A horror story about an autistic woman mourning the death of her girlfriend. The protagonist’s grief is described in a way that, to me, feels both distinctively autistic and realistically nuanced. There are sensory aspects, analytical aspects, philosophical aspects, and a strong undercurrent – implied more than explicitly described – of immense confusion and distress. This distress only intensifies as the horror plot progresses and the scene becomes a surreal nightmare: a nightmare which is no less haunting for its mathematical aspects. [Recommended]
Lynn Kilmore, “By the Numbers” (Crossed Genres Issue 31: Novelette, July 2015)
A story about a math-obsessed autistic professor who discovers that she can communicate with equally math-obsessed aliens. The story makes a point of including realistic details, such as the protagonist (Mel)’s sensory sensitivities and her anti-cure perspective. It also makes a point of sharing and validating Mel’s experience. That said, a few things about it didn’t work for me. Mel is portrayed as a very disagreeable person (and, frankly, a bad professor) in ways that have little to do with autism, but that could easily be conflated with it by an outsider. I’m not opposed to writing autistic protagonists who are disagreeable, but I don’t think this one is handled well. Additionally, mathematical sequences are thought to be one of the easiest ways for two sentient species to establish communication over a long distance, so it feels like a stretch when the other characters (including a physics professor!) conclude that the aliens must be “annoyingly obsessed” like Mel, rather than performing a logical and necessary first-contact protocol. This one tries, but doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. [YMMV]
Bogi Takács, “Skin the Creature” (Through the Gate, Issue 9, December 2015)
[Autistic author] This is a poem about seizing hold of life. While it’s not “about” autism, mentions of flailing movements and sensory intolerance suggest that its vivacity is a neurodivergent vivacity, one unbothered by its own intensity and oddness, unafraid of standing out, and eager for the next experience. [Recommended]
Rose Lemberg, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar” (Uncanny Magazine, Issue Eight, January 2016)
[Autistic author] A light, warm, and rather flowery long-distance love story set in Lemberg’s Birdverse world. I read one of the lead characters, Vadrai, as perhaps on the spectrum. She has anxiety, fear of crowds, preference for solitude, aptitude for work involving tiny details, and admitted lack of understanding of how to deal with people. (I also read both characters as demisexual.) These elements are backgrounded and perhaps debatable, which only makes the story more charming to me: we need more love stories involving (arguably) autistic people in which autism is not presented as a major barrier to the characters’ happiness together. [Recommended]
Merc Rustad, “Iron Aria” (Fireside, Issue 34, July 2016)
[Autistic author] I read the protagonist of this story, Kyru, as autistic because of his expressive speech difficulties and sensitivity to noise. Kyru also gets to be the typical bildungsroman-fantasy protagonist, leaving a home where his relatives underappreciate and misgender him, and traveling to a magical mountain where there are problems only Kyru’s abilities can fix. I especially appreciate the way Kyru’s sensory sensitivities and his magical abilities affect each other, without being at all conflated. An ominous but hopeful story in which an autistic trans hero comes into his own. [Recommended]
Today’s Book: “A Rational Arrangement” by L. Rowyn
The Plot: A polyamorous romance between two bisexual men and an autistic woman, in a pseudo-Regency low-magic fantasy setting in which both bisexuality and polyamory are unheard of.
Autistic Character(s): The heroine, Wisteria Valsiver.
I have never reviewed a romance starring an autistic person before, and this one did not disappoint. Wisteria, the autistic heroine, is portrayed both as a person who is genuinely different from others and struggles to fit in, and as a romantic and sexual person who is both capable and worthy of love.
(This is not to say that asexual/aromantic autistic people shouldn’t be represented. But we’re all too frequently portrayed as people for whom romance is impossible, either due to internal or external factors – so it’s deeply refreshing to see the reverse.)
Wisteria is an extremely intelligent woman, who has traveled the world and been successful in business, yet who finds the intricate social norms of her pseudo-Regency world baffling. She also, like some real autistic people, has a very flat facial affect. Regardless of what she is really feeling, her face barely moves. Neurotypical characters see her as blank, severe, formal and rigid.
The story alternates between Wisteria’s point of view and those of her two romantic interests. Wisteria’s perspective includes some realistic anguish about the feeling that life is full of rules that she is incapable of understanding even though everyone else does. But it also includes a realistic range of interests and feelings about many other things. When thinking about romance, Wisteria experiences a conflict that I find deeply relatable. She has a great deal of romantic and sexual desire, but doesn’t know what to do with it, especially since the people around her act as though such desires don’t or shouldn’t exist – and also doesn’t know who would ever desire her back.
