Autistic Book Party, Episode 75: Geometries of Belonging

Cover of the book "Geometries of Belonging" by RB Lemberg. The cover art depicts a stylized bird spreading its wings under a crescent moon.

Today’s Book: “Geometries of Belonging,” a short story collection by R.B. Lemberg

Autistic Character(s): The author – and more!

R.B. Lemberg’s Birdverse will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog. It’s an intricate fictional world that Lemberg has developed over many years with autistic fervor. Now there’s a whole collection focused solely on Birdverse short stories, novelettes, and poetry. I’ve given Recommended ratings to quite a few Birdverse stories before, all of which appear in this collection, as follows:

Short stories and Novelettes: The titular short story “Geometries of Belonging”; “The Book of How to Live”; “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar;” “A Splendid Goat Adventure”

Poetry: “I will show you a single treasure” [the title of this poem has been slightly altered as it appears in the collection]

(I have also reviewed the Birdverse novellas The Four Profound Weaves and A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power, and the novel The Unbalancing, which do not appear in the “Geometries” collection; although one poem, “Ranra’s Unabalancing,” describes many of The Unbalancing’s events.)

There are also many more stories and poems which are excellent, but which I simply did not review here. (Many autistic authors are quite prolific and, as a reviewer, my goal is not to comprehensively review all of their short work, even if I like it, but to sample a range of authors and review the short work I have something to say about.)

So it almost goes without saying that I also recommend this collection, which is full of the best Birdverse stories you may already know and a few obscure gems that you probably don’t.

There’s always been a sense of care and empathy in Lemberg’s stories, in which characters (often queer and/or disabled) are exquisitely human, flawed and worth loving; social power dynamics are thoughtfully examined; magic itself is entangled with the need to consider the individuality and consent of all beings. But there’s an aliveness that emerges from the placement of all of these works together which is greater than the sum of its parts. Birdverse isn’t the home of one set of protagonist characters, or one important country whose history progresses through the ages. It’s a rich tapestry in which all sorts of wildly different characters, in wildly different circumstances, interconnect. A magical tapestry is woven, passes through many hands as it makes its way to the greedy ruler who will buy it, and those hands in turn have their own stories, which are less about the tapestry and more about family, gender, and belonging. A nation of refugees flee a disaster, find a new home, make and break magical agreements with the land, and a thousand years later a new set of refugees comes to them on uneasy terms. Magical characters have absurd, light-hearted adventures in the pursuit of their research; magical characters struggle greatly and seriously with the weight of their responsibilities, and save the land from disaster, and have PTSD from their attempts to save the land; meanwhile non-magical characters face discrimination, in the face of one country’s magical snobbery, and agitate for institutional change. There is no one story and that’s the point. Everyone is alive, everyone is connected, and everyone is human.

There are autistic characters in several stories, although it’s not the focus of the collection. The title story in particular is a lovely tale of autism, consent, and healing without curing; you can read more of my thoughts about it at the link above.

Anyway I quite like this book; Birdverse fans would do well to pick it up and complete their collections.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

Autistic Book Party, Episode 74: The Luminous Dead

Cover of "The Luminous Dead" by Caitlin Starling. The title appears on yellow letters on a dark blue background, above a picture of a globed hand desperately grabbing at a rock.

Today’s Book: “The Luminous Dead” by Caitlin Starling

The Plot: Gyre is a cave explorer on an alien planet, where cavers have to go to extreme lengths and wear specially modified suits to hide the signs of their biological presence from a monster called the Tunneller. They’re guided by controllers at the surface who can remotely communicate with them and modify the suit’s workings from a distance if necessary. But as Gyre gets deeper and deeper into the cave, her controller, Em, is beginning to seem increasingly untrustworthy…

Autistic Character(s): The author!

When I first read this book a few years ago, Starling wasn’t publicly out as autistic, but she has since begun to discuss it publicly while promoting her second novel, The Death of Jane Lawrence. That’s a book I’m looking forward to reading but haven’t gotten to yet – so in the meantime, I thought I’d tell you all about how I loved The Luminous Dead instead.

This is a very creepy book!! Caving is creepy!! The level of physical control Em has over Gyre, as well as emotional control thanks to Gyre’s sheer isolation – alone in the darkness for weeks on end with only Em to talk to – is also creepy! It’s a sci-fi horror and Starling knows how to milk the creep factor for all it’s worth. You can expect underwater scenes, malfunctioning and missing equipment, injuries sustained when there’s no one to come fix them, involuntary drugging, betrayal, manipulation, and growing uncertainty about what is and isn’t even real down here. As well as the Tunneller itself, a constant ominous lurking presence. I found myself turning the pages compulsively out of a sheer dread-fueled need to see what happened next, finishing the book almost faster than I could help myself.

