Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Book Review: The Speed of Dark

This book seems to be popular right now, its a book about an autistic character (and a verbal autistic character who isn't talking about Asperger's even rarer in terms of what gets written about), and I read it earlier this week. So, it seemed straightforward that I should write about it, seeing as I had some strong opinions, both positive and negative about the book.

Overall I think the book had the most accurate portrayal of autistic character I've read in fiction. It did get stereotypical at times, but less so than usual when dealing with autism and fiction. The characters also were actual characters, not just "lets read the DSM criteria and call that a character", as well as were actually allowed strengths, even if the strengths were stereotypical of autism. Things like sensory processing were actually taken into account, as well as stimming being helpful to the individual. Beyond just the autism itself, there was also getting into how people treat autistic people, the fact that different people have different views about their autism, and those sorts of details.

The number of details was impressive. The author mentions in the section after the book that she has an autistic son who's in high school now, and it shows that she actually knows something about the spectrum. It wasn't just someone writing about autism because its the current popular subject. That was definitely a good thing.

But, of course, it wasn't done as well as it should have been. Overall my views was that they took a good thing and they ruined it.

(After here, there will be plot spoilers, so here is your warning)

The description on amazon mentions that the main character, Lou, has to decide whether or not he wants cured. What it doesn't mention is that he's in a division at his job which is all autistic people, that they've been threatened by their boss that if they're not cured they'll lose their job, and that one of the plot of the book is about dealing with that threat. It's dealt with, and at the very end, in the last 15% or so of the book, do the characters actually have a chance to meaningfully think at all about if they actually would want to be cured. And that's all done on too fast of a time frame too (while they're told they are allowed time, nobody who chooses cure actually takes time, and nobody actually suggests they take time).

Lou chooses to take the experimental cure. It makes absolutely no sense to the book, he'd not shown any signs of wanted cured, and it was suddenly "oh, we are allowed to think now, okay I'll within less than a week decide I'll want permanent changes to my brain which aren't even known if they'll work because I'll be one of the first they've experimented on". It wasn't him thinking back and forth a lot, it was sudden, and contrived. It didn't fit the character. Just like it didn't fit another one of the characters, who'd been extremely "this is me, I am autistic", to say that she'd take it if they'd also include another brain modifier that made them younger, with less than an hour's thought. She made all the characters, even the ones who explicitly didn't want it, actually in their deep down brains actually want cured. She undermined her own characters thoughts. She took these autistic characters which actually made sense for once and then made them "no actually we don't want to be autistic after all", and made it look like that's how autistic people would think. She might not have been thinking that's what she was doing. But that's what was being implied.

Lou's cure, was extremely contrived. She made it happen even though it didn't make sense. He'd gone through traumatic experiences less than a month before, and researchers were willing to, and letting him, go through with this procedure. This makes no sense. People are allowed to make their own decision, but they're also allowed things like time to heal rather than making decisions spur of the moment. Lou wasn't allowed that. But if Lou was allowed that and time to think the book wouldn't have gotten to end with him choosing to be one of the first to go through the experimental cure. So instead it was chosen to make him go through that even though it wouldn't fit with anything that people would do.

And then after the cure, there was an epilogue which reinforced, look what Lou can do now that he couldn't do before because he was autistic, and he was disabled, and disabled people couldn't have done this! Sure, he could work his job well, and sure he could have done well at school, but he couldn't do this, and now he can! It didn't show downsides at all. It only showed upsides, and it showed them in academics even. Yes, autistic people frequently have difficulty in school, but Lou wasn't presented as one who had difficulty in school.

Overall the ending was extremely pro-cure. She says she's not sure if she'd want her son to be cured, but the ending is one which makes it look like autistic people are supposed to want cured. That that's our thoughts. It presents us as thinking that way, and as people don't listen to us, and people won't talk to us, that' what people will think. When it seems that most of us don't want cured, even if many are willing to allow those who do want it to be cured if a cure were to ever exist (while many are doubtful and think any research is wasteful), suggesting that we actually do want that is hurtful. Because our thoughts aren't the ones being heard. Because our thoughts won't be heard anyways. We're too scary and disabled.

All of this, I think, is made worse, because of the fear of the autistic community (while not necessarily all people, it seems the community as a whole), of that forcible cure. People are scared of a cure being developed specifically because they're scared of it getting forced on people who don't want it. What if that does happen, and people are threatened. What if people are told they can't make decisions for themselves? What about children and those under guardianships? What about the government saying if you don't get cured you won't be allowed accommodations, or your work saying that, or your help going away because autism can be cured so it doesn't qualify you anymore? This terrifies people, and its what it was about, was that threat. And then people took the cure anyways. Even people who didn't make sense to want it were talking about taking it.

Is it worth reading? That's up to you. Any part after them overcoming the threat isn't. My view overall was very "it took something that could have been great and ruined it". If the ending wasn't so cure-centric, especially right after they took down the threat, then up until then, the characters were good. If they went further into some people getting cured, but only ones who it actually made sense for, that would have worked. But as it was, it didn't, and it ruined it, and made me extremely upset.

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