We also see Wisteria from the point of view of her love interests, which allows for a deep exploration of exactly what these men (who are both NT) find attractive about her. Nik, who is initially put off by Wisteria’s flat affect, soon becomes fascinated by her willingness to speak her mind and ignore taboos. Nik is impatient with the level of pretense and superficiality in society around him and he finds Wisteria refreshing. And while some of Wisteria’s candor is involuntary – caused by an inability to understand which topics are socially acceptable – she also genuinely prefers a frank communication style, which means she and Nik get along well.
Justin, Wisteria and Nik’s other love interest, doesn’t analyze his attraction to Wisteria as much. Unlike Nik, Justin is someone who thrives on superficial social connection and uses its superficiality as a defense mechanism. He’s at a bit of a loss at first when trying to communicate with Wisteria. But he’s fascinated by her, particularly when she displays analytical intelligence and courage – both traits he more often associates with men.
These three different perspectives mean the story ends up with a lot of interesting things to say about communication, and about contrasting communication and face needs.
There are also giant talking cats.
Nik, by the way, is a mind-healer – which makes this the second work of fiction I’ve reviewed (after Geometries of Belonging) that portrays a mind-healer’s reaction to an autistic person’s mind. Like Dedéi in Geometries, Wisteria must also deal with a family who would rather make her “normal”. Nik is not pleased when Wisteria’s father asks him to intervene:
The older man scooted to perch at the edge of the couch, lowering his voice. “You know. You saw how she was with you and your parents. That dreadful contract. She doesn’t comprehend that it’s not normal – she’s got this, this—” he broke off, hands waving vaguely.
Nik stared at Vasilver as if he were a new and particularly repulsive kind of bug found crawling on a sleeve. “The technical term you are looking for, sir, is personality.” Icicles dripped from each word.
Vasilver cringed. “Yes, but—”
“I am afraid you have misunderstood the nature of my Blessing. The Savior uses me to heal minds and treat mental illness. Contrary to what you may have been told, a personality is not a disease.”
(Note for squeamish readers: The “Savior” worshipped by Nik and other characters in this setting is not at all related to the Christian god, though this may not be clear in the first few chapters. Another thing that may not be clear early on is the role of demons in Nik’s mind-healing practice. Some mental illnesses, in this setting, are caused by demons, which anyone with Nik’s abilities can drive out. This is the first use of Nik’s abilities which is mentioned in the text. However, it is soon explained that the majority of mental illnesses have more subtle causes. Treating these ones has much more to do with gently encouraging parts of the mind into a different shape, or a different relation with each other.)
If I had a complaint about this book, it would be that it comes down a little too hard on the “a personality is not a disease” side. Wisteria is, by the social model, disabled. She has difficulty facially expressing her emotions, understanding unwritten rules, or engaging in other expected forms of nonverbal communication. She’s marginalized and punished by other characters for these differences. But we never see Wisteria struggling with anything that is not solely socially imposed. She seems to have no difficulties with sensory integration, executive function, or emotional regulation. She is portrayed as a wholly competent, independent person, who would be perfectly capable of doing everything for herself if only people didn’t judge her so harshly.
I don’t want to overstate my problem with this. Some autistic people do fit this profile. It’s not a bad way to be. The problem is that, if poorly handled, a story that solely portrays autism in this way can verge on Aspie supremacy. It can promote acceptance of highly intelligent, hypercompetent autistic people – even admiration – but at the cost of ignoring any genuine support needs that these highly intelligent people might have – and of leaving in the dust all the other autistic people who aren’t able to present themselves as being superintelligent in this way.
A Rational Arrangement avoids the worst sorts of Aspie supremacy, but there are times when it verges close enough to make me slightly uncomfortable. One scene that particularly troubles me is when Nik magically examines Wisteria’s mind. He finds that she is the way she is because the mental structure for rationality is overgrown compared to a neurotypical person, and is connected intimately to everything else in her mind.
