Review of Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

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‘Absolutely compelling’ is Greg Bear’s verdict on the front cover. Generally I take those credits with a pinch of salt – but this time around, he is spot on. This unusual, thought-provoking near-future science fiction novel is the best thing Moon has written to date – and the lady is no slouch.

speedofdarkLou is different to ‘normal’ people. He interacts with the world in a way they do not understand. He might not see the things they see, but he also sees many things they do not. Lou is autistic.

One of his skills is an ability to find patterns in data: extraordinary, complex, beautiful patterns that not even the most powerful computers can comprehend. The company he works for has made considerable sums of money from Lou’s work. But now they want Lou to change – to become ‘normal’ like themselves. And he must face the greatest challenge of his life. To understand the speed of dark.

Moon has achieved a very difficult feat – she has managed to get right inside Lou’s head and give us an insight into someone who processes information in quite a different way, while continuing to capture our sympathy and understanding. Lou’s characterisation is masterful. The way we perceive the near future through his eyes and begin to appreciate the difficulties that he constantly has to overcome – his acute sense of smell and sensitivity to sound; his constant uncertainty as to whether he has accurately decoded the subliminal signals people give off; the way he cycles and recycles through ideas that concern him… I used to care for a little boy with autism and I found Lou completely convincing.

However as with the very best science fiction, this book is so much more than an entertaining, escapist read. This novel raises issues that are starting to smack society across the chops – issues that we should all be discussing and debating both at a personal and political level.  Of course, being the limited creatures we are, instead we obsess about the daily habits of a handful of celebrities and it falls to books like this one to raise this far more important matters. If a cure for autism does turn up, should high functioning autistic adults who are wholly capable of leading productive, independent lives consider undergoing such treatments? Especially as we’re talking about tampering with the brain…

And while Moon has selected autism as her example having raised an autistic son, this argument is already raging amongst the deaf community about cochlea implants. Many deaf people feel very threatened at the prospect of a cure that will remove them from the community in which they have grown up and with which they identify themselves – to the extent that they refuse to allow their deaf children have an implant. Others feel that deliberately preventing their children from taking advantage of a cure is being irresponsible, if not outright abusive.

I’m conscious that I’ve made this novel sound rather worthy and dull – and it’s not. Because Lou has several other issues to overcome, in addition to coping with this overarching challenge, and, besides, Moon isn’t a writer that does boring or pedestrian plots. So the result is a gripping, intelligent read that leaves you thinking about the issues it addresses long after you’ve finished it. Try it. It’s certainly one of my outstanding reads of the year – and one I’m going to continue recommending to anyone who’ll listen…
10/10

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