The Battle of Yavin

Here’s how the Battle of Yavin (from “Star Wars: A New Hope”) breaks down when it’s analyzed using Chekhov’s 21-Gun Salute. You can read an introduction to the 21-Gun Salute method in last week’s post – the key to this method is that every character brings a gun to the battle, in the form of some ability to use or some character arc to wrap up, and every gun must be fired in an effective way.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Chekhov’s 21-Gun Salute: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Battle Scenes

I’ll tell you a secret: I’ve always had trouble focusing on battle scenes, either in movies and shows or in prose novels. There are so many moving parts, things whizzing by in so many directions that I forget what the point of it is – or else so many pages of tedious descriptions of troop movements that I forget what the point is of that, either. I like introspection, dramatic character interactions, and weird supernatural happenings. I can get spooky as hell, but I’m not much of a fighter.

But for THE INFINITE – Book 3 in the Outside series – I found myself in a jam. I’d written the story to a point where of course it needed to be solved with a big, final battle. I wanted to see the battle, the flashing lights and big sounds and drama of it all. But I didn’t know how to put one together in a way that made sense. It was a kind of scene that I knew wouldn’t come naturally.

So I set my mind to figuring out how battle scenes work. I pored over some of my favorite big battles from existing media – battles where even my battle-challenged mind stayed invested the whole way through. I broke them down into their component parts and I figured out what purpose each part served. In the process I came up with a system that allowed even me to write a final battle scene that my editors loved.

I’m going to share that system with you now.

(Read the full post on Substack)

The Autistic Community Is Actually Many Communities

All the talk of “community” last week has reminded me of something I don’t think we talk about often enough. We often talk about “the autistic community,” or similar things like “the queer community,” almost as a euphemism. We talk about “the community” as simply the set of all people in the world who are autistic. But if we define a community as a group of people who are actually in contact with each other in some meaningful way, then it becomes obvious very quickly that there isn’t one autistic community. There are a whole lot of small ones.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 71: Sanctuary

Cover of the book "Sanctuary" by Andi C. Buchanan. The cover shows a stylized, blue and green image of a bottle full of smoke.

Today’s Book: “Sanctuary” by Andi C. Buchanan

The Plot: A group of queer neurodivergent people live together in a haunted house. They are distressed and must get to the bottom of what’s going on when something starts to hurt the ghosts who live with them.

Autistic Character(s): Pretty much all of them! Plus the author.

I’ve written about planets of autistic people before, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book like “Sanctuary,” which presents a situation very much on this current planet – one that could be happening right now, except maybe for the ghosts – where a group of autistic people are doing relatively well in a communal living space they’ve created for themselves. There are a lot of things to like about “Sanctuary,” but my absolute favorite is its depiction of Casswell Park – the large, old, moldering mansion where the main characters live – and what life there is like. The book almost feels like a thought experiment in neurodivergent community, and on that front it roundly succeeds.

Which is not to say that life in Casswell Park is perfect. The place is big and run-down and needs a lot of repairs. The inhabitants are underemployed or intermittently employed, and no one ever quite has enough money. They scrimp and save for small luxuries – like the holiday dinner they’re having in the first scene, or the programmable lights that help soothe the protagonist Morgan’s nerves; but fully repairing the house is a task so large that it might never be completed. The residents are also frequently annoyed by ghost hunters, who see the ghosts of the house as a novelty to investigate and who aren’t very respectful of the residents’ (or the ghosts’!) boundaries. And that’s before they receive the mysterious delivery that starts to harm the ghosts, through some unknown means, and to threaten the living residents’ whole life there.

Buchanan’s characters – as is realistic, for certain kinds of autistic people – are intensely concerned with ethics. They’ve thought long and hard about how to be respectful both to each other and to the ghosts. The latter is refreshing – most depictions of ghosts in fiction don’t really treat them as people, in the sense of having human-like boundaries, needs, and preferences. Some ghosts are better able to interact with the physical world than others. They don’t speak, but the residents of Casswell Park have worked out a way of communicating with them – much as one might communicate with a non-speaking autistic person, offering tools such as letter boards to point to.

