I said in my previous post that it would be better to link to a summary by an autistic person, so here are a few.
First, here is Tili Solokov’s roundup of Storifies of responses to the SF Signal article that people had on Twitter.
Here is also a response by A.C. Buchanan, regarding autism, empathy, and the pressure to conform or not conform to stereotypes.
So this happened. (It would be better to link to a summary by an autistic person, but my time/spoons for trawling around to find one are very limited right now, and Jim explains it well.)
I’ve been very swamped with school. Last night I got home late after running a study with a bunch of people as part of my graduate research, peeked on to Twitter, and found everybody yelling about something.
A lot of people were very angry, triggered, shaking with rage. They’re not wrong to feel that way. My own response to the article was more muted. I was not very angry. I was too tired to be angry. To me it just read like more of the same BS that we get from well-intentioned, but VERY CLUELESS people… all the time. There’s too much of it out there for me to even feel very disappointed by it anymore – except that I was disappointed, profoundly disappointed, that it was showing up in a column which was supposed to be about disability representation.
I took another look at all my angry friends, but was too exhausted to respond or even note that I was there, aware of what was going on. Instead I went “fuck this shit,” ate some fruit, read some Darths & Droids because that’s all I had any brains remaining for, and went to bed.
I feel like I should be saying something, because I’m the Autism In SFF Person? But other people have already explained what the problems are. SF Signal has also apologized and taken down the post. (I am more triggered by arguments about whether or not a particular apology was “enough” than I was by the post itself, so I won’t be getting into that side of the discussion.)
Just know, if you’re non-disabled and reading this, that if people’s anger seems disproportionate it’s because we literally get this all the time. There is no escaping it; even bailing out and turning off the computer, as I did, is temporary.
I also want to write a brief note about empaths, because unfortunately, the author of the article opens by claiming to be one. Look, I’m someone who knows and loves empaths. It’s an actual thing. It involves picking up on people’s emotions so strongly that it becomes a sensory experience, sometimes a painfully overwhelming one. (It’s a thing that occurs a lot to people on the autism spectrum, and contributes to sensory overload. It’s not as helpful in dealing with social situations, or even in treating people with respect and courtesy, as one might think – because knowing or even feeling a person’s emotions doesn’t mean you necessarily have a fucking clue what you’re supposed to do about it. It’s also a concept that gets thrown around, distorted, and used unhelpfully in many New Age and neopagan communities, but eh, you could say that about a lot of things.)
When I read the opening of the article, I was actually kinda excited, because I thought, wow, maybe we’re going to have an interesting discussion of empaths from a disability perspective. Unfortunately, instead of describing her experiences and as an empath and how they interact with ableist expectations, the author goes on to just sort of meander around saying condescending and clueless things about people with other disabilities.
I’m not saying we should give the author a free pass for claiming to be an empath. Or anything else. But I’d be happier if we were able to discuss the very large problems with her article without a lot of the snide comments I am seeing about how empaths are not real, or assholes, or how their empathy should work differently, or whatever. Just as how I’d hope that we wouldn’t be making snide comments about any other group identity that the author of this bullshit happened to have. That would be great. Thanks.
Out today in GigaNotoSaurus, is my new novelette, “The Scrape of Tooth and Bone“. It is set in a steampunk fossil expedition in the badlands of western Canada, and features an autistic protagonist. There are also giant robots, dinosaurs, Spiritualism, lesbian romance, and ghosts.
This is an older story, and one where I suspect I might do a few things differently if I was writing it again today. I’m still rather fond of it, though, and am very pleased to be able to share it with you at last. Enjoy!
Feels weird doing this at the tail end of January, but better late than never.
Two of the stories I recommended for Autistic Book Party were also among my general favorites for the year. These are Rose Lemberg’s Birdverse stories, “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” and “Geometries of Belonging“.
Other favorites from the year include:
Heather Clitheroe, “Wild Things Got to Go Free“.
S.L. Huang, “By Degrees and Dilatory Time“.
Naomi Kritzer, “Cat Pictures Please“.
Kelly Link, “The Game of Smash and Recovery“.
Carmen Maria Machado, “Descent“.
Sam J. Miller, “When Your Child Strays From God“.
By far the best long poem I read in 2015 was “Long Shadow” by Rose Lemberg. Here are other ones I very much enjoyed:
Theodora Goss, “Lady Winter“.
