It seems like I mention empathy in every review I write. All writing is an act of empathy, but some shifts of circumstance and perspective are greater than others. In Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark we are in the near future where our understanding of genetic disorders has generally eliminated disease. The story is told from the point of view of Lou Arrendale, a middle-aged man with autistic spectrum disorder. He was born at a time when some treatment was available but a cure still eluded science for several more years. He has high social functioning, lives independently, has a complete work and personal life – but he is also aware that he is different. Some of his differences make him exceptionally talented, but his inherent difficulty with social cues and language isolates him and restricts his ambitions. When a promising treatment for adult autistic spectrum disorder makes headlines, he and the others within this last generation with autism are faced with difficult choices.
I have no idea what it would be like to be autistic and if this portrayal is accurate. It is noted that Lou has undergone some treatment in his childhood which would not be available with current science, which might afford some leniency from readers with a closer relationship to the condition. Even if it is not a realistic depiction of autism it is a fascinating mental framework to experience a story through. I listened to the audiobook version which is a little uneven across the various voices with some sounding a bit cartoon-y, however Jay Snyder’s rendering of Lou Arrendale throughout the very dynamic character arc was superb and subtle. The variations in the meter of Lou’s speech patterns are clear enough in the text, but the performance amplifies the changes by almost downplaying them. I know I am being a bit cagey but I would prefer to let the author reveal plot at her own pace. I have to give additional credit to Elizabeth Moon for not taking the easy path in telling this story. After building such a wonderful character as Lou she rightly lets his personality guide the resolution. There are difficult choices with real consequences and each choice feels right for the character even if it runs counter to convention.