Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Title: Speed of Dark
Author: Elizabeth Moon
Series : No this is a stand alone book.


In Short: Its about 50 years into the 21’s century.  Lou Arrendale has made a comfortable life for himself.  He is good at his job. He may be falling in love with a woman at his fencing club.  And his new boss is trying force him to “volunteer” for a  experimental medical procedure that will make him normal- because  Lou is autistic.


What I thought: This is a fascinating book.  Most of it is told in the first person, from Lou’s point of view.  It works.  There is no other way to tell this story.  Lou’s life is accompanied by an ongoing  internal monologue as he navigates the world of the “reals” as he calls none-autistic people.

He has taught himself to recognise the clues that normal people pick up without thinking. When people say “that” in front of a noun, it implies an attitude to the content of the noun –  “Do you need that music?”  They may be annoyed, or  upset. When someone’s face goes red and shiny, they might be angry or happy  People who smile with their whole face are truely friendly. He wonders what it is like to be normal, and just know how other people feel.

He is constantly careful to hide his autistic traits.   Normal people don’t like to know how keenly smells, textures and patterns affect him.  Normal people like to make eye contact and repeat ritual  greetings.  He must never to get angry or upset.  He must do nothing that may seem violent or sexual.

The book moves from the awkwardness of his encounters with normality, into the transcendent moments of his autism.  His deep connection to the music of Bach and Schubert, that he can call up at will.  His ability to recognise and interpret patterns – which is unexpectedly useful when he is fencing. Here is Lou, fencing with his instructor Tom:

When I first started, they could not get me to actually touch anyone with the blade, not hard enough to feel.  I still don’t like it. What I like is learning patterns, and then remaking them so that I am in the pattern too.

Light flashes down Tom’s blades as he lifts them both in salute.  For a moment I am struck by the dazzle, by the speed of the light’s dance.

Then I move again, in the darkness beyond the light.  How fast is dark?  Shadow can be no faster than what casts it, but not all darkness is shadow.  Is it?  This time I hear no music, but see a pattern of light and shadow, shifting, twirling, arcs and helices of light against a background of dark.

The “speed of dark” is an idea that is repeated throughout the book.  Sometimes it is a metaphor for ignorance and knowledge.  Sometimes for fear, or of the unknown future.

Lou and his autistic colleagues are deeply disturbed by the idea that they could be “fixed” by a medical procedure. Unlike that saccharine short story “Flowers for Algernon”, the implications of such a treatment is carefully and subtly explored.  The slogan at the community support group for autistic people is “We are proud of who we are“.  And yet Lou and his colleagues are constantly encouraged to “fit in”. Is it wrong to want to be normal?  Is it right to want to remain true to yourself, if that self is defined by deformity?  Is autism just an alternative way of being, or is it a handicap?

Elizabeth Moon is better known for her more conventional Science Fiction – and yes, this book is Science Fiction.  While I enjoy the Kay Vatta books, there is something very profound about the Speed of Dark.  She writes with the special knowledge of a mother of an autistic son.  This adds a bitter sweet dimension.  Is this what she wishes for her son?  Or what she fears?

I’m ambivalent about the ending, but cannot say more without totally giving the plot away :).  This is a book that I have read more than once, and it has changed the way I think about the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: