Vintage Autistic Party, Episode 10: Pilgrennon’s Beacon

(First published Oct 12, 2013)

Today’s Book: “Pilgrennon’s Beacon” by Manda Benson.

The Plot: Dana, an autistic girl in foster care who can communicate with computers, is kidnapped and becomes a pawn in a power struggle between two mad scientists, both of whom have a connection to Dana’s mysterious past.

Autistic Character(s): Dana, of course, and also Jananin Blake, the scientist who kidnaps her. A few other autistic children appear as minor characters. The author is also on the spectrum herself.

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a book with an autistic author AND an autistic protagonist. So I really wanted to like it, and I’m feeling torn now. It has some basic, good things going for it which I should not overlook. There is an autistic protagonist who actually does things, and is quite brave at doing the increasingly dangerous things the plot requires of her. Also, there is Jananin (more about Jananin in a second). And while Dana’s school life is as terrible as one would expect, there are some good scenes late in the book of her connecting with Jananin and being encouraged about who she is.

But “Pilgrennon’s Beacon” also has some big problems, and the biggest one is named Ivor Pilgrennon.

Pilgrennon is Jananin Blake’s opposite number, and is initially framed (by Jananin) as a villain, though the whose-side-is-which question quickly becomes murky. I am having a hard time summing up everything that is wrong with Ivor Pilgrennon in a paragraph, so let me explain him to you in a series of handy bullet points.

When he was young, he had an undiagnosed autistic sister who was abused by their parents and killed herself. As a result, he devoted himself to the study of autism.

As an autism researcher, he decided that all autistic children have a natural affinity for computers, and started researching better interfaces between autistic people and computers, ostensibly for good reasons such as allowing autistic children to use computers to improve their lives and protect themselves. This led to him attempting to breed a perfect autistic genius, through strategies like switching donated eggs and sperm at fertility clinics with the eggs and sperm of autistic people without the knowledge of the people at the fertility clinics. Also, unauthorized brain surgery on children and fetuses, which in at least one case went wrong and led to severe brain damage.

But he feels really bad about that now!

He now lives in hiding on a remote island with two of the children affected by his experiments. They have a horrible dirty living space made out of an abandoned military base, with only the most basic food and amenities. He is cavalier about their medication, and mostly steals it. At one point he explains that both of the children living with him could be helped if he went home and had access to real doctors/surgeons, but of course he can’t do that until he can figure out how to erase his criminal convictions from a police database so that he won’t be arrested while the doctors do their helping thing.

For most of the book it’s hard to tell if he and the two children are very attached to each other or not, since most of their interactions seem to consists of him telling the one with ADHD to sit still and be quiet.

But this is all okay, because even though he refuses to consider actually turning himself in and facing the legal consequences for what he’s been doing, he feels really bad, you guys.

The other side of the power struggle is Jananin Blake. Jananin is a Nobel Prize-winning science professor and inventor who wears a trenchcoat and wields a samurai sword. She is open and matter-of-fact about having Asperger’s Sydrome; she even puts her own autistic spin on typical combat-scene dialogue. (“This is a sword. It is self-explanatory.”) Basically, Jananin is all the kinds of awesome that Ivor Pilgrennon isn’t.

However, as the plot progresses, Jananin exhibits some psychopathic traits of her own. Not ony does she kidnap Dana in order to use her as a pawn against Pilgrennon, but she does things like torturing Pilgrennon with a fireplace poker, and also shooting at him while he is using Dana as a human shield. (YES, PILGRENNON DOES THAT, though it is not described that way in so many words. HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I DO NOT LIKE PILGRENNON.) At one point she blames this on her Asperger’s and lack of empathy, although in context it may be her attempt at a joke. I’m really not sure.

So, Jananin is a character who forces me to ask: What are my first principles here? Do I think autistic characters should always be portrayed as good people? Heck no. NTs get to be badass and morally ambiguous antiheroes, so autistic people should too. (I have some characters like that in mind myself, though I am having trouble navigating all the complexities of how to write them without completely falling on my face.) And placed in that role, Jananin mostly delivers.

The real trouble is with where the plot ends up going. I was hoping that either Dana and Jananin would band together and bring Pilgrennon to justice, or Dana would get thoroughly sick of both of them and find her own way out of the conflict. Instead, Dana stumbles her way into an even larger conflict, and all three of the characters must work together to solve it. In the process, their differences (including the torture scene?) are somehow forgotten, and she ends up getting really attached to them both.

This is a plot that can work in some stories, and might have worked in this one if the characters and situation were even a little bit different. But it doesn’t work for me, because I just really, really, hate Ivor Pilgrennon. It makes me uncomfortable to see him redeemed into some sort of heroic father figure, because it has the effect of implicitly normalizing ridiculous abuses of autistic people by autism researchers.

There are still some readers who may enjoy the book. If all my complaints about Ivor Pilgrennon haven’t fazed you, and you like the idea of a morally ambiguous YA-ish science fiction adventure written by an Aspie woman in which autistic characters have most of the major plot roles, then this is clearly a thing you should read. But my experience with the book was not positive, and I suspect that most of my regular readers will feel the same way.

The Verdict: YMMV

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