The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon is a remarkable dive into the mind of an autistic adult. Reminiscent in style and tone of the ‘speculative fiction’ of Margaret Atwood, The Speed of Dark is a moment of memorable genius that is both utterly compelling and morally and intellectually stimulating - an Arthur C. Clarke finalist and Nebula winner, this is a must read for everyone.
Elizabeth takes us into the mind of Lou, a high functioning autistic adult that works in the pattern recognition department of a corporate software firm. His co-workers are all autistic adults who, similar to Lou, are able to perform functions that a ‘normal’ person is unable to. I use the word “normal” with great reticence after having finished both Spellwright and The Speed of Dark in short succession, since both novels play heavily with the concept of what is normal and what is not - is there such a thing?
Elizabeth writes from the perspective of Lou and does so with such simple eloquence and utter sincerity that readers will literally become entranced. I most definitely was. The setting is roughly half a century in the future and human science has developed a remarkable mastery over the brain and its various functions. So far has the science been pushed that children born with autism can be cured within the first two years of life. Sadly, the protagonist and his co-workers were born just a little too late to benefit from such treatment, although they were recipients of advanced behavioral training that allows them to function at a high level in society.
Indeed, Lou is so ‘normal’ that he has become quite prodigious at fencing during his weekly class - by far the most compelling aspect of Elizabeth’s narrative. Lou's mastery of pattern recognition has allowed him to essentially predict the moves of his opponents and counter them appropriately. Experiencing the fencing bouts from Lou's perspective is startlingly akin to watching a magic duel unfold: the terms and concepts are familiar to the reader but there is a profound sense of enchantment, mystery, and excitement that is uniquely characteristic of speculative fiction.
The central dilemma of The Speed of Dark presents itself when Lou's corporate overlords, for budgetary reasons, want him and all of his co-workers to undergo a highly experimental treatment that promises to make them ‘normal’. Experiencing the conflict form Lou's perspective is quite literally breathtaking. He is someone that is intellectually capable of understanding and reasoning out human action and emotion but is incapable of the emotive processing which allows ‘normals’ to instantly interpret a smile or an awkward laugh. Interestingly, as I describe it to you now, I find my description of Lou's condition to be remarkably similar to that of sociochopaths… regardless, Lou is both fascinating and endearing - a strange mixture by all accounts, but one that works wonders.
I cannot recommend The Speed of Dark enough. Conceptually the writing and setting intertwine to weave a narrative that hits all the right notes without coming of as trite or cliche. To top it all off, you will never think of anyone with a disorder quite the same way again. A perspective altering novel that, in my opinion, should find its way into classrooms as well as the bring screen.