Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Club: "The Speed of Dark"

Our March book was Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark. I'm a fan of Moon's so I looked forward to reading the novel. The Speed of Dark is different from Moon's usual stories but obviously one close to her heart. It centers on Lou Arrendale and his coworkers at a pharmaceutical company -- all of them autistic with a particular skill at pattern recognition. Moon is the mother of an autistic son and as such she provided an unique perspective to the topic.

Set in the near future, the "fictional science" involves the genetic and nanotechnology reversal of autism. Lou and his coworkers were born before the "cure" was available; however, the company that employs them has developed a process that shows promise to correct the condition in adults.

Lou's direct supervisor, Pete Aldrin, is protective of the group but their manager, Gene Crenshaw, resents the "special accommodations" made for Lou and the others. Crenshaw is intent on a speedy climb up the corporate ladder and hopes to make an impression by replacing the autists with a computer program and thereby eliminating the expenses associated with the unit To accomplish his ends, Crenshaw "encourages" Lou and the others to undergo the company's new procedure -- or lose their jobs. Aldrin is upset when he learns of the threat and at first feels helpless, since Crenshaw is his boss, too. However, Aldrin cautiously researches the ramifications of dismissing the unit and learns the company would not only lose the unique skills of the work group, but also federal funding -- not to mention the public relations nightmare it would create.

While Aldrin works behind the scenes on behalf of Lou and his coworkers, the reader follows Lou's daily experiences. He lives alone in an apartment, drives his own car to and from work, and leads a very structured lifestyle. Viewers of Monk will recognize Lou's insistence on order and a strict schedule. Lou shops for groceries on Tuesday, participates in the sport of fencing on Wednesday, does laundry on Friday, goes to the Community Center on Saturday, and attends church on Sunday. He works hard on his interactions with "Normals" as he negotiates his private life.

The majority of the book is written in first person from Lou's POV. This exposes the reader to the thought processes of a high-functioning autist. In his thoughts and speech, Lou does not use contractions which tends to slow the flow of words for the reader. This is an excellent device on Moon's part to infer Lou's mental process.

Lou is fixated on "the speed of dark." He speculates it must be faster than the speed of light, since dark has to go out ahead of light. "Dark" is the metaphor for prejudice, ignorance, the unknown -- everything we associate with it. Lou discusses his quandary about the speed of dark with his fellow autists as well as his fencing friends ("normals"). Crenshaw and one of the fencers represent the prejudice and ignorance associated with darkness. The experimental process that offers a chance at "normalcy" is the unknown.

All of us enjoyed the book. Although it got off to a slow start for some of us, we were soon hooked by our empathy for the characters. We did feel the ending of the book was rushed, and we had mixed feelings about the conclusion.

One of our members works with autistic children and her perspective was valuable to our discussion. Like the characters of the book, we talked about what is "normal" and who defines it. Lou is chastised by some of his friends for his association with "normals" as if he is betraying his fellow autists. This reminded us of the deaf community, some of whom view cochlear implants as a rejection of the deaf culture.

We also talked about what constitutes our individual personalities. One question raised in the book was, if autism was reversed by the experimental process, would the individual retain his/her personality? In the SF world created by Moon, convicted criminals were implanted with a brain chip that inhibited violent tendencies. Sounds good on paper, but we wondered just how ethical it would be in real life. We then pondered what about ourselves we would enhance or correct with a brain chip. Eliminating food cravings was a popular fix with our group.

The Speed of Dark is an excellent book for examining our assumptions about what is normal, who determines what is normal, and how do we treat those who don't quite fit the definition. It also raises the question about "correcting" what is considered outside the norm -- the ever present issue of technology versus ethics. Just because we can -- does it mean we should?

I also think the book would be a good read for young adults. Lou ponders that it isn't wrong to be different. It is sometimes hard, but not wrong. And aren't we all "different" in our own way?

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