Then, a little over a month ago, as I was considering August’s Book of the Month Club selection, I was struck by another thought. What if, on occasion, rather than selecting a book I was unfamiliar with, I chose a favorite instead? It would be not unlike bringing someone to Fuel Restaurant and treating them to their very first Crispy Duck experience. One of the greatest pleasures, next to loving a dish, is recommending it to a friend and having them love it in turn. The same applies to literature. And so, for August’s Book of the Month Club Selection, I put forth one of my favorites, the superlative Crispy Duck of SF novels: The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.
It’s science fiction, but not of the kind many Stargate fans are used to. There are no bizarre aliens or unfathomable techno-weapons or big explosions (Well, maybe one explosion but at the risk of giving too much away, I’ll leave it at that). It’s simply a near-future, thoroughly compelling character study of one of the most endearing and fascinating individuals in contemporary literature. Too much? I don’t think so, and many of those who read The Speed of Dark would probably agree. Still don’t believe me? Well, why not pick up the book and find out for yourself? And if you need anymore motivation, author Elizabeth Moon has kindly taken the time to drop by and answer some reader questions.
I happened to catch Elizabeth at a good time as she’s informed me she’ll be at ArmadilloCon all next weekend (Yes, it’s a Texas thing). Anyway, if you’re in the Austin neighborhood August 14th – 16th and you do run into her, say hi from Joe. And if you enjoyed The Speed of Dark and would like to know more about the author and her works, head on over to her site (http://www.elizabethmoon.com/). And finally, if you’re wondering what Elizabeth has in the works, her next book, Oath of Fealty (http://www.paksworld.com/blog/?p=324), hits the shelves March of 2010, while two of her short stories have been included in a couple of recent anthologies: “An Incident in Uskvosk” in Songs of the Dying Earth, and “Chameleon” in The New Space Opera 2.
Enough with my rambling pre-ambling. Over to the Q&A…
Sylvia: “Thank you for a wonderful book. Very good and very thought provoking.
Questions for the author – 1. What was your inspiration for the book’s title?”
EM: It came from our son’s response to a science lesson on light. After being told what the speed of light was, he asked what the speed of dark was. I tried to explain that dark had no speed–that only light had a velocity. Dark was the absence of light, etc. He thought about that, and then said, “If the dark is there before the light gets there maybe it’s faster.” Some years later, when I needed a title for this book…that one was obvious, and so were the cascading metaphors that fall from it: ignorance comes before knowledge, and is always out there waiting for the light to reach it.
“2. Please give some insight to Lou’s last statement, “…Now I can ask the questions.””
EM: People ask questions of the disabled all the time–looking for the stock answers they expect (like Lou’s psychiatrist in the first chapter.) Their own questions may be ignored, considered unimportant or even inappropriate. Now that Lou is no longer defined by his disability, he gets to ask questions–the questions he wants to ask, that have interested him a long time.
3. If you can share, did you experience some of the “experts” who were living in the past and had not kept up with research on autism?”
EM: Oh, yes. Some very perceptive people, but also some with very rigid minds. They’re still out there, too.
4. Even thought you wrote the book, if you were one of Lou’s closest friends like Tom, etc., and if he asked you – what should I do? How would you have responded?”
EM: Knowing what I know now, it would have been a long conversation, as I tried to feel out what Lou really thought, and really wanted, and yet leave it to him to make his own decisions.
Ponytail writes: “Questions for Elizabeth Moon:Greetings fellow Texan! I am writing from the Dallas/Fort Worth Metoplex! I loved The Speed of Dark! Very interesting and emotional read! Thank you for writing it. Where is this story set? The, “finding a place to plug in my car”, had me wondering.”
EM: It’s set in the near future, when most vehicles are at least partly electrically powered. It’s also set farther north, to a place that had sugar maples (but they didn’t like the heat. Probably something like Kansas City or St. Louis.
“Why didn’t you spend more time on the new Lou? I liked the old Lou better anyway, but I was wondering if he was really finally happy with his new life.”