Like some authors I’ve reviewed before, Buchanan is careful to explain why their characters think or behave in the ways they do. There’s a real desire to lay out the steps of the logic so that a reader who doesn’t think like Morgan, or like one of their housemates, will be able to understand their motives. This goes for matters as simple as having lights that flash a certain color, or as high-stakes as how the characters respond to a break-in. This isn’t only a narrative technique, but also a character trait for Morgan, who ruminates and thinks about their reasons for doing something throughout any hour of the day. I appreciate how nuanced Buchanan’s explanations are, often illuminating a realistic subtlety of autistic experience, or a difference between two or more different autistic people, that you wouldn’t find in 101 materials:

Saeed and I sit on the bench outside the laundry room, waiting for the load to finish. On a bad day, noise like this is overloading, but today its repetition is comforting. It’s easier, too, to talk when I can’t hear myself.

This level of detail and explanation is also used for the characters’ paranormal experiences. Morgan has heightened perception, while Denny, an older resident, experiences occasional psychokinesis. Rather than being treated as super-powers, these descriptions match perfectly with accounts I’ve heard from people who are interested in the paranormal in real life:

If there’s a name for my ability, I don’t know it. I didn’t even know it was unusual until my teens. Simply put, I can detect lingering sensations attached mostly to places, sometimes to objects. Most of the time, it’s nothing more than that. I can walk into a house and know with utter certainty that something bad has happened there. I can be buoyed by the remnants of a celebration weeks later, one I never even knew happened. Ironically, given what people say about autistic people like me, it’s probably a form of hyper-empathy, but sometimes there’s a bit more to it. Perhaps a dozen times over my life, I’ve caught flashes of someone else’s memory, a brief image lost as suddenly as it’s seen, just slipping from my understanding like a half-remembered dream.
I don’t talk or think about it much. It’s not strong enough to have a significant effect on my life, and outside of this house – where I’m not the only one with an ability not yet explained by science – not that many people would believe me anyway.

There are occasional places where this focus on careful explanation gets in the way of the story. There’s a final fight scene, for instance, where the narrator takes such care to explain how they feel about fighting and what the fight means to them that I found it difficult to focus on what was physically happening. But for the vast majority of the book the explanations are lovely and thoughtful, painting a rich picture of what the characters’ lives are like, what they value, and how they think.

I don’t know what a neurotypical reader would think of it, but to me the life the characters in “Sanctuary” have built together feels peaceful and affirming. In a world where it’s hard for autistic people to get along with others – where there’s often high conflict for us, even within the community – “Sanctuary” shows autistic characters banding together and supporting each other in a way that doesn’t abstract away all those sources of conflict and difference, but instead shows how bridges can be built across them. It feels like a vision of what could be. It’s a balm to my soul. Also, there are ghosts.

Read this if you want a thoughtful, gently paced urban fantasy unlike any other I know of – and a diverse found family of autistic people who are there for each other no matter what.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Marie Kondo and Talking To My Clothes

One of the most distinctive parts of the KonMari method is the one where you talk to the objects in your house. It’s really an emotional method. You don’t just think in your head about whether you use the object enough to make it worth keeping around; you pick it up, you feel it in your hands, you see what emotions it sparks. If it doesn’t spark joy, you thank it for what it’s done for you before throwing it out or putting it in a box to give away.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 70: Azura Ghost

Today’s Book: “Azura Ghost” by Essa Hansen

The Plot: Threi and Abriss Cetre, two hyper-powerful villains from the previous book “Nophek Gloss,” are in a race to discover secrets that could change the whole structure of the multiverse. Caiden, our protagonist, must unravel the web of mysticism and manipulation that lies between them – and save his childhood friend, Leta, who has become one of Abriss’s servants.

Autistic Character(s): Leta (and the author)

I already liked the previous book in this series, “Nophek Gloss,” and I was excited to see what happened when Leta – a young supporting character, presumed to be dead, for most of the first book – came into her own as a co-protagonist. I was not disappointed. “Azura Ghost” is as vivid, imaginative, psychologically and philosophically complex as its predecessor – and it more than does justice to Leta as a powerful, vulnerable, grown-up autistic woman trying to untangle the influences that have led her where she is.

In the decade since Caiden last saw her, Leta has been transformed into a “Grave” – a modified being, imbued with psychic powers, able to shift her consciousness into a nearly indestructible artificial body, or to move it through a dimension called the “luminifery.” With these abilities, she serves Abriss, the Dynast in charge of most of the multiverse. The Graves are very powerful, but also very vulnerable; their modified bodies won’t survive for long if they aren’t regularly using their artificial ones. Abriss promises that her next breakthrough will solve these problems – but she hasn’t been right about that yet.

