Autistic Book Party, Episode 64: A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe

Today’s review is a guest post by Richard Ford Burley!

Richard Ford Burley (he/they) is a queer neurodivergent writer and recovering academic. They’re the author of two novels and a handful of stories, most of which incorporate queerness and/or neurodivergence in one way or another. They blog (infrequently) at richardfordburley.com and tweet (incessantly) at @schadenford.

Today’s Book: “A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe” by Alex White.

The Plot: A magical F1 driver and a magic-less washed-up soldier-turned-grifter join a rag-tag group of salvagers in a search for the titular “big ship,” while some very dangerous people pretty much constantly try to murder them all.

Autistic Character(s): The author, plus while none of the characters are explicitly autistic, many of them seem to exhibit familiar neurodivergent traits.

The book begins in two places. First, we have Nilah Brio, a brilliant (wealthy, privileged) magical race-car driver who’s carving up the track and on her way to secure the galactic championship when someone with very powerful magic kills one of her competitors—leaving her as a witness and therefore in need of elimination. Second, we have Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth, washed-up former treasure-hunting reality tv star, former-former washed up soldier from a now-dead planet, being chased by some folks who she sold a fake treasure map to (and one of whom who happens to be her old war-time captain, one Cordell Lamarr). Nilah meets Boots, both end up kidnapped (and later crew) on Cordell’s ship, and they’re all forced into a shared mission by the fact that the people who wanted Nilah dead now want all of them dead. At that point, it’s a race to try to find out the truth behind the people trying to murder them all before their pursuers succeed.

Before I get into it, let’s get this out of the way: this book is a magical space opera. It is a lot of things—a lot of things I like, I hasten to add—but “subtle,” “pensive,” and “meditative” are not words that are going to show up in this review. But then, if you’re looking for a quiet meditation on magic as a disability analogue, maybe a book called “A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe” isn’t the first place you’re going to look for that. It is, as the saying goes, exactly what it says on the tin.

That said, there’s a lot to love about this book. One of my favourite things is its diverse and endearing cast of characters. The author, Alex White, is autistic (which is, truth be told, why I picked the book up in the first place), and while there aren’t any explicitly autistic characters, most, if not all of them had character elements that felt welcoming to an autistic reader. Boots, for example (who I was completely unable to imagine as anyone other than Tig Notaro for some reason), has a condition referred to as “arcana dystocia”: unlike most of the people in the universe, her brain lacks the plumbing necessary to use magic. There are some…let’s say familiar…moments where other characters say they can’t imagine how she functions, and all she can do is respond with tired, dry wit and a shrug, as if to say she always has managed to function, so clearly their imagination isn’t required.

And there are plenty of others: Armin Vandevere, a socially-brusque datamancer, clearly has bouts of almost self-destructive hyperfocus; Orna Sokol has a delightfully-complete vacuum where any sense of guile would normally be found; and even the brilliant and popular Nilah mentally berates herself multiple times for misreading other characters’ emotional cues. There is a sad moment where [a certain character who shall remain nameless for spoiler reasons] is killed to basically put Boots further through the wringer and to up the ante, but when all of your most important characters are either disability analogues or queer, and you need to kill off an important character for narrative reasons, you’re going to end up killing somebody’s favourite.

And that’s another thing White doesn’t shy away from—the sheer number of terrible things that happen to these poor characters leaves the reader with the ongoing feeling that, in this universe, the consequences are very real. Anyone could die at any moment, even a character you love—and you are going to love some of these characters.

Fans of standalone works of fiction may be a little disappointed by what is clearly designed to be the first part of a much larger story, with threads left dangling both small and large. They range from tiny, gnawing questions like “what’s up with the uniforms on the soldiers they found on Alpha?” to broader concerns, like “well that’s an upsetting number of murdery, god-level villains left unaccounted for.” But one reader’s flaw is another’s feature, and fans of multi-book series will undoubtedly want to continue reading in order to find the answers.

Overall: “A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe” is a cinematic, fast-paced, compelling magical space opera with a great cast of characters and a real sense of consequences. If that sounds like your kind of book then it is definitely your kind of book.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

***

Notable side-note: Even though it’s in reference to the racing world, it’s still incredibly brave for an author to name the very first chapter “D.N.F.” Reader, as you can tell, I did in fact finish it.

***

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

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