Elizabeth Moon

May 22, 2011

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Book cover for THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon
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As an autist, Lou Arrendale struggles in a world that, at best, doesn’t quite understand him and, at worst, hates him. Using long-learned techniques, he lives a decent, if occasionally awkward, life, working for a pharmaceutical company where he finds patterns in data. Functioning in society is possible, though difficult, especially now that children up to a certain age can be cured of autism. This leaves Lou’s generation the last of their kind and perhaps more misunderstood because of that. When the company Lou works for believes it’s found a way to cure autism in adults, Lou must decide whether he wants to change. Will he lose himself by becoming what others wish he was?

Imagining the End of Autism

The Speed of Dark is a character-driven story. If you’re not interested in close and personal explorations of the human condition and psyche, this book’s not for you. It isn’t a sweeping adventure with lots of action and witty, debonair characters. It’s about one man and his small, but important life journey, which is made more complicated by autism. Primarily told from Lou Arrendale’s somewhat stilted perspective, it is a story about being confused and confusing others, about being accepted and loved—or feared and hated—because of who you are, who you can’t help being. It’s about trying to balance the acceptance and change. It’s about figuring out what the hell the terms “normal” and “abnormal” mean—if they mean anything at all.

Though The Speed of Dark is more focused on its characters, it has a small but meaningful plot—and, potentially, a realistic one. Set in the future (2040s?), Lou is one of a transitional generation in terms of medical science. He was born in a time when society had learned of reliable techniques to help him function with his autism, but he was born too early for the gene therapy that cures autism in children two years and younger. This puts Lou in a precarious position, where society not only doesn’t quite understand autistm (still), but is also coming to expect the disorder to be a matter of the past because of recent scientific developments.

Lou, along with several other autists, works for a pharmaceutical company, where his job is to find patterns in data. His autism enables him to find and understand patterns much more quickly than “normal” individuals can, and perhaps more intuitively and creatively than a computer can. When middle management changes hands, Lou’s section of the company is determined too costly, due to its employees’ special needs (a gym, music, etc.). When there’s hope a cutting edge technology may reverse autism in adults, Lou and his coworkers are given an unethical ultimatum: they are either to participate in the clinical trial as guinea pigs or the company will find a way to legally fire them.

With hardly any information to go on, Lou and his coworkers must decide if they want the treatment, which has previously only been tested on animals. Those who care for Lou must decide how much they can or should interfere, and whether they want to get involved in what is set to be a personal and legal quagmire. What unfolds is a tale of self-exploration and a look at what it means to be human and supposedly normal.

What I like most about The Speed of Dark is its balance of characters. Given the subject matter, there could easily be a lot of stereotyping of those with autism and those without. Moon expertly avoids this. A whole range of autistic experiences are exhibited by various characters, and characters without autism are just as diverse. She doesn’t try to paint any one group as being completely innocent or evil, weak or strong. I’m sure it took effort, especially considering she has personal experience in this matter, as a parent to a son with autism.

I’ve seen some reviews compare The Speed of Dark to Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, a book first published in 1959. While similar questions and emotions are explored, I think it’s obvious The Speed of Dark is the newer of the two, and modern readers are more likely to relate to it. Moreover, the situation Lou finds himself in—of being one of a transitional generation—is something I imagine we’ll see in the near future (if it’s not already happening to some degree, as I suspect it might be).

Some readers complain about The Speed of Dark‘s ending, which is a little abrupt, but so long as one goes into the book knowing the story is specifically about autism and the choices one who’s seen as being abnormal has to make, the ending will not be bothersome.

Anyone who loves science fiction and delving deep into characters’ minds should give The Speed of Dark a try. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet story.

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Quotes from The Speed of Dark

I like it that order exists somewhere even if it shatters near me.

“Do you like the gym a lot, then?”

The long answer is always more interesting than the short one. I know that most people want the short uninteresting answer rather than the long interesting one, so I try to remember that when they ask me questions that could have long answers if they only understood them. Mr. Crenshaw only wants to know if I like the gym room. He doesn’t want to know how much.

“It’s fine,” I tell him.

Sometimes it seems obvious why normal people do things and other times I cannot understand it at all.

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