Nik does not conclude that Wisteria is somehow superior to other people. (He prefers her to most other people, but since he winds up marrying her, this is entirely natural and necessary.) But the idea that the difference between autistic and normal people comes from rationality – that we are simply more logical than others, and all our difference stems from this – doesn’t sit well with me. It is a point of view too often caught up in internalized ableism and in ableist (and sexist, racist, capitalist) viewpoints about what is and isn’t rational. These viewpoints can, in turn, end up harming other autistic people who are less able to express themselves in a way that NTs recognize as rational or logical, and sowing discord between “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” autistics. Rowyn’s narration is never blatantly supremacist, but it doesn’t do quite as much to distance itself from these viewpoints as I would have liked.
I do not think this is at all intentional on Rowyn’s part. I suspect that she simply didn’t know how loaded a term like “rational” can be in a disability context.
Anyway, for the most part, I really liked the book. Wisteria is a well-drawn, three-dimensional character whose experience of the world rings true to me. The romance is adorable and compelling, all three of the characters had me invested in their struggles, and the setting is pleasant to read about. We definitely need more autistic characters who are allowed to explore love and passion as Wisteria does, whether it makes sense to the NTs around them or not.
The Verdict: Recommended
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.
Mythic Delirium 3.1 is out today, and my poem, “Million-Year Elegies: Edmontonia” is in it, along with work by Jane Yolen, Lynette Mejía, Yukimi Ogawa, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and others. You can purchase the issue and read it immediately, or you can wait until August, when “Edmontonia” and some poem notes will be free to read online.
“Edmontonia” is a companion piece to last month’s “Hallucigenia” – hopefully, there will be quite a few others forthcoming in this series.
Posts about childcare and education:
- Chavisory on why we should not force children into friendships
- Alyssa Hillary has a nuanced post about the concept of “age appropriate”
- Crystal Garrett on the harm done to children by restraints in schools (TW)
- Real Social Skills on the assumption that parents of disabled children will grieve for their child
- Shannon des Roches Rosa and Carol Greenburg report on the IMFAR autism research conference
- A roundup of articles about “Me Before You” and why there are very large problems with how it handles disability
- Alyssa Hillary reviews “Uniquely Human” by Barry M. Prizant
Sadly, the murder of autistic people by their caregivers is back in the news again, so here’s a section about that. Everything in this section has the usual TWs that you would expect given the topic.
- Dani Alexis Ryskamp on suffering
- Kerima Cevik on the duty of severely disabled people’s parents
- Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone on survival and how it fails
- Autnot on not “looking autistic”
- Pierrette Mimi Poinsett on autism, Blackness, and anti-vaccine rhetoric
- Alyssa Hillary on the difference between plans and routines
- Sparrow Rose Jones on when mental health services are inaccessible
My poem, “Million-Year-Elegies: Hallucigenia“, is up in Liminality, Issue #8.
This poem is about a creature from the Cambrian explosion. It is also about perception and belief, and being the object of flawed perception. It’s the first in a series/project of many different poems that I have been writing about ancient creatures.
Although my poem has nothing to do with it, Issue #8 of Liminality is dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.
Today’s Book: “A Civil Campaign” by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Plot: Characters from the Vorkosigan series take a break from the usual space opera to focus on romance and politics.
Autistic Character(s): Enrique Borgos, a scientist from Escobar.
I will say this up front. Bujold is my fave. And she is an author who, by and large, writes disability very well. Miles, the series’ protagonist, is physically disabled, bipolar, and epileptic, and is a fave of many disabled readers elsewhere. His brother Mark, another viewpoint character, has Dissociative Identity Disorder. (Also Miles’s love interest, Ekaterin, is the best portrayal I have ever seen of a woman struggling to navigate new relationships, or even the idea of new relationships, after leaving an abusive marriage. Thumbs up for that.) All these characters are well-drawn, well-rounded, and full of life.
It’s why I was a little disappointed by Enrique. He’s not a really bad portrayal. If you take all the characters in every book or TV show whose autistic traits are played for laughs, Enrique is one of the better ones. But in a book where several other disabled characters are consistently full people and worthy of empathy, Enrique seems to only intermittently transcend his stereotypes.
Enrique is a business partner of Mark’s. He has genetically engineered a type of bug that produces nutritious food for humans. He would like to cultivate the bugs and sell the results. He needs Mark’s help, though, because he is terrible at finances and marketing. Also, he is wanted by the government of Escobar for fraud.