Abriss and Threi both possess an inborn ability called “gravitas.” The people around them are influenced by their presence, naturally love them and want to please them. Threi uses this ability more forcefully than Abriss, who makes a show of using gentle suggestions rather than commands. But both of them are used to the people around them fawning on them – and to the unpleasant awareness that this is the result of their power, rather than a connection they’ve earned.

Caiden has a degree of gravitas too, and is guilt-ridden about it. His efforts to avoid using his powers, and to punish himself for having them, actually cause more problems than they solve. They’re feelings he has to work through in order to achieve his aims and save the people he loves, even as he struggles with the ethics of who he is and what he’s doing.

I’ve talked before about manipulation as a theme in autistic fiction, and the existence of gravitas allows Hansen to deal with that theme in imaginative, fantastical, nuanced ways. Leta, being autistic, is more vulnerable to gravitas than most. But treating her as a helpless, deluded victim doesn’t get Caiden anywhere. Leta isn’t a simple naif, pulled this way and that unquestioningly – her training doesn’t allow her to be. We can see from her POV that she’s constantly thinking and calculating, trying to be sure whether or not the course she’s currently following is the right one. The narrative affords her a great deal of dignity and agency, even when we know – from context, from subtext, and from the narration in Caiden’s POV – that she’s been manipulated all her life. In the end the way Caiden repairs his relationship with her is by learning to respect her choices, giving her space to figure things out for herself – and listening to her insights.

Hansen brings this kind of nuance not only to the topic of manipulation but to the novel’s other themes. Much of the conflict between Abriss and Threi revolves around whether to keep the multiverse in its current state or whether to merge it into a single universe. This concept, which could be hopelessly abstract and MacGuffiny in a lesser writer’s hands (hi, Marvel; we are not going to talk about Marvel), is brought to life by the shades of personal meaning it has for the characters. We can see why the concept of merging universes might be so desperately important to Abriss, as well as why it might be ruinous for many others. And we can watch all sorts of other nuances come into play – such as the poignant scene where Leta and the other Graves discover that their vulnerabilities, including Leta’s sensory overload, affect them differently in different universes, and that Abriss has hidden this from them. Overall it shapes up into a conflict that might not have an easy binary answer – but the characters eventually find a satisfying course of action that suits their values and protects what they love.

This hovered very close to the “Highly Recommended” line for me – if it wasn’t the second book in a trilogy, if the themes of autism and manipulation and difference that it explores so deftly had come to a stronger conclusion, it might easily have vaulted into that category. Regardless, it’s a wonderful second book in a trilogy. It’s absolutely full of the vivid sensory invention, strong friendships, psychological and philosophical depth that Hansen did so well in the first book. I can’t wait to see what happens to Caiden, Leta, Threi, and Abriss next – but fortunately Book 3, ETHERA GRAVE, is coming in 2023.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

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

Marie Kondo and Neurodivergent Space

I’ve been meaning to write more about animism, and I’ve been wanting to write about Marie Kondo. It’s tricky because many miles of ink have already been spilled about Kondo. A subtle animism is central to the KonMari method – holding objects, thanking them, feeling their energy. This should be no surprise since Kondo herself is formerly a Shinto shrine maiden. But I’m not Japanese and there’s a limited amount I can intelligently say about that.

What I do want to talk about is how the KonMari method appeals to a subset of neurodivergent people, specifically.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 69: From a Shadow Grave

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 and poems, most of which incorporate queerness and/or neurodivergence in one way or another. They blog (infrequently) at richardfordburley.com and tweet (far too much) at @arreffbee.

Today’s Book: “From a Shadow Grave,” by Andi C. Buchanan

The Plot: A girl falls for the wrong man in 1932, dies, becomes a ghost, then doesn’t—and all of it has to do with a young woman named Aroha Brooke.

Autistic Character(s): The author, plus potentially the main character. Although it’s never explicitly stated, Phyllis is clearly neurodivergent, but living in a historical period (~1930s Wellington, New Zealand) that precludes diagnosis.

Back when I was a kid—let’s not talk about just how far back that is, exactly—there was a book series called “choose your own adventure.” Told in the second person, it guided you, the reader, through an adventure or a mystery, a plot that branched off in any number of ways. Usually, you kept a finger tucked in the last choice you doubted, so you could go back and try again if you met a bad end. Usually, you’d read it several ways, so that you could see all the endings. “From a Shadow Grave” saves you the trouble: it takes the reader through all of the endings without needing to choose, because all of the endings are true. And it starts with the bad end.

