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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

The Speed of Dark

The Speed of Dark - Elizabeth Moon Amazon's e-book samples are too short, only about 18 pages in length, good luck applying that ol’ “50 pages rule” here. Fortunately The Speed of Dark (2003 Nebula Award winner) is immediately intriguing and I was sold on it by the end of the short sample. I keep hearing good things about [a: Elizabeth Moon|10518|Elizabeth Moon|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1199059504p2/10518.jpg] and [a: Elizabeth Bear|108173|Elizabeth Bear|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1422586829p2/108173.jpg] in sci-fi websites and forums, I get them mixed up a lot as I have not read either one until now. Elizabeth Moon surpasses my expectations with this book, hopefully Elizabeth Bear can do likewise very soon.

The title The Speed of Dark has a very sci-fi ring to it, it is actually a phrase to contrast the speed of light. The idea is that there is always darkness before light, therefore darkness must somehow travel faster than light because it is always ahead. This is a metaphor the author is employing to represent knowledge illuminating ignorance, so it not some kind of crazy bad science.

The book is set in the near future, the protagonist Lou Arrendale is an autistic man working in a department of a company that exclusively employs autistic people for their superior concentration, greater pattern recognition or other cognitive abilities. Lou copes admirably with his autism and is generally happy – if not quite content – with his life, then one day he is informed that there is a cure for autism and his life immediately changes even without before the cure becomes available to him.

The Speed of Dark is often compared to the classic [b: Flowers for Algernon|18373|Flowers for Algernon|Daniel Keyes|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1367141311s/18373.jpg|3337594] as both books deal with improvement of the brain through neuroscience. Both books are also poignant, brimming with compassion and tug at the heartstrings. Don’t worry about having your heart broken by the author though, Elizabeth Moon is not [a: Thomas Hardy|15905|Thomas Hardy|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1429946281p2/15905.jpg]. Prior to reading this book I knew next to nothing about autism, not having met any autistic person. I can not claim to know a lot about it now as this is a work of fiction but Ms. Moon’s son is autistic so I believe her depiction of autism to be realistic. In any case her portrayal of autistic characters has the feel of verisimilitude.

Most of the novel is told in the first person from Lou’s perspective (with the occasional switch to a few secondary characters where Lou is not privy to what is going on in his absence). This is the first book I have ever read that take me inside the head of an autistic person. The very clever first person narrative of Lou is fascinating in and of itself. Lou’s stilted use of language is very formal, polite and precise. Here is an example:

“ "Don can be a real heel," she says.

“Don is not a heel; he is a person. Normal people say things like this, changing the meaning of words without warning, and they understand it. I know, because someone told me years ago, that heel is a slang word for “bad person”. But he couldn’t tell me why, and I still wonder about it. If someone is a bad person and you want to say that he is a bad person, why not just say it? Why say “heel” or “jerk” or something? And adding “real” to it only makes it worse. If you say something is real, it should be real.”


More importantly Lou’s narration enables me to feel the gulf between himself and “normal” people. Social nuances or cues are entirely beyond his ken, as are voice intonations and most facial expressions. He is also hopeless with colloquial terms, idioms and metaphors. All the characters in this book are very believable, the autistic characters are particularly vivid and sympathetic. They all seem to have a pure heart, I don’t know if this is true for all “autists” in the real world but the selfish and prejudiced “normals” they come across raises the question of whether normality may be overrated. After all, only a “normal” person would consider hurting someone who has never done them any harm.

Most of the book reads more like contemporary mainstream fiction than science fiction, the sci-fi component of it only comes into play well into the second half of the book. This is not a sci-fi thriller, this is not a page turner, I did not want to turn the pages quickly to find out what happen next, I wanted absorb the story page by page and hope that Lou will be alright. From what I have heard Elizabeth Moon generally writes action packed military sci-fi or fantasy so I guess this book is atypical of her works. It appears to be a heartfelt story based on her own experiences with her son that she wants to share with us. I feel privileged to have read it, it is a beautiful book that I will never forget.