EM: The story is about changes and choices; the critical changes Lou had to face, and the choices he made, are “done” by the end of this book. The reader is free to face the ambiguity and uncertainty of life–that sometimes you have to just jump off the cliff of circumstance and hope your wings hold you up.
“What did you glean from your own son in writing this book?”
EM: Close daily contact with his way of thinking and expressing himself gave me the experience to simulate an autistic mind from inside.
“I have read you wrote your first book at age 6 about your dog. This is a dog lovers blog. What exactly was that first book about? What was your dog doing in the book?”
EM: That first book was never finished. The dog didn’t do enough; that was the problem. Or rather, I didn’t know to wait until the dog was old enough to sustain a book. She was born, she was named, she was a puppy romping around being a puppy. None of her life adventures had happened yet. Later she was the hero of a possum hunt, had adventures at the beach, all with typical terrier enthusiasm. But we were both too young for the task I set us…she hadn’t done much of anything yet, and I didn’t know how to make “nothing much” interesting.
“When you are in the middle of writing a book, do you walk around in a fog, thinking about the book constantly?”
EM: Not 100% of the time, but part of the time, yes. Definitely.
“Thank you Ms. Moon for taking the time to stop by and answer our questions. Your book was a great pleasure to read!”
Charles Schneider writes: “My question for Elizabeth Moon:
“Speed of Dark provides a unique perspective on the Autistic experience in the United States. In the acknowledgments you cited research involving long-reaching and ongoing contact with families experiencing autism, but was any part of the book autobiographical?”
EM: Not directly, no. Lou is higher-functioning than our son, and had more targeted interventions earlier. I chose to make Lou higher-functioning, so that his choice was not at all obvious: he had real alternatives. Possibly the setting of the fencing group was somewhat autobiographical, because I do backyard fencing with a group, but it’s nothing like Tom and Lucia’s larger and more elegant house and yard.
“And if so, which voice in the book was yours?”
EM: None, I hope. Characters must be who they are (even though I make them up, they take on lives of their own, if I do it right.) I did not identify with any of them.
Iamza writes: “Question for Elizabeth Moon: Did you have the last few chapters in mind before you started writing The Speed of Dark? Or was it something that grew organically as the story went along?”
EM: The end grew out of Lou himself…I did not know what he was going to decide until he did (and my editor was not thrilled about that. She kept saying “You have to know–you’re the writer!” and I kept saying “He hasn’t told me yet.”)
Michelle writes: “Questions for Elizabeth Moon:
– Has an autistic person ever read the book and told you what they thought about it?”
EM: Yes, quite a few. They’ve all agreed that it’s an accurate picture of how they feel inside, but many did not like the ending because they themselves would not have agreed to the treatment. Most understood when I explained that the ending did not reflect my judgment on autism or autistic persons, but was Lou’s own choice…but they didn’t agree with him.
“I read that you fence as a hobby. Would pattern recognition really help a person overcome basic lack of coordination?”
EM: It depends on how bad the lack of coordination is (and Lou did not really lack coordination.). Pattern recognition is very, very important in fencing, because it offers you opportunities. I’m not a very good fencer and I develop muscle memory slowly. (It’s not lack of coordination, exactly–it’s just that I’m a slow learner, physically.) And I’m older than anyone else in the group, and everyone slows with age, so even when I have a move down, I can’t do it as fast as a younger fencer. But I can sometimes hit my opponent when their reliable, predictable pattern leaves an opening that lasts long enough. Once you read the pattern (also called “tells” in the fencing community) you can predict where the other person will attack, how they will parry–and then (with experience) you know what to try. Some people have very simple patterns–outside low, inside high, repeated over and over. Easy to parry and easy to attack.
“Do you have any theories about why autism seems more common now than in the past?”
E: Yes, I do.
First, it’s diagnosed more often. In one state that made a serious effort to diagnose every child who had autism–went out and looked for every autistic child–they found the increase in “autism” exactly corresponded to a decrease in “severe mental retardation” diagnoses. In other words, autism had been mis-diagnosed as mental retardation. Same number of children with a serious disability–but a change in label.
