The Speed of Dark
(Ballantine Del Rey, hardcover, 340 pages, $23.95; January 2003.)
Every now and then -- and it's extremely rare -- a book comes along
that is so
very good that one's actually slightly nervous of reviewing it, in case,
crazily, the clumsiness of one's review will somehow mar the integrity
of the novel itself.
The Speed of Dark is one such book.
At some point in the near future Lou Arrendale is an autism sufferer
working for a nameless corporation that employs a whole division of
autists in order to exploit their highly developed pattern-recognition
skills. Arrendale and his fellows know that they are among the last
of their kind, for since their childhood a technique has been developed
of curing autism in infancy. Their division is the most effective and
productive within the corporation, a status it achieves in part because
the corporation has provided for it certain special extras that enable
the autists to calm their minds in times of stress, to focus their thoughts,
and so on -- extras like a private gym with a trampoline and a decent
music system. These special extras naturally attract the attention of
a freshly imported hard-nosed self-ordained management-efficiency expert,
Crenshaw, as the autists' boss; he can see the autists only as sick
people, and the extras that they require for their efficient working
only as an erosion of profits.
Arrendale is, thanks to education and encouragement, capable of functioning
reasonably well in "normal" human society; he has learned appropriate
interpretations and responses that we would take for granted. He regularly
attends fencing classes, and has become a very good fencer because of
his ability to detect the patterns in his opponents' strategies. Also
at the fencing classes he has fallen in love with fellow-student Marjory,
who has in turn clearly fallen in love with him, although he is too
unsure of his interpretations of her behaviour -- and too incredulous
that an attractive woman might herself be attracted to the mental cripple
society tells him he is -- rightly to be able to acknowledge this. He
has to cope with the revenge tactics employed by his unsuccessful rival
for Marjory's affections, something he is as ill equipped to do as he
is ill equipped to recognize that others around him are friends who
value his friendship.
Crenshaw, as noted, is one of those who regards the autists as crippled;
despite all the statistics about their division's high profitability,
he chooses to regard the corporation's employment of them as an act
of charity -- one whose limits should be far constrained from the current
ones, with that expensive gym an' all. Employment laws inhibit him from
simply firing them or abolishing their privileges -- which are part
of their conditions of employment -- but he has come across an experimental
cure that another wing of the corporation has been developing for adult
autists. It works on chimps, so, despite the fact that its effects on
humans are as yet unknown, he attempts to coerce the Arrendale and his
co-workers into becoming experimental subjects.
This presents Arrendale with a quandary. If he accepts the purported
cure, and if it works, he will become in effect a different person.
Although he will start to enjoy lots of things he currently doesn't
enjoy or even finds frightening and repulsive, he will probably make
these gains at the expense of some of the things he currently enjoys.
Will he still receive pleasure from pattern and (it's to a great extent
the same thing) music? Will he lose his prowess as a fencer, and all
the pleasure he gains from that? Most important of all, if he is a different
person will he still love Marjory, and will she still at least like
(for he dare not conceive that she loves) him?
There is, I suppose, quite a lot of plot in The Speed of Dark
-- and the above represents only part of it -- but I have to say "I
suppose" because that's an observation born from hindsight. While one's
actually reading the book the plot elements become almost irrelevant,
for here is a tale whose quite extraordinary strength of telling reduces
all else to insignificance.
Aside from a few brief interpolated passages, Arrendale is our sole
narrator, so we see his world as filtered through the mind of an autist.
(The author has a teenage child who's autistic, so one assumes the depicted
perception is as valid as it can be. I attempted unsuccessfully to persuade
a good friend of mine who suffers a form of autism to read the novel
to see if my impression of this was correct, but he wasn't interested.)
This might seem a daunting prospect, for Arrendale has painstakingly
to work out situations that would be thunderingly obvious to us -- nothing
more tedious than having someone laboriously spell out the mechanics
of something you already know -- but in fact quite the contrary proves
to be the case. Arrendale's narrative is utterly involving, engrossing
to the point that his way of thinking takes over one's own, so that
whenever one has (reluctantly) to put the book down one has to shake
one's head a few times before one regain one's own natural mode of thought.
