The Speed of Dark

by Elizabeth Moon

Published by Ballantine Books

352 pages, 2003

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The Speed of "Normal"

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


"I wonder what it would be like to be normal," muses Lou Arrendale, the middle-aged autistic man whose story forms the heart of Elizabeth Moon's compelling novel, The Speed of Dark. "What would it be like to not be worried that people think I'm crazy when I stutter or when I can't answer at all and have to write on my little pad? ... To know what people are thinking just by looking at their faces?"

As shut out of human congress as Data from Star Trek: TNG, Lou similarly yearns for a sense of belonging that is always just out of his reach. Lavishly gifted in some areas, yet locked into never-changing routines that narrowly circumscribe his life, Lou is a poignant and contradictory figure, both advanced far beyond "normal" and profoundly stuck.

Veteran SF writer Barbara Moon knows this territory all too well, for she has raised an autistic son to adolescence. She sets Lou's story several decades into the future, at a time when criminals are controlled by computer chips embedded in the brain and autism is considered as obsolete as bubonic plague.

Lou is "marooned between the bad old days and the bright new ones," born too early for a breakthrough in infant genetic manipulation that rendered his condition reversible. But unlike autistics in our era, he has benefited from early intervention methods that have greatly improved his ability to communicate and function in society: "It used to be much worse. Before the computer-assisted language-learning program, children like me might never learn language at all. Back in the mid-20th century, therapists thought autism was a mental illness, like schizophrenia."

These advances have allowed Lou to lead a semi-normal life, working at a sterile megacorporation which exploits his genius for pattern recognition while failing to respect his individuality. His boss, Mr. Crenshaw, resents all the extras the company has installed to help its autistic workers function better: the trampolines, the piped-in classical music and strange whirligigs on the ceiling that help keep the mental wheels turning.

Lou's autistic co-workers never venture beyond their own tightly-limited social circle, hanging out at the same pizza place every week and communicating in a stilted language they all seem to understand. But Lou is a step beyond them socially and has "normal" friends, including a couple named Lucia and Tom who are training Lou in the art of fencing.

It's an apt metaphor for his life, for he is always trying to read patterns in others, to stay a step ahead of baffling and complex human interactions. His simplest social encounters demand a sort of parry-and-thrust, a strategy he finds bewildering and exhausting. With all this practice in life, fencing comes relatively easily to him, to the point that he is even able to compete in a competition.

Lou's circle of friends opens up a larger world to him, but only to a degree. He feels attracted to Marjory, and even loves her in his halting way, but has no idea how to express it, or even if he should: "Is autism contagious? Can she catch it from me? She won't like it if she does." Don, more of a caseload than a friend, is self-centered, juvenile and manipulative in a way that baffles Lou, who often naively assumes that all "normal" people are motivated by good intentions.

Then at work, the crunch comes: Mr. Crenshaw is pushing an experimental treatment on his autistic workers that will supposedly relieve them of their condition.

"You have to adapt," Crenshaw says. "You can't expect to get special privileges forever, not when there's a treatment that will make you normal. That gym, and private offices, and all that music, and those ridiculous decorations -- you can be normal and there's no need for that. It's uneconomic. It's ridiculous." He turns as if to leave and then whirls back. "It has to stop," he says.

Here is where the story begins to resemble the SF classic Flowers for Algernon: deliverance from handicap is at hand, but at what cost to identity? Many of Lou's co-workers resist the notion of cure:

"I don't want it," Linda says. "I do not need a treatment; I am fine the way I am." ... Crenshaw turns red. "You are not fine," he says. "And you are not normal. You are autistics. You are disabled."

But is Lou disabled, or just different? Ambiguity abounds here, for his chronic social awkwardness is truly painful to him, yet his hyper-aware senses and attention to minutiae can be a private bliss others know nothing about. To educate himself on the treatment, he casually devours advanced textbooks on brain function with almost supernatural ease. His "normal" friends are in awe. Yet his intelligence tests only as average. This is a man who does not easily fit into any known category.

Elizabeth Moon has done a superb job in creating Lou, though characters like Don and Crenshaw sometimes come dangerously close to bad-guy stereotypes. Lou's obsessive attention to detail and set routine makes for a blow-by-blow, deliberate pacing that can take awhile to get used to. But he is such a touching figure, a Pinocchio longing to be a real boy, yet hesitant to cut the strings, afraid to lose the special magic of his condition. His eventual decision leads to a truly chilling ending, in which the paradox of identity is revealed, but not resolved.

Near the end of the book, one of Lou's friends makes the bold statement, "It is not wrong to be different. Sometimes it is hard, but it is not wrong." Elizabeth Moon's novel underscores a powerful truth -- that sometimes the supposedly handicapped can make leaps of perception (not to mention compassion) far beyond the tedious bounds of "normal." | April 2003


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.