew if she really believed it? Her personality revolved around being the rude one, and she kept up the act to maintain her identity. In the process she’d become a caricature of herself.

And while Aster is the only autistic character, Solomon also takes pains to show that she’s not the only non-neurotypical person on the ship. In fact, the two other most important characters are also non-neurotypical. Aster’s friend and mentor Theo, a closet transwoman who works as a surgeon in the upperdecks, seems to have something like OCD, carrying out religious and cleansing rituals with compulsive fervor.

There’s also Giselle, Aster’s best friend from her deck, who I actually found the most fascinating character of all from a neurodiversity standpoint. I don’t know what diagnosis exactly would be appropriate for Giselle. She’s heavily traumatized, like everyone on the lower decks; unlike most people on the lower decks, she also experiences delusions, self-harms, and has both verbal and physical violent episodes, including violence against Aster. Giselle’s type of mental illness is very heavily stigmatized. I was transfixed by how she was portrayed, worst symptoms at all, and yet still remained matter-of-factly a friend Aster who and her other cabinmates cared about. In particular, even though Giselle often says and believes things that are not true, she’s also clever and figures out some true things before Aster does, including the fact that Aster’s mother wrote her diary in code. This isn’t portrayed with any of the usual obnoxious “oh no, are they crazy, or are they right??” tropes. It just is, the way it would be if any other character figured out something important. I have literally never seen a white or neurotypical author write a character this way. I love Giselle.

(For that very reason, I felt super ambivalent about Giselle’s role in the ending, which was my only real reservation about this book. But it’s nothing to do with autism, and is therefore, for the purposes of this review, neither here nor there.)

I also want to briefly mention “An Unkindness of Ghosts”‘ tone, because that has been the topic of a lot of online discussion. As Bogi Takács points out in eir review, this is quite a dark book in which the characters’ oppressors are very cruel to them. But it’s also a book that is respectful and even softened, in how it shows these things, compared to some of the stuff that actually happened to slaves in the antebellum South. There were parts where I had to step away for a bit and recalibrate, but that happens to me with a lot of books. I certainly didn’t find it as difficult to get through as, say, Mirror Project. 😛 For other white readers in particular I would encourage reading this book with an open mind. Like, read the content warnings in Bogi’s review, and nope out if you have to, but know that those parts of the book are #ownvoices and there for a reason.

Overall, “An Unkindness of Ghosts” is a very well-written book about multiply marginalized non-neurotypical people of color who make their own way through harrowing circumstances in search of hope.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Rivers Solomon. I read her book by buying a copy from Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.

This book was chosen by my Patreon backers. If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

New Story: Variations on a Theme from Turandot

A new story is out today, “Variations on a Theme from Turandot,” in the May 14 issue of Strange Horizons.

This is a story with an unusually long story behind it. I first started wanting to write something like it in 2010. What started as a vague “I want to write a fix-it fic” urge became exponentially more complicated and strange the more I thought about it, and then the various beta reads, personal rejections, and rewrite requests I received only complicated it even more.

Turandot is an absurd, racist, sexist, Orientalist, rape-culture-endorsing, absolutely-no-sense-making opera that Puccini never actually finished writing. It is also my favorite opera. I am a complicated person.

As I have time (which is unfortunately in short supply right now, because grad school) I will hopefully be able to post some story notes, talking about the research and rewrites that went into this story. For now, you can simply read and enjoy. But do take care to check the content warnings first, please, because shit gets dark in Turandot and my feeble attempts to grapple with that subject matter have only made it darker.

Limestone Genre Expo

For those of you in the area of Kingston, Ontario, I’ll be making an appearance and panelling at this year’s Limestone Genre Expo. Here’s my panel schedule:

May 26, 11:00 am: Fairytales, Fables & Folklore: Old Tales for a New Audience. (Bellevue Room South)

May 26, 3:00 pm: Mental Health Representation in Fiction: More than Villains (Bellevue Room South)

May 26, 4:00 pm: Poetry & Spoken Word (Bellevue Room North)

May 27, 4:00 pm: Women of Science Fiction (Bellevue Room North)

If you are in attendance, please say hi!

