Speed Of Dark Elizabeth Moon, 2002
Science fiction author Jaine Fenn tackles a Nebula Award- winning modern classic
From a bald summary, you might wonder if Elizabeth Moon’s Speed Of Dark is a genre novel. It’s the story of a group of autistic co- workers given the “opportunity” to take an experimental drug to “cure” them of their autism. Much of the book’s tension comes from the fact that this opportunity verges on coercion, and from the possibility that, by removing the defining feature of their lives, those who take the treatment may no longer be themselves. The setting includes a few near- future touches ( as of the early noughties) but these are largely peripheral to the story.
However, if you consider SF and fantasy to be about exploring inner space – the human mind – as much as about outer space, then this is an SF classic.
It’s the story of Lou, one of the workers of Section A, and one of the most engaging characters in any genre. He is all truth; observant, conscientious and lacking in ego. Negative emotions don’t feature in his world because he cannot see the point of them.
But what makes Lou likeable also makes him vulnerable. Lou and his co- workers lack the facility for activities the rest of the world consider necessary, such as how to conduct a romantic relationship, respond to aggression, or lie. They are frequently underestimated and occasionally mistreated. Lou knows the score; the outside world and the world in his head work differently, and he accepts that he must compromise to “fit in”. But despite paying close attention to his surroundings – far closer than most of us do – some of what goes on is incomprehensible to him, which he finds understandingly frustrating. More than once he wonders, privately, why people can’t just say what they mean.
Moon also includes two viewpoint characters outside the test group.
Explores complex questions of identity, free will and what “normal” means
This gives the novel a balance it would otherwise lack, and provides the reader with story elements that Lou is not exposed to. Both of these characters are sympathetic to Lou, but not everyone is. One of the problems Lou faces is from Crenshaw, a slightly cartoonish “bad boss” and natural bully. Crenshaw’s motivations aren’t relevant. Corporate politics are not what the book is about, they merely drive parts of the story forward. Speed Of Dark is about the reality inhabited by autistic people, and how it intersects with the reality most of us live in; and it’s about how we, and they, deal with those differences.
Through Lou we are brought up against absurdities we face every day. Mundane activities such as grocery shopping, doing the laundry or getting a tyre changed are, under Lou’s hypersensitive gaze, stripped down, analysed and exposed as the peculiar rituals they are. Inequalities we rarely question get the same treatment. Lou is disturbed by the knowledge that if a police officer fears you – if they think you’re reaching for a gun when you’re actually reaching for your ID – then they can legitimately shoot you; but if you are scared of them, you can’t do anything about it. There is, as he says, no symmetry in this.
The seed of the novel came from Moon’s experiences with her autistic son, although Lou is not based on him. Lou became his own person. When he’s faced with the most difficult choice of his life, the author lets him make the choice himself; Moon did not decide beforehand whether he would choose to take the treatment or not.
Speed Of Dark explores complex questions of identity, free will and what “normal” means – it’s an overrated state, according to Lou and his colleagues. As they joke when becoming “normal” is presented as highly desirable: “Normal is a dryer setting.” Jaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire series, published by Gollancz. Her most recent book is Downside Girls.