Saturday, 21 March 2009

Review: Speed of Dark

Elizabeth Moon is the author of the sci-fi military family epic Serrano Legacy, several stand alone novels and short stories, and some collaborations with Anne McCaffrey and other writers. Several of the short stories have medical themes, drawing from Moon's experience as a paramedic. Moon also won the 2003 Nebula Award with this novel of the near future, written, like Mark Haddon's "The Curious Case Of The Dog In The Night-time" from the point of view of an autistic narrator.

Louis has a niche in life, having been employed, along with other autistic adults, for his pattern recognition skills; his enlightened employer has made allowance for individual sensory needs in order to maximise his comfort and therefore abilities. The set-up is threatened by the jealousy of non-autistic colleagues, by restructuring within the firm, and - the central plot - the appearance of a potential cure for autism.

Both with this book and Haddon's, it's hard to know if the description comes anywhere near the real internal experience of autism. For the most part it feels authentic from an outside viewpoint, although occasionally I think there's an over-optimistic view. For example, Louis' friends' acceptance, on logical grounds, that there aren't enough seats in their favourite restaurant and so latecomers simply accept this and exclude themselves, seems to imply too high a level of social function for a state that's usually defined by difficulties in this area. I could be wrong - this may, like other aspects of the book, be based on personal or family experience. On the other hand the book strongly and rightly rejects the idea that autism per se prevents formation of attachments or friendships, or that it implies an absence of emotion or empathy.

The dilemma posed by the cure is handled well, particularly the different effect it has on the narrator and his colleagues. This is a poignant and often sad exploration of the different ways we define ourselves, autistic or otherwise, and of the nature of friendship.
A sub-plot deals with the pressure brought to bear on the group to take the cure, which forms part of a military research project to actually induce autistic traits - this is an idea that could have huge implications. The way this strand is resolved sidesteps these issues as the novel is more about the choices the characters make when they are finally free to do so.

This is an outstanding book.

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