Set in the 1930s in Wellington, New Zealand, you are Phyllis Avis Symons, a girl with an unspecified learning disability whose parents never really thought would amount to much. You drop out of school, try to get work cleaning houses—which doesn’t work out too well since the Depression is in full swing—and you meet a nice man who takes you to the pictures. Things go well right up until you get pregnant, and after that, they go south in a hurry. And they do so in a way that leads to you haunting a freeway underpass for the next ninety years or so.

But also, that doesn’t happen.

And also it does happen, but it happens differently—and in all of the versions, the action comes back to a woman named Aroha Brooke, who’s variously the hero and sometime love interest of three of the four stories.

“From a Shadow Grave” tells its story (or stories) with multiple overlapping and interacting endings. In some versions it’s a ghost story, in others, it’s tale about trying to avoid becoming a ghost story. Coming in at just 98 pages, its form is experimental, almost poetic, and while that may pose a challenge for some readers, I found it drew me in. There were a couple of hiccups—moments where the dialogue felt a little more modern than I would have expected from a character from the 1930s, or where the flow of time caught me off guard, as though I hadn’t been able to keep up with the character development that had happened in the intervening years—but overall it was an enjoyable read, and a new experience for me.

Overall: I know that for some people, the form of the writing—the second-person, present-tense narrative, the deliberate fragmentation of the story—is going to be a dealbreaker. But if it isn’t a dealbreaker for you, I think you’ll enjoy it, and find yourself wanting more.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

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

Manipulation

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the role of manipulation in autistic fiction – villains who are manipulative, autistic characters who are prone to manipulation, and so on. Not every autistic person is easily taken advantage of, but for many this is our experience, especially when we’re younger. Taking what people say at face value, and being taught from an early age to ignore our gut responses, can produce unique vulnerabilities.

(Read the full post on Substack)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 68: The Unbalancing

[Note: This review contains ending spoilers.]

Today’s Book: “The Unbalancing” by RB Lemberg

The Plot: The Star of the Tides by the island of Gelle-Geu is restless, and the earth is becoming unstable. The impatient, decisive starkeeper Ranra Kekeri and the shy, reclusive poet Erígra Lilún come together in an attempt to heal the star and save their island before it’s too late.

Autistic Character(s): Erígra (and the author)

We’ve been reviewing Birdverse books here at Autistic Book Party for quite some time, but “The Unbalancing” is the first full-length Birdverse novel (and I’ve been very excited for it). It tells the story of a disaster that took place centuries before many other stories, and it should be accessible to a newcomer who hasn’t read any Birdverse before.

To get it out of the way – this is a disaster book, perhaps even a tragedy. The disaster eventually happens despite everyone’s best efforts. (The parallels to real-world climate change are obvious, though Lemberg doesn’t belabor them.) Nevertheless it’s a story told with tenderness and respect for the character’s efforts, and even with hope.

The tenderness and respect come through most strongly in how Lemberg writes Erígra Lilún. Erígra is autistic and easily overwhelmed, needing a lot of time and space to process what they experience. The poems they write are popular, and their magical power is significant, but at the beginning of the story these things barely register with Erígra; they’re not strongly embedded in the social groups that would give context and meaning to that kind of power, preferring instead to spend time on their own, write, and tend to growing things. The word “autism” isn’t used, but the concept comes across clearly:

I had always known I was different from others, and people had known this, too. As a child, I would curl upon myself sometimes, and rock on the floor until the buzzing grew softer. The healer-keepers came, and told my fathers not to worry so much. “They just need the world to be quieter, and less bright. Can you make them a comfortable place to relax?” What I wanted was a pool, so dads Veseli and Meron had labored for weeks to create my quiet place, and dad Genet planted the first vines, and taught me how to tend them.

 

Gelle-Geu culture is in many ways very accepting – as you can see in the excerpt above. This is also true when it comes to relationships. Queer and polyamorous relationships are the norm on Gelle-Geu, and nonbinary people – called “ichidi” – are firmly embedded in the culture, with their own traditional styles of hair and dress and with five recognized variations. The islands also seem to be a place where everyone is cared for, where social supports are robust, and where the populace is generally very happy.

But no culture is perfect, and Lemberg is careful to show us these nuances too. Asexual characters are recognized – the word for them is “adar” – but some of them feel alienated by the sensual and permissive way the people around them live. Abuse exists, and while there are healer-keepers who can intervene, it doesn’t fully heal or resolve the damage done. Erígra certainly feels alienated – the bustle and crowds of normal people’s activities are not comfortable for them, and they don’t seem to have found a community of others like them, or even to imagine that such a thing might exist.

