Comparisons have been coming thick and fast for Elizabeth Moon's riveting new novel THE SPEED OF DARK, released in January. This delicate, insightful and sometimes terrifying first-person account of how "normal" life challenges the autistic Lou Arrendale resonates powerfully with readers who have been enthralled by movies such as Flowers for Algernon, Forrest Gump and Rain Man.
But THE SPEED OF DARK is anything but derivative. Comparisons are only the beginning when it comes to appreciating the depth and empathic precision that Moon --- a Hugo Award finalist and herself the mother of an autistic child --- brings to a near-future world where the intellectually "different" find themselves caught up in a truly oriental crisis of mixed danger and opportunity.
Behind a seemingly dull exterior of minimal outside contact and almost emotionless expression, Lou lives in a rich, intricately woven universe of trusted social routines, a specialized pattern recognition job, regimented personal care and carefully choreographed pleasures, such as fencing, music and art. He is not retarded, intellectually deficient, psychologically damaged, or schizophrenic. In fact, Lou and his close-knit colleagues, who form a special problem-solving team in one small department of a huge research facility, are not a great many of the things that society tends to label them.
Instead of responding to the usual fear and prejudice through righteous anger, sentimental preachiness, or idealized fantasy with the requisite happy ending ("boy gets new brain and all is well..."), Moon and her delightfully believable protagonist meet the real world head-on and make whimsical, workable sense of it. Her deft rhythm, diction and nuance capture Lou's terse, yet sophisticated, chains of thought, expanding and contracting like the dynamics of a cosmic symphony inspired by an undecipherable theme.
But it isn't easy when your brain is the square peg that "they" (lovers of conformity and homogeneity) want to force into a round hole. Lou's perceptive running commentary on his gargantuan efforts to fit into "normal" society speaks volumes about the enigma of the autistic mind and its unrecognized potential. This inner world, so rarely shared with outsiders, is challenged by an opportunity to perhaps experience what life might be like as a "normal" human being. And Lou's captivating "voice" is very nearly silenced forever.
With THE SPEED OF DARK, Elizabeth Moon has formed and sculpted a heroic plotline from seemingly mundane ingredients, taking the reader into fictional, ethical and even spiritual realms that have rarely been so memorably blended. It's a bona fide page-turner --- with surprises and magic around every corner --- and is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on January 23, 2011