Theodora Goss, “Snow White Learns Witchcraft“.
Theodora Goss, “Swan Girls“.
Rose Lemberg, “archival testimony fragments / minersong“.
M. Sereno, “Adarna“.
This list makes my reading habits look much more limited and selective than they actually were. It’s my favoriting habits that were selective this year. I suppose I have particular tastes.
Kayla Bashe, “Changeling Manifesto“.
Theodora Goss, “The Stepsister’s Tale“.
Peter Medeiros, “Dronin’“.
Virginia M. Mohlere, “Where Secrets Are Placed“.
Alyssa Wong, “For the Gardener’s Daughter“.
Today’s Book: “The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon
The Plot: When scientists develop an experimental treatment that might cure autism in adults, a group of autistic adults working at a pharmaceutical company is pressured to undergo the treatment to keep their jobs.
Autistic Character(s): Lou Arrendale – the protagonist – along with his co-workers.
This is by far my most-requested review, and I’m embarrassed that it took me until now to get to. Whenever I say, “Hi, I’m Ada Hoffmann and I review speculative fiction with autistic characters,” someone always wants to know, “What did you think of The Speed of Dark?” And then I hem and haw, because I’ve Heard A Lot About It – Both Good And Bad – But Haven’t Read It. Now I’ve read it, so I’m actually qualified to have an opinion of my own. That’s a relief.
This book is, in my tiny corner of disability fandom, A Big Deal. Possibly The Biggest Deal. Some people loathe it. Some people adore it.
It’s also a cure decision story.
So. If you want to know why I don’t like cure decision stories, you should read that link. After reading “The Speed of Dark”, well, I still don’t like cure decision stories. (I’ll also note that some autistic people do want to be cured – I was reminded of this last fall at Can*Con. Not all autistic people have the same opinions as each other! The opinions stated here are, as always, my own.)
But there’s a lot more to say about “The Speed of Dark” besides “it’s a cure decision story”. Some of that is good, and some is bad.
Here’s the good first. “The Speed of Dark” is more nuanced than I was expecting. Specifically, it shows an awareness – which I hadn’t seen before in any other cure narrative – of the complicated power dynamics that go into discussions of cures. Here’s a quote from the first scene:
If they aren’t going to listen, why should I talk?
I know better than to say that out loud. Everything in my life that I value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say…
Dr. Fornum crisp and professional, raises an eyebrow and shakes her head not quite imperceptibly. Autistic persons do not understand these signals; the book sys so. I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand.
What I haven’t figured out yet is the range of things they don’t understand. The normals. The reals. The ones who have the degrees and sit behind the desks in comfortable chairs.
I know some of what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know that I can read. She thinks I’m hyperlexic, just parroting the words. The difference between what she calls parroting and what she does when she reads is imperceptible to me.
From the very beginning, Moon writes Lou as a character who is aware of much more than what “autism professionals” believe he should be aware of; who is aware, and critical, of the ableist attitudes that surround him; and who has learned to make compromises, as real autistic people do, in order to navigate that ableist world and survive.
That ableist world has an impact on the major decisions of the story. Lou and his co-workers are not asked politely if they would like to be cured. They are pushed towards a cure, through most of the book, by a deeply unlikeable, pointy-haired CEO who has decided that he will fire them if they choose to remain autistic – even though the job at which they work is specifically one that takes advantage of their autistic strengths in pattern recognition. (Lou is a patterns thinker, and it’s implied that his co-workers all are as well.) It’s a deeply unjust and rather terrifying situation, and also illegal, as many characters in many scenes point out. Doubly so because the “cure” is an experimental treatment, never tested on humans before. There’s no guarantee it will work. There’s no way to predict exactly how much and in what ways the characters will change if they go through with it.
Lou thinks and talks about the injustice of his situation – as he should. He’s deeply confused by it and unsure of what to do for most of the book, but he’s aware that this is something his company should not be doing, that it’s not fair to make him and his co-workers choose between invasive medical treatment and losing their jobs, that the people involved – regardless of what they might say – do not have his best interests at heart. This makes his ruminations about what to do a good deal more interesting than the ruminations of a typical cure decision story protagonist.
