Friday, February 25

Speed of Dark - Elizabeth Moon

Lou Arrendale is a bioinfomatics expert. Though high functioning, he and his colleagues in Section A are also among the last people in Section A to have autism, a condition now corrected in infancy. The autists have tools that help them to manage the effects of their disability, like music rooms and a giant trampoline - when Lou returns from his quarterly psychiatry interview, for example, he spends some time bouncing:
No one interrupts me while I bounce, the strong thrust of the trampoline followed by a weightless suspension makes me feel vast and light. I can feel my mind stretching out, relaxing, even as I keep perfect time with the music. When I feel the concentration returning, and curiosity drives me once more toward my assignment, I slow the bouncing to tiny little baby bounces and swing off the trampoline.
Their new supervisor, Mr Crenshaw, resents what he sees as frivolous and indulgent extras; though Section A boast the highest level of productivity in the unnamed corporation which, through their employment, is able to claim significant charitable tax deductions, he believes the company would be better off with normal employees.
Lou works with abstract symbols, finding patterns and connections invisible to most people. The patterns of human interactions, though, are predominantly mysterious, despite a lifetime of being told how he ought to act and what he ought to do. He knows that Dr Fornum thinks he ought to exchange pleasantries with his co-workers as they wait for dinner, for example, but
we are all, in our own way, settling into the situation. Because of the visit to Dr Fornum, I'm more aware than usual of the details of this process: that Linda is bouncing her fingers on the bowl of her spoon in a complex pattern that would delight a mathematicians as much as it does her...
Unbeknown to Dr Fornum, Lou has also taken up fencing in his recreational time - though not great at interpreting the interpersonal aspects of the sport, he's very good at recognising the patterns of players, and disciplined about his approach. He's also attracted to one of the fencers, Marjory. He doesn't know if she likes him in any special way, but he's interested in finding out.
He's not able to concentrate on this, though, because he's under siege at home (where he's the target of an escalating series of vandalism attacks) and work - Mr Crenshaw has discovered an experimental 'cure' for autism (well, it works on chimps) and is pressuring the autists to enroll.
The title comes from a conversation between Lou and his co-workers over dinner, early in the novel:
"I was wondering about the speed of dark," I say, looking down. They will look at me, if only briefly, when I speak, and I don't want to feel all those gazes.
"It doesn't have a speed," Eric says. "It's just the space where light isn't."
"What would it feel like to eat pizza on a world with more than one gravity?" Linda asks.
"I don't know," Dale says, sounding worried.
"The speed of not knowing," Linda says. I puzzle a moment and figure it out.
"Not knowing expands faster than knowing," I say. Linda grins and ducks her head. "So the speed of dark could be greater than the speed of light. If there always has to be dark around the light, then it has to go out ahead of it."
"I want to go home now," Eric says. Dr Fornum would want me to ask if he's upset. I know he is not upset; if her goes home now he will see his favorite TV program. We say goodbye because we are in public and we all know you are supposed to say goodbye in public.
Lou is the purest form of light in the novel - despite his differences in cognitive processing, his motivations are easier to understand and relate to though most of the apparently normal characters in the book. Moon asks us to consider deeply philosophical questions about worth, contribution, difference, normalcy, disability and about the richness of infinite variety. I was reminded, for two reasons, of Sack's Seeing Voices, a non-fiction account of American Deaf culture that had part of me longing to be born Deaf of Deaf parents and that considers the merits of reversing a 'disability' that, to the affected, is no restriction and that has value.
It is perhaps inevitable that I compare Speed of Dark to that other famous autist-perspective novel,
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; they are both well crafted narratives written predominantly in first person by an author who has clearly spent a lot of time talking with people at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, and contemplating their thought processes, and common to both books is a mystery that contributes to the drive of the narrative.
Speed of Dark, though, is deep and textured well beyond that. In the Curious Incident Christopher's father has difficulty understanding how his words are literally interpreted; in Speed of Dark Lou and his cohort are surrounded by people driven to normalise them, not for their benefit but to ease societal discomfort, including the discomfort of those supposed to be helping and supporting them - Dr Fornum is, of course, the greatest culprit here, but Lou and his fellow autists have since childhood had experts telling them how they ought to behave, interact and think. Though Lou for the most part accepts this, I found myself becoming angry on his behalf.
Even his safest refuge, fencing class (where the trainer, Tom, not only accepts Lou for himself but supports, nurtures and appreciates him) is tainted by the knowledge that Dr Fornum would disapprove:
I met Marjory at fencing class, not at any of the social events for disabled people that Dr Fornum thinks I should go to. I don't tell Dr Fornum about fencing because she would worry about my violent tendencies, If laser-tag was enough to bother her, long pointed swords would send her into a panic.
There are so many striking, interesting, note-worthy elements in this book that, were I to discuss each time I inserted a flag this review would be almost as long as the novel itself. One of the aspects I flagged most often, apart from the multiple incidences where Lou has been remolded to better fit inside the parameters of 'normal,' is the presence of the neuroscience of autism.
Lou studies neurology and related fields to better understand the trial methodology and technique, discovering in the process not only a lot more about the way his perceptions operation and their similarities to other neurological conditions (like PTSD) but also how expectations of his abilities have directed and restricted his potential.
This is my second reading of Speed of Dark and, if anything, I enjoyed it more than on its 2003 release. I know that Lou is a rare exception, and that for the majority of people with autism this kind of independence of living, thought and employment are never going to be possible. Were an intervention that helped them process sensory cues better
available I would be more conflicted about its use. This, though grounded in reality, is fiction, and it is the best kind - it enhances understanding of ourselves and others, prompts thought and introspection, offers a different perspective, and presents these aspects in a palatable, entertaining, engrossing form. I just wish I could read it again. - Alex

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