Fri
Feb 20 2009 7:17pm
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.

15 comments
Sandi Kallas
1. Sandikal
What a coincidence. This book has been on my to-read list for a long time. I finally picked up a copy today with my 40%-off Borders coupon. I've heard nothing but good things about it.
Clifton Royston
2. CliftonR
Because a friend of mine read this book and recognized the central character as being one of the first fictional characters he'd encountered who actually seemed to think like he does, he was finally motivated to get evaluated for autism spectrum traits, which led to his being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. It's made his life a bit easier being able to put a name to what he's like. So anyway, I'd say she must have captured the subjective experience pretty well.
Agnes Kormendi
3. tapsi
I read this book last summer and I loved it.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Clifton: How very interesting. I'm even more impressed with it.
Sandi Kallas
5. Sandikal
Clifton, that's a fascinating story. Isn't it amazing how we can often learn more from fiction than from non-fiction?
bethmitcham
6. bethmitcham
I found this book fascinating and impressive. It came out around the same time as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which was not nearly as good as a story or as a way of convincingly portraying autism.

I've also found it great as a gateway book for science fiction in book clubs with people who are leery of science fiction.
na na
7. c0sys
I finished reading this about a week ago . What I found most impressive was how easy it was to start understanding exactly how Lou thinks. When I was reading the book, I was almost thinking two separate trains of thought: my own, which picked up on social and wording cues and Lou's, which didn't see these cues at all. I was especially amazed by how accurately Moon broke down the social cues. When reading about them, I immediately said to myself, 'Yes, thats exactly how I see that emotion' whereas before I couldn't have described what social cues told me about a particular emotion. I was also very interested in Lou's remarks on people not saying exactly what they mean. It started me thinking about what I'm saying as I say it. I've begun catching myself saying something I don't mean to disguise my real meaning, and correcting myself.

I was a bit disappointed by the conflict about the treatment. When reading it, it felt contrived, like it had been set up so the book could 'have a plot'. I found the conflict with Don much more compelling. I realize it could hardly have carried the book, but nonetheless found it quite a bit more interesting.

I was also very disappointed when the narrative left Lou. While I understand that this had to happen for plot, the thoughts of everybody else lacked the depth that Lou's had. I wonder if this was purposely done to emphasize Lou's complexity?

Speed of Dark is actually quite a bit outside my normal reading. Its one of those books that I throughly enjoy despite not including any of the elements I usually look for in a book. Its my introduction to Moon, and I hope the rest of her works are as well written.
bethmitcham
8. cbyler
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.

And the way it's an impairment largely because "normal" people *make* it an impairment. It's not dealing with the *world* that gives Lou problems, it's dealing with the majority of the world's human inhabitants.

A "normal" person interacting with Lou in that example would probably be annoyed with him because they would think he was deliberately wasting their time or making fun of them, when in fact, their question was just insufficiently specific (they should have asked for "the single most common color in your eyes" or something like that).

Once you start thinking of people like Lou as a different kind of people, and not a defective version of the "normal" kind of people, your worldview will be altered. (Or at least, mine was.) Without the "normal" bed-of-Procrustes approach to psychology, you might even stop using phrases like "curing" and "the darkness inside of head".

Lou is a fictional person but there are plenty of factual people who recognize their similarity to Lou, and may take an insult to him (based on those similar characteristics) as an insult to themselves. And I'm not sure they wouldn't be right to do that, either. (For that matter, I'm not even sure I should be saying "they" and not "we".)
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
CByler: There's darkness inside everyone's head -- well, except during trepanning! Looking into people's pupils you see darkness. And "curing" is the word used in the book.

Lou's way of thinking is certainly very alien to me, but I didn't mean any insult by using those terms, and I'm sorry you felt one.

I certainly found Lou-after less appealing and less interesting than Lou-before, and that cast reflections both ways on the central parable of the angel by the pool. And there's also the interesting issue of the way Lou's autistic co-workers interact, and what sort of world they'd make if everyone but a small percentage of people was like that. Not to mention the question of where the lines are between "different" and "impaired" -- Lou's impaired because, as you say, he lives in a society of "normal" people. In a society of people like him, I'd be impaired because I can't do math and can't see the kinds of patterns he sees.
Mary Fitzpatrick
10. mfitzz
I feel like I spend half my life wondering why other people miss the obvious and why I don't get what they take for granted.

I'm dyslexic, not autistic, but Lou's internal dialog wondering if "X" situation would make sense to him if he was "normal" really hit home with me.

I thought this book was brilliant for getting that across. I've not seen that explained as well anywhere else.

Sure I'd like to be able to spell, or remember phone numbers, ore read out loud, but I'm not sure I'd risk becoming another person to get those skills.
Sandi Kallas
11. Sandikal
I just finished this book this morning. I now completely understand the term "genre ghetto". "The Speed of Dark" truly deserves a chance to be read by everyone, not just science fiction fans. Classifying it as science fiction really limits it. Like "The Sparrow", it transcends genre classification.
Nicholas Alcock
12. NullNix
Random passing aspergic confirming Clifton, a little late: this is how we think; the best portrayal I've ever seen. (I'm not visually focused, so the patterns I see are linguistic ones, but nonetheless.)
Nicholas Alcock
13. NullNix
And, on the 'darkness' front, Jo has a point. There *is* a darkness there, a blindness to social cues, and it does have major negative effects. That there is compensatory brightness doesn't eliminate that. (Nonetheless, I wouldn't want to be cured, dammit: I wouldn't be *me* afterwards, and being killed and replaced by someone else in my head with access to my memories is not appealing at all.)
bethmitcham
14. flexyourhead
Just finished reading this book five minutes ago. I was with Lou all the way up to the end, then I was left feeling flat and disappointed. I never, at any point in the story, thought Lou would go through with the treatment to make him "normal". Maybe I need more time to reflect on the book or maybe I'm missing something but I just can't see any good reason for Lou to undergo treatment.
I agree with cbyler that most of the problems people with disabilities have in society are down to the "normals" and they're attitude, whether they're treating someone with a disability as inferior or as someone to be pitied. I can't believe that the author made Lou make this decision because she thinks anyone with autism would automatically want to be "cured"
The more I think about it the more confused I am by the ending. Am I missing something?
Phoenix Falls
15. PhoenixFalls
Like c0sys @ 7 the major flaw in the novel for me was when the perspective shifted to any character other than Lou. It felt (to me at least) like Lou's particular way of thinking leaked into Moon's portrayal of everyone else's way of thinking, lessening the impact of how wonderfully she captured Lou's perspective.

I don't think that made sense. Let me try again.

Lou's thinking was so right on, so exactly what I've come to understand about the way an autistic thinks (and I used to work with autistic kids) that I was initially incredibly impressed; but everyone else's perspective was so NOT my understanding about the way non-autistic people (taking myself as an example) think that it kind of threw me out of the novel. Everyone else's motivations were too simplistic, and if I had only seen them through Lou that would have made plenty of sense, but I was seeing them through their own perspective, and it just didn't at all feel organic or accurate. (Plus, because I disliked all their perspectives so much, I spent all the non-Lou pages thinking of ways I could have inserted the same information INTO Lou's perspective and thus eliminated the need to ever leave his head.)

Still, when anyone asks me about autism I recommend reading this book.

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