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The Speed of Dark

by Elizabeth Moon

(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 cover scanvery, 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 themselves.

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.

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