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|The Speed of Dark
by Elizabeth Moon
Ballantine Books, 2003
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback, large print, audio cassette
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback, large print
Highly recommended by: Elliot Hanowski
Do you like science fiction? If so, then this book belongs to that genre. If you don't it doesn't matter. I think the genre is not very important because, essentially, this is an intimate, personal story the story of a few months in one man's life. While it is set in the (near) future, changes in technology or society are not really the point. Moon's goal here is to get us to see the world through the eyes of her protagonist, Lou Arrendale, who happens to be autistic.
She does an excellent job of it. Moon's son is autistic, to begin with, and she's clearly done a lot of research into the lives of other autists. Lou becomes a very convincing and sympathetic character.
Having been given therapies somewhat more advanced than those used today, Lou is reasonably functional. He has a difficult time interpreting social interaction and is prone to sensory overload, but he lives on his own and has a good job. He takes fencing classes, goes to church, and copes well with the routines of everyday life. The reader is plunged into his rich (and to a non-autist, unusual) inner life.
But there are storm clouds on the horizon the new manager of Lou's division resents his autistic employees. At the same time, Lou is plagued with a threatening, mysterious stalker who seeks to make his private life difficult. On top of it all, there are rumors of an experimental cure for autism, involving nanotechnology and genetic modification, which Lou and his colleagues are being pressured to take. He must decide who he is and what he truly values in life.
It is in this process of existential questioning that a spiritual element makes itself felt. Moon, an Episcopalian, weaves Lou's religious life into the story with subtlety and skill. In fact, it plays a pivotal role in his deliberations. Lou hears a sermon preached on the Gospel of John, the passage on the man who lies by the healing pool at Siloam and waits for someone to lower him in. Instead, Jesus approaches him, and asks him if he wants to be healed. The preacher meditates on this question, pointing out that many of us are so set in our prior expectations and attached to our grievances that we do not take healing when God sends it to us. He also explores the meaning of healing, and whether we know it when we see it.
Lou later discusses the sermon with the priest, and learns that his ideas about the message were something rather different than what Lou gleaned from it. The priest helps Lou with his ideas, but has no easy answers. Still, this is very much the Word Lou needs to fuel his thoughts, and he returns to it again and again as the story progresses, always finding new layers of meaning. I found this to be a very insightful and realistic depiction of the way the Word comes to us.
My only quibble with this novel is that the villains are rather stereotypical and one-dimensional. But this is a minor issue, and Moon has put so much careful characterization into this story that too much more might have made things overly complicated. All in all, it is an amazing book, well deserving of the Nebula Award it received. (July, 2006)
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