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”).
Few 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.