The Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon

Orbit, 2002, 424 pages, £6.99 mmpb, ISBN 1-84149-141-1

Few topics continue to frustrate and fascinate Science Fiction critics like the definition of the genre. Like most literary categories, “Science Fiction” means nothing and everything —from the stereotypical “stories in the future” to the more interesting “stories that SF fans love to read.” The Nebula Award-winning Speed of Dark won’t do much to calm down the debate given how it puts interesting fuel in the fire.

In a few words, it’s a story about an autistic narrator, Lou, who comes to decide whether he wants to be “cured” or not at a time where such cures are medically feasible. Lou isn’t your usual autist, though: functioning at a reasonably high level, Lou has been able to turn his condition in an asset, working as an analyst for a big corporation. For the longest while, Speed of Dark is a mainstream novel about autism taking place in a future world not terribly different from our own. Despite the high-tech details, this is chiefly a novel about autism: the strictly SF element is raised late in the story, and has a measurable impact only in the last few chapters.

Consequently, proponents of a “purer” definition of SF may have a hard time seeing this book as Science Fiction. It’s very, very tempting to re-label this book as, essentially, a mainstream writing exercise in SF clothing: In this theory, Elizabeth Moon (herself the mother of an autistic son) wanted to write a novel about autism but knew it wouldn’t sell ten copies on the mainstream market. A few conventional SF elements later -tada!- there’s something fit to be sold to the usual genre markets where she made her reputation. Pure cynicism, but plausible enough. The Turkey City Lexicon even has an entry for the “Abbess Phone Home” syndrome: “Takes its name from a mainstream story about a medieval cloister which was sold as SF because of the serendipitous arrival of a UFO at the end. By extension, any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element tacked on so it could be sold.” And bang.

But such a glib dismissal fails to take in account that the relationship between SF and its audience if far more complicated than a checklist of elements that may or may not be present in the story. It also fails to take in account the power of Moon’s writing in this novel. Lou, simply put, is a character with whom many Science Fiction readers will identify.

I myself could relate to Lou’s impatience about the sillier elements of everyday life and so-called “normal” people. There is a fabulous grocery store sequence in Chapter Five which pretty much describes all of my pet peeves about going to the supermarket. I could certainly recognize in Lou’s habits most of my own tendencies pushed to eleven. By making her protagonist a high-functioning autist, Moon has also made a savvy decision to go after the readership most likely to identify with her protagonist –Science Fiction fans.

It’s well-known, for instance, that self-identified SF fans are liable to be measurably more obsessive than “normal people”. Less patient with everyday trivia. More likely to identify with concepts than people. Less socially gracious, to put it mildly. The preponderance of people affected with Asperger’s Syndrome is usually higher in SF fandom than any other normal sampling. We already know that: Obsessiveness has been a fundamental part of fandom (any fandom) since its very beginning.

And so we come to an amusing conclusion: the best possible audience for a novel about an autistic protagonist and his struggles with daily life is the existing community of SF fans, already quite used to the idea of “special” and “normal” people. If I could recognize myself in Lou, you can bet that I’m not the only one. In some ways, Speed of Dark is a novel about the SF community more than it is an SF novel. That it happens to be an exceptionally readable, warm and engrossing story is just a special bonus on top of a book that goes straight for its audience’s throat. It doesn’t matter that Speed of Dark may or may not be a mainstream story with a sprinkling of future fairy-dust: It matters that Speed of Dark is liable to be a book that SF audiences want to read.

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