Second, autism runs in families and in occupations where the abilities that go with autism–especially its milder forms–are valuable. So in Silicon Valley and other high-tech communities, people who are somewhere on the spectrum meet others who are somewhere on the spectrum–and thus are familiar in their behaviors–and they marry and have children….children who are more likely to also be on the spectrum.
“Do you think Lou made the right choice?”
EM: What was right was Lou making his own choice. Lou had as much right to choose change (or staying the same) as any of us do. Every choice has costs and benefits; every choice has consequences.
Nolalib writes: “Questions for Ms. Moon:
I’m curious about your writing process. I read that you researched Autism in depth for this book, did you have a spark of an idea about the storyline or about the characters prior to your research?”
EM: I knew that Lou would be faced with the dilemma, but I did not know how it would play out.
“Or did the research lead to the story/characters?”
EM: No–the research informed the story but didn’t drive it. Lou came to me a year or so before and very quietly said perhaps I’d like to write his story. The other characters came as I was writing him.
“Do you know the end prior to writing a story or does the story dictate itself to you as you write?”
EM: Never. I’m a discovery writer–I find out what happens by writing it. I climb into the character’s head and experience what the character experiences. The control I have is to understand what part of that belongs in the story and what part doesn’t. So it’s not that the story dictates itself to me, but that the character lets me into his or her life.
“What inspires you to write?”
EM: (chuckle) Most of the time I’m not so much inspired as driven. Story beginnings come to me all the time and I will never know “what happened” unless I write them. But on the days I don’t feel like writing, what inspires me is The Deadline. Both the book’s deadline and the deadline for paying bills.
“Thanks for taking the time to blog with us!”
Otros Ojos writes: “Questions for Elizabeth Moon:
1) Which aspects of The Speed of Dark were most challenging to you as a writer?”
EM: Staying in the viewpoint of the autistic character.
“2) If this isn’t too personal, which parts of the writing process were a) most difficult, and b) most rewarding for you as the mother of an autistic person?”
EM: The answer may surprise you. When I write fiction I’m writing as “the writer.” I wasn’t writing it from the viewpoint of having an autistic child, but from Lou’s viewpoint. So “the mother” part didn’t come in at all, except that it had given me the experience and knowledge to write the book….it was neither hard nor rewarding as a mother, but it was both as a writer.
“3) Regarding some (or all) of the controversial issues raised in this book, would you consider addressing them again from a different slant at some point in the future?”
EM: I’m not sure which of the issues you are seeing as controversial, but some of the issues that interested me here show up in my other books in different guises. I’m not sure about different “slant.” Let’s see: identity (how it’s defined, whether by the individual or by society), choice (who gets to make the choice, when, how), social justice/fairness, the inevitability of change (and the need to cope with it creatively), the connection of actions and consequences, other ethical and moral issues….all these show up in my other books with different situations, characters, and emphasis. And some of them have shown up again in the books I’m now working on.
Artdogspot writes: “For Elizabeth Moon –
I really enjoyed your book and the unique perspective you used to tell this story.”
EM: Thank you.
“Since this draws from some of your own personal experience, thank you for sharing part of this world with so many others. I did have a few questions for you.
1. The book is more about interactions experienced by perceived social outsiders than a sci-fi story – did this direction evolve as you wrote or was this a deliberate decision before you began writing?”
EM: Let me challenge your idea of what a science fiction story is: not saying you’re wrong, but I think you may be drawing a line I don’t quite agree with. A science fiction story, to me, has to be about both people and technology, and reveal how the one affects (or doesn’t) the other. It can be told either from the angle of digging into the science or tech–discovery, development–or from the angle of those whom the technology affects. Most people think of it as the former–with characters who are, perforce, the discoverers, the developers, or sometimes the users of the new knowledge or tech. But it’s equally effective as the latter–and that branch has been in SF almost from the beginning (think Theodore Sturgeon, for one.)