Although the word “autistic” is not used, Enrique fits comfortably into the stereotype of an autistic scientist who is brilliant at science and terrible at everything else. His bugs do their job perfectly, but he cannot talk about anything but bugs, cannot understand jokes or irony, and forgets to bathe. He is clueless about many practical matters – for example, he mistakes expensive flowers from a florist for bug food. He loves his bugs passionately and believes they are beautiful, but has trouble convincing any of the other, more bug-phobic characters of his point of view.
Enrique’s portrayal at least contains a wider range of traits than those of many stereotype autistic scientists. Rather than simply being arrogant and rigid, he is shown having genuine practical difficulties in a realistic (though comical) way.
I also appreciate that Enrique is neither desexualized nor portrayed as a sexual menace / accidental harasser. He gets crushes on several women during the book, but his ways of approaching them, while odd (rewriting his dissertations’ abstract as a bug-sonnet, for instance), are not intrusive or threatening.
My biggest problem with Enrique can be summed up by a single paragraph of dialogue, in which Mark asks his girlfriend Kareen to help him and Enrique with their business project.
“Um . . . excuse us a moment, Enrique.” Mark took Kareen by her free hand, led her into the corridor outside the laundry room, and shut the door firmly. He turned to her. “He doesn’t need an assistant. He needs a mother. Oh, God, Kareen, you have no idea what a boon it would be if you could help me ride herd on the man. I could give you the credit chits with a quiet mind, and you could keep the records and dole out his pocket-money, and keep him out of dark alleys and not let him pick the Emperor’s flowers or talk back to ImpSec guards or whatever suicidal thing he comes up with next.”
I don’t disagree that a man like Enrique could benefit from practical help and supervision. What makes me uncomfortable is Mark arranging this behind Enrique’s back, and in an infantilizing way, without explaining to Enrique the true purpose of Kareen’s presence or asking what Enrique thinks of it. Mark’s treatment of Enrique sometimes veers close to the trope I discussed in Hawk, in which neurotypical characters use an autistic character for their skills, while hiding their true disdain and disgust for who the autistic character is as a person.
A few things soften the impact of these parts of the book and make them easier to deal with than Hawk. First of all, Enrique is genuinely a business partner of Mark’s. He is not doing the work for Mark’s benefit, or out of a deluded belief that he and Mark are friends. Instead, he will profit monetarily from the results the way Mark does. This is very important.
Second, unlike the secondary characters in Hawk, the cast of A Civil Campaign does not all agree with Mark. Mark is surly and misanthropic, and his remarks should be taken in that context. Other characters’ responses to Enrique range from annoyance to tolerance to kindness. It can be easy to miss, because the majority of the scenes with Enrique in them are from Mark’s point of view. But the female characters, in particular, seem more comfortable with Enrique and more willing to treat him the way they treat most other people.
“Oh, he’s brilliant about the things that get his attention. His interests are a little, um, narrow, is all.”
The Countess shrugged. “I’ve been living with obsessed men for the better part of my life. I think your Enrique will fit right in here.”
In fact, it’s heavily implied at the very end of the book that Enrique has struck up a functioning romantic relationship with a minor character. This is nice to see. However, despite all of this, no one ever actually questions Mark about the way he treats Enrique.
I also have questions about Enrique’s history of fraud, which is somewhat glossed over. Mark states that Enrique didn’t understand why he could not sell five times as many shares in his company as the company possessed. This is about as much as we ever hear about what took place then. I would very much like to know if Enrique did, in fact, understand the law. I would also like to know if anybody tried to explain the law to him at any point, or if it was another thing that Mark tried to handle for him without his knowledge. We don’t hear Enrique’s own thoughts on the matter, so I will have to stay mystified.
It’s not terrible, and is, in some ways, better than most. But with Enrique’s played-for-laughs status through most of the book, and with patronizing and controlling actions toward him going unchallenged, I cannot wholeheartedly give it a recommendation.
The Verdict: YMMV
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.
Today’s Book: “Dance For the Ivory Madonna” by Don Sakers
The Plot: An African civil servant navigates political intrigues and seeks to avenge his parents.
Autistic Character(s): The author.
So, here is a matter worth clearing up at least once: Just because a book has an autistic author doesn’t mean I’m going to like it. This is one that I bought, but simply couldn’t get through. I’m reviewing it now, not in order to single out or shame the author, but to illustrate this point with an example.
