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

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