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The Speed of Dark

Author: Elizabeth Moon
Genre: Sci-fi
Reviewed by Liz Burton

10100401I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this book. Not what I think about it—that’s different. Objectively, this is a superbly written novel that opens up a world most people cannot even begin to comprehend, and does it in a way that never asks for demeaning sympathy for its protagonist. This is as it should be—most disabled people will tell you if they want sympathy they can find it in the dictionary between “shit” and “syphilis.” In this book, it’s the “normal” people one is inclined to feel sorry for, wrapped in their smug complacency in their own normality that defines anything other as “less than.”

No, where my quandary lies is deciding whether I’m pleased that Lou Arrendale achieved his long-held dream or deep sadness that, on the way, he lost the humanity that was so much a part of who he was. Is it just because I’ve lived with a disability most of my life that I sense a cold irony in the image of an autist, who allegedly has trouble relating to others, changed by a treatment intended to make him normal into someone whose distance from those others is no longer cognitive but intellectual. I am left with a feeling of discomfort that may be nothing more than my subjective response to a story that strikes a little too close.

Lou Arrendale gains his dream of traveling into space, but in the process he loses love and friendship. There is no indication as he speeds through the vacuum that he has replaced Tom and Lucia and Dale and Chuy—and Marjory—with other people. He seems to have sacrificed those fragile relationships for intellectual adventure, and I find that horrifically disturbing.

In the early days after the development of cochlear implants, they were touted far and wide as salvation for the deaf, the magic that would allow them to be just like everybody else. A segment of the deaf community raged loudly, rightly condemning this attitude as just another instance of “normal” people insisting they were the standard— and that anyone who, in their definition, fell short of that standard must be desperate to change whatever prevented them from meeting it. Not so, they said. There is, in fact, a fully functioning community of the deaf who cherish their “otherness,” and who condemned the eagerness of the hearing to “fix” them offensive.

There is, I think, a clear element of this in The Speed of Dark. It seemed to me that, by making Lou “normal,” the researchers erased the one thing that made him human—his unacknowledged intimate connection with those who made up his community. That the decision to undergo that treatment was his choice doesn’t negate the point that he was, in the end, no more real to them than the chimps that preceded him. As long as he fit their definition at the end of the treatment, they had succeeded; and as long as he could attain his dream, Lou was content.

But contentment isn’t the same as being fully alive.

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October 28, 2004 in Science Fiction | Permalink

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