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Monday, June 20, 2011

cover of Elizabeth Moon's 'Speed of Dark'

In a near-future world, this book tells the story of an autistic man named Lou. Lou seems like a very high-functioning autistic person: he lives by himself, he drives a car to work, where he works with a team of autistic people who do some kind of abstract, pattern analysis or pattern generation that seems pretty technologically advanced and profitable to their company, and he even goes to a weekly fencing group. Early in the book, Lou is thinking to himself (during his required quarterly psychiatric evaluation, where he is careful not to say to much or say the "wrong thing") that "the speed of dark is as interesting as the speed of light, and maybe it is faster and who will find out?" This is a recurring question, which is pretty interesting in itself-- because of Lou's notion that dark must be at least as fast as light, since it is moving ahead of the light to get out of the way; but it also comes to have a larger significance in the book: certainly the darkness hints at ignorance and the unknown, but there is also Lou's discovery that the questions he asks aren't necessarily invalid even though he is "different" and has been told this all of his life.

As Lou's story unfolds, we gradually learn that, if Lou had been born in our day and age, he would have been considered severely autistic-- but in this near future world, they have been able to treat autism much better. When Lou was growing up, there were technologies to help train his brain attend to shorter signals, and there is now a cure for autistic children. Two big changes come into Lou's life in the course of the book: one comes by way of a new boss at work who wants to change the special privileges the autistic unit gets ("perks" that help them function), and even purchases an experimental cure for adult autism that he wants all of the autistic unit to take; and the other change comes through the personal interactions in his fencing group.

Moon does a wonderful job of describing Lou's life and perception of reality in a way that is accessible to the reader. Lou tends to understand human slang quite literally-- even though he has been taught what some phrases mean, he still wishes that people would just say what they mean. When he sees "normal" people in his circle of fencing friends communicate by exchanging glances or through expressions that he can't read, he feels that they are mind-readers. Lou has been taught what "normal" people are like and what they do, but this is clearly a caricature and an oversimplification. Sometimes Lou misses emotions that the reader probably won't miss; in one case, he refuses to follow what logic tells him is the right answer because a "friend" wouldn't do what logic tells him someone has done.

One of the more beautiful aspects of the book is Lou's love of pattern and the way he expresses it. He loves his work (and is very good at it) because it is all about seeing patterns. He loves fencing because he can watch the other fencer and see their pattern, and then he puts himself in to the pattern and becomes a part of it (of course, this ability to see the other fighter's pattern gives him a tremendous advantage-- although that is not why he fights). He loves star-gazing because it makes him feel like a small part of a large, ordered universe. Even counting the tiles in the laundry room and seeing where they match up with the walls, or paying attention to the colored beer lights that blink in the pizza place he and his co-workers go to is another way that he is drawn to pattern. When Lou decides he needs to read up on neuroscience in order to understand the "cure" for autism that the new boss is pushing them to take, he reads that the brain largely functions by pattern recognition, and he discovers more and more the assumptions that have been made about him and told to him all his life.

This is a beautiful and compelling book, one that lets us live for a while in a another world and see the universe a bit differently.

I have heard of Elizabth Moon before, but this is the first book of hers that I've read. "EMoon" is occasionally mentioned and quoted on Robin McKinley's blog (she is one of my favorite authors), and Robin actually wrote about this book in particular-- so when I came across it, I decided to give it a chance. I'm glad I did; I'll be looking for other books by Elizabeth Moon books in the future.

Title:The Speed of Dark
Author:Elizabeth Moon
Date published:2002
Genre:Science Fiction
Number of pages:369
Notes:reviewed and recommended by Robin McKinley


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