The Speed of Dark
- by Elizabeth Moon
- PB, © 2002, 369 pp, Del Rey Books, ISBN 0-345-48139-9
There’s probably a great science fiction novel out there about people with autism, but I don’t think this is it. The Speed of Dark takes place in the near future, where autistic people received treatment to help them to function better in society, and eventually autism can be fully treated in infants. The book’s protagonist is Lou Arrendale, a middle-aged autistic man who received the former treatment. He is part of a group of autistics who work at a large company, and he has non-autistic friends, especially the people in the fencing group he’s part of.
The novel is very low on what I call “ideas content”, meaning there’s little that’s different in the book’s world from the real world, and thus it seems barely to qualify as science fiction (or even fantasy). The treatment that Lou received is really only a plot device to make him functional enough to relate his story, but then, there are high-functioning autistics in the real world, so it’s not much of a leap.
The book spends most of the first half portraying the basic nature of Lou’s life, which gets repetitive rather quickly. It’s revealed that there is an experimental treatment for adult autistics that could make them normal, and the book walks a balancing act regarding whether Lou will be forced to have the treatment, and whether he would even wish to do so. (The book plays the usual semantic games with whether or not autistics are “normal”; I use the term “normal” here simply as a shorthand for “not autistic”.)
Moon is a very good writer in her smithing of words and her ability to evoke emotions, and Lou is a likeable character. But ultimately I just wasn’t interested in the portrayal of the life of an autistic man in-and-of-itself (it wasn’t nearly as interesting as, say, reading Al Schroeder’s journal – now defunct – and his accounts of his two autistic sons, for instance), and beyond that there wasn’t much to the story. I think it would have been a much better novel had the treatment itself been the central element of the story, and focused exploring that transition in greater depth, but it barely merits an afterthought. The Speed of Dark could have been a much more expansive and challenging piece of work, but I thought it ended up being a fairly mundane novel with an unusual protagonist.
(The Speed of Dark was the November 2006 selection for Kepler’s Books’ speculative fiction book club.)