forward and sideways, circling and feeling

Speed of Dark follows in the hallowed footsteps of Daniel Keyes’ excellent 1966 sf novel Flowers for Algernon, a half-step ahead of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, which was published a year later in 2003. Award winners all, but while Haddon’s book only shares with these others the hook of a first person narrator speaking from beyond the veil of mental “disability”, Elizabeth Moon owes an obvious debt to Keyes in her tale of a high functioning autistic who is threatened with the opportunity to undergo a cure for his… ailment.

That is certainly not to say that this is a derivative work; but, while The Curious Incident is more in the mystery vein, this is science fiction (at least technically) and so the comparison to a classic of the genre is inevitable. Speed of Dark stands in its own right. As is the case with those other titles, here we have a very convincing narrative voice, an essential if we are to buy into the conceit of experiencing the autistic condition first-hand.

From the very first page, protagonist Lou Arrendale–a highly pattern-sensitive analyst employed by a wealthy corporation–comes across in an engaging and engrossing manner, and the chance to see the world through a perspective that is both limited and, in some ways, is unbounded draws the reader in. So effective is this that when the text breaks from his POV to third person passages following other characters I felt somewhat cheated–Lou could have carried this novel alone, and these interruptions smack of self-doubt on the part of Moon that the mere plot could come across through the gappy/cluttered perceptions of the hero.

I say this is a piece of science fiction, and it is, but the trappings of sf are very much in the background. It is first and foremost about oppression that is ever-present in the ordinary world, the kind that is imposed upon benign non-conformists simply because of their difference from the so-called norm. This comes in two flavours, unwitting and deliberate. The first is the accidental tragedy of a failure to connect as people, something most of us will experience in our lives but which is given extra weight if we imagine how it must be to live with constantly. Lou’s anxiety and doubts about his personal and professional relationships are heart wrenching, mostly for being so clear and, often, clearly resolvable, both to the reader and to those normal characters around him (Lou’s comparative ease around his autistic acquaintances is also interesting, not to mention interestingly inconsistent). And exactly what is, or what is perceived to constitute, “normal” is also explored to very pointed effect.

Where the unwitting oppression is moving, the deliberate fuels a very real sense of outrage on Lou’s behalf. While the stalker/abuser themes are (thankfully) a relatively rare occurrence in the real world, anyone who has been challenged for doing things their own way, no matter how effective their method might prove (or already have proven to be) solely because That Is Not How We Do Things, will feel the click of empathy with Lou’s situation, and I suspect this is so common an experience as to be nigh universal. The fact that this commonplace oppression is highlighted via autism and the carrot/stick of a cure (courtesy of what is largely mystery science) doesn’t detract from the impact… although…

Leaving aside issues of plotting, each of the three books I’ve mentioned here ultimately resolve in broadly different ways. In The Curious Incident, being as it is a story firmly grounded in a contemporary world, the protagonist is who he is and remains so throughout–there are no magic cures in reality, for better or worse. In Flowers for Algernon, the more overt trappings of sf are used to show a “rise” and then “fall” (better to say “change” and “reversion”, really) of the protagonist’s mental capacities that could not be justified outside of the genre.

In Speed of Dark the story goes a third way and, while that is not in itself a misstep, the resolution is by a wide margin the weakest aspect of the book. In part, this is down to brevity: whereas a significant portion of Flowers for Algernon is devoted to the protagonist’s experience of change, here the final two chapters alone detail the immediate and long-term ramifications of Lou’s decision, and it doesn’t feel like enough; but for me, the problem is as much down to the switch from the largely non-genre recognisability of what had gone before to the necessarily sci-fi nature of this finale–especially in the world we see Lou inhabit in the closing scene.

The end result is, therefore, something of a fantasy–cast off those chains and fly–if a completely understandable one, both for the character himself and perhaps for anyone engaged to the life-long endeavour that is living with autism, directly or indirectly. For me, I didn’t need it. Lou’s story felt real and so did he. However, in one regard there was an invaluable quality to that resolution: to demonstrate that the difference between an autistic personality and one that is not is far less obvious than mere appearances might suggest.

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