But Erígra’s slowness and caution is also their strength. It makes them tender and caring and a good keeper of growing things. Their ancestor, the ancient starkeeper Semberí, wants them and not Ranra to be the starkeeper. Semberí senses that Erígra’s gentle patience is exactly what the Star of the Tides needs. But Erígra has no interest in such things. They don’t want the meetings and crowds that come with the job of starkeeper, since Gelle-Geu’s starkeeper is also essentially the head of government; and they have serious concerns about whether the star consents to being kept in the first place.

Semberí’s urgings, lead Erígra into the path of Ranra, who was only recently chosen to be starkeeper. Ranra is in many ways Erígra’s opposite – a determined, impatient, ambitious woman with a chip on her shoulder the size of a mountain. She, too, is aware of a problem with the Star of the Tides, and is determined to use her magical power to fix it. But, as Erígra cautions her, the star is a person – and people are not objects to be fixed.

Despite their differences there is a spark between Erígra and Ranra, a mutual fascination which blossoms into romance. Their first meeting starts off on the wrong foot – with Ranra initially suspicious of Erígra’s motives, then abruptly making a pass at them, which Erígra is too startled to accept. Nevertheless something draws both of them together again and again. There is a magical connection between them as well as a romantic one, with both of them easily combining their deepnames to create powerful effects. And the relationship is at its strongest when they learn to make space for each other’s different needs.

One of the best things about this book is how it honors Erígra’s need for space and slowness. This is a need which is subtler to grasp than “no loud noises” or “no sarcasm,” but for many of us it’s very real. After a challenging event, good or bad, Erígra needs time and space to process – and as the situation with the Star of the Tides worsens, there are many challenging events to choose from. In one memorable scene, both characters survive an earthquake. Ranra is galvanized by the experience and wants to swoop back to the starkeeper’s building to organize things, but Erígra badly needs to stop and sit. Ranra is confused, but slows and lets them sit. Eventually, Erígra is able to explain their needs:

I tucked the stone into my pocket and stood up, not looking at Ranra. “I will follow you, but I cannot look or touch right now.”
“Yes,” she said. “Are you all right?”
I shrugged. “I need to ruminate on things. When something happens, I go home to think about it. I write a poem. I go out to a gathering place to read the poem. People tell me what they think. I come back home and ruminate on that. I write some more, change things. In the mornings, I go to the grove, I tend to the quince trees, who don’t talk to me or tug at me.”

 

Ranra and Erígra’s relationship is strongest when they are able to make space for each other like this. But the worsening situation with the star is going to push both of them to their limit. Ranra isn’t always able to be patient with Erígra under the stress of the islands falling apart, and Erígra isn’t always able to follow where Ranra leads.

What is it that’s unbalanced in the Unbalancing? It’s the physical form and magical ecosystem of the island, and in certain senses it’s Ranra’s mind, but it’s also the tenuous, frequently disrupted connection between the two protagonists and their different approaches. They are at their strongest and healthiest by far when they both work together as two contrasting parts of the same system. They both fail a great deal, but they still come together when it is needed most.

Of course the disaster still does happen and the characters are forced to switch their efforts to surviving, to evacuating and saving as many people as they can. Lemberg handles this ending powerfully and carefully. It would be easy for a more careless author to blame the disaster on Erígra and their unwillingness to act when first asked – or on Ranra and her recklessness and callousness. Or, perhaps, on the ways they fail to work together fully. Throughout the book we see glimpses of what could be – if Erígra’s care and respect joined forces, for a longer time and more completely, with Ranra’s courage and vision. But if there is any single reason why their efforts fail, it’s something older and sadder than what either of them can control. The Star of the Tides carries traumas a thousand years in the making. It could have been saved, but that work would have had to start before either Erígra or Ranra were ever alive. All they can do is their imperfect best, with the imperfect power and information that remain to them. And that work, in the end, is not meaningless. It saves more, salvages more, than if everyone had continued not to try.

The Unbalancing is a heartrending book about power and responsiblity, the courage to act and the wisdom to think before acting; about relationships and collaborations that cross differences; about traumas and attempted healings, large and small; about what we can do and what we can save when it’s too late to avert the worst. It’s beautiful and queer and challenging and tender. And it’s a story that could not have been told without Erígra’s autistic point of view, without a deep respect for needs like Erígra’s, which comes from lived, thoughtful experience. I love all of RB Lemberg’s work, but I might love this book most out of any of them.

The Verdict: Highly Recommended

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