So there I was, happily blathering away about reading mysteries this very warm summer, and then I picked up The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon from the library. It won the 2004 Nebula Award, and I can say now after reading this extraordinary novel, it was deserved. You know me by now, I use the word extraordinary rarely when reviewing books. I find it easy to lavish praise on books I think are very well written, so I save a few words for those books that shine above in the realm of the written word. The Speed of Dark is a book like that.
It is a book about an autistic man, who has had some minor enhancements that are scientifically possible in the future, that enable him to speak and to express his thoughts. We see Lou Arrendale's world through his eyes. I think this book is brilliant. It is a rare insight into how an autistic person focuses, and how difficult it is for them to focus when there is so much sensory data around. It makes me wonder how much more our own brains can manage, which can sift through the enormous data we now have swirling around us, with cell phones and I-Phones and laptops to connect us as well just the daily movement and noise we have to navigate to get anywhere safely. Are we truly taking the world in now? I wonder........An autistic person can't determine what to focus on, can't sort through many different distractions at the same time. Patterns are easier, and enormously concentrating. The enhancements Lou had as a child, - sometime in the next century although we don't get an exact date, our century is referred to as an earlier century - enable him to use what he sees in patterns, and see them in everything. This enables him to work on computer programs - an interesting idea, and I would be very curious if it was possible - and live on his own without assistance, although as we see through the novel, anything new does cause him alarm and he needs to think his way through how to deal with it. It is a glimpse into a world that is simplified to the basic meaning of everything. Not simple, just the clearest way of saying something, where Lou expresses how he sees the world by using the complex patterns he works with. It is amazing, and thoughtful, and familiar too, like it's how we all, normals and autistics, do navigate in this world at the same level, in our deepest selves. Certainly in this book how Lou sees us reveals us as people who don't always say what we mean, who do unconsciously understand social cues that he cannot grasp. The ability to grasp social cues and to know how to react to them, along with the ability to verbally communicate, are the biggest differences between autistic people and normal people. This book is also revelation of how much we take for granted, that confuse autistic people - language we use that has many meanings, understanding how someone who could be a friend could also turn into someone who hates us, questions like is dark at a place before light gets there? What is the speed of dark, is it faster than light? the same as? What does it mean if we develop the ability to change how a brain processes information? How do we know how a person likes us, whether they are interested in us as more than friends or not? How do we really feel when other people come into our space? Are our lives more ordered than we would like to admit? How much of Lou do I have in me? It makes me wonder if we all start off as sorting through the world the same way as infants, and then autistics shut off part of their processing ability - or it never develops in the same way as a brain is capable of working. That at some deep level, we all process information the same way, but normal people find a way to communicate it better and can manage the daily changes that are part of life better.
This novel is about what it means to process information. Lou is offered - at first coerced, and then later is offered the choice - to go ahead with an experimental program that will refire his neurons so that he will keep his autistic ability to understand and see highly complex patterns, but he will have the neurons that understand social cues enhanced so he will be more normal. The heart of this book is Lou thinking through the ramifications of this dilemma, even as he teaches himself the science behind how the brain learns, to understand as fully he can what he is facing. Lou learns that autistic people can, and do, change. That change comes to everyone, and the choice is whether to accept it, or have it forced upon you. This is an amazing revelation for him. And when Lou makes his choice, I cried. I didn't want him to change, I didn't want to lose the Lou that existed. What does that say about memory? About our lives? What makes us human? If we need to experiment, do we understand really what we are asking the human volunteers to do?
This is an extraordinary novel. Elizabeth Moon has captured what each day, daily life, is like for an autistic person, and she has given us the gift of seeing what an autistic person can offer us, the value of their lives to the world.
I have deliberately chosen not to use science fiction here, in my desire to get as many people as possible to give this book a try. Seeing this now, I see I am doing a disservice to the science fiction genre. I don't like labels for books when it means a book won't be read because of how it is classified, and this is something science fiction books suffer under almost more than any other gentre of books. However, maybe what I should be doing is shouting from the rooftops: Look! Look everyone! This is what science fiction can do! This is the very best kind of book, and it uses science fiction to explain what could happen, and what could be. We look ahead into the future. In our current science exploration of the mind and the brain and the body, do we want to move towards a world where we can modify the brain? Give the chance to be fully the best they can to someone whose brain doesn't work like ours, no matter how the brain is originally wired? And does that mean that we lose what autistic people do give to the world, and anyone else who is 'different', special, needing special services? Is our desire to make everyone normal to make our lives easier, or theirs? These are all questions Lou asks, that his company makes him ask, and this is what the very best of novels in any genre, what the very best writing does: it entertains, it excites, and it makes us think. Science fiction, when it is written like this, is the very best kind of book for showing us the future and guiding us to where we want to go.