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Speed of Dark
Elizabeth Moon
Ballantine, 340 pages

Speed of Dark
Elizabeth Moon
Elizabeth Moon grew up in south Texas, 250 miles south of San Antonio and eight miles from the Mexican border. She attended Rice University and joined the US Marines in 1968. With a second degree in biology, she entertained thoughts about going to med school after her husband, but circumstances intervened.

Elizabeth Moon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Once A Hero
SF Site Review: Rules of Engagement
SF Site Review: Remnant Population

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

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It's taken me more than two months to write the review for Speed of Dark. It shouldn't take this long to write a review. It is not for lack of trying, I can assure you. But every time I set fingers to keyboard, something freezes up.

It's not that I don't have anything good to say about the novel -- far from it. Speed of Dark is easily the most powerful thing I've read this year. But when the year is new, that kind of endorsement rings somewhat hollow. If I boldly proclaim it is the best thing I will read this year, it stinks of arrogance and empty hyperbole. If I announce it's the best thing I've read this year and last, a chorus of hecklers will rise up and smite me with chants of "You haven't read enough."

So you see, my dilemma remains.

One thing I'm certain of, however: Speed of Dark is an astonishing book. It's a science fiction story, but one in which the possible future could lie just around the corner. It's about Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autistic adult born in a time when intensive childhood therapy allowed him the opportunity to become a productive member of society, but born too soon to be helped by the medical advances that "cured" those autists came after him. Nevertheless, Lou has earned a good life for himself. He's learned the "patterns" of normal behavior, which helps him blend in, has a successful position at a pharmaceutical company, his own apartment, his own car and a group of normal friends that share his passion for fencing. Lou's life follows a comfortable, dependable pattern, until a new supervisor arrives at work -- one who sees autistic employees as a problem to be eliminated. Lou suddenly finds himself faced with a decision: Submit to an experimental, untested surgical treatment for autistic adults or face unemployment.

Comparison to Daniel Keyes' seminal Flowers for Algernon are unavoidable, and make no mistake, Speed of Dark is a worthy successor. But Lou is no Charley, and the two books' similarities are more thematic than anything else. Where Flowers for Algernon gave readers a filtered glimpse of Charley's experience through the pages of a journal, in Speed of Dark readers are inside Lou's head from the first page.

And what a fascinating head it is.

The stilted, blunt syntax of Lou's world is masterfully crafted by Elizabeth Moon, flowing as smoothly and clearly as anyone could ask. Moon's command of the written word has never been sharper. Lou's life as an alien-among-men is powerful and heartbreaking, far stranger than any tentacled terror from the jungles of Venus. Despite his success in life, the simplest tasks present monumental hurdles for him to overcome -- even going to the grocery store on a Wednesday instead of Tuesday is a major trauma. In the hands of a lesser writer, the results could be saccharine at best, bad melodrama at worst. Moon, however, disdains the easy out, and refuses to let Lou be a figure of pity. He makes mistakes. He's human. Even though he's a likeable fellow, he's far from angelic.

The choice Lou is faced with is not an easy one: to be normal is a dream he'd never seriously considered before, and the prospects are terrifying. Would the surgery even succeed? If it did, would he still be himself, or would he be reduced to a normal-seeming simulacrum? Would he still like fencing? Would he still like the beautiful, yet out-of-reach Marjory? More importantly, would Marjory find it easier to reciprocate Lou's feelings if he were normal? Lou's struggles to come to grips with his fears and hopes in the face of this potential cure (or curse) draws the reader deeper and deeper into Lou's world, to a level of intimacy rare in literature.

That should come as no surprise, as Speed of Dark is an intensely intimate book for Moon. As the mother of an autistic son, she offers no easy answers. Instead, she poses difficult questions, approaching autism as neither a mark of doom nor a badge of honor -- it simply is what it is, and must be dealt with accordingly. Those approaching this book hoping to find step-by-step instructions on living with autism will be sorely disappointed, as will those seeking a fictionalized account of motherhood-as-martyrdom. Nothing comes without a price, and Lou pays for his decisions, there can be no doubt. But ultimately, Speed of Dark is about optimism and hope.

So you can see why this complicated book makes for such difficult reviewing. It doesn't lend itself to easy categorization, defies snappy summation. It's challenging and accessible at the same time, and easily surpasses Moon's previous high water mark, the Hugo-nominated Remnant Population. At worst, Speed of Dark is a magnificent character study. At best, it's the most powerful book you'll read this year.

Copyright © 2003 Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy as well as related non-fiction, and serves as fiction editor for RevolutionSF.com. His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html


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