This brings us to one of the things I liked less about the book, which is the bizarre disparity in what kind of actions different characters can take against this injustice. Lou is aware that his situation is unfair; everybody in the situation is aware of this. But the people who get to react against it fully – the people who get to say, holy shit, this is fucked up and dangerous and illegal as hell, this is not okay, Lou, let me get you a lawyer – are not autistic. Invariably, for some reason, they’re Lou’s neurotypical friends.
I want to be careful how I say this. It’s not that Moon thinks neurotypicals are great. There are a lot of bad NTs, like the people who devised this experiment in the first place, and Lou’s boss, and Lou’s stalker (yes, there is a stalker subplot, which if nothing else is a welcome distraction from the cure decision). There are also NTs who mean well but are mostly ineffectual, such as Lou’s immediate supervisor (who frustrates me, and that’s all I’m going to say about that). There are also good NTs. This is fine. The good NTs are, without exception, able to stand up for Lou, to insist that what’s happening to him is wrong, and to offer concrete help. They’re never ableist by accident or oblivious to an ableist issue. They even, mysteriously, know more about neurodiversity issues than Lou does:
“Lou, you’ve been holding out on us. You’re a genius.”
“It may be a splinter skill,” I say. Tom’s expression scares me; if he thinks I am a genius maybe he will not want to let me fence with them.
“Splinter skill, hooey,” Luciea says. She sounds angry; I feel my stomach clenching. “Not you,” she says quickly. “But the whole concept of splinter skills is so… antiquated. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses; everybody fails to generalize many of the skills that they have.”
All of which would also be fine, except that the other autistic people in the story never get to have these traits. The autistic people in the story have a community where they genuinely interact, and they can be confused and upset at what’s happening to them, but that’s about as far as their self-advocacy (or their advocacy for each other) ever goes.
The only autistic person who consistently and emphatically says that she does not want a cure, that a cure is not okay, is a woman named Linda. Lou and Linda don’t particularly like each other. Linda’s beliefs about autistic community are so extreme that she actively discourages Lou from making any friends who aren’t developmentally disabled; he should “be with his own kind”. Linda’s friend Emmy, who is not autistic, but has an unspecified related disability, takes these beliefs even further, and takes to following Lou and harassing him because she heard that he has a crush on an NT woman. (Emmy is not the stalker in the stalker subplot, but it’s implied that she could be. I should note here that I’m sure people with these beliefs exist somewhere, but I’ve never encountered them, and I follow a lot of activist-type people who REALLY hate cures.)
Autistic people in “The Speed of Dark” can’t seem to advocate for themselves unless they are unlikeable extremists – and even then, their advocacy is not particularly effective. Yet several NT characters, even though it’s not clear how they learned anything about neurodiversity before knowing Lou, get to advocate for Lou perfectly.
People talk about White Saviors in fiction who somehow get to be better at solving POC’s problems than the POC themselves are. I’m tempted to call Lou’s friends Neurotypical Saviors, but that might be appropriative. Let’s just say that it does not reflect my experiences with autistic and NT people in real life.
Anyway, apart from having some neurotypical savior friends and wondering what to do about being pressured into a cure, Lou gets to do several other interesting things. He competes in a fencing tournament and does quite well! He deals with his stalker in what ends up being a satisfying manner. He has philosophical thoughts about physics. There’s a lot of material in here that’s actually pleasant to read, and Lou spends a lot of time learning and growing, finding that he can embrace change and do things he hadn’t thought he could do.
So what does the learned and grown Lou end up eventually doing about his cure decision? To talk about that, I’m afraid we will have to go behind the cut, because there are SPOILERS. Big ones. ENDING SPOILERS. Seriously – this is a book about which a LOT of people say, “I liked it except for the ending.” So to talk about what I really think of “The Speed of Dark”, I am going to have to tell you the /entire/ ending. In detail. You’ve been warned.
2015 was a vast improvement on 2014, but also a full and difficult year for me personally. I published two conference papers and traveled internationally to present both of them (in computer science, unlike most academic fields, conferences are where most of the action happens). I defended the equivalent of a thesis proposal. I ended a seven-year-long romantic relationship, and there turned out to be messy fallout and consequences to having done so. I finished the draft of a novel I had been working with, on and off, since 2012 (it is now out with beta readers). I started a new relationship, which did not last, but which instead became a wonderful friendship. I adopted a cat. I worked, constantly, on repairing my mental health, and enjoyed both successes and setbacks. These are just the things I feel comfortable mentioning in a public post; there was much more. Unlike in 2014, I did not enter the year with a backlog of finished and publishable work that I could use to disguise the times when I didn’t feel able to write.
