Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Speed of Dark

by Elizabeth Moon


If you know Elizabeth Moon best for novels like Hunting Party, Speed of Dark will be something of a revelation. Foxhunting adventures in space, this is not.

It's described as "a powerful near-future thriller" on the back blurb, and the title implies some kind of technical quest to find the speed of dark. But in fact it's all much more humdrum, the title being about the main character's philosophical musings rather than any race-against-time adventure.

Lou Arrendale is an unusual, and daring, choice for a protagonist. He's autistic. If all you know about autistics is gleaned from watching Rain Man, you're in for a surprise. He's smart and successful, with a job that involves studying mathematical patterns on a computer. But he does need a room full of twirlers to help him work, and the use of a gym with trampolines for when he gets stressed. Lou is also pretty innocent about other people, trusting too much in their good intentions and trying to work out what they are feeling from their facial expressions.

What's more, Lou is in love. Marjory, who attends his fencing class, is the object of his desire. He can't seem to get it together to ask her out on a date though, and because of his autism he always has doubts. Then an experimental treatment comes along that could cure him of his autism.

Lou's co-workers are also autistic, and they also face the choice of whether or not to take the treatment. This is made more difficult by a new boss, Crenshaw, who is keen to make his mark by cutting budgets, and who would force them all to take it if he could. Crenshaw isn't too particular about the methods he uses to persuade them.

This book is actually pretty light on science, preferring to explore Lou's daily life. Lou is an interesting blend of disability and over-achievement, stiff and uneasy in company but still very likeable. He expends a lot of energy in pretending to be normal, following rules that he has learnt. He sticks closely to a timetable: fencing on Wednesdays, laundry always on Fridays, and so on. Lou finds it very hard to break up his routine, even when his life is in danger.

So, why wouldn't he want to take the treatment? It's risky because it is new and previously only tested on chimps. (Which begs the question, how would you know if a monkey was really autistic anyway?) But more than this, what would he lose by becoming normal? Will his personality change, and will he lose his special abilities?

Whilst Lou is wrestling with this decision, someone is out to get him. First his tyres are slashed, then his windscreen, and as these incidents become increasingly violent the police are called to investigate. Although this adds some excitement to the plot, it's something of a side issue to the main story.

The ending is satisfying, although not hugely emotional. This is a book you will enjoy if you demand an intelligent read, subtle enough to appeal to people who might not otherwise read sci-fi.

Book Details

Year: 2002

Categories: Books

  Science fiction
  Male Protagonist  

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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Elizabeth Moon