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Friday, August 18, 2006

The Speed of Dark

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, won the 2003 Nebula award (for best science fiction novel) which was well deserved. It is not your average science fiction book. In a sentence, what it is about is an autistic man, trying to decide whether to take an experimental surgical treatment that may "cure" his autism. The title comes from the protagonist's musings on the speed of light. If there is a speed of light, why not a speed of dark? The question comes several times, in various ways, throughout the book.

Lou is convinced that autism is not from God:
One of the people at the rehab center where I spent so many hours as a child used to say that disabilities were God's way of giving people a chance to show their faith. . . .
I do not understand God that way. I do not think God makes bad things happen just so that people can grow spiritually. Bad parents do that, my mother said. Bad parents make things hard and painful for their children and then say it was to help them grow. Growing and living are hard enough already; children do not neet things to be harder. I think this is true even for normal children. I have watched little children learning to walk; they all struggle and fall down many times. Their faces show that it is not easy. It would be stupid to tie bricks on them to make it harder. If that is true for learning to walk, then I think it is true for other growing and learning as well.
God is supposed to be the good parent, the Father. So I think God would not make things harder than they are. I do not think I am autistic because God thought my parents needed a challenge or I needed a challenge. I think it is like if I were a baby and a rock fell on me and broke my leg. Whatever caused it was an accident. God did not prevent the accident, but He did not cause it, either. Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark . (New York: Ballentine, 2003) p. 176.

Although he does not put it in exactly those terms, he seems to believe that the evil in the world is the result of the Fall.

The science fiction part is mostly that a treatment is available, and that, furthermore, babies born autistic are routinely fixed at or near the time of birth. Thus, there are not many autistic people in the world, and there have been some great advances in helping them. Lou Arrendale lives a life that, in many ways, is normal. He and a group of other autistic persons are well paid for their ability to perceive patterns that "normal" people cannot. None of them, however, have what might be called a normal social life, and they are bound by hangups that normal people do not usually face, especially their desire for routine. It is clear that Lou, at least, is highly intelligent. He is also highly introspective -- he is constantly thinking about what things mean, and what people mean. Although he doesn't have close friends, he does belong to a fencing group -- his ability to perceive patterns helps him in this sport -- and attends church, probably an Episcopal church, regularly.

There are some other futuristic touches, but minor, in the story. Criminals can be prevented from further violence by a chip in their brains, and computers are more advanced than they are now.

Lou is challenged, as disabled people unfortunately may be, by two people, in particular. One of them is jealous of Lou's accomplishments, and blames him for his own failures. The other is offended by the special accomodations made for Lou and his fellow autistic employees on the job. Both of these people attempt some horrible things.

What if I could be "cured" of some disease of the brain, and/or the personality? Would I take such treatment, if I knew that, even if it worked, it might well change me profoundly? I don't know. This is a tough question.

One experience that helps Lou in making his decision, which decision I won't give away, is hearing a sermon on the paralytic at the pool, and reflecting on it. Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed. Lou considers that aspect -- he wants to do what God wants him to do. Like most of us, he isn't always sure what that is.

This book is one that I can recommend to almost anyone, whether or not they usually read fantastic literature. It isn't very fantastic. I'm not sure it would be classified as Christian fiction, but it does take God into account. I expect to purchase my own copy.

For what it's worth, I'm now using the Beta version of the new Blogger. Thanks for reading.

Added August 19, 2007: I have now posted on Moon's Paksenarrion series, and expect to post on more of her work soon. If you are interested, click on the "Elizabeth Moon" tag at the end of this post.

7 comments:

Catez said...

Interestng. I'm a science fiction fan myself - not fantasy but the classic SF genre. This sounds like something I could get into. The whole issue of spirituality intersecting with technology is one I ponder on. Good post - raises tough questions.

Martin LaBar said...

The book was even better at raising the tough questions.

Sherry said...

This book sounds fascinating. I'm adding it to my list of books to be read.

Please consider adding a link to your review to my Saturday Review of Books at

http://www.semicolonblog.com/?p=1492

Catez said...

I've linked this in my latest Surf'n'Turf. It is fascinating.

Julana said...

Martin,
I confess I skim your sci-fi reviews. I came back to this because of Catez's link. This does look like a really interesting book. Autism is becoming a front-burner priority around here now, because of the increasing rate of incidence.
But it's also a little challenging because of the question of the relationship between disability and its ramifications, and identity. That issue comes up sometimes among parents on the national Down syndrome list.

Martin LaBar said...

I don't expect everyone who may appreciate some other aspect of this blog to appreciate my many references to fantastic literature!

This is a good book. Thanks for reading, and commenting.

Thogek said...

I recently found Speed of Dark to be an amazing read, if a bit different from my usual fare. If nothing else, after such an immersion into the life of the story's main character (with the science fictionish treatments available to add new questions to consider), I'll never quite think of autism in quite the same way again.