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.