on May 3, 2005
Although I am not an avid fan of the science fiction genre, I did love this book along with Celia Rees' young adult novel, "The Truth Out There," both of which merge different literary genres and have delightful characters with autism. This book together with Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" make for some excellent adult literature about autism.
The protagonist of this story, Lou Arrendale, is a man who has autism. He works for a large company as a systems/patterns analyst. His cubicle is adorned with mobiles and other sensory treats that provide patterns for him to focus on when he goes on sensory overload. Visual patterns can be very soothing and this finding is not limited to people on the autism/Asperger's (a/A) spectrum. Many neurotypical (NT) people love watching fish in aquaria, for example.
I loved the way physics was included in this story; Lou's co-worker, Linda, who has severe autism and loves astronomy wonders if light as a speed and if its inverse, darkness does as well. Linda poses an interesting question: if light has a speed, would it not be pulled into a black hole by gravity? I think that light probably has a METAphysical speed, just as time is a metaphyiscal gauge and its counterpart space is a physical measure. I love that sort of thing.
Lou, while clearly autistic sounds closer to the Asperger's end of the spectrum. He is bright; verbal; independent and able to grasp very abstract concepts. His autism is manfested in his slavishness to routines, even when those routines are not practical. He does his grocery shopping on Tuesdays regardless; he does his laundry at the same time on the same day of the week; there are certain programs he watches and computer contacts he makes when he is home and these activities are generally performed at the same time.
Lou is also a fencer. His fencing coaches, Tom and Lucia, take him under his wing and commiserate with his dissatisfaction over the Center and an especially unpleasant client named Emma there. Emma is rude and hostile; she makes personal attacks on Lou one Tuesday when he is shopping. She tells him that his crush on Marjory, a fencing partner will come to nothing as Marjory is NT and only sees Lou as an experiement or charity case. I didn't like the way Lou naively defended Emma, even when it was plain to all and sundry just how hateful she was.
Someone else has targeted Lou. Three attacks have been made on his car. His tires are slashed; his windshield broken and later, a bomb is found under the hood. Unmasking the culprit and subduing the culprit is where Lou demonstrates his pattern analytical skills; the legal penalty for malicious mischief is to have a computer chip embedded in the brain so as to rewire/reprogram the brain from future violence.
The book is beautifully written. One humorous thing I caught was in Chapter 12, when Lou, says "Mr. Arendale (meaning Mr. Aldrin, his company supervisor) looks worried." Lou IS Mr. Arrendale! A piece of political humor can be found as well in a text Lou is reading by an author named Clinton whose co-author has the middle name of Rodham. Clever! I like that.
Lou and the other people in his unit, all of whom have autism are given the option to undergo an experimental treatment to restructure their brains and "cure" them of the neurobiological condition. Naturally there are questions; their angel of a supervisor Mr. Aldrin goes to bat for them and is able to rescind a previous order the company's CEO, Mr. Crenshaw, who is an autistophobe and wants to eliminate Lou's unit from the company. Mr. Aldrin is able to go through the legal channels to ensure job security and to make this a voluntary and not a compulsory decision.
A masterpiece of a book that recognizes the sensory responses and concerns of people with autism. My favorite part was when Lou dispells a tired myth about people with autism not caring what others think of them. That is not true. People with autism as do NT people care very much about how others perceive them. "What will people think of me" has long been a plaint among many people in deciding whether or not to disclose having autism.
As Lou said in the book, NT people self-stim and engage in repetition and other behaviors that they are highly critical of when done by people with autism. Lou does an exemplary job of pointing out this double standard. I really like the way Lou ruminates over Scripture; the beautiful description of a Catholic mass and his assessment of very esoteric concepts. This is light years and full speed ahead of the cliche Rainman routine!
This book deserves a place of honor!
on June 26, 2004
4.5 Stars. What made me want to read this novel was two-fold: it won the Nebula Award and it has often been referred to in the same breath as "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes. The Nebula Award is not always given to the book I would choose, but any story mentioned with Daniel Keyes' fantastic short story(later expanded by the author into a fine novel) is worth any Science Fiction fan's attention. As for the title of my review, "CHAPTER TWENTY ONE" is the chapter in "The Speed of Dark" where I thought that perhaps this novel had initially been a short story and later expanded, as well. I will return to this book again many times in the future just to read from that chapter to the end of the book. I lost sleep reading this book, which is always a sign that the novel has me enthralled. As for negatives, there are a few minor complaints such as one of the villainous characters in the story getting his come-uppance a little too easily, "And the day...is saved!" That plot resolution was too tidy and too quickly resolved. The first twenty chapters are solid 4-star material with some excellent writing and a genuinely original perspective from the protagonist, Lou Arrendale, who is an autistic man given the chance at a cure for his condition. The only other negative I felt sour about was the all-too-expected and somewhat sanctimonious scene in the novel where Lou is trying to figure out what is "normal" anyway? If the world were predominantly autistic would "normal" people seek treatment to fit in better with society? Anyway, that section does not last long. I have never been a fan of writers who have their characters self-reflect for pages on end, but that very short section was the only moment where I thought the author let out the slack a little too far. The rest is very enjoyable. This book is thoughtfully written and obviously very personal for the author, Elizabeth Moon, who is the mother of an autistic child. While reading this book don't be surprised to find yourself finding patterns in multi-colored carpet fibers or architecture or other things with a definite or potential mathematical structure to them. The main character's profession involves pattern analysis and it echoed into my own life on more than one occasion. This book affected me on many levels, altering my perspective about people and how they relate to one another, and to a lesser degree whether or not "change" is a good thing or not when considering individuality. Any book that makes me think is definitely worth recommending to others. On the cover of this novel is a picure of a white-and-red pinwheel with several rows of binary numbers overlapping the cover from top to bottom. After reading this book the cover makes more sense than ever before. That, and I will never look at a pinwheel in the future without thinking fondly about this book. Pick up this splendid novel and enjoy! Thank you for reading my review.
I work for an organization that serves people with disabilities. We have started a disability book club in which we choose a book with a primary character with a disability, all read it, get together and talk about the themes raised in the book. Speed of Dark was our first book. It was a perfect one to start with. The book raises so many questions about disability, about autism, about the human condition. The question of cure, the idea of 'needing fixed' was a huge one for the book club members. We all felt very passionately about the end of the book. This is a book that leaves one feeling conflicted ... should he take the cure? is he fine the way he is? what could be gained? what could be lost? This book allows a glimpse into a mind that works well but works differently. Elizabeth Moon manages to create a character that it is impossible not to identify with ... despite the autism maybe even because of the autism. A great read, but warning ... you will need to talk about the ending with someone ... absolutely need to.
on February 24, 2004
Moon uses the story of an autistic man to ask fundamental questions about the nature of identity and of self. During the first two thirds of the book, where the questions are being asked, I was fascinated. Unfortunately, the answers that she gives in the last third of the book are one-dimensional and trite.
The story line starts off interesting, but finishes too deus ex machina for my taste. The secondary characters are generally fairly one dimensional. It is worth reading for the questions that Moon asks of her characters and her readers. However, it is a shame that the promise of the book finishes so disappointingly.
on July 1, 2004
"The Speed of Dark" tells a story of an autistic man, Lou, in a near future. The date is not specified, but it should be around 2040. Our protagonist works for a big firm, doing pattern recognition, but a new manager deciedes, that he will be better as a guinea pig for a new method to cure autism. So, this looks like a thriller, a man against the system, that kind of thing.
But it's not. This story, told from Lous' point of view, is a tale of his trying to understand 'normal' people. And it's a wonderful look on people, which managed to paint the autistic persons more human, then the 'normal' ones. Lous' attempts to understand human behaviour, to see patterns in it are very interesting, and gave me food for thought for a long time to come.
There are several drawbacks to the novel.