Again, this statement might lead to a false expectation of what it's
like reading this novel. It might seem from what I've said that it depicts
the world as if through alien eyes. Yet this does not prove to be the
case. Instead, one's struck by how very similar Arrendale's perceptions
are to one's own, how very like oneself he actually is, how much better
his thinking processes are in so many respects than one's own. I never
in my life thought I'd want to be an autist, but by the time I got to
the last page -- and of course it was a huge and infuriating disappointment
that it had to have a last page, that the book couldn't just
keep going indefinitely -- I found myself at least halfway towards the
formulation of that wish.
And that, of course, is precisely as Moon has planned it should be
-- for Arrendale's dilemma, faced with the prospect of a cure for his
condition, is not one of giving up something paltry for the promise
of emotional riches; they are riches that he's going to be giving up,
and there's no guarantee at all that the rewards of a "normal" life
will come close to compensating for their loss. As Arrendale approaches
his momentous decision -- to take the cure or refuse it -- we're actually
rooting for him to refuse it, because we know that his "curse"
is really something treasurable.
The book's blurb makes comparisons with such works as Daniel Keyes's
Flowers for Algernon in an attempt to lure us into The Speed
of Dark. One can understand entirely why the publisher felt moved
to do this, but at the same time it has to be said that the comparisons
do The Speed of Dark a great disservice. One can empathize with
or have strong fellow-feeling for characters like Forrest Gump or Keyes's
Charly, but all of those emotions are experienced from the outside;
for example, one feels almost painfully sorry for Charly as he struggles
from moronism to intelligence and then loses it all again, but still
one's only a spectator to the tragedy being played out on stage. Moon's
triumph is that, by contrast, we become her protagonist Arrendale;
we experience his drama from within him. The potential failure of Crenshaw's
blasted "cure" is not something disastrous that might happen to someone
else -- a close friend, perhaps. It's a threat to us, ourselves.
Because Moon's track record has been in science fiction (mainly military
sf, so I confess I've never been induced to read it), and because the
tale is set in the near future with one or two extrapolated items of
medical science, The Speed of Dark will probably be marketed
as sf. (I've been reading an ARC in advance of publication, so I can't
tell for sure.) This is a great pity, if so, because it will unnecessarily
restrict the readership of this fine work of mainstream literature;
to epitomize, it's a book that by all rights will carry off a Hugo,
but really it should be at the very least a strong contender for something
like the National Book Award.
The title, by the way, concerns a conceit of the book. Arrendale is
of course perfectly aware -- he is extremely intelligent, something
else that the Crenshaws of this world fail to perceive, blinded as they
are by his status as an autist -- that the velocity of light in free
space is a known, established quantity. But what of the velocity of
dark? Dark, after all, forever retreats in the face of the invasion
of light, so perhaps its velocity is actually slightly greater than
that of light? This speculation of Arrendale's is carried through metaphorically
by Moon, with darkness being the self-imposed ignorance displayed by
Crenshaw and so prevalent throughout our culture: as a single exemplification
of this force of unknowing -- the exemplification presented in The
Speed of Dark in the guise of Crenshaw and others -- far too many
people don't want to understand their fellow humans, but would
rather remain ignorant of their worlds by banishing them into convenient
categories that are always characterized by inferiority to the categorizers
In sum, The Speed of Dark is one of those exceptionally rare
novels that has the power to alter one's entire worldview, and reading
it is a profoundly rewarding and enriching experience. It is impossible
to avoid superlatives when speaking of it, even though one's all too
aware that one may be perceived as perpetrating hyperbole. Well ...
tough. I cannot remember when last I enjoyed a novel this much, but
it must have been a very long time ago.
Review by John Grant.
The Speed of Dark is also reviewed
in Adam Roberts' feature on the 2003 Arthur
C Clarke Award shortlist.