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 7: The Damned Busters

(First published Aug 2, 2013. Some comments and examples in the original review have been lost due to improper archiving and the review has been edited to remove incomplete sentences, etc resulting from this. It is not otherwise modified.)

Today’s Book: The “Damned Busters” by Matthew Hughes.

The Plot: After a series of unlikely events which involve accidentally making Hell go on strike, mild-mannered comic-loving actuary Chesney Arnsruther becomes a costumed superhero – The Actionary!

Autistic Character(s): Chesney Arnsruther, the aforementioned actuary. AND SUPERHERO.

So, we’ve had autistic viewpoint characters in an ensemble cast before, but this is the first book I’ve reviewed in which an autistic person is the main character. And a main character who gets to dress up, attain super strength and super speed, and fight bad guys, no less. Which is pretty cool.

I have to confess that, aside from the aforementioned coolness, I’m not completely sure how to review comedies. And The Damned Busters is a comedy, in addition to a superhero book. It’s very silly. (In particular, if you try to take Hughes’ theology seriously, you’ll wipe out in the first chapter and never come back.) One of the hallmarks of comedy is that people’s personalities are exaggerated. That makes me leery of reviewing a comedic book from a “how does it represent autistic people” standpoint, because there’s a fine line between exaggeration and stereotyping, and we’re all going to legitimately disagree about where that line is. (I’ve walked into enough vociferous disagreements about The Big Bang Theory to learn how THAT works.)

Anyway. As one might expect, much of the humor (and conflict) comes from Chesney being socially awkward. Super strength, speed, teleportation and other powers are one thing, but he quickly runs into problems which are more complex and socially nuanced than they appear at first glance. To my surprise, Chesney handles these situations in… something pretty close to how an actual autistic actuary might handle them. He’s awkward, but he’s not a walking pile of obliviousness; he can interpret facial expressions and some other fairly sophisticated nonverbal communication by puzzling them out intellectually, comparing them to situations he has seen before, remembering what has and hasn’t worked in the past and what he’s been taught by others. When he’s at a loss, he often scripts appropriate responses from his favourite comic books. Thanks to extensive experience with an overbearing mother, he can even keep his cool and his secrets when questioned by the authorities. Skills like these ones are helpful for Chesney more often than one might think, though not as often as he would like, and it was a lot of fun for me to read him using them.

There are occasional inaccuracies, particularly near the beginning. Even when it’s good, the characterization focuses on Chesney’s social skills and his unusual aptitude for statistics – the things NT media typically focuses on – and neglects things like sensory differences. Also, there is a subplot of “Chesney not knowing how to deal with women” which verges on… I’m not actually sure what it verges on, but it made me feel sorry for the female characters.

Still, when you break Chesney down into his basic parts, you get a grown-up autistic character who is happy being who he is, who is much more aware of what’s going on around him than stereotypes would suggest, and who, in his own idiom, is good-hearted, strong-willed, and brave. Also he makes Hell go on strike, obtains super powers, punches bad guys, foils a plot to end AND take over the world both at once (I told you it’s silly), and gets the girl. His actuarial skills come in handy, too. Some readers won’t like the style of humor or the way the fictional universe is set up. But if you’re looking for a lighthearted romp in which an autistic hero saves the day, you could do a Hell of a lot worse.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

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

Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 6: 2312

(First published in the summer of 2013. I’ve lost track of the exact date, sadly.)

Today’s Book: “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

The Plot: Following the death of an important official on Mercury, intrigue unfolds across the whole human-colonized solar system.

Autistic Character(s): Fitz Wahram, a civil servant from Saturn.

