Speed of Dark is the story of Lou Arrendale, an autistic man working for a pharmaceutical company. Lou is part of a division staffed by autistic people, who were employed because they are also remarkably skilled in spotting patterns (Lou’s division works with data, but exactly what they do is neither explored much nor, for that matter, particularly relevant to the novel). Pattern is perhaps the greatest source of pleasure in Lou’s life, as his two main interests are also pattern-based: classical music and fencing, which he practises at a class every Wednesday night (Lou’s facility with fencing stems from his ability to recognise the patterns in his opponents’ moves). Lou harbours feelings for Marjory, another member of his fencing group, though he isn’t sure whether those feelings are reciprocated.
Several developments threaten to disrupt Lou’s lifestyle, however. A series of attacks on his car by a person who apparently knows his weekly routine leads Lou to consider that someone he thought was a friend may in fact be an enemy. A new boss at the company, Gene Crenshaw, sees Lou’s division as a drain on resources (even though their productivity speaks for itself), and seeks to remove the special privileges (such as the private gym) which help them to focus their minds on work. Potentially the most far-reaching of all, though, is that Crenshaw also wishes to put the autistic staff through an experimental treatment which promises to ‘cure’ their autism – but what effect would that have on their personal identity?
The most immediately striking aspect of Speed of Dark is its narrative voice: there are some third-person sections, but most of the novel is narrated by Lou in the first person, and Elizabeth Moon has done a remarkable job of creating his worldview. Lou’s narration is a little stiff and formal, a tone well-suited to the literal logicalness of his thought processes; one of his key character traits is his difficulty grasping the nuances of language used by non-autistic people:
He stands there, looking at me. He does not say anything for a moment, then he says, ‘Well, be seeing you,’ and turns away. Of course he will be seeing me; we live in the same building. I think this means he does not want to walk back inside with me. I do not know why he could not just say that, if that is what he means. (p. 147)
One of the great strengths of Moon’s telling is how easy she makes it for the reader to see things from Lou’s viewpoint; I think it’s crucial to the overall affect of the novel that we don’t have to work hard to reach Lou, because it makes all the clearer what is at stake for him. The whole issue of the experimental treatment is not clear-cut, because there are genuine losses and gains to be made. If Lou undergoes the procedure, he doesn’t know whether he will truly be the same person – will he still enjoy the same things, have the same insights (into people as well as pattern), feel the same about Marjory? Yet, by the same token, could the treatment bring about new interests, new insights, new feelings? Lou’s condition brings with it both advantages and limitations, and Moon shows the difficult choice he has to make between the two.
Given the moral complexity of this aspect of Speed of Dark, I find it a little disappointing that there isn’t the same complexity on show when it comes to the character of Gene Crenshaw. In his opposition to the autistic employees and their amenities, Crenshaw simply has no legitimate argument – the value of their work to the company is clear, and far outweighs the cost of the aids provided for them; not to mention the reputational risk and the tax breaks that would be lost if Lou’s division were dismantled. It’s a little jarring not to have the same level of nuance here as elsewhere in the book. But there is an interesting undercurrent suggesting that Crenshaw is not all that different from Lou underneath – both share an intense focus, for example, though Crenshaw would use his destructively – and a subplot examining the morality of a behavioural-correction chip for criminals in comparison with the treatment proposed for Lou and his colleagues. Moon’s novel certainly leaves one with a great deal to think about.
The title of Speed of Dark comes from Lou’s repeated wondering of whether, given that light has a speed, dark also has one; he reasons that it would be faster, as light is always chasing behind dark. Lou further equates darkness to ignorance and light to knowledge, which is then represented in the novel by both the ignorance of the likes of Crenshaw; but also as Lou’s own ignorance of himself and who he might be. If we interpret Lou’s dilemma over the treatment as representing any decision of whether to make a major life-change, Speed of Dark ultimately gives us cause to reflect how far we might want to sweep away the dark if faced with such a choice.
Two reviews of Speed of Dark at Infinity Plus, by John Grant and Adam Roberts.
Elizabeth Moon’s website