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Book Review: The Speed of Dark

July 4, 2009

One important rule of good story writing is to provide just enough description and detail. When there’s not enough, the picture painted for the reader is vague, blurry, ambiguous, and splotchy. When there’s too much, the reader gets bogged down and can lose sight of the story. The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, often goes into excruciatingly minute detail. But this book is one of those rare exceptions where this style works particularly well, because it is narrated in first-person present tense by a man who is autistic. Rather than being extraneous, these details allow us to be inside his mind and understand how it works.

The Speed of Dark is the love child of Gattaca and Flowers for Algernon. It takes place in a near future where disease and disability can increasingly be cured before or just after birth. The viewpoint character, Lou Arrendale, and his cohorts were born just a bit too early for their parents to be able to take advantage of the technological development. Lou is fortunate enough to be high-functioning, able to live independently in his own apartment and hold down a job. He works for a pharmaceutical company as a bioinformatician. For all that his autism makes him socially naïve and renders ordinary figures of speech mystifying to him, it’s also blessed him with an uncanny talent for pattern analysis and generation.

Lou works in a department where almost all of the employees are autistic. Their boss, who is new to the company, is a no-nonsense, bottom-line, former military man who resents their difference and doesn’t understand why they can’t get through their day like normal people. He is dismissive of their productivity and and prodigious skills and sees only the “frivolous” workplace adaptations they need to help keep them functional throughout the day. It’s not long at all before he begins to pressure everyone in the department to participate in a human-trials experimental procedure that promises to cure autism in adults. This presents Lou with an uncomfortable conundrum. He needs to decide whether to remain as he is, the person he’s always been, the self he’s comfortable being, or to undergo a risky brain operation and be rebuilt from the ground up. But if he does decide to go through with it, the biggest question he faces is how much, and what parts, of himself will he lose?

Elizabeth Moon has raised a son with autism and thus has a perspective few other authors share. Her insight allows us to vicariously experience what the world is like to the autistic mind. This is one book I would definitely recommend to anyone with the least bit of interest in understanding this complex neurological disability better. In brief, autism is essentially a sensory processing disorder. Whereas neurotypical people have a filter that allows them to sort through the constant input of stimuli, autistic people’s filters are deficient. Thus they have a harder time distinguishing figure from ground, which is to say everything is a jumble of detail with little to tie it together and few cues to indicate what needs their attention and what can be disregarded.

While the scientific community has come a long way in its understanding of autism (until about a generation ago it was believed to be related to schizophrenia or an emotional disturbance, possibly caused by bad parenting), the popular idea of it seems to have stalled out at Rain Man. Although it’s true that the character Raymond Babbitt was based on a real person, Kim Peek, Kim is actually not autistic but has a brain disorder called FG syndrome (also known as Opitz-Kaveggia syndrome). Thus it makes me happy to see books like The Speed of Dark and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time that portray autistic people in a more realistic and three-dimensional light.

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