Before we start, a disclaimer. This book is a current Hugo nominee. In fact, I’m reading it out of my Hugo voter packet. This makes this a very timely episode of Autistic Book Party, but it also makes me nervous, because I don’t want anyone to be voting solely on the topic of autism, and I don’t want to give anyone the impression that this is what I’m doing. Ideally, how an author deals with disability issues would be just one of many factors going into any given person’s voting decision. 2312 is a big, big book with an awful lot of things going on, and as always, I am deliberately focusing only on the issue of autism. There are many other interesting reviews available online which will give you interesting opinions on other things in the book. Or, if you are Hugo voting, you really should read it yourself and make up your own mind.

Anyway, in a sprawling epic novel with many viewpoint characters, Wahram is probably the second most important to the narrative. He is an autistic man (or more specifically, an autistic androgyn who uses masculine pronouns – gender being even more complicated in Robinson’s future than it is here and now) who serves as a foil to the excitable protagonist, Swan Er Hong. Swan is mercurial, reckless, and inexperienced with the kind of large-scale political mess she finds herself in; Wahram is the opposite. They initially dislike each other, but slowly become allies, and then become genuinely attached to each other.

Wahram’s autism is described so subtly that even I, the resident obsessed-with-autism SF reader, almost missed it. I believe the word “autistic” is used twice in the whole book. The first usage comes off as a poorly chosen descriptor, not a diagnosis. But fifteen pages later, after her first meeting with Wahram, Swan describes him thus: “He’s slow, he’s rude, he’s autistic. He’s boring.” Using the word twice in such a short time has got to be intentional.

And when looked at closely, Wahram does behave in a believable autistic way. He hyperfocuses, becoming lost in thought about a single work of art for hours. He loves and lives by routines, and even has his own philosophy of the meaning of routines and why they are necessary, which he calls the “pseudoiterative”. Although not a musician, he has memorized many entire symphonies. He perceives time oddly and is sensitive to changes in this perception. He speaks somewhat formally and often in quotes, and does not always speak when he would be expected to.

Why did I not pick up on this right away? There’s a reason, and it’s quite interesting. The short version is that, apart from the word “autistic” being used twice (and a few comments about his apperance, as he is a large and somewhat ugly person), Wahram is never othered. This is hard to explain, so I’m going to illustrate it using an excerpt.

For a while Wahram whistled the theme of the Grosse Fugue, half speed, under his breath.
“Do you whistle?” Swan asked, sounding surprised.
“I suppose I do.”
“So do I!”
Wahram, who did not think of himself as someone who whistled for others, did not continue.

Most people would interpret this as an attempt on Swan’s part to start talking about a common interest. Wahram doesn’t see it that way, so the conversation shuts down. This is a pretty typical little thing that happens for many autistic people. Yet there’s nothing in the narrative (or in other characters’ actions) that flags this exchange as awkward, or different, or even “a thing that happens to Wahram a lot”. It just goes by like any other bit of side conversation, and the story continues. After the first two usages, even the word “autism” is never mentioned again.

This blew my mind. I’m going to risk my credentials as an autism blogger by saying so, but it simply did not occur to me that an autistic character could be successfully written without such flags. And the whole book is like that. Wahram doesn’t have actions that are noted as autistic actions and actions that are not. Wahram is just Wahram; Wahram’s actions are Wahram’s actions.

Wahram’s actions also include a lot of things that autistic characters usually don’t get to do in fiction. Like for example, eventually being Swan’s love interest. He is also capable of betraying Swan in minor matters and hiding information from her, although he has a good reason for it and things are patched up fairly quickly. Also, friggin’ BEING A POLITICIAN. Granted, this is a science fiction universe where, at least on Saturn, people in government are chosen with a lottery instead of with election campaigns. But Wahram is genuinely good at it and has remained at the job for longer than the lottery said he had to.

I need to admit here, I have something of a fascination with older autistic adults. I know a few at varying levels of what would externally be considered success, and all of them surprise and delight me with their wisdom. I think that going through most of a lifetime being neurologically different leads to the kind of insights that even a wise NT adult might not have access to. Or maybe my own neurotype predisposes me to understand those insights and to find them useful. Regardless, Wahram strikes me as a very real, breathing depiction of this sort of person. His thoughtfulness matches the stately, contemplative pace of the book itself, and I love looking at Robinson’s world through his eyes.

