September 29th, 2004

Burrahobbits, 09-28-04, "The Speed of Dark"

Elizabeth Moon's recent novel "The Speed of Dark" might seem an odd choice for a fantasy reading group with an emphasis on Tolkien, since it is vary-near-future science fiction, and SF elements are actually rather minimal. In fact, I'm not sure who chose it. Nevertheless, most found the book quite engaging, and we had a lively discussion about it.

The story concerns a group of autistic people who have benefitted from childhood treatments so that they are very highly-functioning and able to hold jobs doing important work in pattern recognition and analysis for a research-oriented corporation. Their autism gives them an aptitude for this work as long as they are supported by having things like an on-site gym where they can go to expend nervous energy when needed. Lou, the main character, is among the best adjusted of the group and has non-autistic friends and takes part in a fencing class.

Conflict arises when their group acquires a new senior manager who resents the autists'special concessions, and is intent on coercing the workers into becoming test subjects for a new treatment that may make it possible for them to function "normally." The potential dangers not only of the untested treatment but of leaving a life, however circumscribed, to which one has become accustomed, are the novel's sources of tension.

Moon does an admirable job of presenting the world from the autistic's viewpoint. She has an autistic son herself, and has studied the subject intensely. Her proposed "cure" represents the current best science on this as-yet poorly understood condition, and reflects her hopes for the future.

While the book has lots of merits, I found it unsatisfying. The senior manager is a cardboard villain whose motives are unconvincing--no one would really expect to have their entire department suddenly go on extended medical leave and upper echelons not notice--. Further, the danger once confronted proves to be not all that dangerous. Lou not only comes through the procedure with flying colors, he seems to drop his past life (in the seemly rushed denouement) without a care or a regret. My criticisms were not shared by others in the group, so I ould encourage anyone who might be interested in the subject matter to read it and make up your own mind.

I had also recently read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by Mark Haddon, in which an autistic fifteen year old decides to investigate the killing of his neighbor's dog. It develops many of the same issues found in Moon's book, without the science-fiction trappings, and is a good story in its own right.