The plot, characters, and writing style failed to hold my interest; it also has racial (especially towards Native Americans), gender-y, and parapsychological content that made me uncomfortable. Despite a valiant attempt at Afrocentrism, a lot of it reads like white guilt projected onto a supposedly African protagonist. There is some mildly interesting stuff about AI in there, but since there is no discernible content related to autism, this admittedly lessened my resolve to slog on through the bad parts.
I got about six chapters in and gave up.
The Verdict: Not Recommended
With an important autism research conference coming up, Shannon des Roches Rosa and Carol Greenburg have put together a recommended reading list for people attending a conference and wanting to be able to think critically about autism research.
The provincial government of Ontario in Canada recently changed its rules for what kinds of autism therapy it will pay for and at what ages. A lot of parents are up in arms about it. Here’s Anne McGuire, Patty Douglas, and Estée Klar explaining why both sides of the debate are wrong when it comes to actually respecting autistic people. (As a resident of Ontario who has seen a lot of local NTs throwing around articles and petitions about this issue lately, I was very grateful for this article.)
Posts about traits, impairments, and accommodations:
- Kathyrn Hedges on auditory processing
- John Elder Robison on when accomodations aren’t enough
- Emily Page Ballou, Olley Edwards, Patricia George, Christine Langager, and Siobhan Travers on the needs of autistic girls
Posts about attitudes and social change:
- Lydia Brown on internalized ableism
- Karen Human on acceptance
- Chavisory on the right to not understand
- Kerima Çevik on the presumption of incompetence
And in other news, the Disability in Kidlit team is still doing important work:
- The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism interviews Corinne Duyvis about “On The Edge of Gone“
- Corinne Duyvis and Kayla Whaley on approaches to disability in SFF
Today’s Book: “Blindsight” by Peter Watts
The Plot: Mentally augmented scientists investigate the source of a mysterious alien signal.
Autistic Character(s): None, but see below.
I’m departing from my usual formula today and reviewing a book with neither an autistic author nor autistic characters. Why? Because, despite the aforementioned lack, this is a book that keeps coming up every so often in discussions of autism in SFF. It shows up on lists of books with autistic characters, it gets recommended to autistic friends, etc. Not super often, but not just once, and not in just one way. So I want to talk about why that is, and what an autistic reader might get out of this book, and why I disagree in general with how people are going about things here.
The character in this book who’s most often described as autistic – or as an unintentional autistic stereotype – is the narrator, Siri Keeton. Siri is not ever described in the book as autistic. Instead, he has a different form of neurodivergence – he was severely epileptic as a child and underwent a radical hemispherectomy. In Siri’s case, the missing half of his brain was replaced with computer circuitry, though in Watts’s fictional future, having such circuitry in one’s brain is not uncommon.
(Siri, by the way, has nothing to do with the iPhone app of the same name, which came later.)
I am not a neuroscientist, and the research I did into hemispherectomies while writing this review was fairly perfunctory. According to what I have read, though, the primary side effects of hemispherectomies are to do with partial paralysis and vision difficulties on the side corresponding to the side of the brain that was removed–not with personality change. Because of brain plasticity, sufficiently young children who get hemispherectomies actually have a fairly good prognosis.
However, for some reason–possibly the computer circuitry–Siri isn’t described as having motor, vision, or cognitive difficulties. Instead, his primary symptom is difficulty feeling or understanding human emotion. Life feels flat and colorless to him, and he has difficulty with empathy or with relating to why people behave in the way that they do. In childhood, he has violent episodes which are attributed to his lack of empathy, and his mother–a noxious, manipulative narcissist–wails about the difficulty of raising a child who lacks the expected mother-child emotional bond. As an adult, he struggles to connect to anyone at all.
Although Siri has difficulty relating to people’s emotions, however, he uses his circuitry to become quite good at learning and analyzing these emotions by rote. In fact, he is so good at this and so perceptive of the small details of people’s expression that he is hired as a “synthesist”. His job is to analyze the speech and behavior of the enhanced humans who are on the mission with him, and report them back in a form that normal humans can understand.
At this point, you might understand why so many people read Siri as autistic. Autistic people often have trouble understanding NT people’s emotions. Many of us end up learning to “fake it” and interpret emotions and facial expressions by rote. Many of us have a flattened or seemingly under-responsive affect, or alexithymia which prevents us from noticing or understanding our emotions. Some of us struggle with violent meltdowns when overwhelmed; some of our parents feel intensely beleaguered and victimized by having to care for us; and most of us have trouble understanding how to form close relationships with NTs, even if we want to.
