The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

What I have in my head is light and dark and gravity and space and swords and groceries and colors and numbers and people and patterns so beautiful I get shivers all over. I still do not know why I have those patterns and not others.

The book answers questions other people have thought of. I have thought of questions they have not answered. I always thought my questions were wrong questions because no one else asked them. Maybe no one thought of them. Maybe darkness got there first. Maybe I am the first light touching a gulf of ignorance.

Maybe my questions matter.

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the minds and experiences of those who are “other” —the mentally ill, autistic, obcessive/compulsive, even the merely eccentric. Why and how do different minds work differently? Where is the edge of normality? Is there a useful distinction between those people who are mentally ill and those who are eccentric and/or highly creative? If the symptoms of autism or manic/depressive illness or even hyperactivity are controlled through the use of medication or therapy, does the person lose some useful and good capacity that is associated with the illness in addition to losing the symptoms that are debilitating and undesirable? Do autistic persons in particular need to be cured or understood and accepted? Do all persons have questions that matter, even those whose questions are unusual and even seemingly nonsensical?

The Speed of Dark is a fictional account of a high-functioning autistic adult, Lou Arrendale, who lives in a near-future time in which he is one of the last of his kind. Medical intervention, before or soon after birth, has made autism a thing of the past, and only a few adults, born before the medical advances, are still functioning as autists in his society. Lou has a job, a car, and friends, but he knows he is different, unable to be normal, only able to act somewhat normal most of the time. When he has the opportunity to participate in an experimental treatment that may change the way his brain functions and eliminate his autistic symptoms, Lou must decide whether he wants to be “normal.” Without his autism, will he still be himself, or will he become someone else? If the latter, does he want to be that other person? Will he lose the ability to analyze complex patterns and to pair those patterns of color and shape with music and with fencing, his outlet for self-expression? How much of who Lou is is bound up with his autism and with his past experience of overcoming the difficulties of being autistic in a “normal” world?

The autistic adults in the novel have a joke: “Normal is only a dryer setting.” But they’re not sure they believe it when the chance comes for them to be what others call normal. The novel is told mostly in first person from the point of view of an autistic person; the novel I read a few months ago, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon, was narrated in the same first person voice. Since the point of both novels is to place the reader inside the mind of an autistic person and enable the reader to see life as an autistic person does, this first person narration works very well in spite of its limitations. Elizabeth Moon drops the first person point of view at times over the course of the story when she wants to show us something that Lou could not be expected to know or to understand.

The Speed of Dark, published by Ballantine Books, a mainstream publisher, is what Christian fiction should be. It has none of the bad language, sexually explicit descriptions, or gratuitous violence that Christian publishers are supposed to screen out, but it does deal with the important questions of predestination and healing and self-ness that are a part of the Christian worldview. It doesn’t give easy answers; no one gets converted; and no one preaches. (Well, a priest preaches in one scene, but it’s not didactic.) However, Lou, in particular, struggles with his questions and choices in a Christian context. His thinking about himself and about God is challenged, and he grows spiritually and mentally over the course of the novel.

I’ll repeat that the best works of “Christian fiction” that I’ve read in the past few years have been:

River Rising by Athol Dickson

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Jewel by Brett Lott

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Only one of those books was published by a CBA publisher.

10 thoughts on “The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

  1. I’m so glad someone else has read this book and enjoyed it. When I got it, it was as an Advance Readers Copy and I read it right after Haddon’s book: the two work really well together, don’t they? In particular, I liked the questions it raises about what “normal” is, and how far people should go to “fit in” (it seems to be similar to the whole issue of whether deaf people should be allowed to be Deaf or whether they should get the implant).

  2. At A Hen's Pace

    I’m fascinated–especially since my oldest son has High-Functioning Autism.

    Have you read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat? It’s by a doctor who worked with people with the most unusual mental problems. It’s entertaining as well as fascinating. Sounds like you might enjoy it!


  3. PS: I’m a great fan of Gilead myself.

  4. Pingback: Semicolon

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