Review: The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth MoonThe Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon (Del Rey Books Mass Market Edition, 2005)

Spend some time in a high-functioning autistic man’s head, and you may be surprised at how much you relate.

Lou Arrendale is in his 30’s, employed with a small group of other autistic people in the computer division of a large pharmaceutical company. He works at pattern analysis, although he likely couldn’t tell you the purposes of the patterns he creates from what’s on his screen.

The time is our near future. Other than people using “handcomps” (hand-held computers – tablets, anyone?) the main evidence of technological advance is that many health issues, including autism, can now be treated at birth, and that people who can afford it can have life-extending treatments. Oh, and there’s more funding for space exploration again.

Lou was born before the new treatments came about, but far enough into our future that good therapies and alternative learning approaches were in place. He has learned the “rules” for social interaction. He sums it up on the first page of chapter one:

“Everything in my life that I value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say.”

Now he has the opportunity to try an experimental procedure that may reverse his autism. He’s content with his life, except for the way some people react to him. Should he submit to this opportunity? Does he want to? What if he’s “cured” but loses who he is?

The Speed of Dark is a fascinating look at the world through the eyes of someone who’s in some ways not so different from us “normal” people. Author Elizabeth Moon has an autistic son, and I assume the realistic feel of the book is based on her observations and research.

Lou and his autistic friends have been trained to act as normal as possible. Normal is happy. Normal is good. It doesn’t frighten people. Nobody told them that not all normal people are happy, good or un-frightening. Or that not all normal people like the same music or activities.

His work, his fencing practice (with “normals”), his research into the experimental procedure, all shape and grow Lou. He discovers that most of his brain really is the same as everyone else’s – that in fact he’s gifted at pattern analysis and capable of university-level learning. But he doesn’t like those things that act as barriers to his relationships with those around him.

This is a mainstream novel, with mild (and one instance of major) profanity. It also includes a scene in Lou’s church where the priest talks about one of Jesus’ healing miracles (John 5:1-15) and echoes Lou’s own question. Does he want to be healed? Even if the healing doesn’t look like he wants it to look? [The novel places this miracle at the Pool of Siloam instead of the Pool at Bethesda, but the priest’s theology is sound.]

Not just for science fiction fans, The Speed of Dark is for anyone interested in the search for identity and who at times feel they don’t fit in.

Elizabeth Moon also writes classic science fiction (I thoroughly enjoyed the Vatta’s War series) and fantasy. The Speed of Dark won the 2003 Nebula Award for Best Novel. For more about the author, visit her website:

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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