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Speed Of Dark
Elizabeth Moon
Orbit paperback £6.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Speed Of Dark is the story of Lou Arrendale, an autistic born early in the 21st century. It could have become a heavy, difficult meditation on the difficulties of being disabled but it is a joy to read and an excellent example of character-led science fiction.
   Lou had the advantages of new childhood therapies that have allowed at least some autistics of his generation to lead independent lives. The generation before his achieved little independence yet those who came after him could be treated before birth in such a manner that they are virtually normal as adults. He works as part of a group of autistics of his own generation, now all over 30, who excel in pattern matching, a skill which makes them useful employees. Nevertheless, a change in the corporate culture spells trouble for this group and their special privileges, particularly when the major biotech company he works for wishes to begin human trials of a medical technique, which may be able to 'cure' them. The office politics are well portrayed, though as Lou is not directly involved in much of them, there are some breakouts to third person writing. These reduce the intensity of the book but seem necessary to keep the plot moving.
   The book is leisurely, building tension towards a very human crisis. As the narrator, Lou is very literal, verging on the simplistic in his desire for accuracy yet he is not simple. His attention to detail reveals the ways in which America has changed since our own time. The author has worked in this information thoroughly, reminding the reader that this is not the present day, though the centre of the story is Lou's exploration of who he is. The process gives us an insight into the nature of autism without this ever feeling forced. Some of Lou's experiences and reactions are strange, almost alien, but much of his internal dialogue is familiar. He questions his own weaknesses, wants to be liked, fears being different. Yet he is exposed to his 'difference' in most social situations and fears that a 'normal' person would not suffer much of his awkwardness and confusion. His more complete understanding of his fellow autistics is presented well, whilst many of the unconscious habits of the rest of us are exposed.
   Routine is vital in Lou's life, but he does not want to be trapped by his limits. Change is difficult - but change is necessary. The meditation at the heart of the book is that self-acceptance is a necessary component of self-love, but that self-change can be compatible with self-love. The nature of the possible change - an experimental medical adjustment of the brain - offers food for thought, for consideration of where the chemical, physical, material body becomes the self. These subjects make clear that this novel is a descendant of Flowers For Algernon, though told from the inside, from the perspective of the subject and with the full realisation of the humanity of that individual. Speed Of Dark is a strong, distinctive and fascinating novel.
Speed Of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
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