Speed Of Dark El­iz­a­beth Moon, 2002

Sci­ence fic­tion au­thor Jaine Fenn tack­les a Neb­ula Award- win­ning mod­ern clas­sic

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Promotion -

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.

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