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Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: The Speed of the Dark

The Speed of the Dark is Elizabeth Moon's science fiction book about autism. The science fiction parts of the book aren't very apparent. It's set in the future where autism can be cured in the womb, and follows Lou Arrendale, one of the last autistic people left. He's a high functioning autistic, and can live on his own, hold down a job doing pattern matching, and goes fencing. The novel is told mostly from his point of view.

The central conflict in the novel describes a new director for Lou's job, Crenshaw, who decides that all the extra amenities and facilities that Lou and his colleagues need to be able to work are perks that should be cut. To that end, he "encourages" Lou's colleagues to try out an experimental treatment for curing autism. Crenshaw is a stereotypical corporate villain, and is never fleshed out, which is the biggest flaw in an otherwise excellent novel. But his attack on Lou brings up several issues: if you could cure a deep psychological problem like autism, would it be desirable to do so. If someone has come to an accommodation with his condition, wouldn't the change be traumatic, and possibly be effectively eliminating that person's former self? The novel explores these issues from Lou's perspective.

The best thing about this novel is it's use of the first person perspective to grant insight into how an autistic individual works. If you're a Silicon Valley engineer, reading this novel will give you a very strong sense in how similar many engineers are to an autistic person, and where the big differences are. Jeff Bezoes is quoted as saying, "I learn more from fiction than from non-fiction books," and this book is illustrative: it's more insightful than even autobiographical books like Born on a Blue Day. The treatment is extremely sympathetic, and extremely well written.

For some novelists, the central conflict's resolution would end the novel, but not Moon. She goes on to explore all the deeper issues involved in the novel, and the conversation Lou has with himself is a lot of fun. This is an excellent novel, and I can highly recommend it.

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