SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon


Elizabeth Moon (www.elizabethmoon.com)

Orbit (www.orbitbooks.net)


In a not-too-distant future, pharmaceutical companies have eliminated the majority of illnesses and disabilities that plague the human race. Lou Arrendale is autistic, one of a small number remaining: Lou was born too early for the procedure that can cure autism in babies. Along with a number of other autistics, Lou works for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies; his specialty is the discernment and creation of patterns, and the work Lou and his colleagues have done has made the company a fortune. Now, with the introduction of a new, younger breed of management, and the discovery of a cure for autism that has been proven on primates, Lou’s world, and the structured routine that keeps him safe within his world, is already changing.

Elizabeth Moon’s 2003 Nebula Award-winning novel examines a world not too dissimilar to our own through the eyes of Lou Arrendale. Lou is a high-functioning autistic, a man who lives a structured and carefully-managed life (Tuesday night is grocery night; Friday night is laundry night). Now Lou – and the others with whom he works – are faced with the possibility of a "cure", of becoming "normal", and the question arises: Will Lou still be Lou if he isn’t autistic?

It is this question – the question of identity, of what makes us the person we are – that drives the novel to its inevitable – and strangely devastating – conclusion. Told, for the most part, from the point of view of Lou, Moon gives us incomparable, no-holds-barred, insight into the autistic mind and the thought processes that govern it. There are inevitable comparisons to be made with Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn as Raymond Babbitt in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man but here the written word has more power than cinema, taking us directly into Lou’s head. There are comparisons, too, with Jonathan Lethem’s wonderful Motherless Brooklyn, which gives the reader similar insight into the mind of Lionel Essrog, a private detective who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. As in that earlier novel, Elizabeth Moon allows the reader to feel the challenges and everyday struggles of her protagonist by putting us into his head, and allowing us to see the world from his unique perspective.

Speed of Dark is a novel in which very little happens. Sure, there are episodes of tension – the repeated vandalism against Lou’s car which, in itself, seems to be the product of a mind that craves routine, or the frequent clashes with Mr Crenshaw, the new manager at work – but they are few and far between and pale in comparison to the meat of the novel: a character study of this man who may be more "normal" than the rest of us, with his routines and his constant questions about the nature of things (one of which, his musing that since light always chases dark, then the speed of dark must be faster than that of light) gives the novel its unusual name. Despite this, it’s one of the most gripping novels I’ve read in some time: there is something about Lou and the situation in which he finds himself, that demands the attention of the reader because, while nothing really happens, Speed of Dark follows the journey of one remarkable man as he attempts to discover whether he is defined by his disability, or whether it is a simple "trait" without which he will remain relatively unchanged.

Lou is surrounded by a cast of equally engaging characters – there’s Tom, Lucia, Marjory (the love interest) and the rest of Lou’s Wednesday night fencing class, a group of "normals" who accept Lou as he is, and evidently enjoy his company; there’s Emmy, from the Center, who doesn’t like the fact that Lou spends so much time with normal people, though she, herself, doesn’t appear to be autistic; and there are the other autistics with whom Lou works, a group of people who have defined their own social contract and who Lou constantly compares to his "normal" friends.

‘I am thirsty,’ Eric says suddenly.
‘Do you want water?’ I ask. ‘It is all I have except one bottle of fruit drink.’ I hope he will not ask for the fruit drink. It is what I like for breakfast.
‘I want water,’ he says. Bailey puts his hand up. I fill two more glasses with water and bring them into the living room. At Tom and Lucia’s house, they ask if I want something to drink even when I don’t. It makes more sense to wait until people say they want something, but probably normal people ask first.

Lou Arrendale joins a very select group of fictional characters who take on a life above and beyond the fictional world that is their own. His unique and engaging manner coupled with his distinctive voice means that he will stick with the reader long after the plot of the novel has faded from memory. In some ways, this is the ultimate coup for the writer: in this case Elizabeth Moon has created someone different, yet someone with whom we can still identify, for whom we can still feel some empathy. Lou’s mind is wired differently to that of most people, and yet we find ourselves wondering about the little things that he fixates on: what is the speed of dark? And what makes us so normal when Lou’s outlook on life, his routine and sense of structure, makes so much more sense than our own.

Published in the UK by Orbit and labelled as Science Fiction, Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is a novel that breaks the mould. The tomorrow setting is what makes this science fiction, the fact that most human defects no longer exist, but aside from that, this is a story that could happen at any time. It’s a slow-burner, but once you start, it is imperative that you finish, and as quickly as possible. Over ten years old, this is one of those books that I occasionally stumble across and wonder why I’ve been ignoring it for so long. It’s a beautifully-written character study that forces the reader to see the world from a slightly skewed perspective, and ask the question: what is it about me that makes me who I am? Unmissable.

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