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by Elizabeth Moon
Del Rey, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 19th 2006

The Speed of Dark

Elizabeth Moon is known for writing science fiction and fantasy novels, but while The Speed of Dark is set in the near future and assumes that science has made powerful advances from now, it does not fit well in the genre of science fiction. It primarily a novel about autism and morality, and would work well as a discussion piece for classes in medical ethics. Her main character is Lou Arrendale, an autistic computer programmer who works in a corporation with other people with autism, all of whom are highly skilled at picking out patterns. Lou is successful in his job, and he has a social life too, mixing with non-autistic people socially. He even has a crush on a woman in his fencing group. He lives on his own, in his own apartment, and copes better than many people who do not share his impairment. The novel is narrated from Lou’s point of view, and as readers, we get a strong sense of how his thinking is distinctive. He uses short declarative sentences, setting out his ideas very clearly and methodically. He focuses on the matters at hand, and tries hard to negotiate the world around him, deciphering what people really mean when they speak ironically or in other ways in which their words do not precisely state their thoughts and feelings. He does this well, but it takes a great deal of his energy. He reveals that he would have been more profoundly impaired by his condition, but his parents chose treatment for him while he was in the womb that made him more normal. He also mentions that at the time of his writing the disorder has been eliminated completely in newborn babies. The central crux of the novel lies in another new development, a potential for autism. It is made available to Lou and his co-workers on an experimental basis, and they have to decide whether to try it.

There is an interesting side question about when people with autism are competent to decide to participate in medical experimentation, and Moon emphasizes this with a slightly heavy-handed sub-plot. The strength of the novel is in its exploration of whether Lou should try to become normal, given that he has such a rich and rewarding life already. Lou muses over the question for most of the novel, and his various experiences during the course of the novel help to inform his choice. The book’s ending comes down quite definitely on one side of the fence, although there is some room left for defenders of the opposite view to resist Moon’s apparent verdict.

Rather than being a dry exposition of the issues, Moon brings it alive with a thoughtful plot and excellent writing. The Speed of Dark was first published in 2003, the same year as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which gained a great deal of press for telling its story from the point of view of an autistic adolescent. Moon, who has an autistic son herself, does just as well as Haddon in conveying the difference in how a person with autism experiences the world, and the book is a compelling read. Highly recommended.

The unabridged audio book version available from booksontape.com has a strong performance by Grover Gardner.

 

© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.