In fact, there is enough rough correspondence that it feels very plausible Watts might have been influenced, in his portrayal of Siri, by previous acquaintance with autistic stereotypes – even if it wasn’t his conscious intent.
So why do I adamantly believe that Siri Keeton is not autistic?
First, because if Siri was autistic, he would say so. He’s not exactly under-informed about neuroscience, nor shy about discussing the neurodivergence that he actually has. Watts clearly knows what autism is–it’s mentioned briefly once or twice, albeit in problematic ways–so if it was his intent for Siri to be autistic, there would be no reason to hide that information or to disguise it as something else. There’s also no reason to “explain” Siri’s state of being using autism, when there is already a different explanation for it plainly stated in the text.
Second, and even more importantly, because Siri’s resemblance to an autistic person start to unravel when you look at it closely.
Siri’s emotional flatness more closely resembles depression combined with alexithymia than it does autism. While some autistic people experience few emotions, and many have difficulty adequately describing or understanding their emotions, it’s not very common for autistic people to be truly emotionless. It’s much more common for autistic people’s emotions to be odd in ways that NTs have trouble understanding. We might express emotions oddly, by using body language or stims rather than showing a lot on our face, which leads NTs who overrely on faces to underestimate how things affect us. We might show things on our face, but in an atypical way. We might not understand the things that NTs are expected to do or say when they have certain emotions, and be left feeling emotions without knowing what to do about it. We might have very intense emotions–distress, pleasure, excitement, enjoyment, pain, fear, confusion, disgust–which confuse NTs because the things that elicit these emotions are not what an NT would expect.
I know a lot of autistic people who have plenty of emotions thankyouverymuch, but who are accused of being emotionless because they don’t show socially expected emotions at socially expected times and ways, and aren’t even sure how to do so. I don’t find these people emotionless or difficult to read IRL (even though I have trouble reading many NTs). But apparently, to NTs, they are flat and baffling.
Siri’s emotions have none of this oddness, none of this nuance or hidden-ness that I’ve come to expect from other autists. They just aren’t there, or perhaps, aren’t accessible in a way he can describe.
On the other traits from the list, Siri fares slightly better. In fact, his reliance on rote processing to understand NT emotions–and subsequent ability to do so better than the average NT–is one of the things that the book does rather well. Many autistic people do use this kind of ability to help us navigate the world. It’s nice to see an author acknowledge that these methods can be effective, even highly effective, even without an intuitive understanding of why things work the way they do–and even though it doesn’t solve all social problems. In fact, some of Siri’s descriptions of how this works seem to have been lifted straight from real-life autistic people’s descriptions:
I’d spent my whole life as a sort of alien ethologist in my own right, watching the world behave, gleaning patterns and protocols, learning the rules that allowed me to infiltrate human society.
(It should be noted that, towards the end of the book, there is considerable doubt raised as to whether Siri’s synthesist abilities are as effective as he thinks they are. To Watts’s credit, he does not attribute this doubt to Siri’s neurodivergence, but to a belief that no one can really ever be sure what other people are thinking, and to Siri’s usual synthesist protocols being compromised as he gets more and more personally involved in what’s going on, thus falling prey to wishful thinking, projection, etc.)
The kind of social problems that Siri does wind up with are a mixed bag. Some, I found quite relatably sad. Others… Well. Let’s just say that for someone who supposedly knows so much about how NTs interact, he shows a really remarkable inability to understand that people in romantic relationships might desire tenderness, or affectionate words, or anything at all beyond the most reductive possible variety of evo-psych bullshit.
Then again, plenty of young male Aspies in real life are taken in by MRA evo-psych bullshit of even worse types, and Siri can hardly be said to have had healthy relationships modeled for him growing up. (Spoiler: it’s a Peter Watts book: EVERYONE is maladjusted.) So I may be protesting too much on that point.
My biggest problem with the reading of Siri as autistic, though, is not to do with how these traits apply to him, but with all the traits that don’t apply and aren’t even mentioned.
You don’t get autism in real life by taking a regular person and removing certain things. You don’t go into an NT’s head, cut out the bits that handle social/emotional processing, and get an autistic person by doing that. Despite certain corporate logos, we are not NTs with a piece missing.