I was going to use this list of things as an apology for not having published more. Then I thought about that. Why should I? Many people had even more difficult years in 2015 than I did, yet published more than this. And the reverse. There are many authors I deeply respect who have had years – sometimes more than one year in a row! – of publishing nothing at all, with no explanation given. It does not make me respect them less or like their work less. It does not make me wonder if they are still “real writers”. It’s just a year with less work from a person whose work I enjoy. It happens. When it’s not me, I understand this. So if I don’t think less of writers who publish less than me – why on earth should I assume that anyone who matters will think less of me?
So, here is what I wrote that was published this year. Quod scripsi, scripsi.
The single fiction story I published this year was “Lady Blue and the Lampreys“, in The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. It is weird fiction involving a gender-flipped Bluebeard, some three-headed soul-eating lamprey-people, and Verdi’s Requiem.
I also published a few poems:
“Ekpyrotic Theory” in Lakeside Circus. Love, astrophysics, and the beginning of time.
“Octopi Viewing a Submersible” in Strange Horizons. What it says on the can, and in alliterative Germanic verse to boot.
A third poem, “Kraken Quatrain” (again, what it says on the can), will appear in Issue #62 of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. This issue has been assembled and gone to the printers, but is not yet quite released. Hopefully it will be out before the end of the year – but, if not, then I suppose I’ll simply have a head start on my publication credits for 2016.
I already have a few works lined up to be published in early 2016, including more poetry and a steampunk story with an autistic protagonist coming up in GigaNotoSaurus. I am continuing to work, and I feel hopeful and optimistic that I will be able to increase my visible output from here.
Jim C. Hines, “Chupacabra’s Song” (Kaleidoscope anthology, 2014)
A story about Nicola Pallas – a minor character from the Libriomancer series – her father’s veterinary clinic, and her discovery of magic. Nicola is visibly different, humming, waving her hands, and going nonverbal under stress. She’s also shown as significantly more human, and more compassionate, than the apparently NT wizards she encounters, and she ends up outsmarting them. There’s a theme of acceptance here, but it doesn’t hit you over the head. [Recommended]
Bogi Takács, “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” (Capricious, issue 1, September 2015)
[Autistic author.] Autism is not foregrounded in this story, but I did read the narrator as autistic due to eir sensory seeking, intense anxiety when confronted with uncertain/unfamiliar things, the use of a weighted blanket, and other things. Regardless of whether you read it that way or not, it’s a nice story of a nonbinary-gendered person in a queer D/S relationship on a magical spaceship, who gets swept up in events when a political dignitary abruptly requests passage on eir ship for mysterious reasons. I enjoyed it. [Recommended]
Addison Trev, “The Beachcomber of Dong Hoi” (Breath & Shadow, volume 12 issue 4, fall 2015)
[Autistic author.] This is the story of a mentally disabled beachcomber and his weekly routine; a speculative element emerges only near the end. It is a story which is told with precise detail and empathy, and which takes the title character’s concerns seriously. Many developmentally disabled people do end up in life roles like this one, in which they vaguely eke out an existence on the margins of society. It’s important that these characters be portrayed with the kind of dignity that Trev’s narration provides. I did find the ending a bit facile, and some of its implications unfortunate – but it’s the ending that hammers home that yes, this really IS intentionally an autism story. [YMMV]
Rose Lemberg, “The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye” (The Journal of Unlikely Academia, October 2015)
[Autistic author.] This is a sharp and biting commentary on Western academia which will have academic readers glumly nodding their heads in recognition. An autistic student, or perhaps the ghost of an autistic student, plays a brief but pivotal role. It has to do with the politics of who is and is not welcomed in academic spaces, rather than with who the student is as a person – but is still, I suspect, of great interest to the kind of person who reads Autistic Book Party. [Marginal, but I liked it]
A.C. Wise, “And If the Body Were Not The Soul” (Clarkesworld, October 2015)
I, for once, was dense and did not read the protagonist in this story as autistic – but his asexuality and unusual sensory/bodily experience are impossible to miss. A lot of commenters, including autistic commenters, did see autism. (It could be because my own experience as an autistic person does not include Ro’s kind of touch-phobia – but it is a real and common experience for many!) Whatever you want to call Ro, he’s portrayed with nuance and respect. He is not protrayed as broken or less than the characters who enjoy touch, even if he is insecure enough to feel that way at times – and his insecurity, while providing background tension, is not the driving conflict of the story. Instead, Ro gets to do cool things, make decisions with agency, get involved in racial politics, and figure things out about aliens. [Recommended]
I was aware of this pledge when it first came out, but I didn’t talk much about it at first. For those of you who have been out of the loop: it is a pledge, much like the harassment-policy pledge that went around a year or two ago, that the people signing will not attend a convention unless it has an acceptable accessibility policy. This is in response to a long-term pattern of many conventions failing to meet basic accessibility needs even when directly asked.
