I knew almost nothing of Elizabeth Moon’s books before being offered this one to read. They didn’t really pique my curiosity. Judging by their covers they were spaceships and guns, not a subgenre that floats my boat (nor spacecruiser). So my heart sank a little when I opened this month’s lovely Hodderscape Review Project envelope.
Reading the back, Speed of Dark seemed a little different. Set in the near future, this book is about a data analyst expert who sees the world differently to ‘normal’ people. Lou is autistic. The whole premise of the novel is over whether Lou should take a new treatment and become ‘normal’. Should he overwrite his existing programming and become a new, ‘more functional’ person.
The book is slow and measured; almost nothing happens. Yet this is a beautiful deconstruction of identity and self, conformism and prejudice. It’s a fascinating read. We watch Lou wrestle with the world; adapt to new experiences and decide what exactly it is that makes Lou, Lou.
Many years ago I had a conversation with a friend in response to a radio news bulletin. I can’t remember the details, but it was something along the lines that a profoundly deaf couple were fighting for the right to choose to have a deaf child. Their argument being that they lived full and happy lives, did not consider themselves disabled, and neither would their child. My friend was extremely derogatory about this couple, but I had some sympathy with them. I outlined why I understood what where they were coming from; who we were to say that their lives were diminished, if they didn’t think so?
I was surprised to get a vehement ‘Why do you always have to argue the fucking toss,’ before my friend deflated in tears.
It turned out they had a cousin who was completely deaf and she had watched him struggle to grow up, adapt and fit in with society. Her feeling very much was, if you were given the choice to be fully functional you should take it. This is the central question of the novel. What should Lou do?
We see Lou’s work environment, his home life and most significantly are shown him participating in a treasured pastime with other, non-autistic, people. Medical advancements and understanding of his sensory needs, allow Lou to integrate well into everyday life, better than he could in our world. To the reader Lou seems to be a high functioning, intelligent, if socially awkward, regular guy. The help and preferential treatment, that Lou is given causes resentment amongst some friends and colleagues. It’s an interesting point. Lou’s skill with numbers gives him a highly lucrative career, but one that is only possible with help. Surely everybody deserves the chance to maximise their potential, autistic or not?
As I said very little happens in the book, but it is incredibly absorbing. The near-future setting is well constructed, still feeling a possible reality despite the book being over ten years old. The insight into Lou’s thought processes, and the challenges he is subjected to and how he adapts to them are rendered very well. I felt for him over every small decision he had to make or new piece of information he needed to assimilate. As the book neared its conclusion, I was worried about the ending. So realistic was the book, ‘a happy ever after’ conclusion would have seem trite, but Lou is such an engaging character, I would have been gutted in anything bad had happened to him. It’s a thin line, and Moon walks it well, avoiding schmaltz whilst allowing Lou to soar.
Whilst the Speed of Dark is essentially about the boundaries (or lack of) faced by people who are diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, above all it is novel about what makes us human. In an increasingly homogenised world, it questions the desire to make things conform. I would never have reviewed this book were it not for the review project, but I am so glad I did. It fits into a group of high calibre novels, those that alter your world view, just through having read them.
Many Thanks to Anne at the Hodderscape Review Project for sending me a copy of the book.