Seeing Patterns Everywhere: Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark

The fascinating thing about Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark is the voice. Lou Arrendale is autistic, and never for a moment in the first person narrative that forms the vast majority of this book do we step away from the fascinating way that he sees the world. He’s like an alien, by the definition of “thinks as well as a human but not like a human,” but of course he is also human. He is utterly logical, he sees patterns, and he doesn’t perceive social signals except sometimes as an entirely learned and intellectual thing. I don’t know if this is really how autistic people think, though since Moon has an autistic son and also did a lot of research, I’m sure this is the best possible representation of how we think they think, and goodness knows it’s utterly convincing.

Most eyes have more than one color, but usually they’re related. Blue eyes may have two shades of blue, or blue and grey, or blue and green, or even a fleck or two of brown. Most people don’t notice that. When I first went to get my state ID card, the form asked for eye color. I tried to write in all the colors in my own eyes, but the blank space wasn’t big enough. They told me to put “brown.” I put “brown” but that is not the only color in my eyes. It is just the color that people see because they do not really look into other people’s eyes.

That paragraph encapsulates it neatly—both the different way of seeing and the way that the different way of seeing is an impairment when it comes to dealing with the world. There’s a great immediacy to Lou’s point of view, and it’s all entirely comprehensible, if deeply weird. Moon chose to include a few brief sections from the points of view of Lou’s friend Tom and boss Pete Aldrin, which probably do make the plot flow more smoothly but which always jerk me out of the complete immersion in Lou’s perceptions. It’s amazing how much of a life he manages to lead, despite how acutely he feels textures and how much he needs a regulating routine. Besides that, Lou sees patterns in the world, patterns that other people don’t see, patterns that are really there and help him cope. Sometimes this is just weird, like when he wants to park on a prime number spot,  or counts floor tiles, and sometimes it saves his life.

The plot is simple enough. There’s an experimental new treatment that might make autistic people normal. There’s a threat that Lou might be forced to take it, and when that’s removed he has the more difficult choice of whether or not he wants it. The book is unquestionably science fiction—it’s set in the near future, with global warming killing trees and making cars unusual, not to mention the nanotech advances in curing autism. Lou’s dream is to go into space, and lots of people are working in space at the time the novel is set. Nevertheless the central question of whether Lou wants to be cured is treated in a philosophical way much closer to fantasy—are disabilities God-given, and if they are, is it right to want to be cured? Who are we anyway, and how much change is it possible to go through and remain the same person?

The title refers to a philosophical construct Lou thinks of—we know the speed of light, but when light gets there, dark is there before it, and we don’t know the speed of dark. At different times this is viewed as ignorance being illuminated, and as the darkness inside of the head being pierced by light. It’s indicative of how well Moon shows Lou’s perceptions from inside that we come to value what he is the way he is and hesitate with him over having his darkness illuminated.

I’ve read pretty much everything Moon has written, and enjoyed most of it. It’s mostly in the category of “a fast fun read”—the Paksenarrion books, the Serrano books, the Vatta books. They’re all fun, relatively undemanding fantasy or SF adventures. The Speed of Dark is something quite different, at a different level of intensity. It’s immensely readable but nobody would call it “fun” or a “romp.” It quite deservedly won a Nebula Award. If you want to try on a comprehensible but completely different set of perceptions, you can’t do better.


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