The heart of the book, though, is the dynamic between Gyre and Em – a sort of constantly shifting, mutually mistrusting trauma-bond that never quite settles into easily digestible shape. It’s also queer. (I remember Starling quipping on social media, somewhere, that this was a book for people who had a crush on GLaDoS.) Em manipulates Gyre in ways that can’t be met with something as simple as forgiveness – especially when Gyre is still down there in the cave, under her control. As her secrets begin to come out, they serve both to humanize her and to underscore the monstrousness of the things she’s done before and is willing to do again. Yet it could just be that, if Gyre wants to survive and Em wants what she’s looking for down in the caves, they might just have to treat themselves as being on the same side – and to find some scrap of empathy for each other, somewhere.

Anyway, if you like creepy books and caves then you should check this one out. That’s all I have to say.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Autistic Book Party, Episode 73: The Timematician

Cover of the book "The Timematician" by Steven Bereznai. A pink skinned robot woman and a man in a face-concealing leather hood pose together above a stylized graphic of a watch.

Today’s Book: “The Timematician: A Gen M Novel” by Steven Bereznai

The Plot: Doctor BetterThan, a genius supervillain who can manipulate time, uses his powers to wipe out all life on earth. Then he has to deal with the consequences – including a mysterious robot woman who seems determined to undo his work.

Autistic Character(s): Doctor BetterThan himself – and the author.

I find that I struggle to review comedies. I’ve done it before (see, for example, “The Damned Busters“) but it always throws me off my game. Normally we don’t want autistic traits to be exaggerated and played for laughs. So what happens in a genre where everything is exaggerated and played for laughs? You have to just suspend your disbelief and go with it.

“The Timematician” is not only a comedy about an autistic person – it’s about an autistic villain, who’s not only played for laughs but is also manifestly a terrible person. Obviously I don’t mind autistic villains or unlikeable characters – I’ve written them myself – but as a reviewer it introduces an additional level of wow-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-this-book.

What I’m saying is that I picked up “The Timematician” feeling curious, but very dubious and unsure if it would ever win me over.

To my surprise, it mostly did.

It helps that Bereznai’s narrative voice is really engaging. Picture the most gleefully cheesy supervillain monologue you’ve ever heard, and that’s your narrator. Everything feels brightly-colored, vivid and quick-moving in the best comic book tradition.

Doctor BetterThan’s autism informs his character deeply (he also has a physical disability). It influences the devices he’s created, including a “social-ometer” that helps him to decode neurotypical characters’ intentions. It also, even more interestingly, affects his style of villainy:

Growing up, I thought that throwing in bits of fancy talk would give me a rougish quality my classmates would ooh and aah over. As with the application of many skills in the spheres of adolescent sociability, I miscalculated. No one understood me or even tried – which prepared me well for adulthood.
“The fools of this world had no use for me,” I say aloud, “well, the feeling is mutual.”
Genetrix bleeps in a womp-womp way.
“Genetrix,” I chide, “sarcasm is the refuge of the inferior.”
I know she’s being sarcastic – a deplorable and cruel form of irony that’s somehow crept into her code – because an inverted question mark pluses on her face. Genetrix bleeps in response.
“Well, people should like know-it-alls,” I answer, “because we know it all.”

The genius villain who feels that no one appreciates their genius is not a new trope; it’s a staple of superhero fiction, and it’s probably always autistic-coded (or at least non-neurotypical-coded) to a degree. But Bereznai brings that connection to the foreground and, by doing so, arguably makes it more interesting. There were a lot of points in the book where I had to stop and think – not because autism changes any of the ethical considerations of being a supervillain, but simply because I recognized the type of person Doctor BetterThan is. We’ve all known autistic people, men in particular, who respond to the pain of ableist social ostracization by retreating into a fragile, narcissistic self-concept – into the idea that because of their intelligence alone, they’re superior to the people who have hurt them.

By foregrounding autism and slotting it into the familiar structure of a supervillain’s grandiosity, Bereznai accomplishes several things. He shows how absurd and unhelpful this kind of superiority complex really is, how instantly familiar it feels even in the absurd, exaggerated setting of a supervillain comedy, how fragile it is and how it’s always on the verge of falling apart – but also how real and visceral and familiar the pain is that lurks underneath it.

