Autistic Book Party, Episode 65 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

David Hartley, “The Guest Book” (The Drabble, September 2019)

[Autistic author] An ominous bit of microfiction about a host and their guests. The way that the host lures the guests in, through an elaborate charade, strikes me as something an autistic author with experience masking is particularly well-positioned to write about. [Recommended-2]

[ETA: Somehow David Hartley got onto my list of autistic authors, but further research after writing this review reveals that although he works with autistic people and has a keen interest in autistic representation, he does not identify as autistic. I apologize for the mix-up.]

*

A.C. Buchanan, “I Will Teach You Magic” (Cossmass Infinities, Issue 4, January 2021)

[Autistic author] I love this piece, which is about magic as a metaphor for disability accommodations but also about imagining what would happen in a world where magic could be used that way. The sharp edges and humiliations of the systems that are meant to be helpful come across clearly – the need to prove the author is really disabled enough, the need to prove they’re only using the exact correct socially-approved magic for their condition, the way people look down on them thinking that using magic means they “have it easy.” But where the story really shines is in showing how both the narrator and the younger person they are addressing find their own ways of using the magic, their own joys and comforts, regardless of what the system says. [Recommended-2]

*

Bogi Takács, “All the Trees That Have Perished Alongside My Childhood” (The Deadlands, Issue 4, August 2021)

[Autistic author] An elegy for vanished trees and gardens which effortlessly shifts between the personal and the political. The narrator is someone who has fled Hungary because of its increasingly corrupt, oppressive government, and the poem examines the plant life that surrounded them once from multiple angles. The plants had personal, emotional importance for them, but the tragedy of their removal isn’t just about that – it’s one more sign of the government paving things over on every level, erasing certain things and people for its own convenience, including eventually the narrator’s ability to live there or to honor the missing trees as they feel they should. A sad, haunting read. [Recommended-2]

*

Ember Randall, “On the Tip of Her Tongue” (Cast of Wonders #486, October 2021)

A story about a non-speaking autistic girl named Aquila who uses magical AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) in her job taking care of sentient magical books, supervised by a caring bookwyrm and a very ableist, uncaring AI. When a power shortage knocks her preferred AAC device out of operation during an emergency, she has to scramble to cope. I have a few quibbles with this story (for instance, if the bookwyrm can talk but not pick books up, and Aquila can pick books up but can’t talk, why not have them work together more closely?) but in the main, it is a lovely story that shows tons of empathy for Aquila and her strengths, needs, and intelligence. I particularly like that it’s Aquila’s ability to care for the books and help them – even for harmful-seeming books that have been the cause of all the trouble – that resolves things in the end. [Recommended-1]

*

Rebecca Campbell, “The Language Birds Speak” (Clarkesworld, November 2021)

I’m kind of flailing trying to figure out how to express what I feel about this story, which is probably appropriate given the subject matter. It’s a story about a mother named Gracie and her very young son Alex, both of whom have expressive language issues but also find themselves speaking small bits of a mysterious language, written as “[]”, which allows them to convey their sensory and emotional experience directly and even control the world around them. Naturally, a group of scientists become interested; naturally, the scientists are shady as fuck, and Gracie has to figure out how to deal with that.

The word “autism” never appears in this story, but it’s shown with so many details and talked around with such deliberate care, in a story which is overall meticulous about having done its psychological research and citing its sources, that I fully believe autism is in there on purpose. Gracie’s autistic traits manifest not only as an expressive language difficulty, which is written very believably and with great care, but as anxiety, sensory overwhelm, hyperempathy, and a full range of plausible autistic traits; what’s more, she works around and tries to live with those traits in ways that are very familiar to me, including masking, rehearsing conversations, and relying on a more expressive partner. The elision of autism, as a specific, nameable word, is made impossible to ignore with lines like these:

“I wasn’t ever diagnosed.” she began. “I’ve been through a bunch of. You know. Sensory stuff. Anxiety. No diagnosis. But I always wondered if.”

Normally I like autism stories to come out and say the word to avoid ambiguity, but in a story like this – where the main characters have something going on that presents as a form of autism, but is also mystical and fantastical in a whole other way; and where there’s such emphasis on the limits of normal, verbal language as opposed to direct transmission of experience – it feels like the negative space created by not naming it may have been exactly the right call.

Anyway. Everything in this story is really well drawn, from Gracie’s mix of neurodivergent kinship with and concern for her son, to the husband who’s supportive but doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, to the way sensory overload and overwhelmed reactions are handled, to the yearning for a way to fully express oneself, to the evil doctors themselves – who start out with an easy charm that makes Gracie feel at home with them, and who slowly, steadily reveal themselves to be worse and worse and worse. (As a cognitive scientist I really appreciated all the little references to real psychology, including horribly unethical parts of psychology’s history; despite its fanciful premise this really does feel like a work of hard science fiction, in which psychology is the science in question.) It gets scary in places, but it’s a beautiful story and well worth the ride. [Recommended-1]

*

Will McIntosh, “Mom Heart” (Clarkesworld, November 2021)

A widower tries to console his grieving children, one of whom is autistic, by pretending that their mother’s soul inhabits a household robot. This is an interesting story that raises questions about appropriate responses to grief and the ethics of well-intentioned lies. The narrator in this story clearly cares about his autistic daughter, Karina, but he lacks the connection with her that her mother had, and many of his attempts at help early in the story – nagging her into hugs she doesn’t want, physically forcing her into eye contact – feel misguided at best.

It’s good that by the end of the story, the narrator realizes that he can connect to Karina through imagination and play – and that he actually had this ability all along. But, given the tendency of autistic people to be particularly intolerant of lies, I really wonder how Karina is going to feel about these events when she looks back on them later in life. That – along with the cluelessness about an autistic child’s specific needs, the portrayal of understandably concerned teachers as the enemy, and the general trope of a mediocre dad who is treated as the story’s hero for eventually getting some of his shit together – leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. [Not Recommended]

*

Jennifer Lee Rossman, “Epicenter” (Hexagon, Issue 7 – Winter 2021)

[Autistic author] This is a fun, breezy story in which Val, a self-described “crypto-seismologist,” helps get to the bottom of a series of earthquakes which she believes might be caused by a Mongolian death worm. I talk sometimes about how the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in media, rather than existing solely as a male fantasy, can be a portrait of a particular kind of non-neurotypical woman. Although Val’s neurotype isn’t mentioned at all, she’s a really fun example of that type – passionate about her unusual interests, unflaggingly enthusiastic, dressing and acting as she pleases even when others don’t know what to make of her. The story draws a good balance between showing the trouble Val’s traits can get her into, the humor that she unintentionally causes, and the doubts she has about herself, while also keeping her the hero of the story and allowing her unusual skills to prove genuinely useful for saving the day. [Recommended-1]