Thursday, January 31, 2008

Autism in the Not-Too-Distant Future: Thoughts on Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark

Honestly, The Speed of Dark turned out to be a very different book than I expected it to be. It was shelved as science fiction, and Elizabeth Moon is a fairly well-known writer of sci-fi, so I expected The Speed of Dark to be jammed with all sorts of fantastic technologies, spacegoing explorations and vastly different kinds of societies than exist now. Instead, I got a story set in a society nearly identical to ours, with only a few subtle differences.

That unexpected resemblance to today's society made me pay unusual attention to those few things she did choose to change in her story, though. There were obvious, necessary-for-the-story changes like greater societal awareness of autism and advances in treatment and integration of autistic people into society (the protagonist, Lou, works as an encryption specialist at a large pharmaceutical company, where his autistic skills enable him to decode and create complex patterns), but some changes were more counterintuitive. Specifically, in the near-future society Moon has created for this work, there's a very narrow, rigid definition of normal. Lou keeps it a secret from his therapist, for example, that he enjoys fencing, for fear that the therapist will deem such a pastime antisocial. Similarly, Lou's love of classical music is presented by Moon as something deeply unusual; everyone else is depicted listening to homogenized radio pop music, and Lou's listening to classical music is always an intensely private activity. There are shades of Bradbury's The Pedestrian (nifty animated short film here) in this slightly sinister, overbearing mass culture, but she never brings it to the foreground. At most, it provides context for the central drama, which is Lou's internal conflict over whether to take the experimental cure for autism that his employer is pushing on him.

Apart from the thought-provoking tweaks in the setting, I'd say this book's strengths are the true-to-life descriptions of what it's like to be autistic (Moon really emphasizes the sensory hypersensitivities) and its humane treatment of the problem of a cure. The choice to take or to refuse the experimental treatment their employer offers is not easy for any character, and their final decisions range from a resounding "Yes" to an equally definitive "No," with all the flavors of ambivalence in between. For his part, Lou equates getting cured to being given a chance to live his life over again, to pursue the career in space exploration he'd always dreamed of. That's the understanding all of the autistic characters have of the cure: it would make them new people, cause them to start their lives all over. This has a powerful allure to those characters, like Lou, who have missed certain opportunities and are always asking "What if?"

An idea that I'm currently incubating, and will probably post more on later, is the question of whether autism has a special place in the thematic canon of science fiction. Much of science fiction, particularly cyberpunk, deals with cognitive frontiers the way earlier science fiction dealt with space. Cyberpunk especially mines the brain-computer interface for its stories, and autistic brains are sometimes compared to computers by NT writers and journalists seeking to describe our (sometimes) more logical, rules-oriented way of interpreting the world. Also, cyberpunk deals with testing the limits of human potential, often by artificial means. Autistic savants, with their astonishing ability in isolated areas, seem a natural kind of character with which to explore those narratives.

I also think an autistic character can stand in metaphorically for the inhuman, or the posthuman. That is certainly the role that the Asperger-syndrome biotechnologist Crake plays in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which I will write on as soon as I get my copy of Oryx and Crake back; I'm lending it out at the moment.