In men, this type of complex often comes with a helping of misogyny and a feeling of entitlement to female attention – and that’s a part of Doctor BetterThan’s character, too. I’m not always quite sure what I think of the dynamic between him and his rival supervillain, Mairī Lin. There’s a trope of misogynist man gets redeemed because a cute girl paid attention to him which I’m not super-fond of, and “The Timematician” sometimes veers a little too close to that for my liking. But there’s also an ambiguity about whether that’s what’s really going on, even at the end; and the super-powered back-and-forth between the characters – full of flirting one moment and double-crossing the next, quick-growing crystals, and armies of color-coded, squabbling robots – was enjoyable enough to keep me engaged.

(Admittedly, I’m more willing to have patience with tropes like these from an author who, like Bereznai, is openly queer. And there’s a queer undertone to Doctor BetterThan despite the m/f romance; his most treasured childhood memory, for instance, is an opera aria that he once performed in drag.)

Anyway, this whole book is really goofy and also a surprisingly fun ride. If you have dreamed of grandiose autistic villainy in a brightly colored comic book world, then you should check it out.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

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

Autistic Book Party, Episode 66: Love/Hate

Today’s Book: “Love/Hate” by L.C. Mawson

The Plot: An autistic teenager is recruited to a superhero team where everyone’s powers are based on emotion. Her power is Love – but she has a serious crush on another superhero her age, whose power is Hate. Since they are opposites, if they get together, they risk cancelling each other’s powers out. Can they make it work? And can they defend their city from monsters?

Autistic Character(s): Claire, the main character; as well as several minor characters, and the author.

This is just an adorable book. Maybe that is a condescending adjective? But it is the most accurate one for my feelings about what I just read. It’s fluffy and frothy and sweet, in spite of the level of violence and danger that can be expected in a superhero story. Love and Hate are both adorable. Their teammates are adorable. I don’t know what to say.

In terms of autism representation, Claire is a well-drawn character; her autistic traits inform the story through many little details – from her stimming and sensory reactions, to her attitude to schoolwork that doesn’t tie in to her interests, to her small worries about how her words are being interpreted in a conversation, to the way she responds mentally and verbally when overwhelmed. These details are constantly present without ever overwhelming the narrative.

One of the most interesting character details in the story has to do with the relationship between a superhero’s personality and their powers. A hero has to actually feel the appropriate emotion in order for their powers to work, and for some of them, this proves a challenge. Claire is selected for the role of Love through a process that she doesn’t control, and she struggles to believe she is the right person for the job. This might become tiresome quickly if her reason for struggling was her autism, but Mawson takes a different tack. Claire is an orphan, with no memories of her family and no other particularly close relationships, and she doesn’t think of herself as being especially good at giving or receiving love. It takes time for her to get a sense of how suited she really is for the role.

Although Claire’s romantic tension with Hate is a big part of the book, her discovery of her powers doesn’t revolve only around the romance arc. Instead her moments of greatest power come when she is trying to protect people she cares about, including Hate but also many other friends and people on her team. Claire’s capacity for fierce protectiveness, and for empathy in unexpected directions – even towards some of the monsters she’s fighting! – really comes through on the page. It’s a lot of fun to watch an autistic character discover these capacities within herself, and it’s even more fun because autism isn’t explicitly presented as a major obstacle to this process. It’s simply another part of Claire, and another one of many reasons why her way of embracing Love’s role won’t necessarily look the way she expects it to.

Nor is Claire the only one whose way of fitting her role is unexpected. The previous Love on the team, who died shortly before Claire arrived, was an abuse survivor who took a long time to accept that there was anything good or loving about her. Serenity is still grieving the loss of the previous Love, and has to constantly fight to access the calm that usually powers her. Loneliness, most amusingly, is an incredibly hot girl, and Claire struggles to understand how she could ever feel lonely – until Loneliness explains that she is autistic, too.

Mawson also has a fun, breezy way of dealing with the people whose powers involve a more difficult emotion, without demonizing them for having it:

Hate let out a bark of laughter. “I swear, I don’t brood that much. Just enough to keep my power level up.”

“Your power level?”

“Yeah. I am the literal embodiment of Hate, so my power works better when I hate stuff.”

“Like what?”

She shrugged. “When I was younger, I used myself as a target a lot. Then Empathy practically pleaded with me to stop a couple of years ago. Now I just fixate on small annoyances. Currently, I hate the local burger place for not selling mozzarella sticks all of the time.”

Did I mention Hate is adorable? Hate is adorable. She is Korean and has ADHD and paints and wears a leather jacket. I would love to see more autistic-ADHD relationships in fiction and I really did root for her and Claire the whole way through.

Anyway, this book is very non-neurotypical and this book is really fun. If you want some cute, sweet, sapphic YA superheroes in your life, you should check it out.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

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

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

Cover of the book "A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe" by Alex White. The title and author are written over top of a n image of clouds and a dark sky.

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.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 62 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Nancy Kress, “End Game” (Asimov’s, 2007; I read it reprinted in the August 2013 issue of Lightspeed)

This story is about a man named Allen who wishes to research drugs to improve his focus, and who ends up accidentally creating a contagious illness that makes people hyperfocus to the point of being unable to think of anything but a single interest.

Autism is not ever mentioned by name in this story, but it’s a presence throughout. Even before Allen begins experimenting to try to artificially induce hyperfocus, he is depicted with stereotypical autistic traits – blunt, inept with manners, emotionally distant and inclined toward monologues. Jeff, the story’s narrator, finds him irritating. His research, as it progresses, only exacerbates these traits – in him, in a test subject named Lucy, and eventually in everyone else.

Kress’s Author Spotlight for this story says: “Allen’s POV would be too hard for me to write, and too hard for readers to identify with. For this sort of story, you want someone who can observe the horror, not be the horror.” And this more or less sums up the problems I encountered while reading the story. Allen’s research begins to focus people to a debilitating degree, but he’s othered from the very beginning. Even his parents as a teenager are frightened of him. Even Jeff’s wife, who is described as warm, empathetic, and interested in eccentricity, finds Allen intolerable once she’s had to sit through a dinner with him. Like Vernor Vinge (who wrote about extreme artificially-induced focus, in a different but related way, in “A Deepness In The Sky”) Kress isn’t at all interested in the experiences and perspectives of autistic people, but only in how their autistic traits might serve as a metaphor for her own questions about focus, distraction, and their appropriate roles in a neurotypical mind.

Moreover, it’s puzzling that Allan – despite having a doctorate and having done a lifetime of research into the mind, and despite being strongly autistic-coded himself – doesn’t seem to have ever heard of autism. If he’s heard of it, he expresses no thoughts about it, even as it pertains to his research. The fact that he’s had intense and unpredictable interests all his life – which is an autistic trait – doesn’t seem to register to him as being relevant to a research program which is entirely about being able to focus on intense interests.

I am by no means an #ownvoices purist – I think non-autistic people can and do write autism well. But this is the kind of story that I think could have been much better and much more interesting if it was, in fact, written by an autistic author. We actually have very nuanced experiences around our special interests and our ability to hyperfocus. There is joy in such experiences that goes beyond merely the joy of being able to tune out distractions (though that’s part of it). There is also struggle, because our interests and their intensity can be socially unacceptable, because we can be subject to coercion around them, and because they can get in the way of self-care and other life activities. If Allan’s perspective had been written in a way that intelligently addressed this, and that thought deeply about the trade-offs inherent in being able to intensify or control a special interest, then this would have been a very different story and I would have liked it much more. It could still be a horror story, as Kress intended – there would still be lots of room for Allan’s process to get out of control and have unintended effects – but it would be a much more complex and empathetic one. [Not Recommended]

*

Ren Basel, “The Queen of Cups” (self-published, March 2019)

[Autistic author] Theo, a nonbinary youth from a family of sailors, must consult an Oracle before their first journey. For mysterious reasons, the Oracle insists on accompanying them to sea. This is the kind of fantasy story that many readers will find comforting for its matter-of-fact treatment of gender and neurodivergence in a world where discrimination is absent. Theo is never explicitly labeled as non-neurotypical, but their synesthesia and need to stim are a part of their character consistently throughout the story. Theo’s use of a beaded bracelet to relieve stress is a very simple thing, but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen stim toys integrated into a fantasy setting in this way before, matter-of-factly or otherwise. [Recommended-1]

*

Robin M Eames, “crip mythic” (Cordite Poetry Review, May 2019)

[Autistic author] This is a poem about physical disability, not autism, but autistic readers will relate very hard to lines like “my body is not my body / but a metaphor in someone else’s mouth” and to the poem’s overarching theme – what it’s like to live a life that others see as a horror and a cautionary tale, and to still fiercely value your life and self. [Recommended-2]

*

Andi C. Buchanan, “Even the Clearest Water” (Fireside, July 2020)

[Autistic author] In this story, Buchanan takes an #ownvoices approach to the issue of autistic people wandering and drowning, and of the idea that autistic children are “drawn to water.” The narrator is a faerie being who lives in a river, and who’s willing to save human visitors from drowning – for a price. They encounter a non-speaking autistic child, and later realize that the child’s mother – also autistic, though able to speak and hold a job – is also someone they saved years earlier. Despite the dark subject matter (the child has to be saved from accidental drowning, and the mother’s first encounter with the narrator was a suicide attempt) the story feels sweet and oddly comforting, as the narrator is drawn, through a playful approach to their own system of prices and debts, into a family-like relationship with both mortals. [Recommended-1]

*

R.B. Lemberg, “Stone Listening” (Strange Horizons tenth anniversary issue, August 31, 2020)

[Autistic author] This poem is a tribute to a book by Ursula K. LeGuin that I haven’t read, so I am not the person to comment on it at length, but I love it so much. There’s a lot packed in here about survival in a world where very little will survive, about honoring death and grief and hope without forcing them into a narrative larger than themselves – a lot that feels uncomfortably relevant to today’s crises, despite having come from another time and another world. [Recommended-2]

*

Arula Ratnakar, “Lone Puppeteer of a Sleeping City” (Clarkesworld, September 2020)

[Autistic author] This is a fascinating hard sci-fi story with a lot going on. Thanks to climate change, humans are preparing to go into a hibernation of sorts while robots repair the world’s fragile ecosystems. The narrator, Onyx, is an artificial intelligence preparing simulated worlds for the humans to experience while they’re asleep – but she forms a bond with one young human, Eesha, which will profoundly change her own fate.

I’m not doing the story justice by focusing on just one aspect, but what’s especially fascinating to me, from a neurodiversity perspective, is the way Ratnakar handles different kinds of minds. There are regular humans, and there are human minds uploaded into computer systems, and there are cyborgs called Diasteroms who are born with modified brains, and there is Onyx, who is sufficiently different from all these groups as to have trouble communicating with them. Both the Diasteroms – who we don’t see much of, but who are subject to prejudice and suspicion – and Onyx herself could be seen as loose metaphors for neurodivergent humans. Onyx’s experiences are described this way:

The other children did not want to play with you either—or rather, they did not know that you wanted to play with them. They could not tell what you were feeling, what you were thinking. They knew you as a fascinating entity that they should treat with respect, but they did not consider you one of them.

But Eesha, while a normal human, feels different from the other children. She feels an immediate kinship with Onyx and has a much easier time communicating with her than other humans. It’s hinted, though not spelled out, that Eesha is neurodivergent herself, and the close bond between her and Onyx – something none of the other characters can understand – is what drives this story at its heart. [Recommended-2]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 62: The Four Profound Weaves

Cover art of "The Four Profound Weaves." The title is displayed on an illustration of a scroll, with motifs of flying birds and bones.

Today’s Book: “The Four Profound Weaves” by R.B. Lemberg

The Plot: A nameless man and a woman named Uiziya set out in search of Uiziya’s aunt, a master weaver who could weave cloth out of death.

Autistic Character(s): The author!

R.B. Lemberg has been writing stories in the magical setting of Birdverse for many years, but this novella is in many senses their debut – the first work they’ve released as a physical, standalone, single-work book. (Though it’s not their first novella; that would be “A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power,” which was published in installments in the magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies.)

The nameless man – called “nen-sasaïr,” or “son of sandbirds,” for much of the story – and Uiziya are both older protagonists, feeling lost and stuck in their lives until they see some spark in each other that spurs them to act on their dreams. Nen-sasaïr, a trans man who transitioned late in life, wants to rejoin his birth culture – which has extremely strict binary gender roles, to the point of sequestering men completely, and is not particularly trans-accepting. Uiziya, a weaver, wants to rejoin her aunt Benesret, who mentored her at weaving. Benesret could weave wondrous carpets out of all sorts of materials, including death itself, but her powers come with a terrible price.

One of the joys of Birdverse is how interconnected everything is. Like many autistic authors who fixate on worldbuilding, Lemberg has put immense thought, detail, and love into this fictional world, and many of its stories draw on characters or ideas from other stories. Longtime Birdverse readers will note that nen-sasaïr is a character from the novelette “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” who transitioned at the end of that story, and that one of Benesret’s carpets is the same carpet described in the poem “I will show you a single treasure from the treasures of Shah Niyaz.” That Shah himself appears as the story’s antagonist, as the meeting with Benesret balloons into a larger quest. However, to readers who are new to Birdverse, this story explains itself well enough to stand on its own.

Kimi, an autistic child from “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” also has a cameo in this book – they’re twelve now, and it’s delightful to see them happy and building their skills, including having made a magic carpet of their own.

Both Uiziya and nen-sasaïr are trans characters, but with very different life experiences. Nen-sasaïr struggles with a cissexist birth culture and with prior relationships that didn’t accept him, but gender transition is commonplace in Uizia’s culture, and she transitioned in a magical ritual when she was very young. While Uiziya treats gender matter-of-factly, nen-sasaïr has more difficult experiences as he tries to imagine himself in the cultural role that he always longed for. Lemberg describes these experiences with remarkable nuance:

I would be among men.

Among scholars.

I had dreamt of this day so many times, ever since I was little. I dreamt of running through one of these gates unnoticed, as a child, sneaking in before my grandmothers could stop me. I would hide among the narrow streets of men, unseen until I learned how to better pass among them. I would sneak into the holy rooms where boys my age learned the writ. I would become a ghost, learning the writ in secret while the boys slept.

Later, after Benesret’s promise, returning from the desert with the small cloth of winds in my hands, I began to fantasize about entering the gate not as a ghost, but as a man who had a right to be there. And that was when my mind would hiccup and withdraw, for how would I prove— how would I fit— even having the right body, but not the lifetime of learning, how would I fit on the men’s side?

The quest that leads Uiziya and nen-sasaïr into the heart of a cruel empire is an uplifting one, despite its dark themes – how to respond in the face of tyranny, how to honor the dead, how to attempt to right wrongs that can never be fully undone. Hope and death, two of the four profound weaves of the title, are inextricably intertwined.

Aside from Kimi’s cameo, there isn’t much direct autism rep in this book, but it’s a wonderful book.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

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

Autistic Book Party, Episode 61: Displacement

Today’s Book: “Displacement” by Richard Ford Burley.

The Plot: Jamie, a teenage punk at an elite prep school, develops a mysterious illness – and wakes up having transformed into a perfect copy of his dead twin sister. As he and his friends try to cope with whatever just happened, the truth about Jamie’s body – and his sister’s – connects to a series of conspiracies far stranger than they ever could have guessed.

Autistic Character(s): The author, as well as a girl in Jamie’s class named Tina – more on her later.

Although I mostly enjoyed Burley’s previous book, “Mouse,” I really had no idea what to expect going in to this one. The “boy wakes up in a female body” trope is one that many trans readers rightly view with suspicion. Fortunately Burley, who is nonbinary himself, approaches the topic with nuance. And while gender is a major part of Jamie’s character arc throughout the book, it quickly transpires that there are far wilder things afoot than a gender transition.

To get the gender aspect out of the way, though – Jamie, who soon takes the more androgynous name Leigh, is realistically confused and upset as he adjusts to a body that causes dysphoria for him. He sticks to he/him pronouns throughout the book, and experiences some of the microaggressions and awkward moments that are realistic for a trans boy at a not-very-progressive upper-class boarding school. These moments are handled with nuance and care, and they don’t take over the story. Meanwhile, as Leigh adjusts to his new social role, he starts to realize that he might not have been fully comfortable as a boy either, and that it might be more accurate to call himself nonbinary.

The big, cosmic, weird shit aspects of the story don’t really begin to come together until halfway through, but they’re worth the wait. Fortunately the time spent waiting for them – as Leigh and a plucky, punky group of school friends hang out together, start a band, play pranks, deal with gender feelings and so on, and as mysterious messages from an ominous entity called “Betza” begin to arrive – is entertaining enough in its own right. I won’t spoil what turns out to be going on, but it involves secret weapons, alternate universes, runaway AI, and nanotechnology… just for starters. Even given the strangeness of the incident that starts out the story, Leigh and his friends are in for a much wilder ride than they know.

