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Monday, June 19, 2006

 
Controversy over The Speed of Dark
I recently got to read Elizabeth Moon's novel The Speed of Dark for work, and I found it fascinating. I almost feel sorry for people who read it who aren't very aware of the autism community, because I'm not sure they'd grasp how controversial it is, and how masterfully Moon deals with the question of whether high-functioning autism is something to be irrevocably cured. (**Note**: Since the ending of the book is what fascinates me most, there will be spoilers.)

A brief summary of the story: Lou Arrendale is a successful man with high-functioning autism. He works as a pattern analyst for a large pharmaceutical company, which offers an incredibly supportive work environment for its employees with autism. They have a gym with trampolines and personalized music selections to allow employees to calm their sensory systems; each employee has their own office so they can create their own ideal work environments; they have a private parking lot so they can always park in the same spots, and get to their building on campus more easily. But Lou and his coworkers are in the last generation of people born with autism who were not cured at birth. The new executive in charge of their section at work does not believe the supports they receive should be necessary, despite all the strengths (and tax benefits) these employees bring to the company. As it turns out, the pharaceutical company has bought research that promises to cure autism in adults, and it needs human trial subjects, so the boss pressures the workers in his section to participate. The entire book is told from Lou's perspective, so the reader gets an inside view of what it is like to live his life, at work and outside. His main hobby is fencing, and his romantic interest is fellow fencing student. Unfortunately, one of the other fencing students is also interested in the same woman, and when she rejects him, he becomes jealous of Lou, going to the extreme of stalking and nearly killing Lou. But through this experience, those at work, and those at the fencing tournaments his coach encourages him to go to, Lou begins to question whether he is as limited by his condition, by his diagnosis, as he thought. When the medical trial is no longer a threat, but instead presented as a choice, Lou considers the possibility of being "normal" more seriously.

Through Lou's own thoughts and his conversations with his co-workers, the reader gets an idea of how two-sided the issue of "curing" autism is. Even in the present day, it's a volatile issue, often argued along the low- vs. high-functioning autism lines. Some parent advocacy groups, particularly for parents of children with low-functioning autism, have been very vocal in calling for and supporting researchers in an effort to find a cure. However, with the more recent rise in the diagnosis of people with high-functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome, other advocacy groups have formed to hold that people with autism have unique perspectives on the world, and talents that should be encouraged rather than eradicated. It is a movement sometimes compared to the deaf culture movement. Lou and his colleagues wonder what will happen to them if they undergo the treatment: Will they still be the same people? Will they still have the same abilities? The researchers insist that the treatment will only remake the parts of their brain that impair their social skills, that it will leave all of their likes, dislikes, and abilities intact. And yet, Lou notes that his perspective and his experiences as seen through that perspective are what makes him who he is.

This would seem to indicate that Moon is moving the book to the pro-autism culture side of the argument. But in the end, Lou decides to undergo the treatment. Okay, back to the cure side. But the book doesn't end there. The entirety of the book, save the last chapter, is told from Lou's perspective as a man with autism. The reader sees everything through his eyes and thoughts, and feels very sympathetic to his uniqueness and abilities. The last chapter is from his perspective as he undergoes the cure. He is changed. The reader nearly weeps along with his fencing coach at how different this makes his new, budding personality. Eventually, Lou regains enough of his awareness to get back his memories of his life before. He experiences a moment of dissonance, where his new understanding of his sensory system and social skills wars with the way he knows he used to perceive things, and in the end, his new skills win out over his old fascinations with calculations that used to steady him in unfamiliar situations.

Just as we are beginning to think that the message is that autism culture is right, that the eradication of autistic traits would be a crime, Moon hits us with the epilogue. The new Lou, years later, has achieved his lifelong dream of becoming an astronomer and scientist living on a space station, which he knew he never had a chance of doing as a person with autism. He does not feel regret for the old parts of his personality that the reader had become so fond of, because they are not part of him now. He is different, but he is happy with his life, and it is only the observer who is sad for the loss. Lou doesn't mourn for what he lost, because his new self doesn't really feel that those things are part of who he is.

And so the reader is left feeling... ambivalent, due to the way the book is structured. So much of our time is spent with the old Lou that we cannot feel truly happy for this new stranger in Lou's body, but nor can we deny that he has a life he couldn't have had otherwise. If there is a message at the end of the book, it is most likely that both sides of the argument have validity, and it is a decision that each person should be allowed to make for themselves. Lou made his.

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