It’s worth noting here that Swan isn’t neurotypical either. For one thing, being something of a thrill seeker in a mildly transhuman future, she has acquired brain augmentations ranging from groups of bird neurons to a talking quantum computer. In one of the few spots in the book that did raise my eyebrows slightly, she and Wahram talk about their brains:

“What, don’t you have anything in you?”
“In a way. I suppose everyone does,” he said reassuringly, though in fact he had seldom heard of a brain with as many interventions as hers. “I take some vasopressin and some oxytocin, as recommended.”
“Those both come from vasotocin,” she said authoritatively. “There’s just one amino acid of difference between the three. So I take the vasotocin. It’s very old, so old it controls sex behavior in frogs.”
“No, it’s just what you need.”
“I don’t know. I feel fine with the oxytocin and vasopressin.”
“Oxytocin is social memory,” she said. “You don’t notice other people without it. I need more of it. Vasopressin too, I suppose.”

IRL the literature on oxytocin is mixed and controversial, with a lot of hype that isn’t entirely borne out by the research. I’d need a whole Fact Check post to explain why the lines about oxytocin raised my eyebrows. But this exchange has broader implications which are more interesting to me than one’s opinion of oxytocin. For people living in space in Robinson’s future, putting things into one’s brain isn’t really a big deal. Wahram taking social neurotransmitters is at the mild end of the spectrum.

This comes down, again, to Robinson’s refusal to other Wahram. In most books a mention of an autistic character taking medicine would reflect directly on the author’s opinion of autism in the present: either their brain was broken and they took medicine to fix it, or their brain wasn’t broken and it’s awful that someone made them take medicine. With Wahram and Swan one gets the sense that something subtler is going on, and that in a future where people can put bird neurons and alien bacteria into their bodies, changing one’s neurotransmitters has wholly different cultural implications than it does here and now.

So I was impressed with that part. I was a bit less impressed when Robinson got around to mentioning that even before Swan modified anything, she had been variously diagnosed with ADHD, dyscalculia, anxiety, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Putting both characters in the discussion into IRL overmedicated groups weakens the point slightly, though not entirely. (Also, I am a bit disappointed that diagnosing people with Oppositional Defiant Disorder is still a thing 300 years in the future, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

2312 wrestles with a lot of different political and philosophical issues, and although it’s never foregrounded, the idea of sanity/neurotypicality and what that means in the first place comes up now and again. There are passages like the interlude where Robinson simply lists a lot of different terms, both IRL-outdated and IRL-current, for mental difference, implicitly inviting the reader to guess if there is meaning in any of them; or like this one, when Swan is given an overview of her own medical history:

“What about Designed a hundred terraria?” Swan complained. “What about three years spent in the Oort cloud putting mass drivers on ice balls? Or five years on Venus?”
“Those were not medical events,” Pauline said.
“They were, believe me.”
“If you want your curriculum vitae, just ask for it.”
“Be quiet. Go away. You are too good at simulating an irritating person.”

Swan struggles with her neurological identity more than Wahram does – which is to say, Swan does somewhat, and Wahram doesn’t at all – but this makes sense because Swan has radically modified her own neurology and other aspects of her body. This includes actions, like ingesting alien gut bacteria, which are culturally considered foolish and dangerous. (Although the gut bacteria may or may not save Swan’s life when she is subject to radiation poisoning, and thus, even with them, there isn’t a clear answer on whether they’re actually bad.) In any case this doesn’t swallow up the rest of her character, and there’s clearly a lot of authorial sympathy resting on Swan.

So in the end I come away from this book having a few little quibbles (there were one or two that I left out of this review because they were so minor I didn’t care to make the nitpicks public), but genuinely liking both Swan and Wahram. And I feel that I owe a big thank-you to Robinson for the way he writes Wahram without othering him. Thank you, Kim Stanley Robinson, for teaching me something about my own topic that I didn’t know.

The Verdict: Recommended

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