July 6th, 2011
|09:34 am - Speed of Dark|
Over the last few weeks when I have been very busy, just about the only fiction I have managed to consume is audio as I walk to work. The main book I have been listening to is Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, which I have now finished. It is a near-future book told from the point of view of an autistic adult, as he contemplates whether to take a neurological treatment for autism, and what that would mean for his self-identity. I think Lou's point of view is delicately and sensitively portrayed. Short Review - this is a good book, but slow and gentle rather than a thrill a minute.
There was a bit of a fuss last year because Moon said some stupid things about immigrants and Islam, but I read books by all sorts of writers. I think the values expressed in the book itself are warm and liberal. dalmeny's husband spoke to me at the party on Sunday about Moon; he told me that she has an autistic child. I do not know many severely autistic people, so it is hard for me to judge, but it seems to be a sympathetic but realistic portrayal of the internal life of an autistic person.
I think the most striking thing about the book, for me, is the choice to dwell deeply in the minutiae of humble domestic experience. Lou's attention is tightly focused on sensory details of his immediate environment, and he does not get bored by physical repetition. For example, Lou does his laundry in laborious detail several times through the book, and this is handled with a very similar affect to more conventionally 'dramatic' incident. Not only is this respectful of the autistic person's experience, I think it is also an endorsement of the domestic - a big part of every woman's existence - as a legitimate focus for artistic expression. Actually, I think this may be the most radical aspect of the book. The gentle dwelling-in everyday experience.
Another aspect of the book which I liked is the warmth and humour with which Lou's experiences are portrayed. So, it is clear that some of the people he meets are being extremely kind to him, and some are utter shits, and he doesn't always get the full implications of the things they say and do. But we as readers see through his descriptions, so there is an ironic additional layer to our understanding. It is delicately done, so that we are not laughing at Lou, but laughing at the extra layer we often see behind his dry description of his interactions with others. And sometimes this moved me to tears. One also gets the impression that Lou is a generous and likable man.
The voice work is another aspect of this. The story is read by an American actor with a particularly deep and resonant voice. When portraying the voices of autistic people, he did not shirk from 'acting' the characteristic constriction, reduced inflection, slight flatness (or do I mean thinness) of their voices, but in no way losing your commitment to these characters as the centre of the story, the most important people. I think if they had been voiced like neurotypical people that would have demeaned them. As if we could only care for them if they presented 'like us'.
I would be interested in the opinions of autistic people, or parents and friends of autistic people, on whether they felt this balance between honest portrayal of neural damage, and respect for the person affected, was done successfully. I feel it was.
The final aspect of this novel that interested me is that another and very different book - Vernor Vinge's space opera A Deepness in the Sky - dwells behind this one, without being named. The book is mentioned at one point, but the speaker (an autistic man) can't remember its title, and thinks it might have been a scientific paper he read. Deepness is about a hyper-capitalist society which deliberately induces autistic-type damage in workers, to make them concentrate on their jobs. The relation between curing autistic workers to make them more productive, and inducing autism for capitalist exploitation, comes and goes under the surface of the story.
So, there is an additional ironic layer - yes, we as neurotypical see things that Lou does not - but secondly, we as SF fans see something that the mundane reader does not, something darker than the overt content of the novel.
As someone who has at least one person in their immediate family on the autistic spectrum (one with a medical diagnosis, one suspected), I much preferred this portrayal of a person with autism's life, particularly the domestic focus and coping at work, to that in 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.' I think you are spot on with 'gentle in-dwelling'. I also think that TCIotDitNG dwells far too much on the 'compensatory genius' aspect of Asperger's Syndrome on the spectrum and that's something I find really irritating as portrait of this disability, because that's not the experience in my family. There's no compensatory genius for it in my family; the diagnosed member plays chess but for the B team of the small town in which he grew up. He's not a grand master or anywhere near that level and never will be.
Yes, and my nephew who is disabled like Stephen Hawking does not have Hawking's intellectual gifts. We make a narrative, where things are fair, and they are not.
Edited at 2011-07-06 12:27 pm (UTC)
It reminds of one of things that frequently used to be said of people with blindness; that other senses increased, such as hearing. I don't think that one gets said as often these days, perhaps because organisations and people have put the message out there that this is false comfort, the fair narrative, which is about making people without disabilities feel better and not about listening to the lived experience. I think that's where my problem with Dog in the Night Time is, and I think Speed of Dark successfully avoids that trap, the trap of speaking with intention of making the neurotypical reader feel comfortable. But then I am speaking as someone who is not on the spectrum.
I also get slightly grumpy that the male authored, mainstream version of the story gets hailed as a daring and brave breakthrough in story telling, when the female authored SF version is largely ignored outside SF reading circles, and within them too, thinking of recent debates re women in SF, not specifically the problems with Elizabeth Moon's words.
I have read critique of Lou's final decision from readers on the autistic spectrum and and learnt from to those explanations of why it is problematic for them and how they manage their lives, while still recognising the way in which this book and representation is valuable to me. (There are other personal reasons as well, which I won't go into in a public post, but would be happy to talk with you about them next time we meet, if you were interested.)
I should have said that I really enjoyed this review, and what you said about the use of voice to convey a flat affect is tempting me, finally, now I have the technology, to re-read the book through the audio version.
I've also thought of another context for this; the portrayal of mental and physical disability in Jane Duncan's work, and how it is simultaneously problematic, with its use of the unconscious angel in the house trope, for example, in one of the books, but was immensely helpful for many people. Duncan recalls, in her single volume of avowed autobiography, about the grateful letters she received from parents of children with Down Syndrome in her portrayal of her nephew as a full member of the family and one who shared in all the children's adventures and played his own part in Camerons series of books.
LOL 'what a party, what a night'