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The Speed of Dark

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I'm conflicted in my opinion of this book. Winner of the Nebula in 2003, The Speed of Dark, is a very compelling character portrait of an autistic man in the near future, who has to struggle with the decision of either submitting to a revolutionary new treatment that might cure his condition, or else remain the person he has become. Recommended, but with the caveat that the ending is rushed, and thus unsatisfying.

Lou Arrendale is in his late 30s, in a world in which younger autistic children can be cured shortly after diagnosis, or in some cases before birth. There was a minor treatment for his generation, which has enabled him to lead a more normal life, but still with the limitations of rudimentary social skills. He works for a pharmaceutical company as a project analyst, although the description of his job is less than clear. The company gets tax credits for their disabled employees, including all the other autists in Lou's division, and concessions have been made for working conditions that help alleviate their anxieties. A new department manager resents those concessions and special amenities, even the employment of people he considers inferior, but Lou's immediate supervisor is more sympathetic, since he has an autistic brother who was too old to benefit from the treatment Lou had received.

I am sure Elizabeth Moon has done a lot of research into autism, and not just for this book, since she has an autistic child herself. The majority of the book is Lou's first-person account, and even though I'm not knowledgeable on the subject, it seems realistic. He's very observant of details, especially of colors and patterns, although I wouldn't say he's obsessive about it. He has a problem with figures of speech and colloquialisms that everyone else seems to understand, thus has difficulty communicating with others. There are occasional third-person passages that give the perspective of others in Lou's life. His parents are deceased, but Lou had been living on his own even before that. He has his own apartment, a car, a private parking space at work. In this future, the majority of people use mass transit, but his car is another concession that has been made for him, since he has difficulty with the social interactions that would come with using trains or buses. He loves music, mostly classical, using it to calm himself and focus on work, but with his sharp memory he can 'hear' the music in his head any time he wants. In spite of his condition, he does have a selection of 'normal' friends, all members of a fencing club that has lessons at the home of Tom and Lucia.

I don't recall the explanation of how he came to be associated with this group, but his talent for pattern recognition helps him anticipate his opponent's moves, enabling him to improve his skills considerably. He is even persuaded to compete in a tournament, winning one of the matches, which everyone says is very unusual for a first-timer. There is one of the group who isn't as supportive of Lou. Not only does he resent Lou's superior fencing ability, he is angered that one of the women seems to like Lou more. Lou likes her too, but can't work up the courage to ask her out or even admit his interest, and is upset that he can't recognize the cues that might indicate if she likes him. I can relate to that. I'm not autistic, just perpetually shy and not sure I can read social cues either, so might have had the same problem with Marjory. Throughout the book I wanted to shout at Lou, "Just tell her you like her! I think she knows anyway."

As I said above, the conclusion is rushed. It takes a long time for Lou to decide whether or not to take the treatment. When he's first made aware of it, his abusive manager threatens his job if he doesn't submit, and the situation gets even sketchier when it is revealed that his employer owns the proprietary rights to the treatment. It is finally acknowledged that the treatment will be entirely voluntary, with full compensation and job security, no matter the result. By that time I was thinking, even hoping, that Lou would decline. He had already proven his worth, both to the company and to himself and his friends, and yet he had to wonder what he could achieve if it was successful. The aftermath of the treatment is just a couple of short chapters, skipping over months of recovery and rehabilitation, and even though Lou comes out in a good position, I wish there had been more concerning his new awakening. It seems he will get to fulfill one of his childhood dreams, but it's still not clear if he made the right decision, whether or not he lost more than he gained. Everyone will react to this book in different ways, but I still recommend it for illuminating the fragility, but also the strength, of the human mind and spirit.


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Elizabeth Moon


Nebula winner

Finalist for
Arthur C. Clarke

Available from