Instead, an autistic brain–even a “high-functioning” autistic brain (although functioning labels are problematic)–is wildly different from an NT brain on many axes that don’t reduce to missing traits. Senses are hyper- or hypo-sensitive or both at once, or different in even weirder ways. Communication is not just flattened, but different and quirky or difficult or selectively impaired in ways that go far deeper than a lack of social skills. Interests are intense, passionate, and often aligned in directions that make no sense at all to NTs. Movement and expression is not just flattened, but different; stereotypical flapping is of course not the only way to stim, and some people suppress all their noticeable stims, but nearly every autistic person, in their natural state, will not move like an NT. I could go on. There is a wildness to autistic brains, a weirdness (if “weird” is not too pejorative a term), a set of ways of being and doing and thinking that are not just NT ways with pieces missing, but their own ways.
It’s exactly this qualitative different-ness that is missing from Siri.
It’s also exactly this qualitative different-ness that people ignore when they spin the worst forms of propaganda about autism. When people talk about autistic people as incomplete NTs, as having no emotions or awareness, as being missing some essential part that would allow us to have Real Feelings and Real Empathy…
Siri Keeton is portrayed as being closer to that description than actual autistic people are.
I have a few additional points to make before we wrap up this review. First, I focused on Siri in this review because most of the fan discussions I’ve seen center around Siri as a supposedly autistic character. That’s not the only way to discuss autism in the context of “Blindsight”. In fact, the Wikipedia–somewhat inexplicably to me–describes not Siri, but the book’s vampires as autistic. (Yes, there are vampires. In space. Long story.) This is so baffling to me that I’m not sure what to say about it, except that the vampires really do not strike me that way, and apart from their lack of desire for social contact, I’m not even sure why anybody would read them that way. To me the vampires (and, please note, I liked the vampires) struck me as being something more like superintelligent predatory animals in human form.
The second point is that, according to many sources (I’ve seen this attributed to Watts’s own notes, but haven’t managed to track that part of the notes down), Siri is not meant to be an autistic character–he is meant to be a philosophical zombie. Not to spoil too much, but there is a lot of really interesting stuff in “Blindsight” about consciousness, and about whether or not consciousness is necessary for intelligence, or whether it is desirable at all. A philosophical zombie, or p-zombie, is not a Night of the Living Dead style zombie. Rather, it is a hypothetical living person who acts exactly like any other living person, but who has no actual consciousness. It’s not spelled out in the text itself, but the theory is that Siri is an unreliable narrator, and is actually a p-zombie for most of the book until another character violently awakens him.
I actually find this theory even harder to swallow than the one about vampires, for a number of reasons. First of all, if Siri used to be a p-zombie, then how exactly is he able to describe experiences that he had before being awakened? One answer is that, since p-zombies are outwardly indistinguishable from living people, they can describe events in a way that makes them sound conscious. But this answer is rather vacuous, in my opinion, because if that’s what Siri is doing, then we’re not really reading a book about unconscious p-zombie Siri; we’re reading a book about the conscious person that p-zombie Siri is pretending to be. There is no discernible difference between that book and a book in which Siri is conscious. You could maybe describe Siri as having had a somehow lesser or inferior or shallower version of consciousness, but to say that there was no consciousness just makes no sense.
Second, if Siri is supposed to be a p-zombie, then this makes it EVEN MORE problematic to call him an autistic character. Because autistic people are not p-zombies. But there are an awful lot of people who would like very much to say that we are, or that we don’t have emotions or reactions (just because you can’t read our damn facial expressions), or that it’s not possible we could understand anything (because some of us can’t talk). Or any number of other statements which boil down to the argument that we’re not people and it doesn’t matter how you treat us.
If the first thing that you think of, when trying to imagine how a p-zombie would live, is autism because of what these people say about autism… Then that’s a problem.
(Thinking that you can somehow just suddenly make a supposedly non-conscious person conscious, by violently attacking them, is also pretty gross.)
Third, like I said, I’m not an expert on radical hemispherectomies, and the focus of this review series is on depictions of autism. But I’m pretty sure that stating you can become a p-zombie because of having a hemispherectomy is even more offensive to people who have had this procedure than it is for autistic people.
Pretty sure that goes for the other inaccurate depictions of the results of a hemispherectomy, too.
If you want to read about the experiences of radical hemispherectomy patients in real life, a good place to start might be the Hemispherectomy Foundation.
The Verdict: Not Recommended
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.