I continue to be completely swamped, mostly by good things!
Can*Con. Um. Can*Con. I somehow went to an entire convention in Ottawa last weekend and forgot to post anything about it. Spoons were in short supply, but it was a lovely convention as always and I enjoyed seeing both familiar and new faces (and a few people I knew, but only from online). I did panels on Mental Health and Character Arc and Bodies of Difference: Disability in Science Fiction, and read “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library” aloud.
(Side note: This is still my greatest story title ever.)
The Bodies of Difference panel was especially good, with all of us agreeing that we could easily have talked about the topic for another hour. Shout-out to Derek Newman-Stille, who was, as always, an excellent and clueful moderator.
Also, school. Omg school is starting and I completely forget how everything just flies out the window at the beginning of every new semester. I’m taking a class, as well, for the first time in several years, so that’s new.
While I was mostly off the Internet for a few days due to technical issues, my poem “Million-Year Elegies: Oviraptor” went up as part of the Strange Horizons fund drive bonus issue!
The poem is, as @goblinpaladin put it on Twitter, “a great poem about a sad dinosaur fossil”.
Strange Horizons is an amazing magazine. They were my first full-length professional fiction sale, and one of my first poetry sales. They consistently publish interesting work by diverse authors and employ diverse editors also. If you like my poem or anything else they have published, and you can afford to do so and haven’t already, then I would strongly recommend their fund drive as a worthy target for your donations.
Hot on the heels of my last poetry publication, Uncanny Magazine issue #12 is out, featuring my poem “Million-Year Elegies: Tyrannosaurus.”
This (in late 2014) was the first “Million-Year Elegies” poem I wrote. I already knew it would be part of a series, even though I had no idea yet what the rest of the series would look like. So far, that instinct has proven correct.
It’s available now if you want to buy the whole issue; otherwise, it will be free to read online starting on October 4th.
August. August. Where did August go?
It went to some pretty good places. Including Finland for a while, and some big steps careerwise, and a new relationship. I kind of disappeared off the writerly Internet, though, and all sorts of small tasks I’ve been neglecting because of the awesome have piled up. I suppose this is just one of those things that happens at times.
Anyway, here I am, with a new publication in inkscrawl. “Roar”, a tiny poem about a magical rock concert, is here.
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.