Review: The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

“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.”
~Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark

Plot summary

“In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Unfortunately, there will be a generation left behind. For members of that missed generation, small advances will be made. Through various programs, they will be taught to get along in the world despite their differences. They will be made active and contributing members of society. But they will never be normal.

Lou Arrendale is a member of that lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the awards of medical science. Part of a small group of high-functioning autistic adults, he has a steady job with a pharmaceutical company, a car, friends, and a passion for fencing. Aside from his annual visits to his counselor, he lives a low-key, independent life. He has learned to shake hands and make eye contact. He has taught himself to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and other conventions of conversation because he knows it makes others comfortable. He does his best to be as normal as possible and not to draw attention to himself.

But then his quiet life comes under attack. It starts with an experimental treatment that will reverse the effects of autism in adults. With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music–with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world–shades and hues that others cannot see?” More on Goodreads

On Elizabeth Moon

“Elizabeth Moon (born in 1945) grew up in McAllen, Texas, graduating from McAllen High School in 1963. She has a B.A. in History from Rice University (1968) and another in Biology from the University of Texas at Austin (1975) with graduate work in Biology at the University of Texas, San Antonio. She served in the USMC from 1968 to 1971, first at MCB Quantico and then at HQMC.

She started writing stories and poems as a small child; attempted first book (an illustrated biography of the family dog) at age six. Started writing science fiction in high school, but considered writing merely a sideline. First got serious about writing (as in, submitting things and actually getting money…) in the 1980s.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Medicalization
  • The Self in a complicated world
  • Uncomfortable truth of normalcy

I have mixed emotions about this book. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon has a unique style but on the other hand it’s also a bit too naive for my liking. The main character, Lou Arrendale, is a likable guy, but I guess many readers might feel disappointed at the end. I’ll just leave it at that, no spoilers intended.

I’m trying to see the forest for the trees. What I take home from the reading of the novel is the larger societal discussion around people who are “in a medical sense” different from what is considered normal. The whole setting in the novel shows how twisted “normal” is and in the end it only seems to be one more social construction people came up with.

What I did not like about the book is the narrow conceptualization of female characters. I guess this is a common challenge and problem in many novels. The female characters are actually thin paper dolls without an actual living role to play. Often they possess stereotypical features, such as talking with a naive and childish voice. They act as if they were adult children, unable to decide for themselves and in constant need of male support and decision-making. In the case of this novel, they are either super autistic or unable to decide whether they should take action. The only female character resembling an actual person is Lucia, the fencing group instructor, but her credibility gets undermined by an overtly emotional stand to issues. She gets heated about injustice and so on. The male characters, such as Tom, remain calm and take a more analytical approach to issues.

I also started thinking about what makes one autistic. I think Moon succeeds in making the spectrum of autism look manifold. The characters feel alive and are different among other autistic persons.

The novel is a good read but not among my favorite. I got interested in the societal aspect on normalcy, so for my liking there was too much character-centered discussion. The romance part of the novel gets a scratch but comes to no conclusion. I got to thinking what other medical “solutions” the fictional society in the novel has come up with. What happens to other children who are born intellectually disabled and with a “condition” that might not be corrected with a pill or surgery? What happens to people who have a non-neurological condition? Is there a special place for them in a medicalized society?

And what about the power of corporations and employers? This gets a glimpse of future decision-making when it comes to employees and their rights. The character of Mr. Crenshaw is a typical egoistic villain, completely lacking in other characteristics than profit-making and selfish management solutions and style to lead a company.

What I found intriguing is the fact that the reader never really gets to know that the company where Lou works actually does for a living.  I might be wrong since it’s a while since I started with the novel, so this might have been mentioned in the beginning and I just simply don’t remember. So forgive me if I’m wrong about this 🙂

My speculation is thus related to me not remembering what the company sells, produces or analyzes. Would it not be great if the company did really nasty business in terms of ecological and human development? I envision that the company is an “evil corporation” and the division of autistic personnel has no clue about the big picture. All the reader gets to know is that Lou does pattern analysis. But of what?

And what about Marjory? I kinda feel bad for her, but let’s not give further spoilers in that regard.

No matter what I do, no matter how predictable I try to make my life, it will not be any more predictable than the rest of the world. Which is chaotic.
~Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark

Other novels and stories by Moon
  • Paksenarrion Series (1988-2014)
  • The Serrano Legacy Series (1993-2000)
  • Remnant Population (1996)
  • Vatta’s War Series (2003-2008)
  • Paladin’s Legacy (2010-2014)

More information
– Author page for Elizabeth Moon

“I try so hard, and it is still not working. I wear the same clothes as the others. I say the same words at the same times: good morning, hi, how are you, I’m fine, good night, please, thank you, you’re welcome, no thank you, not right now. I obey the traffic laws; I obey the rules. I have ordinary furniture in my apartment, and I play my unusual music very softly or use headphones. But it is not enough. Even as hard as I try, the real people still want me to change, to be like them.”
~Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark

Photos: hpgruesen / infographics, Pixabay (CC0 Creative Commons)


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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