Friday, July 09, 2010

Book Review: The Speed of Dark


Elizabeth Moon
2003
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This story is told almost entirely from the point of view of an autistic man, Lou Arrendale.

Lou is one of several autistic savants working for a big corporation that hires them for their abilities in math and pattern recognition. Lou also takes fencing classes outside of work. He is very good at fencing, since it also requires good pattern recognition, and he has a crush on one of his fellow fencing students. Lou’s work and his fencing occupy pretty much all of his life, and he likes it that way.

Lou works with a number of other autistic savants. They have a tight bond through their work and also their mutual understanding of each other’s particular fears and routines. They go out for pizza regularly, sitting at the same seats at the same table in the same restaurant where they know they will always get the same waitress and where the interactions are comfortingly predictable. It is a calming refuge when other parts of their lives are in turmoil and these scenes are some of the best parts of the book. I loved all the conversations and non-conversations they have, how they have learned what makes each other nervous, and how they accept it and make accommodations for it.

Lou’s company offers all its autistic workers a new experimental treatment which might cure their autism. He has to decide if he is going to have the treatment or not; it would make him “normal,” which is something he very much wants in the abstract, but it could also fundamentally change who he is as a person and there is a possibility that he could lose the talents that make him useful. To make things more stressful, the company claims it is offering it as an “optional” benefit, but they make it clear that if you do not volunteer for it, you are jeopardizing your job.

I really wasn’t sure until the end of the story whether Lou would decide to take the experimental treatment that his company was trying to force on him. And I worried along with him what would happen to his advantages in pattern recognition if he was cured.

Seeing the world through Lou’s eyes gives you a remarkable perspective on us “normal” people. For example, Lou cannot instinctively understand facial expressions. You follow his thought processes as he sees someone’s expression and consciously deconstructs it, painfully slowly, in order to understand what the person is trying to convey. It makes you think about how much we take for granted about what our faces convey and also how much we can lie with them.

Lou’s co-workers, the people in his fencing class, and the waitresses, policemen, and shopkeepers he comes into contact with every day relate to him with varying and sometimes surprising degrees of understanding, sensitivity, impatience, and cruelty. You really feel good about the people who do their best to overcome their own fears to try to understand Lou and to relate to him with integrity. And you are repelled by the people who take advantage of his naiveté and who are harmful.

Because of the subject matter and plot, this book is often compared to Flowers for Algernon. But I thought The Speed of Dark was a far better book.

2 comments:

Kathleen said...

Sounds intriguing. Lately there have been several novels published for teens about autistic kids or kids with Asperger's Syndrome. Maybe the authors emphasize this but I always feel some kinship to the kid while also seeing differences. I can read facial expressions adequately, which makes life much easier. On the other hand, I have many quirks around clothing such as having to cut out all the labels and being unable to wear anything stiff or scratchy, which is typical of autistic kids. I hate crowds and noise, which is limiting. But how much of myself would I change to make my life more convenient? Would I still be the person I am? Thanks for the review. You are very good at analyzing books and conveying a sense of them.

Chris Hartman said...

On facial expressions, I actually think they make lying more difficult. It's much easier to tell a lie in a letter than face-to-face.

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