The Speed of Dark
by Elizabeth Moon
First published in 2002
From Goodreads: In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Unfortunately, there will be a generation left behind. For members of that missed generation, small advances will be made. Through various programs, they will be taught to get along in the world despite their differences. They will be made active and contributing members of society. But they will never be normal.
Lou Arrendale is a member of that lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the awards of medical science. Part of a small group of high-functioning autistic adults, he has a steady job with a pharmaceutical company, a car, friends, and a passion for fencing. Aside from his annual visits to his counselor, he lives a low-key, independent life. He has learned to shake hands and make eye contact. He has taught himself to use “please” and “thank you” and other conventions of conversation because he knows it makes others comfortable. He does his best to be as normal as possible and not to draw attention to himself.
But then his quiet life comes under attack. It starts with an experimental treatment that will reverse the effects of autism in adults. With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music–with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world–shades and hues that others cannot see? Most importantly, would he still love Marjory, a woman who may never be able to reciprocate his feelings? Would it be easier for her to return the love of a “normal”?
There are intense pressures coming from the world around him–including an angry supervisor who wants to cut costs by sacrificing the supports necessary to employ autistic workers. Perhaps even more disturbing are the barrage of questions within himself. For Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that might completely change the way he views the world . . . and the very essence of who he is.
Thoughtful, provocative, poignant, unforgettable, The Speed of Dark is a gripping exploration into the mind of an autistic person as he struggles with profound questions of humanity and matters of the heart.
I hadn’t even heard of The Speed of Dark before I decided to write up a list of Hugo and Neubula Award winning novels from 1980 to present. I realized that, while I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I haven’t read as many books from these genres as I maybe ‘should’, with that ‘should’ being a self-imposed one. Though scifi and fantasy are all the rage these days, I find that many of the titles I come across are often not as thought-provoking, memorable, or as mind-bending as many of those selected by the people who vote for the Hugos or Nebulas.
Though The Speed of Dark was published in 2002 before CRISPR gene editing was a reality, it proposes a world where such editing is commonplace- not as a means of eugenics, but to ensure that genetic disorders are removed from fetuses before they’re even born. Lou Arrendale was born just before these technologies came into being, and so is part of the last generation of people with autism. The rest of the world is very much aware of their existence, and while they might make fun of twentieth-century psychologists for having a poor understanding of autism, many of their views are just as backwards as the ones they mock. Lou’s psychologist does not fathom that he can have a massive vocabulary or comprehend books. She says that he is merely parroting words. She’s afraid that he has ‘violent tendencies’ because he enjoyed playing laser tag when he was younger, and so he does not mention his weekly fencing lessons to her. Lou has learned many things about dealing with “normal” people.
So when a new technique promises to undo Lou’s autism, and that of the people he works with, he struggles with his decision. Does he undergo the procedure or not? Does he want to be ‘normal’, or does he want to remain himself, a man with autism, a good life, good friends, and a woman he would like to date.
Though he is happy with his life, there are things that Lou would like to change. He doesn’t want to have to check in with his psychologist every year. He would like to not freeze up whenever someone is angry at him. He would like to not have to spend time deciphering people’s metaphors and expressions during a conversation. But is that enough to make him want to change who he is?
One of the most compelling things about The Speed of Dark is that it’s mostly told from Lou’s perspective. As often as autism shows up in the news, it’s rare that stories from people with autism are actually told. The news, for example, seems so intent on focusing on the ‘rampant occurrence of autism and the hunt for a cure’ that it neglects the fact that many people with autism lead perfectly happy and productive lives. They’re not looking for a cure, they’re looking for understanding and acceptance- the same thing that Lou is looking for.
In The Speed of Dark, Lou’s perspective is crystal clear. He explains why patterns fascinate him, why listening to particular pieces of classical music help him think, and why he is so attracted to Marjory. It’s the rest of the world, the ‘normal’ people who are baffling. Why do they assume Lou can’t read or understand things? Why do they lie? Why are they offended by honest answers?
I found Lou’s story to be captivating from the very beginning. His voice is different from nearly every other character I’ve ever read before, but then, there are few autistic voices in literature. Lou is a perfectly well-adjusted human being, just with an alternative view of the world. He and his coworkers, when they are together, are so rational I had to wonder why more people weren’t like them. They were free to not converse with each other if they didn’t want to, or leave a gathering they weren’t comfortable with anymore without offending the others, who understood that sometimes you just want to be left alone. They did not lie to each other or dissemble. “Normal is a dryer setting” they say when people ask if they want to be ‘normal’.
I wish I had heard about The Speed of Dark sooner than I did. It deserves to be read by more people. Lou’s story is an important one, and the questions about what is normal and what is not need to be asked.