Monday, November 3, 2008

The Speed of Dark

Every now and then you find an author that you absolutely love and you have to go out and buy every one of their books. It isn't enough to simply borrow them from a library or a friend because you know you're going to want to read them more than once.

For me, Elizabeth Moon is one of those authors. And in the latest book of hers that I have read, she really breaks the boundaries of what I've come to expect of her. In my opinion, Moon writes incredibly well. Her characters (primarily female) are engaging and endearing. They are generally brave and loyal, while at the same time having a few hang-ups that make them human.

Moon writes both fantasy and science fiction. Her Serrano Legacy is a space opera reminiscent of a future earth society. Humankind has mastered FTL travel, migrated into space and colonised multiple planets. Interestingly, there are no aliens. The Serrano Legacy and Moon's Vatta's War novels are primarily about human conflicts - crime and warfare, terrorism, trade and social problems, like the effects of a longer-living, ageing population.

One characteristic I enjoy about Moon's books is their propensity for action and for moving the story along quickly. There's not a lot of lost time making observations about the setting and you will find dialogue on just about every page.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started reading The Speed of Dark, which moves very slowly - in painstaking detail. Released in 2002, it was a science fiction book about an autistic man named Lou. From very early on I struggled with this book - it took me from some time in 2004 until now (2008) to get around to finishing it.

The Speed of Dark was a great book, and it deserved a faster read than I gave it, but I just wouldn't feel like reading it sometimes. I sometimes wondered about this. Was it because it had virtually no action? Was it because there were no amazing creatures or imaginative places to escape to? In some ways reading The Speed of Dark was a chore - something I knew I had to do. And afterwards I felt good for having read it.

The level of detail in boring, day-to-day events was excruciating, but perfectly in line with the main character. It was written in the present tense for Lou's first person segments and in past tense for the omniscient narration (in the third person). This device was disconcerting in some ways, but very effective in communicating how Lou's perception of the world differentiated with those of other people.

The Speed of Dark was a challenging read, and it confronted me with ideas I had not thought about before, especially in relation to autism. I found myself nodding with Lou's perception of the world, and understanding how strange human behaviour sometimes is. I even wondered if there was a little bit of autism in me, just as Lou wonders in the novel if there is a little bit of autism in some of the 'normal' people in his world.

The book was a character study of Lou who was a savant with incredible intelligence and pattern analysis abilities. His one desire was to go to outer space, but because of his 'handicap' he was denied that opportunity.

In the future society he lived in, Lou was part of an older generation of autistic people (younger ones had undergone treatment that wasn't available when Lou was that age). He and a number of other autistic people have full time jobs at a company with special facilities to help them deal with the world in their own unique ways. Despite doing a valued job using their special skills, Lou and his friends felt pressured to undergo a new and risky brain treatment to 'cure' them.

The end of the novel left me wondering what point it was trying to make. Did Elizabeth Moon want us to feel sorry for Lou or happy for him? Did he make the right decision about the treatment or not? Where did his identity come from and what price had to be paid for him to realise his life long dreams? Who or what was to blame for Lou's situation at the end of the novel? Perhaps Moon intended for these questions to remain unanswered, like the rhetorical questions asked by teachers - the answer was blindingly obvious if you would only think about it.

And make you think it does. Understandably, The Speed of Dark won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2003, and was also an Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist.

While this little spec-fic reader maintains a strong preference for action-packed fantasy and sci-fi with a serious world or universal consequences, I have to admire the breadth of Elizabeth Moon's talent. And I appreciate all the more powerfully the potential for speculative fiction to touch upon real issues in a profound and interesting way.

But that's a topic for another blog.

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