fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSFF book reviews Elizabeth Moon The Speed of DarkThe Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

In The Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon blends science fiction, neuroscience, and her own experience to speculate about a future in which scientists have nearly eliminated the symptoms of autism.

Lou Arrendale’s cohort is the last of the impaired autistics. Thanks to early intervention programs, Lou and his colleagues are verbal, take care of themselves, and work for a pharmaceutical company that makes use of their savant abilities, yet they lack the social understanding needed to integrate into “normal” society. But that could all change because Lou’s company has just received approval to begin clinical trials on a procedure that may cure them of their disorder, and the boss wants to use Lou and his co-workers as the first guinea pigs.

Because Elizabeth Moon has a teenager with autism, a background in science (and science fiction), and has done a lot of research, The Speed of Dark feels like an authentic account of an autistic man’s cognitive processes. I was completely fascinated by Lou’s revelations about the way he thinks, the things he understands and remembers, the environmental stimuli that he either doesn’t notice or can’t ignore, and the way he uses music and motion to help him integrate and regulate sensory input. This was really well done (except that I feel pretty sure that Lou wouldn’t use the term “object permanence” to explain “shape constancy”).

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFew readers could fail to become emotionally attached to Lou and to root for him as he struggles to understand who he is and how he fits in, tests his strengths and challenges himself to excel, makes friends and enemies, falls in love, learns how his brain works and, most importantly, decides who he wants to be.

The focus on Lou deprives the other characters of some depth, but perhaps they seem this way because we view them mainly from Lou’s perspective. Marjory, the girl Lou has fallen in love with, exhibits very little personality, and Mr. Crenshaw, the “villain,” is so completely over-the-top that I kept thinking of Mr. Waternoose from Monsters, Inc. In fact, in Brilliance Audio’s version, the reader, Jay Snyder, sounds just like Mr. Waternoose (who was played by James Coburn). By the way, I highly recommend this audiobook because the novel is written in the first person and Snyder’s voice, which so perfectly captures Lou’s social awkwardness, adds to the emotional impact and makes Lou’s stilted language not only easier to “read,” but actually quite charming.

The Speed of Dark, which won the Nebula Award, is one of those novels that makes you feel the whole spectrum of emotions, changes the way you think, and stays with you forever. Its portrayal of a devastating behavioral disorder is all at once beautiful, humorous, enlightening, heart-wrenching, poignant, and hopeful.

The Speed of Dark — (2002) Publisher: In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Unfortunately, there will be a generation left behind. For members of that missed generation, small advances will be made. Through various programs, they will be taught to get along in the world despite their differences. They will be made active and contributing members of society. But they will never be normal. Lou Arrendale is a member of that lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the awards of medical science. Part of a small group of high-functioning autistic adults, he has a steady job with a pharmaceutical company, a car, friends, and a passion for fencing. Aside from his annual visits to his counselor, he lives a low-key, independent life. He has learned to shake hands and make eye contact. He has taught himself to use “please” and “thank you” and other conventions of conversation because he knows it makes others comfortable. He does his best to be as normal as possible and not to draw attention to himself. But then his quiet life comes under attack. It starts with an experimental treatment that will reverse the effects of autism in adults. With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music — with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world — shades and hues that others cannot see? Most importantly, would he still love Marjory, a woman who may never be able to reciprocate his feelings? Would it be easier for her to return the love of a “normal”? There are intense pressures coming from the world around him — including an angry supervisor who wants to cut costs by sacrificing the supports necessary to employ autistic workers. Perhaps even more disturbing are the barrage of questions within himself. For Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that might completely change the way he views the world… and the very essence of who he is. Thoughtful, provocative, poignant, unforgettable, The Speed of Dark is a gripping exploration into the mind of an autistic person as he struggles with profound questions of humanity and matters of the heart.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

    View all posts