In this case, the medical advances that made prenatal and newborn interventions possible left the existing older autistics as a dying (going to be extinct) group–autism as had been known for centuries would cease to exist with their deaths. Then a second wave of medical advances suggested that they could be made extinct (in the diagnostic sense) right now. So they were faced with the results of the scientific “breakthrough”–it directly affected them, in much the same way that the development of the polio vaccine affected my generation. Suddenly those of us who got the vaccine before we got polio had no more polio to fear…and those people we knew who had gotten polio–who would spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung or another respirator, or who were permanently crippled–were living fossils. Of course the story is also about the perennial human dilemmas–identity, choice, justice–but the setting is the collision of the advance of science with individual lives.
To that extent, I did intend the story to deal with both the science fictional aspect and the perennial human issues.
“And, how long did it take to write this?”
EM: That’s always hard to answer because for me the time spent mulling over ideas and doing research blends into and overlaps the time spent putting words into the computer. This book, in particular, had a long pre-writing stretch, and several false starts (I started it in the common narrative voice–third person, past tense, deep interior viewpoint, only to realize after a couple of chapters that I couldn’t do that with an autistic protagonist.) Writing in an unfamiliar form as well as a character mind-set so different from my own also required more time for the same number of words, to be sure I got it exactly right for Lou, not for me. So something over a year for the actual writing, and probably (?) two years altogether, the early part overlapping my work on the previous book.
“2. How difficult was it to make Lou’s character believable and to write the story from his point of view?”
EM: The hard part was staying in his point of view–it required a lot of focus during the writing sessions. I knew that if I captured his reality he would feel real, believable, to readers.
“3. What was behind the decision to have Lou’s parents already departed?”
EM: That was part of ensuring that readers saw him as self-sufficient, adult, competent–not someone still relying on parents or guardians. If his parents had been presented as still alive, some readers would’ve been expecting him to call them and ask them what to do about the experiment.”
“4. What I liked about Lou was that he expected to be self sufficient and was always surprised when others were wiling to help him out. Was this supposed to reflect an autist’s difficulty in reading social cues or was it simply supposed to be part of Lou’s personal experience with people in general?”
EM: Both, really. An autistic person’s experience of non-autistic people is very different than you might expect unless you’ve witnessed it. Like most disabled people (including people who are merely wheelchair-bound and not mentally challenged) autistic persons find that most others relate to them very differently: they are treated like incompetents, or with disapproval for their inability to talk clearly or do/feel what average people do/feel. Add to that the difficulty in reading social cues–the need to notice and analyze and think about each one (which delays the autistic person’s responses, something many people find annoying) and again the autist experiences disapproval from others. So Lou–both because he was taught to be independent and because of his prior experiences–did not ask for or expect help. (Formal accommodations, like the gym at work, are different–they’re part of The Rules and not the same thing as spontaneous help.)
“5. Lou’s autistic friends and co-workers were generally more reluctant than Lou to socialize with “normal” people. How common is it for autistics to integrate into wider or larger social circles?”
EM: It’s still quite uncommon. The main motivation for anyone to become “social” is the pleasure that other people give. When other people are not fun or interesting to be around (and autistic children get a lot of negativity and some of them get a lot of rigid therapy) then the prime reason to interact isn’t there. Since it’s also harder for them to interact–to learn how to interpret expressions, tones of voice, etc.–they need more motivation to get over that difficulty. The average person also needs more motivation for interacting with an autistic person: because they don’t pick up social cues as well, they can be annoying, even boring (we all know what it’s like to try to talk with someone who has only one topic and goes on and on and on without noticing that nobody else cares.) The average person doesn’t find the autistic person rewarding–and so doesn’t bother. It cuts both ways. When parents and other caregivers can make the social interaction rewarding for the young autistic child, then the motivation is there and there’s a higher chance (but not certainty) that the child will continue to struggle to socialize with others. But finding others, outside the family, who are willing to help with the struggle–to put their extra effort in to understand and support and encourage–is very difficult.
“6. Did you know how the story would end when you began writing this (with many questions unanswered); and, did you know how you were going to write it?”
EM: Nope, neither of the above.
Chevron7 writes: “Questions for Elizabeth Moon:
1. What research did you do to get Lou’s internal monologue so authentic, or what I imagine it to be?”
EM: For that part, I didn’t need to do more research: I had the years of being with our son, listening to him, seeing how he wrote (as he learned to write), noticing what he noticed. I had also been online with other autistic persons and had observed autistic kids at a camp.
