Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
As with Sophie’s World, I had the opportunity to re-read The Speed of Dark because I’m giving a copy to a friend for her birthday (this time it’s Rebecca—so many birthdays in February!). Here’s my first review, from 2010. I still agree with most of it, particularly my past self’s views on the one-dimensional antagonists. However, I think my understanding of autism or otherwise neurodivergent people is slightly better than it was 8 years ago, and that has probably influenced my perspective some.
The Speed of Dark is set an indeterminate amount of time in the near future, in a world recognizably similar to our own (though a few things have caught up with Elizabeth Moon since she first wrote this, I think!). Lou Arrendale is an autistic man approaching middle age. His employer has a special section for autistic people, who are especially good at pattern-matching problems that help the company in some way, and includes special supports. When a new manager wants to make his mark on the company, he proposes pressuring the section employees to undergo a radical, experimental treatment to “cure” their autism. Lou and his colleagues are stunned, upset, and very unsure. As his entire life spins out of its routine, Lou must confront this, along with his feelings for a woman at his fencing practices, and make a decision about who he wants to be.
Put simply, this is a lovely book. It’s a celebration of a single person’s humanity in a world (both within the book, and our own world) that often denies that humanity. Moon tells Lou’s story, sometimes in his own words and sometimes through others, with a single, clear theme: you think you know me because you see “autistic” and you make assumptions, but you know nothing of who I am.
People look at Lou and they see someone who doesn’t seem to be paying attention (because they are speaking too fast for him) or seems inflexible (because he happens to have a routine) or stand-offish (because he doesn’t see much utility in the niceties and pleasantries we learn to parrot to each other). If they learn he is autistic, though, it’s like a switch flips: oh, well, that’s OK then—not his fault, can’t be helped, so terrible. They assume he can’t read (or can’t read well), can’t process information, can’t make decisions himself.
Moon hits us with this, repeatedly. She forces the reader to watch, through Lou’s eyes, what it is like to be dehumanized. This is the power of The Speed of Dark, something I was only barely awake to when I first read it, but which I paid a lot more attention to this second time around. I’m a highly educated, tall, skinny, white man with a large vocabulary and a dry sense of humour. People will take me seriously on a swath of issues, even ones I know nothing about, just because of that fucktonne of privilege I have. So even when I try my hardest, it is really difficult to inhabit a different world and actually understand what it might be like to navigate our society as a person who is a visible minority, or a woman, or visibly disabled, etc.
But it is important I try to understand, and that’s what Moon helps the reader do here. She helps us understand that this is not about the overt acts of hatred or discrimination that we often think of. This is about the constant, everyday microaggressions that come with being different. Reading this book was, frankly, at times, exhausting—and that’s as it should be.
(Also, and this is neither here nor there, I have a distinct memory of wanting to take up fencing the first time I read this book, and it happened again this time. Not going to happen, but huh. Moon is just that good at selling it, I guess.)
Then we get to the ending, and of course … yeah. How do we talk about that?
It’s not my lane to comment on what the ending means for autistic people, of course. I don’t get a voice in this discussion. As Moon demonstrates here, if/when these types of treatments become available, it’s going to be a very individual choice. Some autistic people are going to want to change. Others are going to want to stay the same. I have listened to autistic people who have espoused both, or either, points of view. It’s almost like autism is not a monolith, like autistic people, like any group of people, have diverse and often contradictory or conflicting ideas of what should be happening within their communities. Funny, that. In the end, though, autism is not a disease. It is not something that needs to be cured. And the idea that we need to cure it, that we need to treat it to make people’s brains “normal”, is the problem here—not whether or not someone undergoes such a treatment.
For that reason, I will say that I don’t think the tragedy of the ending, if you want to label it a tragedy, is in Lou’s decision. Rather, I think the tragedy is in the social conditions that create the capacity for Lou’s decision. I’ll unpack that now.
The company, or at least its representatives in Crenshaw and Aldrin (yeah, he’s complicit) pressure these people to take the treatment. They create a climate in which taking the treatment is the only sure road to keeping their jobs, at least for the short term, and even when that stick is taken away and a few carrots dangled, the spectre still looms.
On a wider level, though, the seeds of Lou’s decision are sown by a society that treats him so differently and with such disgust. Even though Moon shows that there are several people who treat Lou with the respect and dignity he deserves as a human being (#notallnonautists?), she ultimately demonstrates how these people are part of a larger picture that does not accept or make life easy for autistic people. This is one of the many reasons Lou ultimately takes the treatment. If you’re not autistic, it’s worthwhile sitting with that for a while and thinking about the assumptions you’ve made, the things you’ve taken for granted, the privileges you have, as a result of society configuring itself for your brain’s needs.
As our understanding of the human brain increases, we will continue to develop new treatments for conditions like autism. This is not science fiction; the only question is how fast and how much. And then the pressure will be on. Don’t think that it applies only to autism. The pressure will be on for everyone (who can afford it) to think “better”/faster/stronger/whatever. The tragedy will not be in whether or not we start “curing” autism—the tragedy is our society telling autistic people that this is the only way for them to be accepted. And that is my lane, because that’s where neurotypical people like myself need to flex our privilege, get off our high horses, and start listening and making space.