One is the black and white colors of the characters, which make the bad guys of the novel more caricatures, then realistic characters. While it can be justified by the overall structure and purpose of the novel, I would liek them, at least, not to be so in-your-face-arrogant-SOBs.
Another drawback for me was the adrupt ending of the book. I won't get into the details, but at one point Lou had to make a very seriouse decision. The results of it are given just a couple of pages, and one of the storylines, which was very important, and a delight to read, got only ONE SENTENCE!
Still, this book told me a lot, not only about autistic people, but also about myself. Read it.
on May 31, 2004
I have read Elizabeth Moon's novels before - her hard, military-type, sci-fi. Those were written with a novelist's pen. Speed of Dark was written from the soul of a mother of an autistic. It is far less sci-fi than most sci-fi, far more about social relations among people, autistic and otherwise, and especially where the twain meet. And is it perhaps so that many of us, save only the total sensor of human signals - Bill Clinton, have some autism in ourselves? This novel leads one to look inside.
Some of this nvel's side characters are, frankly, cardboard and stereotypical, especially the villian Crenshaw, whom one might see in a Dilbert strip. But the protagonist Lou and his friends are real. That reality overcomes the small lack of depth in Crenshaw and his sometime henchman Aldrin.
Like the real world, the book is about choices, but here they are being made in many cases by people whose choices are limited, although not less consequential than for others. Others, with a full range of choices, choose to self-limit.
I do not want to give the plot away, but I wlll ask this: where does Lou go from here? Is there a follow up?
on May 24, 2004
The Speed of Dark is a singleton SF novel. A couple of decades in the future, autism has become a treatable condition, first via special training of younger children and then via genetic engineering of the fetus or infant. However, millions of autistics were too old for the training or gene therapy. Now a procedure has been discovered to directly modify the brain to correct the condition, but the procedure has only been tested with animals.
In this novel, Lou Arrendale is a trained autistic. He works for a pharmaceutical company with other autistics in a bioinformatics unit specializing in pattern recognition and algorithm design. His unit has been provided with a gym equipped with its own sound system and musical library as well as other features to provide for their special needs.
Despite the legal requirements for such facilities, a newly appointed executive, Crenshaw, views such benefits as wasteful and unnecessary expenses in his budget. When the company obtains the North American rights to the new procedure, he starts pressuring these autistic employees to join the initial test group. If they undergo the procedure, then these employees will no longer have these special needs, but any employee who resists such treatment will be forced to resign or laid off.
In this story, the manager of this unit, Pete Aldrin, knows that his subordinates not only have a legal right to these special facilities, but have also earned these benefits by their astounding productivity. Moreover, he recognizes that such tactics are blatantly illegal, but he knows that others have been laid off recently and fears for his own job. However, he starts working his contacts in an undercover effort to foil Crenshaw's plans.
The story is about aliens -- others -- dwelling in human society. Although born of human parents, these autistics think and behave differently than most of their friends and associates. Early intervention has allowed them to participate in most aspects of human society, but they still are awkward and uncomfortable in many social situations and are subjects of curiosity and suspicion.
The life and thoughts described in this story forms an engrossing look at human society through a different viewpoint. While the story only speculates about the characteristics of a trained autistic, the author has created a very believable personality in Lou Arrendale. One cannot help being vicariously drawn into his world, sharing in his hopes and fears and recognizing his strengths and limitations.
This novel continues a long tradition in science fiction of portraying unusual characters in pivotal events. Beginning with Stapleton's Odd John, other such stories have included Shiras' Children of the Atom and Van Vogt's Slan. This story, however, focuses on the liberation of a group of people that currently suffer from a disabling and virtually untreatable condition. What riches will we find upon lifting the barriers of autism?
Highly recommended for Moon fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales about unusual people coping with an alien yet familiar society.