Autism isn’t foregrounded in this story, but the group of friends accompanying Leigh on his adventure includes an autistic classmate named Tina. I really like how Tina is written – she might be one of the best examples of an autistic secondary character / sidekick, seen through non-autistic protagonists’ eyes, that I’ve ever read. She’s quiet and mousy, but she loves the same music as the main characters, and she asks to join the band that they’re starting; as soon as the main characters hear how she can play the bass guitar, she’s instantly one of them. She’s clever in a realistically autistic way – noticing small details, at several points, that the others miss – without being turned into a cleverness plot device. The main characters notice her differences, but they’re genuinely happy to have her around.

There’s another minor character who reads as possibly autistic to me – a prickly computer scientist named Faye, who’s happy to spend all of her time alone in a lab developing her pet project instead of bothering dealing with humans. But we don’t see enough of Faye to make me confident saying it for sure.

Overall this is much more a story about gender, otherness, family bonds, and friendship than a story about autism – but it’s a surprisingly fun ride, and well worth picking up.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Autistic Book Party, Episode 60 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, “Mr. Try Again” (Nightmare, March 2018)

[Autistic author] When Merc does straight-up horror, they do NOT fuck around. This story will make your skin crawl. It involves a gruesome monster who eats boys and imprisons girls, a girl who got away from him, how she lives as an adult with her trauma and the things she has been made to do – and how she responds when things come full circle and she returns to confront the monster again. It’s really effectively done, and the imprisoned girls get their revenge in the end. [Recommended-2]

*

Bogi Takács, “Continuity Imperative” (The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol 7. No. 1, 2017)

[Autistic author] A short poem about the attempt of an engineer to fix an injured biological spaceship. Visceral and urgent, easily capturing the engineer’s desperation. [Recommended-2]

*

Brendan Williams-Childs, “Schwaberow, Ohio” (Meanwhile, Elsewhere, 2017; I read it reprinted on Medium)

Walt, a trans autistic teen in the rural Midwest, deals with dysfunctional, ableist caregivers and with the political spectre of invasive neurological treatments which are becoming increasingly common as “cures” both for autism and for gender dysphoria. This type of story and setting are a hard sell for me but Walt is a kind of autistic protagonist we need to see more of – not only for his transness but for his cultural position (he’s a confused, working-class boy in the country, not any kind of STEM genius) and for his difficulties with expressive speech. The narration is matter-of-fact and shows the atypical patterns of Walt’s thinking and the wrongness of the dismissive ways he’s treated, along with an alertness and thoughtfulness beyond what is apparent to the other characters.

The story is of course anti-cure, but I am slightly uneasy with how the cure theme is handled. Walt’s unwillingness to be cured is based mainly in a knee-jerk horror of the idea of brain implants coupled with strong dehumanization of public figures who do have them. He’s right to be horrified by non-consensual neurological treatment, but the dehumanization angle bothers me, especially when it lumps in other forms of assistive cyborg technologies along with the brain implants. I don’t think that this is a story that would come off well for readers with prosthetic limbs, for instance. [YMMV]

*

Richard Ford Burley, “A Study in Pink and Gold” (Abyss & Apex, June 2019)[Autistic author] This is the story of a painter and a group of aliens, called “Drifters,” which have mysteriously appeared on Earth and are unaggressive but difficult to communicate with. The painter’s patient, careful observation of them on their own terms leads to a strange, lifelong cross-species friendship. There’s no overt autism in this story, but the wordless and peaceful interactions between human and alien in the story will ring true to many autistic people’s experiences, either with each other or with other kinds of people and creatures; or, for some, it is a kind of interaction we long to have. [Recommended-2]

*

Yoon Ha Lee, “The Mermaid Astronaut” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 27, 2020)

[Autistic author] A delightfully gentle retelling of The Little Mermaid in which a mermaid grows up longing to explore the stars, and a team of aliens arrives willing to grant her wish. I like the way Esserala’s family supports her in her dreams and the way she isn’t pushed into any artificial conflict between her home culture and the spacefaring culture she joins, nor into any need to change or silence herself for a love interest. The inherent difficulties of space travel, even when everyone involved is kind and helpful, provide enough conflict to carry the story by themselves. [Recommended-2]

*

Rita Chen, “Strangleknot” (Liminality, Spring 2020)

[Autistic author] An affecting and vivid poem about ongoing trauma, pain, and the way words and memories get stuck in the body. Many autistic readers will be able to relate to the feeling of not being able to let one’s hurts go, no matter how one tries. [Recommended-2]