Even though I talk about disability stuff all the time here, I was hesitant at first. I felt defensive. Conventions are hard for me, as an autistic person, but they’re not impossible. I’ve invested a lot of energy in finding ways to attend that are possible for me – that is to say, ways that are draining and that fall well short of the level of participation I would like to have, but that I am physically capable of doing. Not every disabled fan is so lucky, but was I supposed to give up what I had worked for? Was I supposed to just… pretend that I couldn’t do those things, and quietly vanish, because I don’t deserve to be at a convention unless they already decided to be good at disability stuff without me?
Then I read this post by Rose Lemberg, realized how much of my objection was just me parroting other people’s ableist stuff back at myself, got over myself, and signed the stupid pledge.
It’s disgraceful that we talk about being an inclusive fandom and wanting ~*diversity*~, but still do not provide for people’s basic needs. It needs to change.
If you have gotten anything useful out of my disability-related posts here, I would ask you to thoughtfully consider also signing.
These were meant to be my end-of-November updates, but either life happened, or I procrastinated; I am increasingly unsure if there is a difference. It seems that every meaningful activity takes time that could be used by some other meaningful activity; this does not negate its meaning. Life is, by and large, going well. As my mental health and personal life slowly and painfully improve, as my ability to get things done at school slowly improves, as my private writing life also improves, my ability to be present and available in my writer persona on social media has deteriorated. I do not know why.
Anyway, my poem “Octopi Viewing a Submersible” has garnered some positive attention. Charles Payseur at Quick Sip Reviews had some flattering things to say about it. Diane Severson Mori at Amazing Stories also gave the poem a nod in her “Women Destroy Hard SF Poetry” post (which is not affiliated with Lightspeed Magazine’s “X destroy Y” series).
Charlotte Ashley has also posted an interview with me to help promote the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest. In this interview, I discuss my story “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library“, which won the contest in 2013, and went on to be published in Strange Horizons. I also say a little about what is going on in my writing life now.
Some book news to start us off this news cycle!
- Elizabeth Bartmess is putting together a paid nonfiction anthology about the experiences of late-diagnosed autistic adults
- Autonomous Press is releasing a new book called “The Real Experts: Readings For Parents of Autistic Children“. Each chapter is an essay by an autistic adult about something they’d like parents of autistic children to know.
- Here is a review of “The Real Experts” by Dani Alexis Ryskamp.
The CDC recently revised its estimates of autism prevalence to 1 in 45, which is a higher prevalence than the previous estimate after a long period of prevalence estimates continuing to rise.
- Emily Willingham explains what this change means, and why it is not due to environmental factors
- So does Shannon Des Roches Rosa
An ABA therapist published an article on a site called Autism Daily Newscast about “perks kids with autism get from bullying”. The article, rightfully, got a lot of critical responses from autistic people who had experienced bullying as children. Here are some good ones:
- by S.M. Neumeier
- by Dani Alexis Ryskamp [this one has a TW for detailed talk about abuse and PTSD]
- by N.I. Nicholson
- by Angie Jackson
Here’s some pan-disability stuff:
- Leigh Merryday on alternatives to inspiration porn
- Scott Lingley on disability arts
- Mari Ness on having accessibility problems at Worldcon (again)
- Kayla Whaley on the erasure of disability in diversity discussions
- Sarah Luterman on the ableist subtext of screen backlash
- Chavisory on how we can get better autistic representation on stage
- Marie King on food aversions
- Shannon Des Roches Rosa on why we don’t have (or need) Autism Unity
- Frank Ludwig and Heather Clark on what happened to Carly Fleischmann