-Arthur W. Jordin
on May 2, 2004
"Normal is just a dryer setting"--something several characters in this excellent novel repeat when autistic people are compared to those who are "normal." Lou, the protagonist in this novel is a 40 something highly functioning autistic man in the mid-twentyfirst century. He, and a group of other autistic people, work for a pharmaceutical company and are highly valued becuase of their unique pattern recognition skills. Lou, however has a new boss who wants Lou and his coworkers to participate in experimental drug trials for the company's new autistic "treatment." He is threatened with the loss of his job if he does not. Lou is also threatened from a hostile acquaintance from the "normal" world who may or may not be stalking him. Lou, while constantly treated as not "normal," constantly witnesses behavior clearly not normal behavior from normal people in society. The Speed of Dark is an intelligently written, thought-provoking novel. Lou is a sympathetic and likable protagonist. Very well done.
on April 3, 2004
Inevitably "The Speed of Dark" will evoke comparisons to Daniel's Keye's classic short story and novel "Flowers for Algernon." Yet as sensible as such comparisons may be, Moon's novel more than adequately stands on it's own strengths and clarity of vision. For it apparently derives from its author's own unique passions and concerns, and owes nothing to "Flowers for Algernon" except a basic premise - that of profound personal transformation through medical technology, and that even the most humble among us possess intrinsic worth.
Set in the near future, the story is told from the point of view of an autistic man. Thanks to treatments applied early in life, Lou Arrendale is a high functioning autist. He lives on his own and holds down a job where he applies his gift - pattern recognition. He suffers the autist's usual social handicaps. The facial expressions we take for granted are a puzzle to him. He struggles to analyze and understand the idioms that come so naturally to the "normals." He is constantly losing himself in philosophical conundrums that derive from everyday speech and experience. Yet he excels at pattern recognition, a gift he uses to great effect in his work. He finds patterns everywhere, in everything, even while he wields a rapier. He belongs to a casual fencing group that meets every Wednesday night, and though he remains an alien among normal friends, fencing releases him into a realm in which pattern guides him against his opponents, for they are not aware of the predictability of their own moves.
The large corporation Lou works for offers him and others like him an experimental treatment for his autism. But the decision to accept the treatment is not a simple one, for he fears losing those things that seem essential to his identity. Furthermore, he soon becomes aware larger patterns, and realizes that his superiors may not have his best interests at heart.
The most striking thing about Moon's writing is her intimate grasp of the autistic condition. Lou's narrative is immediate and deeply personal, as if Moon herself has been there and done that. The story is not so much driven by plot as by the desires, hopes and fears of its protagonist. Though Lou Arrendale may evoke the science-fictional trope of the alien making his way through an alien society, still he is deeply human in spite of his flaws and he peculiar handicaps and gifts. Or perhaps because of them.
I have not read everything Moon has written, but judging from what I've seen so far, this may be her strongest work yet. She has set the bar high for herself, for I feel it will prove difficult to top.
on November 26, 2003
By the end of this book, I had totally fallen in love with Lou Arrendale, the autistic hero of this magnificent work. As a high-functioning autistic man, he has a job at a pharmaceutical company. At first it seems that it's merely a sheltered workshop-type job, but we gradually discover is extremely skilled and specialised.
Similarly, as the book develops we find out that Lou is a thoughtful, kind and interesting person with a strong personality. He works hard at fitting in to "normal" society by remembering the right things to say and do.
Of course we all do that, but most of us remember more easily and the actions come automatically, whereas Lou has to approach every social situation as though it were a maths problem.
Lou's dilemma revolves around whether or not he should accept his company's offer of an experimental drug that they say will make him "normal". Will he still be himself? Will he still love Marjory, the woman he fences with? As an autistic man, she'll probably never love him. As a normal man, will he still care for her?
A subplot that concerns someone stalking Lou is far less satisfactory than the main plot, and is less interesting than the key ideas, but it does add a certain amount of suspense.
The most satisfying thing about this novel is the characterisation. I felt I got to know not only Lou but all the major and even some of the minor characters. I learned a great deal about what it might be like to see the world from the point of view of an autistic person, and what it's like to be so different from everyone else.
This book is rich, powerful and affecting. Strongly recommended.