“Was it a difficult style to write and did you find it flowed as you went along?”
EM: Very difficult. First person present tense is hard anyway, and being focusing on Lou’s way of thinking (which isn’t mine) was exhausting, especially at first. It did become less hard over time, but about then my friends began telling me I “talked like an autistic person.” I found myself seeing my world–not just Lou’s world–through Lou’s filters.
“2. I loved Lou’s POV and found it abrupt when you switched to Pete or Tom’s POV. Did you ever consider writing it solely from Lou’s POV?”
EM: Yes, but I wanted the contrast–to remind readers of how smoothly and easily the average person can interpret social signals, how easily they can talk to others. My editor and I discussed how much to put in the other voices…basically, only the things the reader needed to know, that Lou could not know.
“3. Everyone seems to see the ending as tragic, whereas I see it as hopeful. What did you think as you were writing it?”
EM: I saw it as a validation of a person’s right–including a person with a disability label–to make his own decisions. In that sense, I think it’s hopeful. Lou saw it as hopeful, too. But I also know what he lost in that decision, what the cost was. So, I think, did he.
“4. How did the Nebula Award change your life professionally?”
EM: It’s a prestigious award in our field, so it certainly bumped my name out in the limelight. I suspect I’ve had a few more invitations to anthologies because of it. But in terms of how I work…it didn’t.. I still plant the seat of the jeans on the seat of the chair and plug away at the next book just about every day.
“5. What are you reading at the moment?”
EM: At the moment I’m working on the current book, so I’m reading mostly nonfiction as needed for that book. When I’m on a project, I don’t read much fiction, and nothing that’s in the same genre. So I’m reading about longbow and crossbow tactics, leather tanning and finishing, tile-making, wood-carving, counterfeiting in the medieval and Renaissance periods, finance and trade in those periods, various other crafts and skills, and so on.
Mishmee writes: “I don’t really have any questions for Elizabeth Moon, just heaps of admiration and thanks for a provocative and gripping novel.”
EM: Thank you!
Sparrow_hawk writes: “So I guess I do have a question or two for Ms. Moon:
Lou seemed to believe that God would want him to accept the treatment, since refusing it would be refusing to “drink from the well”. What do you think?”
EM: I think it’s an individual matter–one person might come to one conclusion and someone else with equal thoughtfulness come to another. It requires self-knowledge–understanding one’s own motivation. Are you motivated by fear or resentment or anger or ambition or hope or excitement…? And of course it ties into the individual’s conception of God (as nonexistent, existent, loving, angry, rigid, flexible, with or without certain characteristics.) Any treatment that expands a person’s abilities offers a challenge: any unknown treatment that might (but is not certain to) do that offers an even greater challenge: is it worth the cost (pain, effort, time, money.) What treatment (be it a shot, a pill, a device like glasses or a hearing aid, an operation like a cochlear implant or a hip replacement, or a lifestyle change that reduces the chance of a heart attack) would you accept for a condition that a) bothered you a lot or b) didn’t bother you that much? If your employer thinks you need to quit smoking, lose weight, eat a different diet…what would you do?
“Why did you bring right and wrong into the already complicated decision-making process?”
EM: You don’t think right and wrong are central issues in any decision? Lou does. He’s been shown to be a thoughtful, ethical person who sees many issues in terms of right and wrong, fair and unfair, just and unjust, rather than easy and difficult, or profitable and unprofitable. Many people see actions/situations/decisions in a similar way–to them, right and wrong are involved in everything, all the time. Their definition of right and wrong may not be yours, but it’s clear to them.
“If this is too personal, just skip it: If the treatment you invented in the book was available, would you encourage your child to take it?”
EM: If a treatment had been available when our son was very young, I probably would have jumped at it–his early years were as difficult for him as for us. Probably more so. And we had no idea how much progress he could make, how he would turn out, whether he would be happy as an adult or not. And that decision might have turned out to have disastrous consequences or good ones. His life now is more difficult than it would be if he were not autistic–but he is old enough to make his own decisions about who he is and who he wants to be.